People, Plants and Life Stance

Université Toulouse 2 Jean-Jaurès

My research is about practices and conceptions of plants as living things in Japan, and I have been doing my fieldwork among amateurs and professionals of domestic plants’ cultivation in urban Kansai area (esp. Ōsaka, Amagasaki, Ikeda), paying much attention to horticultural techniques. So far I have been spending about 2 years in Japan, including 15 months of fieldwork. 

After exploring some aspects of the historical background of horticulture in Japan, and the actual horticultural context in Kansai area, I started my fieldwork with ordinary city gardeners, who cultivate plants at home or in shared kitchen gardens. Then I met with flowering associations and amateurs’ clubs (azalea, chrysanthemum, bonsai…) thanks to whom I could observe numerous cultivation techniques. Moreover, these groups enabled me to push the doors of the city hall: the stories I heard there contributed to reconsider my approach of the plants-as-living-things topic. It is indeed known that city employees have to deal with various claims concerning the handling of urban “wildlife” – both plants and animals – or urban “natural processes”. 

The multiple problems raised by the co-habitation of humans and some species have been described and analysed by scholars such as Knight (2003) or Kirby (2011), revealing interesting views on the conceptions of nature in contemporary Japan. In a similar way, what stroke me at the city hall is that the conceptions of the “natural beings” never appear so clearly as when they become a problem, or when they don’t evolve the way we want them to: ‘hence, I thought, I should focus on bothered cultivators’ stories’. 

At the same time, I was doing a parallel fieldwork about four re-cultivation projects of emblematic plant species in Hanshin area, among which is a wisteria, cultivated by an Ōsaka ward’s association whose purpose is to make the plant bloom, as part of a classic urban machiokoshiproject. It happens that in spite of the careful attention paid by the volunteers, and their creative handling, a lot of wisterias don’t bloom: as a result, beyond the local social and identity stakes, the associations’ enthusiast members work hard on the plant itself, trying to understand the way it “functions”, in order to reverse the non-blooming state by diverse technical measures. 

I chose to concentrate on this association, who will be given a large place in my thesis, while I continued my fieldwork with horticulture professionals. 

Observing the technical dimension of people-plant relationship, I emphasize on processes such as production, shaping, or the handling of affections – that are both vital processes (in the plant) and technical processes (performed by a person). So it is about both the way people deal with plants themselves, but also with the plant-environment (biotic and abiotic) interactions – that is all the more important as most of the plants here are woodyplants.  I plan to do a complementary fieldwork in spring 2016, about the handling of a viral disease that infected trees in some Kansai’s areas. 

Of course, I also pay much attention on the social interactions concerning plants, which are connected to technical practices, for that there is no horticultural practice that is not socialin the first place – even “individual” home gardening itself is a highly social activity. At the group scale, in the same way, every technical choice is first a social choice: for example, the tendency I noticed in some flowering associations to over-subdivide the (rather simple) cultural process concerning seasonal flowers in order to increase the occasions of gathering together. 

But I also pay a careful attention to the individual, intimate scale of the people-plant relationship, and to the inferences that are expressed by the persons about plants and living things/beings in general. An important part of the “horticultural relationship” takes place in moments that are difficult to grasp, for example between the direct observation of such aspect of the plant and the resulting technical action – whatever the initial project (often some collective task) may have been. As the technical and social dimensions, the individual and the collective scales are also closely linked. 

By resting on concrete, small-scale examples, this research aims to contribute to the study of the conceptions of life and the living in Japan, sometimes designated by seimeikan(literally “view [on the] living/life”). Even though giving many examples, it seems that the studies about Japanese seimeikanare often guided by a deductive approach, based on a very general assumption (for example: Okada & al. 2013). This incites one to adopt an opposite, bottom-up approach. 

Besides, in many cases researches dealing with seimeior with the very complex notion of inochi(いのち/命/生命) are concerned about the handling of the death of beings or the end of things: reversely, it seems to me that dealing with the vital phenomenon itself is indispensable, like Kawai is doing about persons, in the field of body and kinship anthropology (Kawai 2009). 

More generally speaking, I want this thesis to be located in the frame of anthropology of the living, or anthropology of life, as it is becoming a distinct field of investigation and reflection – Kohn (2007), Kawai (2009), Ingold (2011) or Pitrou (2015) appeal, in their own ways, to develop such a subfield. 

If you had any comment, critic or suggestion, your email would be more than welcome. Furthermore, I would be very happy if this short report could be an occasion of getting in touch with persons working around similar concerns: please feel free to contact me so that we can maybe work together in the future.


INGOLD,Tim (2011). Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description. Abingdon: Routledge

KAWAI,Toshimitsu (2009). Seimeikan no shakai jinruigaku. Fijījin no shintai, seisa, raifu shisutemu (Social Anthropology of Life Stance: Fijian’s Body, Sex Difference and Life System) Tōkyō: Fūkyōsha

KIRBY,Peter Wynn (2011). Troubled Natures: Waste, Environment, Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

KNIGHT,John (2003). Waiting for Wolves in Japan: An Anthropology of People-Wildlife Relations. Oxford: Oxford University Press

KOHNEduardo (2007). “How Dogs Dream: Amazonian Natures and the Politics of Transspecies Engagement.” American Ethnologist34(1): 3-24

OKADA Mamiko (ed.) (2013). Chiisana chiisana ikimonogatari. Nihonteki seimeikan to shinsei(A Tiny, Tiny Tale of the Living Things: Japanese Conception of the Living and Divinity). Kyōto: Shōwadō 

PITROU,Perig (2015). “Life as a Process of Making in the Mixe Highlands (Oaxaca, Mexico): Towards a ‘General Pragmatics’ of Life” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute21(1): 86-105