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Whales of Power: Aquatic Mammals, Devotional Practices, and Environmental Change in Maritime East Asia

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - WhoP (Whales of Power: Aquatic Mammals, Devotional Practices, and Environmental Change in Maritime East Asia)

Reporting period: 2022-01-01 to 2023-06-30

Whales of Power addresses a number of theoretical and methodological problems in two academic disciplines / fields of study: Asian area studies and religious studies. It has three corresponding objectives.

First, Whales of Power seeks to apply recent theoretical developments associated with the newly emerging field “environmental humanities” to the study of religion, bridging the gap between the two fields. It does so in two ways. First, WhoP wants to contribute to overcoming anthropocentrism in religious studies by introducing multispecies theory to the field, taking non-human animals seriously not only as passive objects of veneration or human-made symbols, but as historical actors. Second, it wants to move the “religion and ecology” subfield forward by arguing that we should move beyond the utilitarian, arguably outdated question of how religions can contribute to “solving” the environmental crisis, instead looking at rituals as creative means to mediate and reshape human-nature relations and cope with ecological grief.

The second objective of Whales of Power is to reconsider the role of “local” worship practices in the Asian Secular Age, examining the changing meanings attributed to such practices today. More concretely, this entails the question of how so-called “folk belief” and “popular religion” – i.e. those practices not or not fully subsumed under the institutional and ideological banner of “World Religions” such as Buddhism and Christianity – are acquiring new meanings as types of “secular sacred” intangible cultural heritage, often reconfigured as “national” traditions, throughout East and Southeast Asia. This “heritagisation of religion” is not a uniquely Asian phenomenon, but can also be observed in the West. Drawing on Asian case studies and insights, Whales of Power aims to develop new theory on the formation of heritage and its impact on religious institutions and practices.

Finally, the third objective of Whales of Power is to challenge the persistent methodological nationalism in East Asian (especially Japanese and Chinese) Studies and contribute to a new comparative paradigm. Instead of taking nations for granted as sui generis analytical categories, it studies processes of nation-building on the ground, examining how and why “local” and “indigenous” practices are reconfigured as “national” traditions. Whales of Power focuses on intra-Asian and intra-Pacific comparisons rather than classical East-West binary oppositions. Such a paradigm shift should help strengthen the study of Asian epistemologies not only as comparative Others that are useful for verifying or falsifying Western theories, but as fertile sites for the production of new, non-Eurocentric theories that can benefit other social science and humanities disciplines.

As we live in a time of planetary crisis, the study of non-Western environments, epistemologies, and human-nature relations is arguably of great societal importance. There is an unprecedented necessity to rethink the core paradigms and classification systems – ideological as well as scientific – that underlie the current crisis. For this, in-depth studies of alternative belief systems and responses to environmental change are urgently needed.
Despite limited access to our fieldwork locations due to the Covid-19 pandemic since March 2020, project members have been able to conduct some ethnographic fieldwork in Vietnam and Okinawa. In addition, they have conducted literature research, archival research, and online interviews.

So far, the project has led to three published peer-reviewed journal articles, a chapter in an edited volume, a prize-winning essay (published online), and two online articles, as well as public research dissemination through the project and university homepages, social media (Twitter and Facebook), podcast interviews, and interviews with Norwegian print media. We have also given over a dozen guest lectures and conference papers. We have more journal articles and book chapters forthcoming; these are currently in print, under peer review, or in progress. Meanwhile, the three PhD candidates are about halfway during their PhD period; they will have their midway evaluations in late 2021, then spend most of 2022 finishing their dissertations.

Much of our work has been of a collaborative nature. Team members meet weekly or biweekly for team seminars (“WhoP Labs”) where they discuss relevant academic texts and give each other feedback on draft chapters and articles. We have organised two workshops on research methodology and ethics, as well as four guest lectures. We have taken part in other workshops, set up a number of new research collaborations, and contributed actively to the establishment of Environmental Humanities as a new interdisciplinary field of study in Norway.
Thus far, we have made several contributions to the fields of religious studies, Asian area studies, and environmental humanities. PI Rots was one of the winners of the Toshiba International Foundation essay contest on the future of Japanese studies. In addition to several conference papers, he has been invited to give a keynote speech on this topic at a conference on Japanese studies in the Nordic countries. In addition, his work on religion and heritage has received considerable attention, also beyond Asian studies. Among other things, this has led to an invitation to give a keynote speech at a conference on religion and heritage. Meanwhile, team members Durney and Palz have published groundbreaking journal articles on marine nature conservation, traditional whaling, and animal agency, and established promising new research collaborations.

For the second half of the project period, the following things are planned:
- New peer-reviewed journal articles by Durney, Rots, Nguyen, Durney & Åman, Lu & Rots, and Haugan & Rots;
- A conference on divine aquatic animals in the Asia-Pacific region, followed by an edited volume on this topic co-edited by Durney, Rots, and Lindsey DeWitt (Ghent University);
- Three finished PhD dissertations (Åman, Nguyen, and Palz);
- New field research in Japan, Vietnam, and Indonesia (if possible);
- Public lectures in Oslo by visiting researchers (if possible);
- Co-organisation of academic workshops on festivals in Asia, animism in Japan, and marine boundaries (in Oslo, in the academic year 2021-‘22);
- Several conference panels, roundtable discussions, workshop papers, keynote speeches, and guest lectures;
- Continuous public research dissemination (project website, print media, social media, public events, possibly exhibitions);
- A monograph by Rots (working title: "Stranded Gods: Whale Worship, Ecological Loss, and Popular Religion in Vietnam and Japan");
- A final conference with book presentations at the end of the project period.
Ritual ceremony for the Whale God, Tam Hai (Vietnam)