Accepted paper:

Transformation of the public image of anthropology: the case of Japan


Junji Koizumi (NIHU and Osaka University)

Paper short abstract:

The paper examines the public image of anthropology in Japan, which has been associated with exotic customs and archaeological romance. But a stronger concern with down-to-earth matters has appeared, and this 'practical turn' is probably due to changing environments for academics in universities.

Paper long abstract:

"Public image" of anything is a historic construct and an interactive product. The image of anthropology is being produced not only by the act and discourse of academics but also by the perceptions and expectations surrounding them. This paper reviews and examines the public image of anthropology and its surroundings in the historical and contemporary contexts of Japan. Anthropology here started as a new obscure discipline around the middle of the last century and it has gathered and released various images later on. It has been closely associated with archaeological romance of ancient civilizations, perhaps due to the success in Andean archaeological projects by a leading university. It also has had a close association with exotic customs and extraordinary beliefs, perhaps as an antonym of the supposedly uniform and centripetal nature of Japanese culture. It has been deeply affected by the existence of a huge ethnological museum which has been emanating the image of ethnology and variability of world cultures. Through its course, anthropology has been conceived as non-practical, particularly because some influential scholars emphasized the "uselessness" of the discipline, although there were some who wrote about Japanese culture and society and became intellectual leaders in the eyes of the mass media, perhaps due to a strong public interest in Japanese culture whose intensity itself is a feature of Japanese culture. Now anthropology here seems to be taking a "practical" turn. More people have started to explore the possibility of working in practical fields, such as development, public health, social research and education. This does not necessarily come from tighter job markets, although the number of anthropologists is steadily growing and yet academic positions in universities are limited in number. It rather comes from changing environments for those who work in universities. One indication is that a recent change in Japanese Academy of Arts and Sciences subjugated anthropology under "area studies." More important is the ongoing university reform which has made all national universities non-national, creating a strong orientation towards immediate practical results. A still more serious fact is that anthropology has not comprised formal part of secondary education and most of the college students have no previous exposure to anthropological knowledge. In this situation it is essential for anthropologists to modify its discourse and penetrate into the public domain. Anthropology's essential power comes not from exoticism or romanticism, or even from relativism, but from its field methods, ethnographic approach to the reality and its ability at the same time to take a certain distance from it. If anthropology lacks "rigorous and scientific methods" and its "theories" are obscure and unstable, it is because it is a "mule" (Geertz) born between science and literature.

panel W095
A WCAA debate: the public image of anthropology