Society for East Asian Anthropology
May 7, 2018
Greetings from Paris!
The theme of the summer issue of AN, Anthropological Futures, has been much on my mind as I took up residence in this historic city far from my home in Tokyo. So why does an anthropologist who has spent nearly her entire career in Japan decide to take her sabbatical in France? By way of self-introduction as your new SEAA President, let me try to provide some food for thought on the future of East-Asian anthropologists through my answer to that question.
I strongly believe that our future as anthropologists, and the future of anthropology as a discipline, rests in our ability to carry out fine-grained, complex and transnational studies.
As an anthropologist, I’ve focused on gender, work, and family as they are constructed in urban Japan. From the mid-1990s, I added migration and migration policy to my interests, as these became more important to the workforce as Japan entered the age of rapid demographic decline. These two areas have kept me occupied ever since I moved to Tokyo from Hawaii in 1996. I spent two years at the University of Tokyo Institute of Social Science (ISS) helping launch the Social Science Japan Journal while finishing up research on NPO support for foreign workers. Then Waseda University hired me as one of two anthropologists on the inaugural faculty of twenty of its first independent graduate school, the Graduate School of Asia-Pacific Studies. The GSAPS multi-disciplinary faculty teaches a diverse body of students from all over Asia, Europe, North and South America, and Africa.
Spending most of my career in multidisciplinary social science departments has given me tools to “talk across” disciplines, as Caroline Brettell and James Hollifield (2008) put it. I strongly believe that our future as anthropologists, and the future of anthropology as a discipline, rests in our ability to carry out fine-grained, complex and transnational qualitative studies that address pressing issues of common concern that cannot be sufficiently answered by experts in other fields, but requires maintaining a dialogue with them. Furthermore, we need to reach across borders to others whose societies face similar social problems yet who deal with these problems differently. So, that’s what brought me to Paris—well, that and the food and a museum or two!
In Japan, government rhetoric urges women to “shine” as executives, yet the social norm of intense, hands-on mothering is still quite strong, and government support for families, beyond rhetoric, is less than fulsome. I wanted to see how families in France, known for its quite strong government policies for family support, and relatively short working hours, manage their work and family lives.
Since January 2018, with funding provided by Waseda, I have been doing an interview-based study with Hiroko Umegaki-Costantini on this topic. This research has enhanced our perspectives greatly, giving us a window on how people in this city confront and negotiate some similar constraints, while bringing to the table often quite different attitudes from Japanese dual earner families. I feel like a kid in a patisserie, having this opportunity at this point in my career to learn from an environment that is at once incredibly stimulating and one which I hope will also yield fruitful comparisons.
In this globalized world, we face so many of the same problems—time famine, aging societies, economic decline, care demands for the young and for the elderly, precarity in employment, mental health and its governance, social inequality, homelessness, nationalism, populism and migration, food security. . . the list is endless, yet all these are problems we see nearly everywhere. The future of anthropology to me is one that recognizes these common problems and engages in comparative study that will point to outcomes that lead to a better world.
I hope that our anthropological future will be one of increasing SEAA interaction and engagement with French scholars, as well as with scholars all over Europe who are researching East Asia.
I can’t end this letter without mentioning another aspect of my engagement with Paris that has enriched my outlook. That is, a (gradually, I admit) increasing understanding of some of the French scholarship on East Asia. France, like Japan, has a population that is big enough to foster its own publication industry and its own global francophone intellectual universe, from which Anglophones have profited greatly—courtesy of English translations. French social science giants such as Marcel Mauss, Pierre Bourdieu, and Michel Foucault have influenced our discipline immensely. Being here in Paris under the auspices of the Fondation France-Japon of the EHESS has introduced me to the thriving scene of East Asian Studies in France.
While learning French is a longue durée project for me, many French researchers are also engaging actively in intellectual production in English. Increasingly, they are sponsoring Asian Studies conferences and symposia where both English and French, and East-Asian languages as well, are the mediums of communication. The interest in East Asia here is strong, and my colleagues who teach East Asian language courses tell me their classrooms are full. I hope that our anthropological future will be one of increasing SEAA interaction and engagement with French scholars, as well as with scholars all over Europe who are researching East Asia.
I will be spending the last three months of my sabbatical leave courtesy of the University of Hawaii’s Center for Japanese Studies and the Population and Health program at the East-West Center, then it’s back in the saddle at GSAPS in September. I’m very much looking forward to meeting you all at the SEAA meeting in San José. And, please think of joining us at Waseda in early August of 2019 for the regional conference of the SEAA.
I would be happy to entertain any ideas you have to foster our SEAA community. Please contact me at [email protected]. If you would like to contribute to our section column, please contact our contributing editors Heidi Lam and Yi Zhou. Please don’t hesitate, as well, to share with us the news of your latest publications by way of our listserv, Easianth. Finally, I would like to thank our executive board, and especially Gordon Mathews and Li Zhang, as well as our webmaster Guven Witteveen, for making the transition to my post a smooth one. I look forward to working with all of you!
Glenda S. Roberts is Professor at the Graduate School of Asia-Pacific Studies of Waseda University in Tokyo. Her major areas of interest are gender, work, and family, and migration in Japan. Currently she is on sabbatical leave at the EHESS in Paris, researching work/life balance and well-being for French families.
Roberts, Glenda S. 2018. “Letter from SEAA President Glenda Roberts.” Anthropology News website, May 7, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.852