Heidi Lam (HL): You’ve been making the rounds of the internet lately as the anthropologist who was told that Hello Kitty is not a cat. How does that feel?
Christine Yano (CY): I framed the book Pink Globalization in terms of headlines, because I’m talking about celebrity and iconicity through material and commercial culture. And then I became a part of it. I was terribly amused, somewhat horrified….It was a study about being in the crossfire of media. The news broke on a Wednesday and it became the #1 trending item on the internet. I was getting about five media requests an hour….When you’re thrust into the limelight, you realize how you’ll get positive and negative [feedback]. But the whole point, from the point of view of Sanrio or the Japanese American National Museum where the exhibit is happening, is that it’s good. This is a story about buzz. I think anthropology should talk to the public.
HL: When writing about globalization, how do you define a field site?
CY: I would never propose this book as a dissertation project. I felt okay about it, because I did it over a long period of time. It gave me a historical perspective of 10+ years, [including one] of Hello Kitty outside of “Cool Japan.” This may not pass NSF methodology, but all I could do was to field a whole variety of people in as many places as possible. I didn’t publish every single interview, but wanted to be sure that I had at least one interview from each example of fandom.
In the book, I spelled out my limitations, because it wasn’t humanly possible to go around the world and speak especially a variety of Asian languages. The big hole [in my book] is not covering Asia sufficiently. I would love for a consortium of researchers to cover Korea, Taiwan, and other countries in Asia, including Southeast Asia. If I were only researching Hello Kitty in Hawaii or in San Francisco, it’s not book-worthy in terms of what kind of story I can tell. I can’t extrapolate enough of a story from such a small [project].
I’m involved in a new project that might be more dissertation-like—about the ukulele in Japan. I’m not trying to do ukulele in the world, which is probably a book that would sell better because it should be written. But for an anthropologist, life is too short. I would love to have sites all around the world in which I spend six months and try to understand ukulele culture in each.
HL: I’ve noticed that Pink Globalization uses a lot of voices. You have big sections of interviews where people speak for themselves.
CY: I really wanted that.
HL: That’s juxtaposed with text from Sanrio’s website, such as the philosophy statement. How did your fieldwork experience influence your writing style?
CY: I almost thought at times the book sounded too pop, too frivolous. But I wanted to match the topic and wrote it to channel a commercial and accessible voice. I was doing that deliberately and wouldn’t have done that in earlier works. I thought I would be criticized for that and to my surprise, I wasn’t. Instead, at least some people have said, it’s very readable and accessible….It’s reflective of the pop world from which Sanrio exists, including her fans.
HL: You’ve written about enka, the Cherry Blossom Festival Queen Pageant in Hawaii, Pan American World Airways’ Asian-American flight attendants, and a lot more. What’s the spark?
CY: After my initial fieldwork, what I thought I would do is not what I ended up doing. After doing enka, my career plan was to go from enka to gunka to shoka, to different song genres. I did a whole bunch of research on gunka. I abandoned that project and felt I was not the one to do it.
I was hired at the University of Hawaii, which put me in a situation where I could develop projects there. This allowed me to do research on the weekends. I didn’t have to wait for a grant to go to Japan. “Doing fieldwork at home” became the basis for these research projects. I had grown up there, so I already knew what things were of interest to me. Oftentimes, they were related in some way to my family. In each case, there was an incident that sparked my interest. For the Pan-American World Airways, there was an ad in the newspaper saying the flight attendants were celebrating their 50th anniversary and that there would be a luncheon. I called the number and got in touch with them.
If I had continued with the gunka project, maybe I would have written a book on it by now, but may not, because the topic might have worn me down.
HL: This is good to know. We always read the final product and it seems like everybody follows projects to the end.
CY: We should have a panel discussion with professors about the projects that they have abandoned and why they have abandoned them….It would teach students about listening to themselves and the project, to see if this is still a good fit.
HL: Do you have any words of wisdom for graduate students in anthropology, including those who work in Asia?
CY: I wish that Asian Studies and Asian-American Studies had more conversations. There’re real differences between the two, but also some commonalities.
For anthropology in general, I think getting away from the ivory tower and moving towards embracing what might be called applied anthropology. I’m hoping that current graduate students don’t see that necessarily as “the thing that I had to do because I couldn’t get a real job.” Anthropology can only be strengthened by making ourselves and the work we do accessible to the general public. The point is about creating bridges, rather than putting up walls. We have a lot to contribute to the present and the future, and it shouldn’t always exist in our educational institutions.
Christine Yano is visiting professor of anthropology at Harvard University (2014-15) and professor of anthropology at University of Hawai’i at Manoa. Her latest book is Pink Globalization: Hello Kitty and Its Trek Across the Pacific (Duke 2013).Heidi Lam is a PhD student in the department of anthropology at Yale University.