A rising senior, Laurel Hilliker is embarking on her third summer of international research and for a second summer in a row, she’s in Japan. An Asian studies major, Hilliker is working under the tutelage of History Professor Samuel Yamashita who helped her design her research project – one that is full of flavor.

Thanks to an Oldenborg International Research and Travel grant, Hilliker will study the food of Okinawa, which she says will give a glimpse of Okinawa’s cultural history through food and the resulting status of Okinawan cuisine. 

“I was really interested in investigating Okinawan food because the Okinawans are descended from the Jōmon people, a Neolithic hunter- gatherer culture,” says Hilliker, explaining that the Okinawan diet has gained attention in popular culture as a health food trend for people who believe the diet will contribute to healthier, fuller and longer lives. Okinawan cuisine is influenced by Chinese and Southeast Asian cuisines due to Okinawa's historical trading with other countries, making it's food differ from that of mainland Japan.

Hilliker is no novice to summer research. Her summer after her first year, she was working in archeological digs in Italy and Israel. Last summer, thanks to a Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP) grant, she was in Hokkaido, Japan, where she explored the food of the Ainu, an indigenous group of Japan. She explored contemporary cuisine and later took part in an archeological excavation on Rebun Island with the University of Hokkaido digging up pottery used for cooking and animal bones to study what life was like for the Jōmon, one of two major ancient civilizations.

Hilliker’s interest in the history of Japan was sparked as a first-year student when she decided to sit in on Yamashita’s Early Modern Japan class, a higher division history course that intimidated her because she’d heard so much about the “legendary Professor Yamashita.”

“I sat in the back of the class and remember the first class being about mountain castles and flatland castles during the Sengoku (Warring States) period, and their use to enforce local hegemony. It was truly a mesmerizing first class,” she says.

Her summer research on Okinawan food-ways was influenced by her work with mentor Yamashita and it will be the basis for her thesis project her senior year.

Hilliker plans to interview chefs, learn about different culinary traditions and the differences between how Okinawan cuisine in Okinawa, and how restaurants serving Okinawan food on the mainland, are different.

Hilliker, says Yamashita, is like many of his students: gifted intellectually and able to deftly handle difficult theoretical material.

“It has been a pleasure working with Laurel and encouraging her interest in Japanese food-ways… both the Ainu and Okinawans are thought to originate in the Neolithic cultures of prehistoric Japan and now exist on the margins of contemporary Japan, and considering them together will yield interesting and important insights," he says. 

Upon returning back to campus for her final year at Pomona, Hilliker will be working on her thesis and she’ll also be figuring out what comes next after Pomona – and she thinks a Ph.D. in history is on the horizon.

She says, “I really hope that I can contribute materially to the growing base of knowledge, particularly in fields like environmental history that haven’t yet received a great deal of scholarly attention.”