Joy Hendry’s memoir of Japanese fieldwork

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Oxford Polytechnic University anthropologist Joy Hendry wrote about a (nine-month) school-year she spent with her two grade-school-age sons in Japan at some unspecified time that must have been during the late 1980s. Her book An Anthropologist in Japan: Glimpses of Life in the Field. endeavors to “cross over” from an audience of fellow anthropologists to a wider audience of those interested in accounts of living in alien cultures, Japan in particular. Hendry wanted to show how the ideas in her 1993 book Wrapping Culture emerged from her experiences in the field, in a seaside town two hours by train from Tokyo.

An Anthropologist in Japan: Glimpses of Life in the Field is an engagingly written account of her life and research (the two are inseparable) that elaborates and contextualizes examples that were more briefly mentioned in Wrapping Culture. I read Wrapping Culture after reading An Anthropologist in Japan: Glimpses of Life in the Field, so that I saw familiar events and interpretations of them as “wrapping” in the theory-elaborating book. I also saw that the instances from Hendry’s fieldwork play a fairly minor role in an argument that draws heavily on the extensive literature about Japanese culture. If I had read Wrapping Culture first, I would not have thought of it as a book primarily based on fieldwork in a Japanese town.

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The fieldwork memoir does not provide any insight into how Hendry deployed the existing literature on Japan. Hendry had done earlier (dissertation) fieldwork in Japan, focused on a kindergarten. The anthropologist in An Anthropologist in Japan tries out emerging ideas on professional colleagues in Tokyo, but does not reveal any knowledge of the sources about Japanese culture or explanations of politeness that she used in Wrapping Culture. That is, the self-portrait in An Anthropologist in Japan is of induction uninfluenced by what Hendry had read. It is very much in the tradition of self-mythification by anthropologists of setting out into the unknown and extracting models (“theories”) from the ore of observation of “natives.” Hendry and her sons had lived in Japan before, so did not experience as much “culture shock” as anthropologists going to nonindustrialized societies for the first time do. Indeed, Hendry writes about prosaic activities, including tennis and flower-arranging classes she took with local housewives and the PTA of her sons’ school.

Hendry went back to Japan to study levels of politeness in speech, in particular, the very polite speech register called keigo. Once there, she saw keigo as a way of wrapping (wrapping demands as indirect requests) and started looking very closely at the wrapping of gifts (and of foodstuffs at school bazaars and local celebrations). Both books are filled with examples, as she stretched the metaphor of “wrapping” to include “wrapping” time as well as space, things, and desires.

Her banking experiences led Hendry to note that “the Western visitor is apt to mistake skills at service for subservience.” Being fluent in Japanese, she also realized that “a proper foreigner can be treated like a child, or an idiot, but a person who speaks Japanese should also respect Japanese rules of hierarchy.” Her rambunctious (by Japanese standards) sons recurrently provoked veiled criticism and were useful research tools (one of them became a friend of the son of the local chief gangster). Hendry records the usefulness of having children for establishing contact with the parents of other children, but does not reflect on ethical questions of using children this way. Other anthropologists have similarly avoided the question of “informed consent” from their children and their children’s playmates, and the costs the children bear in being taken to the field. ((I’m sure that there are gains for the children in experience and bilingualism and that leaving them in their home countries would also have costs, but I’d like to read explicit discussion — including their own views from what here is the distance of roughly ten years — of costs and benefits to being taken along to “the field” along with notice of how useful are the contacts made through anthropologists’ children.)[1]

I was somewhat amused that in a book focusing on politeness that Hendry did not seem to wonder if the positive response to her presentation of preliminary ideas to a Japanese audience evidenced genuine acceptance of her ideas. More than most, she knows that requesting candor does not eliminate politeness.

All in all, An Anthropologist in Japan is satisfying as an account of trying to integrate into a Japanese locale, that is, “the alien in Japan” part. The ideas about wrapping are also interesting, though the extent to which they are based on experiences in the field is not altogether clear. The book is least satisfying in showing how anthropological fieldwork transforms everyday experiences into hypotheses and culture-level interpretations and generalizations. Especially after reading Wrapping Culture, I am skeptical about the dependence on the model (if “wrapping” is more than a metaphor) on the experiences in the field.

There are more entertaining fieldwork memoirs (Nigel Barley’s, in particular), but An Anthropologist in Japan is one of the best books about a Caucasian living in Japan (far superior to James Kirkup’s These Horned Islands, for instance, and more reliable than the writings of Lafcadio Hearn). It should interest those who want to know about Japan and/or about doing fieldwork in a populous, literate, industrialized society, even if the question of how fieldwork shapes and tests theories remains open. Hendry’s book does not claim to provide more than “glimpses.”

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

[1] A particularly blunt counsel for taking wives and children into the field was supplied by John W. Bennett ( “The study of cultures: a survey of technique and methodology in field work.” American Sociological Review 13(1948) :672-89): “The investigator’s wife can secure much valuable information about child rearing and familial relations merely through gossiping with the local women” (p. 674); he also stresses that this makes “the scientist fit in” since adults are normally married.

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