Donald C. Wood
I first met Bob in the hamlet of Kurusu in the early 1990s, but he didn’t meet me until two decades later, in the village of Ogata. We did not actually “meet” in either place; I first read his classic study of that community then, and some 20 years later he read my 2012 book (Ogata-Mura: Sowing Dissent and Reclaiming Identity in a Japanese Farming Village). The review of it that he kindly wrote marked the end of his academic publishing career, but the beginning of our friendship. I remain deeply honored by—and grateful for—both.
Bob’s work on regional Japan was grounded in the early postwar tradition, founded on the seminal work of John Embree, in which detailed investigation into all relevant social issues—and the meticulous tracing of change over time—featured prominently. His 1978 book, Kurusu: The Price of Progress in a Japanese Village, 1951-1975, was one of the stars of the canon on which I cut my teeth 25 years ago. I deliberately emulated Bob and the others of his generation when I did the research and writing for Ogata-Mura. The anthropological study of regional Japan, needless to say, has changed much since the time when Bob was one of its active leaders. But in the first chapter of Kurusu, he alluded to two of the most central topics in the current endeavor—depopulation and aging—and another that I believe will soon rise to that level: poverty.
Bob remained deeply engaged with Japan and with its anthropological study beyond his retirement; he is both a historical and a modern ancestor. And these two adjectives well characterize the nature of our brief friendship, which began in January 2014 with my initial email of thanks to him for the book review, and ended with his passing in October 2016. Our correspondence went across our shared countries—the United States and Japan—and through time. I addressed his questions about current politics in Japan, as we disparaged the country’s ruling administration, and he commented on the unfolding situation in the States, as we discussed the political ascent of “that rich guy who keeps on using my name.”
But Bob’s historical tales captivated me the most. He took me to 1946 Osaka, to a chance encounter with Japan’s emperor at Hayama, and to a conference at which “Meyer Fortes leaned across the table and said, ‘Smith, history is a red herring.’” Ichthyological nomenclature notwithstanding, Bob and I shared an interest in historical research, and I benefitted from his comments on my current investigations into the life and works of a farmer/ethnographer named Saburo Yoshida, who was writing about his home village of Wakimoto in Akita Prefecture in 1935-36, exactly when Embree was conducting fieldwork in the village of Suye in Kumamoto.
“I remember being impressed by the sense of continuity from long ago past” (in Japan) wrote Bob. I remember the same about Bob…and a lot more.
Donald C. Wood is an associate professor at Akita University (Akita, Japan) where he has worked since completing a doctoral degree at the University of Tokyo in 2004. He is editor of Research in Economic Anthropology and a member of the editorial board of the Japanese Review of Cultural Anthropology.