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Looking Back to 

Look Forward
Benedict, Nakane and Ethnographic Involution
John McCreery
The Word Works, Ltd.
AJJ Spring ...
Two Extraordinary
Women
Nakane Chie Ruth Benedict
They Attempted the
Impossible
But both included something
missing from most current
research on Japan
An Asian Regional 

Comparative Perspective
Benedict
• “The Japanese were the most alien enemy that the
United States had ever fought in an all-out
struggle.”
• But t...
Japanese vs Chinese
JAPAN CHINA
Absolute loyalty to the
Emperor
Conditional loyalty
The dynastic cycle
Extreme sensitivity...
Nakane
• Studied with Raymond Firth, did fieldwork in
India
• Was surprised by how freely Indian women voiced
their opinion...
Japanese vs Indians
JAPAN INDIA
Social ties defined by frame
(household or firm)
Social ties defined by category
(caste)
Weak...
My purpose today
• Not to defend Benedict or Nakane
• Not to defend these particular arguments
• But to underline somethin...
Our Conference Theme
• “Glocalizing Japanese Studies: Japanese Studies
Inside and Outside Japan”
• “Glocalizing” =Globaliz...
Glocalization in
Practice
• “Applying” Western ideas to study something
presented as characteristically Japanese
• Continu...
Ethnographic
Involution
• An idea adapted from Clifford Geertz’s Agricultural
Involution.
• Agricultural Involution—Growin...
Look Back to Look
Forward
• Benedict and Nakane
• Both were deeply involved in the major events of
their times
• Both empl...
In Today’s World
• It’s no longer the 1960s or 70s, when Japan’s
economic miracle was transforming Japan into the
world’s ...
In Today’s World
• Where China’s importance is growing
• India and Indonesia are next in line
• Samsung is a bigger brand ...
What is the alternative?
• Whatever the topic, there are fresh insights to be
found by looking at what is going on outside...
In a Digital World
• A Google search will turn up all sorts of work in
other places on topics similar to our own
• Colleag...
Think About It
Thank You
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Looking Back to Look Forward

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This short presentation was created to provoke a debate at the spring meeting of the Anthropology of Japan in Japan (AJJ) group at Seijo University in Tokyo. It argues that Japanese studies now suffer from "ethnographic involution," a process of increasing investment in smaller and smaller topics that impoverishes the field. It looks back to classic works by Ruth Benedict and Chie Nakane and suggests that an Asian regional comparative perspective offers an escape.

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Looking Back to Look Forward

  1. 1. Looking Back to 
 Look Forward Benedict, Nakane and Ethnographic Involution John McCreery The Word Works, Ltd. AJJ Spring Meeting 2015
  2. 2. Two Extraordinary Women Nakane Chie Ruth Benedict
  3. 3. They Attempted the Impossible
  4. 4. But both included something missing from most current research on Japan
  5. 5. An Asian Regional 
 Comparative Perspective
  6. 6. Benedict • “The Japanese were the most alien enemy that the United States had ever fought in an all-out struggle.” • But the Japanese are not Chinese • An important point since the USA and China were allies in WWII
  7. 7. Japanese vs Chinese JAPAN CHINA Absolute loyalty to the Emperor Conditional loyalty The dynastic cycle Extreme sensitivity to insults 
 to honor Gentlemen ignore insults Ancestor worship restricted to those within living memory Ancestors worshipped by many generations, the more the better Mistresses kept in separate households Concubines added to households
  8. 8. Nakane • Studied with Raymond Firth, did fieldwork in India • Was surprised by how freely Indian women voiced their opinions • And how often they won quarrels with their mothers-in-law
  9. 9. Japanese vs Indians JAPAN INDIA Social ties defined by frame (household or firm) Social ties defined by category (caste) Weak ties between frames Strong ties within category Insistence on unity in thought and feeling as well as behavior Individuals free to think and feel as they liked so long as behavior was proper No allies for women who fight with their mothers-in-law Relatives ready to take the woman’s side
  10. 10. My purpose today • Not to defend Benedict or Nakane • Not to defend these particular arguments • But to underline something that their arguments share • What I have called in a previous slide “An Asian regional comparative perspective”
  11. 11. Our Conference Theme • “Glocalizing Japanese Studies: Japanese Studies Inside and Outside Japan” • “Glocalizing” =Globalization+Localizing • But what does it mean in practice?
  12. 12. Glocalization in Practice • “Applying” Western ideas to study something presented as characteristically Japanese • Continuing subservience to Western models • Ethnographic involution
  13. 13. Ethnographic Involution • An idea adapted from Clifford Geertz’s Agricultural Involution. • Agricultural Involution—Growing numbers of Javanese peasants investing more and more intensive labor in smaller and smaller fields • Ethnographic Involution—Growing numbers of anthropologists investing more and more intensive labor on smaller and smaller topics • Both becoming poorer in the process
  14. 14. Look Back to Look Forward • Benedict and Nakane • Both were deeply involved in the major events of their times • Both employed what they learned about other parts of Asia to enrich their analyses of Japan • Both wrote books that, however frequently criticized by later anthropologists, continue to be read and cited outside of anthropology
  15. 15. In Today’s World • It’s no longer the 1960s or 70s, when Japan’s economic miracle was transforming Japan into the world’s second largest economy. • It’s no longer the 1980s, when it looked like Japan might dominate the global economy • Japan is slipping out of the global limelight
  16. 16. In Today’s World • Where China’s importance is growing • India and Indonesia are next in line • Samsung is a bigger brand than Sony • Can Japanese studies afford to remain parochial?
  17. 17. What is the alternative? • Whatever the topic, there are fresh insights to be found by looking at what is going on outside of Japan, in China, Korea, or other parts of Asia. • Yes, there are language and other barriers. • But now we have the Internet
  18. 18. In a Digital World • A Google search will turn up all sorts of work in other places on topics similar to our own • Colleagues who work in those other places are just a click or an email away • Most are very happy when someone else, anyone at all, takes an interest in their work • The possibilities for collaborative, comparative research have never been greater
  19. 19. Think About It Thank You

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