Conference Ljubljana 2014 – Section 5a: Anthropology and Sociology – Report Barbara HOLTHUS & Wolfram MANZENREITER

The University of Vienna

From August 28 to 30, 2014, the Anthropology & Sociology section (Section 5A) convened at the 14th conference of the European Association for Japanese Studies. The conference was held at the Department of Asian and African Studies in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia.

Two of the three day-meetings featured parallel sessions, in order to at least partially accommodate the high number of applicants for presentations. The section was initially granted slots for a total of 30 papers (10 sessions). However, in total, the EAJS received applications for 68 presentations (42 for individual papers and 7 panel applications). Papers and panels were selected based on their innovativeness, methodological soundness and promising quality. Through negotiations with the EAJS head office, the section convenors managed to receive six additional “parallel” sessions, eventually ending up with one keynote and 16 sessions, five of which were pre-formed panels. Among these, 12 sessions (including 3 of these pre-formed panel submissions) were related to this year’s section topic, 4 sessions were considered general sessions. Of these, two sessions were filled with the panel on “Rubbish! The underworlds of everyday life”, organized by Katarzyna Cwiertka (Leiden University) and two sessions consisted of individual papers.

The section’s topic of the 2014 conference was entitled “All for the good life – anthropological and sociological perspectives on happiness in Japan”. We asked what the meaning of happiness for Japanese today and in the past is. What is their take on what makes life worth living? To what degree is the individual’s pursuit of happiness and well-being constrained or facilitated by society and its institutions? We especially invited papers that address the cultural variability of happiness and well-being across Japanese society and among different social groups. The high response to this section topic reflected the viability of this topic for anthropologists and sociologists working on Japan and resulted in a large range of presentations with a diversity of approaches and research questions.

The keynote was delivered by Uchida Yukiko, a cultural psychologist from the Kokoro Research Center at Kyoto University, who spoke on the “Cultural Construal of ‘Interdependent Happiness’ in Japan – Cultural psychological theories and empirical evidence”. By looking at how culture shapes human emotion as well as what happiness constitutes from a Japanese perspective, she made her argument in defense of cultural psychology and for culturally specific levels of desirability or ideals of happiness. Showing a lot of comparative data, Uchida pointed to the fact that most theories on happiness are too global and that most people do not fit under these explanatory “Western” models, as they are not “WEIRD”, an acronym standing for “western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic”. For the case of Japan, in particular interdependence, balance seeking between one’s own desires and the needs of society, and the ideal of collectively achieved well-being are elementary elements. The keynote was a great starting point as people kept referring to her throughout the conference. 

The session entitled “Civil society and communal life” indicated the significance of belonging, and that practices and activities, which are conducted in a committed way, also contribute to people’s sense of well-being. Patricia Steinhoff demonstrated through her network analysis of political activists how friendships between and within groups and the sharing of knowledge and working together for a common cause has contributed to higher levels of social capital and that political activism may increase participants’ levels of happiness. Meanwhile, Martin Lieser who studies organized football fans in Japan argued that football passion provides a social space of exchange and bonding for people that otherwise would never meet. But pleasure is not only derived from the integrating forces of football fandom transcending the social structure, but also from the deviant behavior enabled within the same social framework. A study of community level happiness was the focus of Tolga Oezsen’s presentation. Oezsen, one of the few quantitative sociologists at this year’s conference, studied administrative approaches to rural community revitalization in Kumamoto prefecture. As communities suffer severely from depopulation, over time the idea of who belongs to the community is changing, so that even the ones that moved away are still considered to be part of the village communities. Yet there is a difference between the administrative views on community well-being and the individual level of well-being. 

The panel on “Social and political institutions as facilitators and constraints to the pursuit of happiness: The family in modern and contemporary Japan” provided an interdisciplinary group of scholars. A historical view on how the discourse on happiness has evolved was presented by Torsten Weber. Already since the 1870s, a politicization of ideas on happiness can be found in Japan. Weber has analyzed the public discourse of Abe Isoo and Hani Motoko in the women’s magazine Fujin kōron, finding that happiness in early 20th century discourse was constructed as a goal of individual pursuit and the freedom of the individual rather than the concern for the well-being of the group. Weber further distinguishes between “smaller”, meaning everyday, happiness and “greater” happiness, such as the pursuit of happiness as envisioned through the Meiji constitution. Chris Winkler also provided a longitudinal study through his analysis of LDP manifestos between 1955 and 2011. The manifestos show three phases in regards to family policies, pointing to a much greater interest by the LDP in welfare politics than family politics. The pursuit of quality of life only began in the second phase, after the urgent quest for material wealth shifted to the LDP having to adapt to the public’s post-materialist policy preferences as well as the harsh fiscal realities of the time. Tim Tiefenbach’s quantitative study on neighborhood associations and the distinction between voluntary versus involuntary participation stresses the significance of free choice in the participation. Phoebe Holdgruen presented preliminary results from a project she conducts with Barbara Holthus on parental well-being in response to Japan’s nuclear radiation crisis. Findings from their participant observation among activist mothers in Chiyoda-ku were summarized as the motherhood dilemma of women who feel they cannot protect their children as traditional gender roles prevent them from rallying against what they perceive as a threat for their children.

In the session on “Happiness and education”, Anne-Lise Mithout asked if Japan’s special education reform has contributed to offering a happier life to disabled youth. Mithout sees the situation rather critically, due to the neoliberal impact on politics, the diversity of impairments and the ability of the teachers who might not be suitably trained to diagnose disability. Besides special support programs and integration, also autonomy and self-esteem are equally important elements to increase happiness. Christopher Bondy’s ethnographic research in junior high schools in Buraku districts focuses on how schools can function as a “protective cocoon” from having to face the possibility of being detected as an outsider of society and thus contribute to the youth’s sense of well-being. The implementation of gender equality guidelines was the focus of Aline Henninger. Through a detailed distinction of all actors on the local school level Henniger paints a critical picture by pointing at the difficulties in the implementation process.

The presentations in session “Emotions and happiness in familial relations” showed how the ideals of a happy marriage can greatly vary. Dalit Bloch determined the importance of social context and the shifting conjugal roles in her in-depth case study of one couple, whereas Laura Dales concentrated on the connection between marriage and friendship. Marriage influences friendships in a myriad of ways. Overall, marriage does not delimit the emotional needs for friendship, yet reduces the time for friendship. Hiroko Umegaki Constantini studied recently retired men searching for happiness and their place within the family. In the case of one grandfather, he chose grandchild-rearing as the right solution, providing him regular access to his daughter, nurturing emotional bonds and his desire to still be the financial provider of sorts.

“Gendered Views and experiences of well-being in contemporary Japan” saw three papers that focused on youth subculture, youth’s desires, values and elements creating happiness for gyaru and gyaru-o (Arai Yusuke), on the creation of fantasies of happiness for middle-class wives (Ofra Goldstein-Gidoni), and the study of the workplace and its relationship to the happiness of Japanese women (Maya Todeschini). Todeschini points to women choosing a “winding road” approach, distancing themselves from “traditional” corporate Japan, by working on the margins, either in smaller companies, having multiple career switches, or becoming free-lancers working as consultants or advisors, complementing the activities of traditional companies. 

The panel on “Re-imagining masculinities in contemporary Japan: How marginalized men seek happiness and well-being” ran over two sessions. Presenters Kato Etsuko, Ono Mayumi, and Suzuki Ayako focused on lifestyle migration of young men to Canada, the US, Ireland and Southeast Asia in the search for ikigai. Hikikomori were the focus of Horiguchi Sachiko’s presentation, in which she concentrated on support groups trying to provide jobs, dismantle salaryman ideals, further communication and create intimate relationships with a significant other. The search of young Japanese salarymen for self-fulfillment through physical appearance rounded out this panel with the presentation by Kristina Barancovait-Skindaraviciene. The desire to be accepted is the driving force for young salarymen to understand their bodies as a “project” to be worked on, as part of their self-identity, and as an expression of their individuality. 

In the session on “Happiness and sexualities” Erick Laurent argued that there is happiness in the Japanese closet for Japanese homosexual men. Western activism understands “coming out” not just as a rite of passage but as the universal key to freedom and happiness. Through his in-depth ethnographic research however, Laurent has found that happiness cannot be automatically linked to coming out, but that there can be happiness in the closet indeed. Takeda Hiroko and Ishiguro Kuniko in their paper analyzed young non-elite women working in kira, meaning sexual or pornographic services jobs. These jobs are advertised as transforming the women into something special. Adrian Ovidiu Tamas and Carmen Tamas in their joint ethnographic research at an Osaka bar described the late night customers as lonely and looking for companionship. The spontaneously created community of customers acts as a surrogate for the basic human need of companionship. Customers develop the habit to going to the bar, even on weekdays, which the researchers analyzed in terms of addiction.

Iza Kavedzija’s presentation on old people’s attempts to create a meaningful and fulfilling life opened the first Friday morning parallel session on “Constructions of happiness”. Happiness of the elderly is searched for in the enjoyment of hobbies, a more contemplative lifestyle, and gratitude for the little things in life. But her account also countered the stereotypical image of dependent seniors. Since her informants were well aware of the difficulties in balancing between their own desires for securing a certain sense of freedom with maintaining warm interpersonal relationships, achieving a sense of happiness turned out to be a practical form of moral judgment. Nataša Visoĉnik researched the role of machi-zukuri, public housing policy, and community projects on bringing happiness to the socially and spatially marginalized buraku and Korean neighborhoods in Southern Kyoto. Debra Occhi also looked at the spatial dimensions of action and emotions. Her research compared interaction patterns between masked characters and participants of traditional community festivals with the ubiquitous consumption of the more recently designed, regional tourism characters; both are clearly about raising strong emotional responses, such as anxiety or laughter, to chase away evil or simply to bring about instant moments of happiness. 

The second parallel section on Friday morning presented “Survey data on happiness” and thus only featured quantitative studies. Economist Sebastian Lechevalier asked if increasing inequality in Japan is correlated with unhappiness and if so, if widespread dissatisfaction will eventually lead to a heightened interest in redistributional policy. His findings indicate that particularly those forces in society that expect the state to level off socio-economic disparities are dissatisfied with their life in general and the result of government interference in particular. Sociologist Carola Hommerich discussed the contribution of social capital to social and subjective well-being. David Green studied regional and work-related issues of happiness and their impact on fertility outcome. Estimation results of regression analyses revealed that marriage age, spouse’s education and working hours are negatively associated with the number of children, while spouse’s income, the living arrangement with parents and regional satisfaction are positively associated. 

The panel entitled “Phenomenologies of Japanese Happiness” concluded the last two sessions of the Anthropology and Sociology section. Gordon Mathews’ twenty year-long study of the changing life trajectories of Japanese adults demonstrated great variability of sources of happiness and unhappiness. While work turned out not to have been a calling for most of his informants, in retrospective they regretted putting too much pressure on their own offspring in order to follow in their footpaths, by placing work over family roles. Osawa Makoto who researches urbanites turning farmers discussed the pursuit of happiness in the context of individual motivations, lifestyle patterns and the institutional framework of regional political economy. Susanne Klien revisited her informants from a previous research project on volunteering in disaster-hit Tohoku to find that post-volunteering activities consist of spatially differentiated and diversified lifestyles that combine economic activities to make a living with contributions to society for making sense out of living. Continuing the panel, Joy Hendry presented first reflections from a recent research stint on what retired life is like. Her Kyoto-based informants revealed that health and grandchildren are as much a source of happiness as are social encounters and “work-like” activities. Finally, Lynne Nakano looked at women’s take on marriage, comparing Japan, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. With universal marriage remaining the ideal, single life is seen as an unconventional life choice, demanding conscious efforts to negotiate between societal expectations and personal desires. Singlehood, considered by family members and others a transitory state, eventually becomes accepted as permanent with women getting older.

Rounding up three days of intense scholarly exchange, the session organizers initiated the final discussion by reflecting on “What we came to know and still would like to know about happiness in Japan”. In sum, the overall impression gained from the presentations was that Japanese seem rather happy through the anthropological lense, with the sociological approach delivering a less happy picture. Since the majority of presenters were from the field of anthropology, with only a small number of sociological analyses, we wonder if this cleavage is partly caused by the disciplinary self-selection bias or related to separate disciplinary conceptualization and research strategies. We have seen throughout the conference that there is a methodological tendency in anthropology for making use of biographies, and it is not unlikely that the human drive of making sense out of one’s life is ultimately conducive to more positive assessments. 

The great variety of case studies reminded the audience that happiness is not universal, and it is not the same emotional state of mind to any and all, and that it even cannot be taken as a cultural construal. When asked, people tend to see happiness as a very personal and immediate issue. They give less significance to the weight and impact of socio-structural conditions, which are rather taken for granted, even though they are seen as shifting, whereas the self remains rather stable. The life stages people find themselves in are putting different demands on their lives and thus exert changing influences on their personal desires. 

Some questions however have not yet been fully addressed throughout this dense, three-day section, yet which are worthwhile and should be the subject of future, ongoing investigations. Uchida in her keynote speech presented a noticeable gap between the ideal state of happiness between Japan and the U.S. How are other societies faring in regards to their ideal states of happiness and in comparison to their actual levels of happiness? We further wonder to what degree findings from the case studies can be generalized. What is the interaction between larger data sets and ethnographic data, and what kind of interaction can be beneficial for sociologists and anthropologists working on the topic? We also think that the role of the mass media, whether on the generation of desires and emotions, or on the public discourse about and the perception of happiness deserves further investigation. And finally, what is the connection between the subjective appraisal of institutions and structural conditions and their objective conditioning within the larger framework of happiness and well-being? In other words, more research is needed to come to terms with the conceptualization and the materiality of happiness in Japan.  

In late 2015, the section convenors will publish an edited volume of selected anthropological contributions to the conference.