Brief Encounters in Research

Over the past couple of days I have been reflecting upon the way I do some of my research. The starting point for this was a webinar delivered by Prof Joy Hendry, called ‘An Affair With A Village’. Details about the event can be found on the RAI website, and there is also a YouTube video, ‘Understanding Japanese Culture – 45 years researching a village in rural Japan‘, which participants were asked to watch prior to the webinar. Joy’s work has influenced my own research and views of Japan so much and I have always got so much from her books and our conversations. The video and webinar were wonderful – not just as a distraction from the events going on around the world at the moment, but also as a means to see what Joy has done, and to then to allow me to think about my own research.

The title of Joy’s webinar was intriguing, and I was delighted that it ties in with a new book which has a similarly suggestive and chapter titles. I cannot wait to read this. But it also led me to think about my own research. I had been thinking about writing a blog post like this today anyway in response to the webinar, but was struggling to think of a title. Taking inspiration from Joy, ‘brief encounters’ seems appropriate.

While I have been to Japan 45 times to date, the longest I have stayed there was a year, when I was an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) on the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme in Seto, Aichi. I have never had a year in Japan as an undergraduate – we had 10 weeks. I have never been based at a Japanese universities for many months. I have never lived in Japan as an academic – my longest visit in that way was a week when based at Musashino University in 2019. Although my plans to become an academic started during JET and my experiences at the schools I taught at helped shaped ideas in my PhD and first book, it was not fieldwork per se. Most of my trips to Japan tend to be about one week long and often combine university work and research time (as well as some personal time). I have not stayed in and returned to a village like Joy has. The closest I get to that are my brief visits to Ueno-mura and most of my links to that village are with people who also make brief visits, or pilgrimages, there rather than with the local people themselves. I have already written about my busiest trip, and I may write posts about other trips in the future, but the feature that unites almost of them is that they were brief.

I have often suggest that these brief trips work well for me. And they do. But they also provide restrictions in what can be achieved – particularly when I compare them to the relationships that Joy speaks so eloquently about. However, there is another aspect to my brief encounters. As well as the trips to Japan themselves being brief, often my interactions with people and organisations are brief. While some of this is also due to the length of my visits, some of it is also due to the changing nature of my research. There has often been no need, from a research perspective, to go back and visit people again. It’s a great shame as I have met some lovely people over the years, but due to the changing nature of my research and the brevity of my subsequent trips to Japan, there’s been no chance to meet up again.

Other people I do see again – albeit sometimes with gaps of a year or more between visits. These brief encounters I do find useful. Being based outside the UK, having time to reflect on what was learnt in a previous visit, learning from others in academia about their work, allows me to go back and discuss things which may otherwise be missed or not discussed if we met on a more regular basis. I think these brief encounters also make me more sensitive to spotting changes – but also helps me question why other things don’t change. Of course there are friends in Japan who I do see on most of my trips to Japan – and, again, interactions with these people, who I include in my acknowledgements in my books, are highly instructive to my understanding of Japan, despite not being part of the core fieldwork itself.

Following on from the webinar, today I held a Zoom call with Dr Nikhil Bugalia, who has recently completed his PhD at Tokyo University. He has co-authored an article called ‘Organizational and institutional factors affecting high-speed rail safety in Japan‘, which ties in closely not only with my research on the shinkansen, but also with aspects of my research on the JL123 crash. We have never met before and made contact via LinkedIn. It was another brief encounter, but during and after the call it’s given me further thoughts about my research.

At the heart of all of this reflection is not merely a matter of how I do my research and the significance of what can (and cannot) be done with brief encounters, but also what it is that I research. I have a page where I describe a bit about my research, but I suspect this does not tell the whole story. I think at the heart of this search for an answer to what I do is the desire for people to pigeon hole people into fields, disciplines and specialisms. I have always tried to resist this. I mix together anthropology, modern historical studies, cultural studies, media studies, political studies, and many more. This has its own advantages and disadvantages, but however we see ourselves, maybe it is irrelevant to how others see us. Joy Hendry is first and foremost an anthropologist and it was appropriate that the webinar was hosted by the The Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland (RAI). The webinar also showed how important the experiences of living in and revisiting one village were to Joy. But to many of my students, thanks to the reading lists I give them, Joy is an expert on Japanese society, Japanese families, Japanese weddings, and Japanese schooling. And to me, she will also be the one who introduced me to the concept of the ‘wrapping culture’ which has helped shaped many of my ideas of Japan and my research related to symbolism. And although Joy pointed out in the webinar that this idea of the ‘wrapping culture’ was developed during later research, rather than during the time in the village, I can’t help but think that the experiences in the village still underpinned her ability to reach the conclusions in Wrapping Culture: Politeness, Presentation, and Power in Japan and Other Societies.

So although I see my primary research interests as being about Japan and the thing that links all of my studies being symbolism and identity, I suspect that for many others I am the transportation person, the shinkansen person, the Nakasone person, the JAL crash person, or the isho person. Even as I try to take my research in another direction, away from transportation, but still linked to symbolism and identity, I find myself being pulled back to my other research through requests for help, seminars, contributions to publications, interviews (academic and media), and such like. These are all yet other brief encounters. And rather than worrying about labelling who and what I am and what my specialisms are, perhaps I should further embrace the brief encounters and make the most of them.

During a trip to Japan in 2019 a made another brief visit to Ueno-mura and finally got to visit the U-shaped cutting made by JL123. My guide was Mr Kurosawa, who maintains the Osutaka-no-One crash site. The photograph was taken by Misako Takeda of the Yomiuri Shimbun who joined us for the trek.

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