An Interview with Professor Katsuo Nawa of the Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia, the University of Tokyo

Interviewer : Yijiang Zhong (Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia)

 Professor Katsuo Nawa

Professor Nawa, thank you for talking with me today. I would mainly like to ask your opinion concerning three issues. Firstly, I want to inquire about your specialism and your opinion concerning research on Japan from this perspective.

Broadly speaking, my specialism is anthropology, more specifically cultural and social anthropology. In terms of region, I study the Himalayan region centering on Nepal. While the Himalayas are located between South Asia and the Tibetan Plateau, my more broad geographical focus is South Asia.

Cultural anthropology in Japan has a unique history. Although there was an anthropological tradition from before the war, anthropology as imported from the United States has become institutionalized as the mainstream in Japan right up until the present in the post-war era. An emphasis has therefore been placed on the notion that cultural anthropology is about researching other cultures. As a result, there has been a trend not to make studies about Japan central to one’s own research. Because it was quite difficult to travel overseas shortly after the war, many researchers initially had their field in Japan such as Okinawa in their study of the Other. As it became comparatively easier for graduate students to travel abroad from around the end of the twentieth century to the start of the twenty-first, I think the majority of people then went overseas to conduct fieldwork for writing their doctoral theses. After this, I have the impression that research conducted in Japan has increased as well.

Nevertheless, particularly in the Department of Cultural Anthropology at the University of Tokyo, people who only researched Japan were very much in the minority. Nowadays, there are scholars both studying folklore and researching Japan. When I was a graduate student, however, I feel it was mainly international students, especially students from Korea, who did research on Japan. There were not so many people looking at Japan among Chinese international students, at least at the University of Tokyo. Rather, I think many of them first carried out research in China and then wrote about their findings in Japan.

Recently, although the number of people writing their doctoral theses based on field research in Japan has increased, I feel the notion that anthropological research should basically be about a culture different from one’s own still persists. Another thing is that historically there is the discipline of minzokugaku or “folklore” in Japan that developed following the work of Kunio YANAGIDA, from which cultural anthropology has been distinguished.

As I understand it, there are few countries where this sort of social and cultural anthropology has been dominant. Generally speaking, anthropology in Asia has been about researching one’s own culture and society. This has been the case in both China and India. Recently, I was at a conference about the Himalayas. There was an interesting young Indian researcher who critically remarked that Indian sociologists and anthropologists only study India and do not even study Nepal. In this way, Japanese anthropology is a little unusual. Namely, the vast majority of Japanese anthropologists are specialists about places other than Japan. Most of them probably do something on other parts of Asia. However, just as there are people working on Oceania, there will be others doing something on North and South America. There are a lot of excellent researchers on Africa, particularly at Kyoto University where there is an especially strong tradition in this area. The discipline is such that there is likely to be somebody doing something about nearly all of the regions of the world, including the Middle East and Europe.

That is interesting.

It is interesting.

Okay, what do you think about the structure of the discipline, which tends to treat Japan as somehow different within Asia? Is this a problem?

It is not really a problem as such, but this has become the condition of the discipline based on its historical development in Japan. Rather than treating Japan as different anthropologically within Asia, when comparing one’s society and culture with that of other societies and other cultures, I think it is more accurate to say that Japan is vaguely understood as being equivalent to one’s own culture and society. For example, British anthropology developed greatly due to the results of fieldwork conducted in the regions that the British had colonized. I think that American anthropology begun by researching the other indigenous peoples of the American continent. Up until the Second World War there was something that may be described as colonial anthropology in Japan, and after the war the main premise of the discipline has been to study other cultures.

I think this peculiar situation is probably also the case for Japanese social anthropology as well. When comparing with sociology for instance, among Japanese sociologists there are lots of people who have developed advanced theoretical arguments. In terms of concrete issues, however, many of them are often debating about Japanese society. They are developing theoretical arguments while writing about Japan. There may not yet be many arguments that have had a significant influence on theory in the English, German, and French speaking worlds of sociology. Nevertheless, sociologists visit Japan from overseas, and when Japanese sociologists travel abroad themselves, they often talk about Japanese society as experts. Moreover, the arguments forwarded by many of these researchers may be cited in a refined form sociologically. Consequently, it is considered relatively easy to build cooperative research relationships internationally.

On the other hand, there is a big gap with Japanese anthropologists travelling overseas who are unable to talk about Japanese society as true experts. Of course, there are individual exchanges with overseas researchers specializing in the same locality. However, when it comes to broader forms of exchanges within the discipline it is inevitably limited. When asking which is the better form of international exchange, though I don’t think we can assert that the situation in anthropology is always a disadvantage, I do think there are the sort of conditions I have mentioned.

What about the theoretical aspect?

The theoretical aspect is difficult for various reasons, but generally speaking there are several traditions in Japanese anthropology. For example, there is a tradition of the University of Tokyo, of Tokyo Metropolitan University, and of Kyoto University. While I am sure if you went to Kyoto University it would be very complex, when viewed from the outside it has its own disciplinary tradition within which various arguments have been nurtured and developed. In contrast, it seems like the University of Tokyo both has a tradition and does not. A comparatively large number of people follow the pattern of absorbing the leading theories written in European studies, conducting one’s own fieldwork, and then writing articles on their findings. One just doesn’t seem to come across something that has been argued over a long period of time within the discipline of anthropology at the University of Tokyo, in other words a particular study that is central to the anthropological tradition at the university. Conversely, I think each study is highly original.

Still, there really isn’t anyone who may be said to have started out from the tradition at the University of Tokyo that is currently active as a leading researcher of anthropology in the English or French speaking worlds. I think regionally there are lots of anthropologists who are known as specialists and researchers of a particular locality. However, it cannot be said that the field in Japan has produced someone who should be cited or whose theory should definitely be read globally within anthropology. Of course, there is the problem of actually how many people there are throughout the humanities and social sciences.

There is also the problem of language.

Yes, there is that as well. What is most important here is that if there is someone for example doing research on Japan who has an interesting theory that writes a book in Japanese, not only will it be cited by overseas researchers of Japan that understand the Japanese language, but there is a possibility that it may be translated as well.

However, in the case of anthropologists, if there is someone doing interesting research on Africa or Nepal, although people working on Nepal may say it is interesting if has been written in English, generally speaking such people cannot read Japanese. As a result, it simply does not get translated. This is perhaps a disadvantage. Rather than saying it is a disadvantage, even if something is published that is good structurally, it is very difficult to overcome the barrier represented by the Japanese language.

For instance, if a groundbreaking ethnography is written in Portuguese by a Brazilian researcher about the indigenous people of the Amazon, a native speaker of English will translate it. Actually, the ethnography of Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, who is now regarded as a leading theorist of anthropology, was widely read through an English translation of his work. In the case of anthropology in Japan, while there are a number of researchers who I regard highly, because they are not actually doing research on Japan it is unlikely that their work will be encountered on the global stage.

A few months ago there was a public recruitment for an anthropologist at the Institute of Advanced Asian Studies. The scholar who was employed had written a book introducing the life of monks in Myanmar. I had a read of this book. Would this sort of study contribute to research overseas if translated in English or some other language?

I think his research will be highly rated. Internationally, there is similar research being done. For example, the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology runs the Buddhist Temple Economies project. Anyway, his work, even when viewed globally, is a notable achievement in the field.

Generally speaking, however, because his research is written in Japanese, it might not fit well with the style of the discipline in English if translated directly. Perhaps the concepts that are used or the specific theoretical developments discussed do not transfer easily into English, or perhaps the compositional style of the study is not standard for an academic book in English. Here, if someone who really appreciates the book or article concerned decides to translate it because they find it so interesting, then maybe such problems can be resolved. If this isn’t the case, however, and they are just translating it because it is their job and they produce a questionable rendering in English academic prose, then I feel there is the possibility it will just end with readers not really understanding the arguments.

The University of Tokyo Press publishes books in English.

They do. Furthermore, people in anthropology at Kyoto have been publishing works in English for many years. Recently, an English translation of a collection of papers that I thought was very good was translated and published by the Kyoto University Press. In this sense, I think the issue of how the problem of translation has or has not been resolved needs to be considered by engaging with the actual works concerned. I am afraid to say that I am simply at the stage of having acquired many of these books without yet going through them.

Also, there is the English-language International Journal of Asian Studies (IJAS) by the Institute of Advanced Studies on Asia, which I think is very good.

Right. I think this is a nice attempt. Under a broad framework of Asian research, it has also translated and published high quality studies from across Asia, not only those written in Japanese, but in other languages as well. In the past I helped a little with the editing of this journal.

An American scholar I am acquainted with said that he finds it very informative.

IJAS has also done special editions in addition to the standard issues. In the series about Chinese Law there were translated papers. Also, selected papers were translated for the Asian monetary history series done by Prof. Akinobu KURODA. There was also a translation of Yoshihiko AMINO. In certain cases the journal added an introduction before the translation, which made it easier for academics working in English to understand the present value of the article. I think doing things to this extent ensure that people interested in the journal will continue to read it, thereby contributing to long term academic exchanges.

Talking about doing research in English, there is a situation where the majority of researchers studying South Asia write in English, not only people in Europe and America, but scholars from South Asia as well. Moreover, if one does not write in English, then he or she will not be able to participate in international debates. As a result, many Japanese anthropologists specializing in South Asia also write in English.

I think if one considers scholars studying South Asia more broadly, then researchers at the Institute of Advanced Studies on Asia both past and present, the Faculty of Letters at the University of Tokyo, and researchers of South Asia at the College of Arts and Sciences have all published their results in English. In this regard, I personally still have a long way to go.

I think the fact that one is able to communicate with other researchers studying South Asia by writing in English is important. For instance, if one writes in Hindi then the readership of the study will be limited, and in the case of myself, other researchers studying Nepal will simply ask why I have chosen to write in Hindi. On the other hand, because people from India will not read something if it is written in Nepalese, inevitably most stuff comes to be written in English. There is talk that this is the legacy of colonialism and lends a hand to the imperialism of the English language. Nevertheless, the fact of the matter is that things are written in English.

As long as there is no change to this situation it cannot be helped. I would now like to ask you about what sort of research on Japan is taking place in South Asia that you know of.

To be honest I do not know a lot about research on Japan in South Asia.

For example, are there comparisons with or communication between the type of Japanese anthropologists that you were talking about a moment ago and anthropologists studying Japan overseas?

There are various things. Basically, when Japan is viewed from the outside it is an “other,” and as a result there are anthropologists researching Japan all across the world. Of course, in Europe and America there is an established tradition of Japanese studies, and a lot of people are studying Japan anthropologically. Yet there is surprisingly little communication.

A regular pattern for people doing anthropological research on something like subculture in Japan, and this may be the case for research on traditional villages as well, is that they will mainly visit scholars of sociology rather than anthropology. These scholars know more about Japan academically, and in all likelihood have lots of connections for carrying out investigations. Even if people where to come to me, I don’t know about Japan. I may know stuff as a native of Japan of course, but I do not know about Japan as an academic. In the end, hardly anyone comes to me as I am simply of no use. This is like a continuation of our conversation before, however.

In the past, when the academic community of anthropologists was much smaller and all the top scholars were acquainted with each other, for instance when the scholar Chie NAKANE was especially well known internationally, there would be introductions or people would go to visit her students on her recommendation. Nowadays, however, the number of anthropologists has exploded globally and there is very little communication like this. It is now the age of the Internet, and I think it has become such that when searching for people, scholars inevitably go to meet sociologists who know more about Japan.

When you say that the number of anthropologists has exploded are you also talking about Japan?

No, the number has increased in Japan too, but I meant internationally. For example, British anthropology was incredibly small, certainly up until just after the Second World War. It felt like you could recognize everybody’s face. Now, however, it is impossible to know the faces of all members of the field. This is because universities all over the world are sending out anthropology doctorates one after the other. I believe the American Anthropological Association has about ten thousand members.

I think the number of members is increasing in Japan as well, though the Japanese Anthropological Society of Japan only has a membership of less than two thousand. Nevertheless, it is the second or third largest association in the world.

Really? Changing the topic slightly, it seems like a lot of the scholars researching Japan at the University of Tokyo do not think of themselves as actually doing research on Japan.

What do you mean by researching Japan in this case?

For instance, whether in education or economics, people do not consider themselves to be researching Japan, but rather researchers of their particular discipline.

Right. That is interesting. But is that actually the case...? On the other hand, I think many people are justifiably proud about the particular matter regarding Japan that they research as their specialism, the specific area about which they are the foremost experts and on which they mostly argue. Yet I suppose it is often the case that they have not considered this matter under a framework of Japanese studies. Depending on the discipline, especially if no one says that they are specialists of such and such in a specific region, they are likely to be an expert of or at least also studying an aspect of Japan. Another thing is that they are not only doing something on Japan. For instance, they conduct analyses of Japanese examples based on detailed research of other regions or examinations of the theoretical trends of a particular sub-discipline. Furthermore, I think because it is often the case that people are doing research on things other than Japan as well, their work doesn’t always fit the framework of Japanese studies.

 Things are different for disciplines such as history, which is divided into topics like Japanese history, Eastern history, and Western history. But for places where graduate schools and majors make up one discipline like education or sociology, then I think this is how things are.

When considering research on Japan, the problem of language arises if comparing the types of researchers you mentioned in Japan and overseas researchers examining the country. Overseas researchers tend to write in their own language. In China people write about Japan in Chinese, in America in English, and in Japan in Japanese. In the end, this becomes a significant barrier. Although everyone is doing research on Japan, each region has come to conduct such studies in its own little world. What do you think about this issue?

One thing concerning language barriers that is significant is that as research progresses, specialist fields become more highly segmented. At one time, top-level researchers on East Asia in America and Britain would of course have been able to read Chinese and Japanese literature to a sufficient level. For instance, I believe there was a period when researchers would develop their own studies under the broad framework of East Asian history. However, as the number of works in English and other languages has increased tremendously, unless one has super powers it is simply impossible to follow everything. Here, both linguistically and in terms of one’s research horizons, I have the impression as someone who is not an expert observing from without, that everyone is heading more and more toward narrower areas of specialism.

I do not know to what extent this is the case for other disciplines. Speaking about anthropology, however, if articles within the field can be relatively divided into two types of contributions, first research on a particular region or locality and second theoretical work related to anthropology as a whole, one now has to discuss theory in his or her article or it will not get published in top-level anthropology journals in the English-speaking world. Although one may have their work published in a journal on regional research, being published in such journals is perhaps of little help when looking for a job as an anthropologist. As an example, say that there are about ten top-level journals for anthropology in the English-speaking world. Again, looking from without, I think if one explicitly emphasizes his or her theoretical contribution and says something interesting about this, then even if the ethnography is a little weak, it will be easier for an article to be approved for publication.

Consequently, rather than conducting proper ethnographies, an overemphasis is placed on theory, and only articles that offer a twist on some argument that is fashionable are produced. I feel that within the discipline of anthropology the concern for empirical data or regional research has weakened, especially in the English-speaking world.

One other thing regarding anthropology is that there are Japanese scholars at the forefront of the discipline conducting research on Japan in Japanese. However, many of them gained their doctorates from universities in the English-speaking world, which leads to a gap here as well. I have both read and heard that in certain cases, some people ended up researching about Japan because they went to study in the United States. Although they wanted to do something else, they were told to research Japan because they are Japanese. I don’t think this is very good as they are like informants as a result. This is because they never really wanted to do research on Japan in the first place.

No, a lot of people don’t.

Of course, there are people who are not like this. I am sure there are people who from the outset wanted to review perceptions of Japan from within the English speaking world, and there are examples of people from Japan who received their doctorates doing research on mainstream society of the United States.

Returning to the problem of language, in the end it depends on whom you want to read your research, and what will be useful for you in the future. For instance, if someone researching Japan writes a work in Japanese within American anthropology, although he or she may attain a good readership as a result, this is unlikely to be beneficial for his or her employment or promotion prospects. What is more, I guess if people worry about whether they will be able to get good feedback because of a mismatch between empirical and theoretical interests in Japan and the English-speaking world, then they may think it just as well to write in English to further their career, though I am not sure if this is actually the case.

Of course, there are people who write in Japanese that are native English speakers. These people often live in Japan and have written books in Japanese that are primarily ethnographies which do not really discuss theory, such as Tom Gill’s “Everyday Affordance.” I believe he first wrote this book in Japanese before publishing it in English. Because of scholars like him there will always be numerous exceptions. Still, I do believe there are such trends.

While it is significant in which language one writes, there is also the question of your targeted readership, as well as cost-effectiveness. Among Japanese anthropologists, there are quite a lot of people who only write in Japanese. This is likely because they want a Japanese readership. You come across Japanese sociologists who only write in Japanese as well, even though they write highly theoretical pieces. I am sure this is probably because they want Japanese readers to look at their work and because they do not want to directly confront reputed theorists in Britain, America, France, and Germany. If they really wanted such a confrontation, it would be better to write in English, French or German. Of course, it may be a legitimate argument to assert that to write in one’s own language is only natural, and it is due to the procrastination of others if they have not read the work. However, I think in actuality if someone chooses not to write in another person’s language, it is because even if being somewhat critical, one does not strongly seek to have a direct impact upon them.

I see. As we are nearly out of time, I would finally like to ask your advice concerning the Global Japan Studies network that is starting up.

That is difficult. I don’t really have any advice.

How about any criticisms?

Speaking generally, as I don’t know the specific facts, because the administration of a new program like this relates to the internal structure of the University of Tokyo, I imagine there must be various issues. Up until now there have been a number of organizations at the University of Tokyo that have a tradition of researching Japan, and there have been various situations between them. Furthermore, considering the difficult circumstances confronting the humanities and sociology today, I think there is a situation where academic departments and even majors must develop strategies to differentiate and survive. In contrast, the Institute of Advanced Studies on Asia was a research center that had focused on other parts of Asia rather than Japan.

The other thing is how much you want to conduct research in English, the idea that if one is doing something about Japan, do it in Japanese. I think there are people who do not want to go to the trouble of working in English.

That is to say, if you are able to successfully gather people who are really motivated, there is not an issue. I have a feeling, however, that things will not go so smoothly.

To be a little more specific, for example, we now have various seminars and lectures. An actual problem that we face like what you have just said, however, is that not many people come and attend.

People don’t come. Right, I think that is the issue.

I am always very grateful that you come along. I guess publicity is a problem.

Right, publicity is an issue. However, I think one possibility may be to have people who are not from the Institute of Advanced Studies on Asia come and give talks, such as from the Faculty of Letters. If you do this, the speakers may bring their graduate students along as well. Though perhaps other lecturers will not come.

This does appear to be the pattern. Last year, when a lecturer from the Faculty of Letters gave a talk they brought their students along. When overseas scholars have given talks, some international students and visiting researchers attend. I guess that is how such events turn out.

That is right. Not many people come. However, in terms of the number of participants at such events when I went to Harvard in 2013, unless given by someone extremely well known, standard seminars did not always attract that many people. There may not have been seminars with only five people, but you would often see seminars with only ten or twenty people in attendance. When someone very famous came of course they would either book a large room, or in the case of a smaller venue, it would be so full that some people even had to stand outside in the corridor.

Because the biggest problem in the long term for the continuation of this sort of program is the quality of the discussions, the first thing is securing good participants. Next, you need people who can offer meaningful comments from a Japanese perspective. Especially when inviting someone from overseas, if there is a person from Japan working in a comparatively similar discipline who can offer constructive and specific comments, I think in the future people will say that “there is this really interesting place” at the University of Tokyo.

A good discussant.

Regardless of whether you have a discussant or not, when presenting you want feedback. I think you are most happy when you receive good, constructive feedback that is not overly critical or dismissive. If someone from a similar discipline is attending, therefore, I think the seminars will be worthwhile. Listening to our talk just now though, it seems like getting these sorts of people to attend will be difficult.

You are talking about the audience.

That’s right.

There is also the problem of whether they will be able to communicate properly or not.

As well as the issue of English for Japanese scholars. I think it would be good if there were someone to help.

I think it is okay to speak in Japanese. This is something I want to work on a little more.

It is difficult. But you need to have suitable people to attend as a part of the audience.

Right. Professor Nawa, thank you for sharing your opinions. I don’t want to take up too much of your time. I would like to end today’s interview.

Really? Was that okay? I don’t feel like I have said anything that significant.