Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The temporality of life

I attended a symposium over the last two days held here in Kyoto by the Research Institute of Humanity and Nature entitled "Asian Green Belt: Its Past, Present, and the Future". The presenters varied in their disciplines from the keynote speaker Peter Bellwood, an archaeologist, to Yasunari Tetsuzo from the Hydrospheric Atmospheric Research Center at Nagoya University.

Part of the goal of the symposium, it seemed to me, was to define "Asian Green Belt" (AGB) in some way. Definitions offered included climatic, geographical, cultural, and imagined. The symposium was dominated by ecologists and so I felt that there was a stark lack of critical analysis concerning the concept of AGB. There was a sense that AGB could be referred to as an eternal nature to which policies of renewal, conservation, and maintenance should be directed. The problem is that such an AGB concept takes no account of local diversity, both ecological and cultural.

In response to this, I was most impressed by a paper presented by Santasombat Yos, a researcher from the Social Science Institute at Chieng-Mai University in Thailand, entitled, "Transnational enclosure of Asian forest: with special reference to the Greater Mekong Subregion". Dr. Yos made an argument similar to James Scott's "state simplification", suggesting that the natural landscape is enclosed by nation-states to gain control over resources. This process, argued Dr. Yos, is detrimental to local communities. He proposed more reseach and greater support for the creation of what he labelled "transnational civil society", made up of local communities, local governments, regional NGOs, national governments, et cetera to create an open space for negotiation.

I am attracted to this type of approach, but feel that many researchers make a crucial oversight concerning the temporality of decision making processes. Many people have written about the compression of space-time as one of the hallmarks of globalization, and I see the approach discussed above as a response to this. However, this response addresses only spatial aspects of decision-making: opening physical spaces to include more voices in decision making.

In addition to expanding physical spaces to be more inclusive, there is a need to open temporal spaces for decision making. An assumption made at multiple scales within global capitalism is that there is a need to constantly advance ourselves, or, in Bush's words, "keep growin the economy". Questioning this "growin" forces us into a moral framework where we can begin thinking about the goals and responsibilities of "the economy". This is a good thing, I think, however we rarely even allow ourselves the TIME to approach these questions. Instead, we blindly march towards some ill-defined future goal-line. However, what could this goal-line be? At an individual level it's easy to define--we all end up in the ground, for better or for worse. At a global level there really is no definable goal-line. The only finite state in the future is destruction of live--so the question is only to what extent. A goal that is definable is maintenance, continuance, or sustainability. This goal is progressive and so there is no point in rushing forward. We would do better to take time to reflect on quality of life, which many would agree doesn't come through speed.

The AGB concept, I seems to me, has a dualistic nature. It could be used to help formulate policies on a transnational stage that would help to ignore local concerns and rush us all ahead towards bigger and bigger economies; or it could be employed as a community concept to help bring about the transnational civil society described by Dr. Yos, where there is room and TIME for a variety of actors to express themselves to create models oriented towards quality life.

So, key questions for me are:

What temporal scale does decision making take place at?

Does this temporal scale fit with the scale of human life?

Does this temporal scale fit with the scale of natural ecology?

What models can we generate to help slow the temporal scale of decision making?

Is this desirable?

Saturday, October 27, 2007

New Life

Congratulations to my little sister and her husband who found out recently that they are going to have a baby!!!! Youngest in the clan is setting the bar. Good job you two, wish you the best.

My fieldwork is sort of non-existent at this point. I've contacted one village where I would like to do research, but haven't heard back from them yet. The village is called Otaki and it's located at the base of one of Japan's volcanoes, called Ontake. The village only has about 1,000 residents and about a third of them are over 65. I've been reading a report on their website from last year that details their plan to gain fiscal independence. It's really quite sad. At the national level there has been a move to amalgamate 3,500 municipalities that existed in 2004 to less than 1,000. At the same time there is a movement towards decentralization, which is partly a reflection of larger trends in Asia. The situation is bleak for villages like Otaki because they have very little economic resources for tax revenue. However, according to their website, the government in Otaki is suggesting a return to their natural resources as a source of income. The question however is how effective forest resource use can be. The situation reflects a post-war history of government supports for agriculture and forestry despite national level movements towards food and timber imports.

See, I got the questions, just need to go find somewhere to get some answers.

Gotta run.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Long waits, long seminars, long baths

First off, this picture is from a "take-asobi" (lit. bamboo playing) event at a temple near my home here. Hundreds of cut bamboo are placed in a bamboo forest and lit with candles. Taiko drummers performed as well. A nice way to spend a fall evening.

Several things to rant about today. I can start by apologizing for not posting more often. The reason is that we don't have a solid internet connection yet, so I've been pilfering off a neighboring wi-fi signal. Japan, despite being light years ahead of the U.S. in cell phone, TV, and toilet technology, is woefully behind when it comes to internet access. I guess I won't say woefully, but rather will point out that I am having to wait a month to get cable internet because they don't have the infrastructure . In part this is because Japanese haven't been suckered into paying for cable television like Americans have--whatever the reason, it's a bit annoying. I must say that I love my cell phone though--I can watch TV, scan written characters I don't recognize, and zap bar-codes to see prices--that's a spicya meat-o-ball!

So, what could possibly be worse than waiting a long time for internet (and actually I'm being overly dramatic, it's not THAT bad): six hour graduate seminars--in Japanese. That's right folks. A week ago, on the 10th, I attended my first seminar with fellow students studying under Yamada-sensei, my adviser at Kyoto University. Basically the seminar is just a chance for students to present material they are working on. The problem is they don't seem to know how to PRESENT, rather they read, and read, and read, and read. After they read, and read, and read, and read they receive feedback, and more feedback, and more feedback, and more feedback. . .concerning the most trivial things. Now, I'll add a caveat that this is all being filtered through my brain, which is less than perfect at recognizing complex Japanese, however I think I'm getting the gist of things. I had heard from a classmate in Hawaii that much of the work done at Kyoto is quite atheoretical, and the sense that I get is that he was right. Much of the presenting being done covers people's fieldwork ad naseum, from the location, to the specifics of how a certain practice is done. It sounds like early 20th century American anthropology. That's fine with me, if that is what people want to do, I don't find it very engaging, but perhaps that's just me. What I mind is having to sit through the whole process! The first seminar I attended started at 1:30 in the afternoon and didn't end until 7:30 that evening--holy numb ass cheeks batman! Yesterday's seminar was a bit better--we finished at 6:00--whoopee. Sounds like I'm going to be presenting later this month, which will be hilarious, but surely not so lengthy.

Since my negative ranting has reached an (in)appropriate length, let me shift to a positive--baths. For those who don't know, there is no central heating in Japanese homes. Kerosene stoves are used, but only sparingly (I'm sure there are exceptions). Basically, the idea is to keep things just tolerable--meaning that you have to wear warm clothes inside as well. The evening bath, therefore, becomes truly the sweetest part of everyday.

Bare skin, goosebumps;
skittering into the bath-room.
I pull back the lid to find swaths of thick steam.
A bowl full of hot water to wash feet and bottom;
heavy splashes begin to pinken my skin.
Toes, heels, thighs, knees, bottom--then slip in altogether.
Cold tensioned knots loosen and drift away like balloons
that slip from the inattentive hands of children.
I hear cool October winds brushing past the window,
so I lower myself further into the bath.
Sweat sits in beads on my brow,
but I stay longer in the warm silence
imagining the length of things:
a bristlecone pine on Notch Peak in Utah;
a sunset in Baghdad;
a fishing net on a boat in Sweden;
a watchband on sale at Saks Fifth Avenue in Manhattan;
a breath.
I pull myself from warm water thoughts,
where a mikan orange and soft pajamas wait for me.

Saturday, October 6, 2007


Yesterday I attended an "undoukai", literally exercise meet, at my nephew's preschool in Kyoto. For those who haven't experienced an undoukai, it's an event for school kids to show their parents what they have been learning, in terms of athletics, at school. For non-Japanese, or perhaps just for anthropologists, the whole scene can be quite surreal.

An undoukai is full of pomp and circumstance, as most events in Japan are, that is fascinating in its ability to reinforce what has come to be called Japanese culture. I'm sure an "outsider" watching a similar event in America would be able to make similar observations. However, America has no analog for the undoukai, which makes it particularly interesting--but again,
this may only be anthropological curiosity.

The first thing I noticed at yesterday's undoukai were strings of flags of countries from around the world hung over the field where the event was taking place. I found this odd as the undoukai is a distinctly Japanese phenomenon that has absolutely nothing to do with international anything. The effect, however, is a sense of commonality through sport with the global community--the reality was that I was the only thing remotely "international" apart from the flags (and I was an oddity).

As passive objects, the international flags at the undoukai become "Japan-ized" through their visual appearance against ritualized performances that express the homogeneity of Japanese culture across space and time. Parents who have lived in the same neighborhood since they were kids reminisce about the time they did the very exercises they now consume as spectators--a sense of an enduring culture is inevitable, and not at all a false sense. However, one wonders when the international flags were first hung, offering a cultural innovation (or a cultural consumption?). Now the flags too have become a natural symbol of a Japanese undoukai (I saw the same flags while watching a popular cartoon on TV).

Anthropology hogwash aside, undoukai's are remarkable to an American who is not used to seeing communities come together year after year to relive and reinvent the same ritual. I don't remember sports ever being a part of my public education, and certainly don't remember sitting with neighbors to eat lunches that each family had prepared on their own. Unlike America, Japan is too small for each family to wall themselves into a large piece of property where those living next door can be avoided. People in Japan, or at least in Nagaokakyo, gather in neighborhood parks to play, chat, and renew the relationships that sustain them.

Friday, October 5, 2007


The wife and I safely landed in Japan at about 4:20 pm local time on October 4th. How we made the flight and the ride from the airport with all of our luggage is a mystery to me, but somehow it all worked out--nothing broken either. The staff at the airport were wide-eyed when we walked up with all of our crap. A group of rich white folks on a tour of Japan were equally surprised as the MK Taxi employees piled our crap into the tiny van that was to take us to Kyoto--"let`s challenge", said the driver with a smile.

I`ve titled this entry "kikoku", made up of the kanji for "return" and "country". Usually this word is reserved for nationals returning to their own home country, but I feel it is appropriate for me to use it for myself. Coming back to Japan is as much "returning home" to me now as returning to Utah is. The deserts of southern Utah and the mountains of central Japan are for me the lands of my birth--the places where I have apodictically felt the beauty of life. Kyoto too is a hometown for me. It`s where my wife is from, but it`s also where I fell in love--in several ways. I look forward to maneuvering down Kyoto`s narrow backstreets and taking in the wonderful smells that increase with the cool days of autumn.

My family here are all doing well. My oldest niece is in junior high now, playing basketball--so, I`m looking forward to shooting some hoops with her (I can fool her into thinking I can actually play--well, perhaps I can). "Catch ball" will be on the agenda as well, with my older nephew who plays center for his little league team. Today the whole family is going to my younger nephews preschool for his "undoukai", literally "exercise meet", where the kids will do all sorts of goofy exercises--always good fun. My youngest niece began talking since we have been in Hawaii and is now quite the comedian. She`s been living in China and attends an international school taught in English and Chinese, so once and a while she`ll slip in random English words--yesterday she gave thumbs up and said, "good, good". I`ve taught her to call me "uncle", but with the accent it comes out as "anko", which means "sweet bean paste"--I`ve been called worse.

I`m having to readjust to the size of things here again. I don`t remember feeling so BIG in my in-law`s house, but I`ve already banged my head on the doorway once. My back remembers the low kitchen counters as well.

So, I`m supposed to do some research here apparently, and that is going to be my next trick--figuring out how that goes. Next week I`ll be going to the university to meet with my professor and make an ass out of myself with my crappy Japanese--excellent. Anyway, here I go!