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Be as you are, talk as they talk
A Japanese fieldwork experience
Davide Torsello
(c) Davide Torsello Posted 6 February 1999 Last amended 23 September, 2005
The following paper is a brief account of my personal experience of fieldwork
and research conducted as an MA student in Japan. From 1996 to 1998, I was
enrolled in an MA degree course in Cultural Anthropology at Hirosaki
University, north-eastern Japan. As the only foreigner among Japanese students I
carried out the fieldwork part of my research in a small settlement called
Mikazuki (Raising Moon) inhabited by a few farmers mainly dedicated to apple
growing. The results of my research are contained in the MA final thesis
compiled in Japanese.

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I warmly invite any questions, comments or suggestions.
The settlement of Mikazuki is situated in a place where even an expert tracker
would have considerable difficulties in finding it. No signal or other kind of
indication provides a hint of its location and, as I discovered later, this hiding
seemed intentional. “Why putting a signal if someone heading to Mikazuki
obviously knows where to find it,” was the solidly logical answer of the head of
the village to my “foolish” question. An apparently unexplored forest separates
the hamlet from its mother village (boson). After a long series of curves, where
light regains space on the dark wood, the apple fields spread out as by magic.
Wide, systematically ordered rows of apple trees shape a green land which
otherwise seems to be bowing to the imposing and omnipresent figure of the
nearby mount Iwaki, a female deity in the local Shinto pantheon. The few houses
line the main road that divides symmetrically the village and a feeling of
disordered desolation may invest the inattentive visitor. Yet, rather than the
atmosphere of loneliness and abandonment so common in the rural villages of the
area, what strikes in Mikazuki is its lack of visual uniformity. It is the odd picture
of streets where newly built houses alternate with concrete and decaying wooden
constructions; elements evidently witnessing the crucial passages in the history of
Mikazuki. Perhaps the life histories of its inhabitants are exemplified in these
buildings too, but to judge this was not my main concern.
The story of Mikazuki starts in the immediate post-war period. It was created
in 1946 when Japan felt the necessity to re-integrate a huge number of repatriates
from the former occupied Asian territories. People without land, families and
single people were convoyed towards the newly created settlements and were
“pushed” to learn a new way of life: agriculture. Some of them were lucky to
receive a good piece of land and/or to possess the necessary skills (or the vital
human network) to undertake this new and very risky challenge. Many of them,
however, were not so fortunate. They were eventually transplanted in a land that
did not belong to them, neither in the mechanical sense of ownership, nor
culturally, emotionally and eventually socially.
My first contact with the villagers was through a 65 year old couple who were
to become my “Japanese parents”. Mr I., a surprisingly active man in spite of his
age, is the owner of the biggest plot of land in the village and he looks after it
with the sole help of his wife. Together with being the most active and central
personality in Mikazuki, Mr I is also one of the most educated people and he was
able to provide me with precious pieces of information from the very beginning.
Though my first approach to the villagers was not discouraging, I was far from
being too optimistic about the future of my survey. On my first visit, a Japanese
friend accompanied me and I soon realised that I would not be able to make
myself clear until I was not alone with them. The problem did not lie, as I
expected, in my residing in the village, but in the mere fact that it was hard to
justify my interest in their society: “We are but a village with a shallow history”,
were the words that greeted my proposal. (Only after four months of fieldwork
did I finally succeed in clarifying my intentions, and that was a big success!)
After the acceptance of my often disturbing presence was approved by the
village’s general meeting (not without the help of my professor who warmly but
vainly explained the meaning of “anthropology” and his field experience in
Central Africa!) I spent nine months in the village. Of course, being a gaijin
(foreigner), tall with big eyes and a long nose had its advantages and
disadvantages, as well. I was possibly allowed to poke my nose into their lives to
a greater extent than a Japanese would have been, but above all, I was forgiven
for my linguistic and behavioural mistakes; I was a gaijin, after all. I also assume
that part of the attention they offered me came from the interest in my “diversity”,
which I experienced when I found myself talking more insistently about my own
country.
However, there were also many disadvantages. Most of Mikazuki’s people had
no experience of foreigners, and this made them extremely shy and sometimes
even reluctant to speak to me. I also realised that the standard “clean” Japanese I
was using in our conversations was not sufficient to communicate with them on
an intimate level. I needed to learn their dialect, the local Tsugaru dialect. This
proved to be a very important factor, since in Japan the knowledge of a local
dialect is what marks the border between “in” and “out” of a particular local
society.

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The difficulties in communication deriving from my ‘diversity’ were also
present on the academic level. I found my professors’ approach to the problem I
was dealing with in my research to be different from my own one. Explaining my
interest in Mikazuki was particularly complicated not because of the short history
of the village, but properly because of its apparently uninteresting character to
choose for an anthropological case study. To my eyes an analysis of the changes
which occurred in a village which had created its ‘social reality’ from zero and
continues to develop it under particular social, economic and political
circumstances was an extremely attractive subject. However, I could not expect
‘native scholars’ to share my same concern as I realised when I was encouraged
to wind up my “diverse view” on the problem. I was criticised for being too
“Japanese” in my description of the reality I had been experiencing.
In spite of these obstacles, the confrontation with different methodologies of
research and systems of knowledge exerted a decisively positive influence on and
contribution, to, my work. I learned to understand the critiques coming from
points of view ‘other’ than mine, and not to suppress the urge to amalgamate
them with my own approach. After this experience I came to the conclusion that
the importance of the so called “hybrid knowledge” is crucial in dealing with the
study of different cultural contexts.
Furthermore, the nine months spent living with the people of Mikazuki, as well
as offering me a strongly vivid human portrait of ‘a society’, provided me with
several important suggestions in the field of communication. As the head of the
village advised me once in his confidential tone: “If you would try to behave less
similarly to the way we do you might be able to achieve more”. This is what they
meant with “following the Italian part inside of myself”, and I am thankful to
them for the lessons that no manual of anthropology would have given me.
(c) Davide Torsello