The First Days of Field-work

posted 22 May 2011, 23:45 by Web Admins ‎(Ben Caesar)‎   [ updated 22 May 2011, 23:50 ]

The trials of PhD field-work in 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.

Immersion - Sunday, 5 October

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?

Questions - Monday, 6 October

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.

Diplomacy - Sunday, 7 December 2008

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.