Tag Archives: socialization

“Shirobamba: A Childhood in Old Japan,” an Autobiographical Novel by Inoue Yasushi


Having been impressed with the New York Review Press’ reissue of Tun Huang (a fictional solution to how Buddhist scriptures came to be preserved in caves in western China) by Inoue Yasushi (1907-91), I also read another of his historical novel The Wind and Waves (set in Korea as Kublai Khan launches two failed attempts to conquer Japan), and his contemporary (ca. 1950, when it won the most prestigious Japanese writing award, the Akutagawa Prize) The Hunting Gun, and The Counterfeiters and Other Stories. (I’d also seen the 1969 Inagaki Hiroshi [Samurai Trilogy, Machibuse] film “Samurai Banner” starring Mifune Toshiro, based on one of Inoue’s novels, and would like to see the 1952 Inagaki movie “Sword for Hire,” the 1955 “Asunaro monogatari,” and the 1989 “Death of a Tea Master.”)

I knew that Inoue was raised by a grandmother, a former geisha, in Hokkaido, the isolated northernmost island of Japan. Inoue’s quasi-memoir Shirobamba: A Childhood In Old Japan, first published in Japanese in 1960, alas, is not set in Hokkaido. It is set in a rural Honshu village, 80 miles southwest of Tokyo.

The preteen Kosaku lives with a grandmother (and refuses to live with his parents) who is not a blood relation. Her extraordinary position is, to put it mildly, a source of tension and ongoing irritation to the family, Kosaku’s rich but childless great-great-uncle adopted Kosaku’s maternal grandfather and grandmother as his children and later arranged to have the eldest daughter of that couple (Nanae, who would later give birth to Kosaku) adopted by his mistress (a former geisha), Onui. This obligated Nanae to be responsible for the care of Onui in her old age in the village in which Nanae’s biological mother also lives. The situation borders on incomprehensible to westerners, though I am familiar with marrying-in husbands (who take the wife’s patronym) and other adoptions of adults in Taiwan (and in Tanizaki’s novel The Makioka Sisters, the film adaptation by Ichikawa Kon).

In addition to the complexity of adoptions, Shirobamba takes for granted the nudity of hot-springs bathing that Americans not of Scandinavian or Japanese descent have some difficult getting used to. And the alien cuisine that Kosaku likes and dislikes is unfamiliar even to sashimi devotees. And spirits kidnapping children is another part of what is taken for granted. It is relatively astounding that the child (Kosaku) can decide not to live with his parents in Toyohashi, who want him to, and to continue to live in the village with his great-great uncle’s concubine. Kosaku is fascinated by the journey to stay with his parents. Kosaku’s position becomes even more complicated when Sakiko, a girl a few years older than he, who is genealogically an aunt of his, becomes first a temporary teacher in the grade school he attends, but then pregnant by another teacher

Come to think of it, a child being drawn off into the wilds by gods or demons may be more straightforward than the relations among those in Kosaku’s family!

Translator Jean Ode May likens Shirobamba‘s place in Japanese literature to be “akin to the American Huckleberry Finn or the English David Copperfield.” Although there are boys in difficult familial positions in all three novels, I do not think that Shirobamba has anything like the critical force of Huckleberry Finn or David Copperfield against 19th-century societies. Nor does it have much of a plot. But as a portrait of growing up, it has considerable charm as well as insights into rural Japan of a century ago.


(In 2011 Harada Masato filmed Inoue’s later memoir of the old age of the mother who did not raise him, Waga haha no ki (1975, translated by Moy as Chronicle of My Mother), starring Yakuto Kôji (star of Imamura’s “The Eel” and of Mike’s “13 Assassins”). Alas, it has not made it to North American release or DVDs.)

©2016, Stephen O. Murray



Joy Hendry’s memoir of Japanese fieldwork


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.


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.

Bruce Feiler’s Delight-filled “Learning to Bow”


I was delighted with the engaging, very readable, incisive but affectionate Learning to Bow, a comic but affectionate memoir of a very tall (6’4″) American teacher’s sojourn in rural Japan. Especially hilarious is Bruce Feiler‘s account of the preparations for a junior high school fieldtrip to the Japanese Disneyland that included setting up chairs to simulate bus seating and practicing getting on and off the bus efficiently. (Japanese tour groups seem to me to spend a lot of time hovering around outside their busses and it never occurred to me that they practiced boarding and exiting.)

Assembling for group photos at every stop is another activity I have noticed preoccupying Japanese tour groups in Hawai’i and California.. Japanese ritualism and indirect speech make more sense here than in, say, in James Kirkup’s condscending memoirs. Feiler does not overlook Japanese ethnocentrism (not just we’re best but we are so totally unique from any other people). Cho, a friend, laconically tells Feiler: “Everybody says our students have to learn to live in a world that is larger than Japan. But, first, our teachers have to learn that such a world exists.” While Feiler obviously knows that much, he does not come across free of ethnocentrisms of his own (and verges on outright racism in regard to genital endowments).

The rural Japanese are continually astounded that an alien can speak Japanese, use chopsticks, and in some ways seems more traditionally Japanese than they are — though such statements are probably more formulaic than Feiler notices (I have received similar compliments in Taiwan). Nevertheless, he mostly deserves the tributes he receives for trying to understand and respect Japanese lifeways — and for writing so well about his experiences and feelings there.


(I was surprised that someone who lived and worked in Japan thought Barthes’s Empire of Signs “provides interesting insights into Japanese behavior” (312; along with Varley and Passin, but not Singer or Benedict).

This is my favorite book of Americans recounting extended visits to Japan, edging out Lydia Minatoya’s Talking to High Monks in the Snow (only partly about Japan, and, and no, I didn’t miss any words in her title), and John Treat Whittier’s Great Mirror Shattered (though Mark Salzman’s Iron and Silk about teaching in China just after it opened to some aliens remains my favorite memoir of Americans in the “Far East”). Although often very humorous, Feiler presents his exploration of the serious topic of how Japanese schools build a sense of group solidarity and subordination to the group. He also provides interesting material on learning gender roles.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray