A column about field research in Japan, contributed by our research students, where they discuss elements of their research that most fascinated them and consider the particular trials, pressures and rewards of conducting field-work in Japan.
There is also a Chinese studies 'From the Field' column.
From the Field: Japan
Conducting qualitative-based field research in Japan presents unique challenges to the fledgling social sciences researcher: maintaining a relationship with a native supervisor; working out the best way to approach people for information; finding a method of observing without unwittingly becoming a participant. Here, Ioannis Gaitanidis, one of our research students, encounters all of these challenges in his first months in Japan and has written about the experience.
I finally arrived in Japan to start my fieldwork. To be honest, I had never really thought that would really happen, so nothing, from showing my visa to the immigration officer, to taking the train from Narita airport to the city centre, felt like being back in my favourite country for the sixth time. All my surroundings looked refreshed and ready to be discovered again. Unfortunately, reality called me down from my cloud as soon as the sun rose the next day.
On the move from the hotel to the room I rented for the month of October in Eastern Tokyo, I was unable to check my e-mails for the whole morning, but remained with a bad presentiment which revealed itself in the early afternoon: my supervisor in Japan, who had not replied to my last two communications that I sent before leaving Japan last time at the end of August, had expressed his disappointment in me in the following line written on the morning of the 1st of October: "you haven't contacted me and I am starting to worry". What surprised me even more was that his message was a reply to my last e-mail which stipulated that I would be back in Japan on the 30th and will contact him again.
At first, I was of course baffled. Then a bad memory of losing a contact last July because I seemed not to understand the rules of communication between elderly Japanese academics and young foreign research students. Finally, a deeper worry regarding my ability to undertake fieldwork in Japan; a worry which I shall explain hereafter.
After I calmed down and arranged to meet my professor next week (his complaint now having switched from me "having disappeared" to me "asking for an appointment less than a week in advance"), I considered the difficulty for anthropologists, sociologists, ethnographers etc. In general, researchers intend to investigate a society from within, to reach a balance in achieving the basic requirement of fieldwork: immersion.
Indeed, although it may be thought that immersion should be a straightforward process of 'blending in' with the society under investigation, this requirement is not as easy to complete even if one has a degree in Japanese Studies or has visited the country several times. I mean that comprehending and to a certain extent imitating the cultural behaviour of Japanese when living in the country for a certain period, does make of one neither a Japanese, of course, nor a person capable of immersing oneself in the Japanese society. All this because of the individual character, cultural background and life experiences that he or she has been carrying around for far longer than his interest in Japan. In that sense, and I am aware here that I do not say anything new, one needs to reach a balance between one's individuality and the degree of effacement of this individuality in order to achieve full immersion. I wonder, in fact, if it is really possible, as some may have suggested, that one can keep one's individuality and still succeed in attaining one's fieldwork objectives. It can certainly be claimed here that everything depends on the subject of research, on the degree of will and adaptability required to find out the data sought, and most importantly, on the 'weight' of one's individual 'baggage'.
Coming back to my example, the above consideration translates to simply the following question: did I make a mistake by waiting to contact my supervisor once I arrived in Japan because I thought he was not in his office or was not particularly bothered by my previous communications, despite the social hierarchy that obliges me to occasionally provide him with news from my part?
One look at the outcome and I would say 'yes'.
I hope to find a solution to the whole issue by the end of the fieldwork period. It may be revealed that eventually it all comes down to personal relationships and that cooperation between foreign researchers includes a 'tolerance' challenge. We shall see.
But then again, should one worry too much about this?
As one can imagine the best people to ask about a Tokyo neighbourhood's activities, good places to eat, to shop etc., but also to find out information one cannot access through official channels, are taxi drivers and hairdressers. I decided, thus, to have my hair cut last Sunday morning at an inexpensive (1,000 yen, about 6 pounds) place around the corner from where I live.
One 10 square meters-room contained 5 chairs for waiting customers and 3 chairs for those getting their hair cut by the owners of the business: two ladies, both in their late 40s or early 50s. As soon as I sat down and that we established that I was perfectly understanding what she was saying to me, the hairdresser, as expected from a true professional, rushed to question me on my background, my job, my liking or disliking of Japan customs, and my plans for the future. Then, as we touched on matters regarding my research, I figured out that maybe it was the right time to take my turn in inquiring about the existence in the neighbourhood of the type of magico-religious practitioners whom I have come to investigate.
Considering the relative taboo, depending on the identity of the informant, surrounding the subject, I was not expecting the lady to give me much information, particularly if she belonged to those fervently opposing the 'spiritualist' movement currently occurring in Japanese society. And, indeed, her answer was negative; "I don't know. I don't believe in these people."
Now, she might indeed not know anything about such practitioners living in the area. But, she might have also refused to give such information to a person she hardly knew, and who even claimed to be a foreign researcher. So, here I find again myself with the issue of developing the right way for approaching future informants. My first idea is that I should not hide my identity or research purpose, usually vaguely identified as 'sociological study'. The reason for this is that a foreigner asking to consult a psychic in Japan sounds already quite suspicious. On the other hand, people may not be willing to open up to someone wishing to ask them about their most inner beliefs. Of course, I don't see any surprise to this.
I think there are two solutions to this problem of questioning.
The first method, and probably most common in Japan, to get access to the subject of research is through the introduction of another researcher or friend/relative. That is straightforward.
The second method would be to try winning over the inhospitable field by increasing the intensiveness of the informant-seeking process. Maybe the more I widen the scope of people I ask for information, the better the chances I meet someone who is willing to talk to me.
A smart combination of these two methods may bring results. I hope.
No matter how often you may remind yourself that fieldwork has its ups and downs, when the downs finally come, memory will fail you. That has almost become a rule.
Well, some events unexpectedly happen and plans need to change, adapt. This is the easy part of the "downs". The hard part is when the "downs" are related to the actual abilities of the researcher.
Back to Tokyo from a short, mostly failed fieldwork trip, I reconsidered my approach. Yes, 'constantly reconsidering my approach' has actually turned to an obsession. To the point that I always find myself in that middle-state of mind between having discovered a new direction and having already eliminated that direction for conceptual reasons.
And while I keep reading here and there, pacing down for being unable to concentrate on one single idea, I happen to get in contact again with one of the practitioners I am researching upon, and for a while the sky cleared up.
Print the map to her house, prepare my questions, read on her life, buy a present because it is the second time I visit her, all check.
On the meeting day, I got there 10 minutes late. The practitioner, a psychic/cult leader (I shall call Ms. O), had already started her small ritual, encircled by a dozen of white robe-dressed participants, all silently reading a prayer, on their knees, facing the small altar. I entered the room and was hastily pushed to the front and asked to write my name, address and birth date in the booklet used by Ms. O to pray for her followers.
10 minutes later, the prayer finished and Ms. O, in a sermonised tone of voice spoke of her recent 'unusual' experiences and the explanations she had bestowed upon them by skillfully picking here and there among Japanese myths, traditional folk religious beliefs, western numerology and astrology and her self-acclaimed divination powers, to compose a linear story that, to the uninformed mind, would undoubtedly make perfect sense. And it does, as the several nods among the small audience made it clear to my all-seeing eyes.
Then, the moment came when the unexpected occurred and I was asked to give a speech on my thoughts on Japan and on the connection between Ms O 's sermon and Greek mythology. On that right moment, my mind started running, trying to find a way to say enough that will allow Ms. O to justify my presence to her group, but not too much as to reveal my true thoughts about Ms. O's activities. In a short burble that contained enough 'exotic' information to please the audience and as little as possible of what I was there to do, I managed to slip through that over-embarrassing moment of being 'an ignorant foreigner who has a lot to learn'.
There, for a second, I felt I had managed well. For a second. Then, I realised my mistake: my presence at the front of the room, next to Ms. O, my beginner's speech, everything seemed planned. Ms. O had welcomed a new member, a blank mind to educate, a proof of her influence outside Japan, an advertisement for the originality of her cult.
So, there I sat half an hour later, in front of a table, in the men's room, eating my lunch while three old ladies were rushing around filling my dish before I had time to take a second bite, and wondering how I am going to start asking questions about the cult while keeping my outsider's identity. I decided therefore to keep my mouth shut, listening to the stories of the cult's older members' travels to the West, their jokes on each other's family issues, and occasionally answering their questions on Greece and on my life in Japan.
'Not very exciting that new guy', I could imagine them thinking. I would rather say 'not very clever that new guy; he should have seeing it coming and done something about it. And then, when it happened he should have been more diplomatic instead of staying silent'.
Yes, that is the word. Diplomacy. "Skill in dealing with people and persuading them to agree to something without upsetting them".
I left three hours later with a few interesting stories and a feeling of having disappointing Ms. O.
To cheer myself up, I try to think of how unique the atmosphere of the place was and my fortune in having the chance just to be there. Indeed, I have realised lately that just being there is a data collection technique that I am quite good at. It is amazing how much you can learn from looking at people's reactions. I guess that is not new but I doubt it will suffice for the markers of my thesis.
itako; traditionally a blind female shaman in Northern Japan.
For most Japanese, visiting festivals in the north of Japan during the summer season is a frequently advertised way to escape from the humid and hot weather reigning over the rest of the country during the months of July and August. For me, it filled the need to observe one of the most talked and researched magico-religious practitioners of the country, the itako. As Japanese religions specialist Ian Reader observes, "the itako have become extremely well-known in Japan, as much as anything because they represent the last and dying vestiges of a shamanic tradition that once was very strong in northern Japan". Hereafter, I shall describe my experience of 'consulting' one of these practitioners.
In fact, to the Japanese themselves, as the name suggests (Mount "Fear"), the place recalls much more out-of this-world images than the two other mounts of Hiei in Shiga prefecture, and Kōya in Wakayama Prefecture. The story narrated on the pamphlet distributed to guests, places the identification of the mountain as a holy location about 1,200 years ago, when the Buddhist priest Ennin (known as 慈覚大師円仁, 793-864 A.D.), during his travels in China saw this area of the Shimokita peninsula in his dream and was struck by the other-worldliness of the scenery and the omnipresence of spiritual power. Indeed, the extremely rocky, sulfur-fuming pits-filled landscape had been for centuries believed to be the gateway to hell, and, as such, every one of its composing elements has been awarded with the physical representation of the paths and crossings the dead soul traverses after death.
Several of the tourists come to this event organized by the Bodai temple (菩提寺) to make offerings to the worshiped deity of the temple, Jizō, walk around the "hells" (name given to the volcanic cauldrons), pray for their dead, mainly the souls of children who died too young, still-born or orphans (see picture below), and maybe also bathe at the natural hot springs near the temple. The majority however arrive seeking the words of their dead relatives, and listen to their advises spoken out of the mouth of blind women called itako.
It can be said that the accuracy of Carmen Blacker's study of the itako is ensured from her cooperation with one of the two seminal figures of shamanistic studies in Japan, Sakurai Tokutarō who the author met while visiting Aomori prefecture in the 1970s. Her first encounter with these particular mediums, however, seem to have taken place in 1959, when she attended the festival I also had the chance to observe this year (2008) on Mt. Osore.
According to the calculations of Takamatsu Keikichi, a researcher who has spent his entire life interviewing and studying the blind fujo of Aomori, the festival of Mt. Osore started hosting their activities in the early 1920s . In 1952, when the itako of Mt. Osore first became the subject of research, there were 21-22 of them. At the time other types of fujo seem to have been offering their services, but eventually only those specialising in the commemoration of the dead remained the regular participants, growing in number from year to year: in 1974, there were 38 itako and in 1978, 53. Last year, however, only 9 were observed by Professor Takamatsu, and this year, I saw 6 of them still practicing an ‘art' feared to be on the verge of extinction by students and adepts of Japanese folklore.
the itako's procedure was as follows: rubbing the beads of her rosary together, she cited the posthumous name of the dead person and the date of his death, together with the invocations needed to summon the spirit. These preliminaries over, she would pause and ask, casually in a low voice, a number of leading questions. What relation was he to you? Was he your father, or your brother? Did he die in an accident? Or after a long illness? How many children had he, and how old is the youngest? All these questions were eagerly answered by the client, who was often an old woman. Having thus ascertained into which type the dead person fell, the itako launched into a rapid singsong chant lasting five or ten minutes. It was not difficult to see that not a single one of the itako were in any state resembling trance (...) answers were typified. All spirits spent a great deal of time repeating over and over again how glad and grateful they were to be called, how sweet was the moment of respite which the calling gave them from the gloom and misery of their present existence. Clearly the itako were simply reciting the most suitable among a repertory of fixed chants learnt by heart in the course of their training as purporting to come from the dead. Their performance belonged to the category of geinou or folk drama, at the same time functioned as kuyou or requiem comfort for the dead. On their audiences, however, the effect of these hackneyed effusions was pathetically touching.
Although it is doubtful that all blind fujo present exactly the same performance, not much seems to have changed in the last 50 years as far as the content of the ceremony and the feeling of being 'cheated' expressed by Carmen Blacker are concerned. To the defence of the medium, however, I believe that particular abilities and experience must be necessary to manage at such an age (89 years old) to spend more than 12 hours chanting and giving good advices to the client, one after the other, making sure that every one of them leaves satisfied, in such a warm day of July.
From the 6 practitioners offering their services, I chose one of the eldest among them, hoping that her practice would be as authentic and similar to what I have read as possible. The itako I consulted was born in 1919 and started her training at the age of 14 after she lost her right eye in an accident. Her protector deity is, like most of her colleagues, Kannon, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy.
The ritual to which I assisted lasted roughly 10 minutes. After I sat down inside this tiny booth of 1.5m³ made of pieces of carton and plastic tied together, the fujo, her eyes tightly closed, immediately asked my relation to the dead relative I wanted to 'bring down' and the day of his (I decided on my grandfather) death; then she started rubbing the beads of her rosary for a short moment while chanting. Soon she stopped moving, and continued uttering what sounded like a mixture of song and structured speech. This was what I heard:
"As a grandfather, I am happy my grandson is holding a memorial service for me. I thank him. I hadn't even dreamt of my grandson doing so much for me. So, after my death's anniversary, I will call your protector god and I will ask him to protect your home and your children and make you happy.
Right now, I am happy and grateful, because on my right stands Manjusri (文殊菩薩様)1 and on my left Samantabhadra (普賢菩薩)2 .
My beloved grandson, please devote yourself to all gods and spirits, pray with all your heart and let them protect you.
I thank you. I am so thankful for having been called down.
Please protect yourself from the directions of the north and the west between the 15th and 20th of October at 2 o'clock in the afternoon(?), and avoid accidents and misfortunes, and make sure to spread around your luck to your house, family and descendants.
...on the 3rd and 5th of November, misfortune and sadness will hit your home, so I want you those days to be careful and offer sake to the gods and honour your ancestors ...
...remember this divination and take it back home with you..."
(I could not make sense of a few sentences concerning divinations on my financial situation)
The end of the kuchiyose was marked by the rubbing of the rosary, and eventually a 'hai' coming from deep down the itako's throat; then, since the client is allowed to ask the practitioner on particular issues in connection with the dead relative who possessed the fujo, I inquired on the possibility that my grandfather may be angry towards my mother. The woman's answer was:
"Of course not! The day he passed away, he was in a normal mood. Please bring offerings to the gods every year on that day. What is your astrological sign? Ox? Rooster? Then your guardian god is Fudō3. Honour him and make offerings to him and all will be well for you."
The first impression is that not much had changed since Carmen Blacker's visit. The itako seemed indeed to be simply reciting the most appropriate chant to my situation and it is needless to say that the frequent scratching of the head or clearing of the throat during the ritual attests of the absence of any kind of altered state of consciousness. The majority of the clients still leave in tears and the whole process reminds more of an artistic performance meant to commemorate the dead, like a Christian prayer conducted by the priest during a funeral, than a shamanistic practice. Alterations in the conditions under which the itako work and the clientele seeks advice, point however to a modernisation effect worth studying in the future.