Workshop: Critical Tōhoku Studies

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On January 23rd, approximately 30 scholars and students gathered at UCLA for the Critical Tohoku Studies Workshop, a day-long discussion led by a number of prominent academics in Anthropology about the Tohoku region of Japan, an area made recently infamous by the March 11, 2011 disaster.

First presentation

The workshop began with a few words by Mariko Tamanoi, Professor of Anthropology at UCLA. She introduced the motivations behind holding a workshop on Tohoku, and invited attendees to ask themselves a number of questions surrounding Tohoku’s culture and identity: What is Tohoku? What can we learn from a narrower focus on the local over the national? How do we view Tohoku with, and without, the disaster? The goal, she explained, is to critically consider the past, present, and future of Japan’s often marginalized north-east region.

Ellen Schattschneider, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Brandeis University, began the discussion by looking at Tohoku through the lens of “victimhood.” In her presentation “The Return of the White Geese and the Weeping Well: Trauma, Materiality, and Memory in Tohoku”, Schattschneider first acknowledged and then criticized Tohoku’s label as a victim. Giving historical examples of Tohoku rituals propagating across Japan, she stressed that while these rituals came from places of pain and loss they were fundamentally agentive and creative.

Through the examples of the “Miracle Tree” of Rikuzen Takata and a local informant whose book project emerged as both his personal and public process of mourning, Schattschneider argued that the cries that emerge from Tohoku, pre- and post-3.11 alike, are not only those of victims, but of people who are active agents in their own experiences. Similarly, she proposed, the emerging study of “Tohoku” as both region and concept must be undertaken both creatively and pragmatically, separate from the rigid framework of pure victimhood.

John Traphagan, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, followed this theme of creative activity in Tohoku in his presentation “Entrepreneurs and Return Migration in Iwate.” Traphagan acknowledged the empty storefronts that line the streets of towns in Iwate, the area of Tohoku where Traphagan lived for many years and did most of his research, as well as the image of Tohoku as being a “backwards” place of “limited opportunity.” He stressed, however, that even amongst a landscape otherwise caught in a steady economic and population decline there were scattered points of innovative entrepreneurship.

Traphagan described Hiroshi, a restaurant owner who left his family in Hokkaido to run a pizza parlor in his old home, and Etsuko, a businesswoman who left Tokyo to start her own gelato and cheese-making shop in the rolling fields of Iwate. Both were Iwate natives, and both experienced “blockages” in their original careers that brought them back home. Although in decline, Traphagan stressed, the rural environment still provides possibilities and opportunities for entrepreneurs. These possibilities are saddled with familial responsibilities, and their longevity is tenuous – however, they offer an alternative to metropolitan life that allows people closer ties with their communities and more control over their own work.

John Traphagan

Although unable to make it to the workshop, language activist and Tohoku native Harutsugu Yamaura prepared a response to the “What is Tohoku?” question to be played for attendees. He proposed that the people of Tohoku are not only unique in their genealogy and language, but also in the way they think and feel. Using historical figures and stories as evidence, Yamaura claimed that “people in Tohoku have an idea that all people are equal.” Regardless of the veracity of his claims, his conceptualization
of Tohoku as being both ideologically and genealogically different from the rest of Japan suggested that if not anywhere else, Tohoku exists in the mind of the people who live there.

Satsuki Takahashi, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at George Mason University, finished the presentations looking firmly into the future. In “The Futurity of Fukushima Future”, Takahashi introduced the “Fukushima Mirai”, or “Fukushima Future”, a floating offshore wind turbine that was jointly constructed by the government to represent Fukushima’s forward movement into green energy. She began by pointing out the ambiguity in the name “Fukushima Future.” Did this refer to Fukushima’s future? Japan’s future? The world’s future? Or Fukushima and clean energy as the future?

Takahashi referred to her work with fishermen in Fukushima both before and after the disaster to highlight that although the disaster did not hinder the momentum of the environmentalist movement, attention has been drawn away from sustainable marine biology towards sustainable energy. In this way, the word “future” being displayed on the wind turbine is a meaningful symbol of how post-disaster Fukushima, and consequently post-disaster Tohoku as a whole, hopes to redefine itself. Marred by the failure of nuclear power, itself once the “way of the future”, Fukushima hopes to revitalize itself as the “land of the beginning” for civilization’s shift towards green energy.

The presentations, while each focusing on a specific area in the Tohoku region, all brushed against the question of a fundamental Tohoku identity, and whether such a thing even exists. In his closing remarks, Edwin Everhart, one of the event’s organizers, reiterated the workshop’s core consideration: what is Tohoku? The problem, he proposed, is that any study of “Tohoku” is eclipsed by the larger notion of “Japan.” In other words, with Japan studies as the overarching framework Tohoku can only occupy a reduced role as a region. To truly access Tohoku, if such a thing exists, the idea of the “region” versus the “nation” itself will have to be reconsidered.

Participants in Tohoku Critical Studies Workshop

However, Everhart finished, regardless of whether the north-eastern prefectures of Japan really constitute some special physical space, the concept of Tohoku is real in the minds of people. This is displayed by passionate Tohoku natives like Yamaura, and also by metropolitan Japanese who look down on Tohoku for being “backwards.” By reaching outside of anthropology and moving into the disciplines of history, literature, archaeology, and genetics, there is vast potential for the multifaceted nature of Tohoku to be better explored.

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