Professor David Howell specializes in the social history of Japan from the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries. His current major research project is a study of the fear of social disorder and foreign invasion in the hinterland of Edo (modern Tokyo) in the decades leading up to the Meiji Restoration of 1868.
Howell grew up in Hilo, Hawai’i. After graduating from the University of Hawai’i at Hilo, he studied at Hokkaido University in Sapporo, Japan, and attended Princeton University, where he received his Ph.D. in History. He taught at the University of Texas at Austin from 1989 to 1992 and Princeton University from 1993 to 2010, where he was the Nissan Professor in Japanese Studies. At Princeton he served as the chair of the Department of East Asian Studies from 2005 to 2010. He joined the Harvard faculty in 2010.
He has received major grants and fellowships from the Whiting Foundation, Fulbright Program, Japan Foundation, National Endowment for the Humanities, American Council of Learned Societies, Social Science Research Council, and International Research Center for Japanese Studies. In 2004 he received the Distinguished Alumni Award from the University of Hawai’i at Hilo.
Howell has written two books—Capitalism from Within: Economy, Society, and the State in a Japanese Fishery (1995) and Geographies of Identity in Nineteenth-Century Japan (2005)—and numerous essays, including “The Social Life of Firearms in Tokugawa Japan” (Japanese Studies, 2009); “The Girl with the Horse-Dung Hairdo,” in Looking Modern: East Asian Visual Culture from the Treaty Ports to World War II (2010); and “Making ‘Useful Citizens’ of Ainu Subjects in Early-Twentieth-Century Japan (Journal of Asian Studies, 2004).
Almost all of Howell’s research concerns the continuities and disjunctions of Japan’s experience across the divide of the Meiji Restoration. He is particularly interested in the institutions that organized and gave meaning to early modern society and how those institutions changed during the encounter with Western-style modernity. He also has a longstanding interest in the environmental history of Japan. One of his current projects is a history of human waste in the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries, looking at its character as a commodity, fertilizer, natural resource, and drug in Japan.