An Anthropologist’s First Impressions of Occupied Japan

The Rare Books and Manuscripts Library at the Ohio State University has made available online a wonderful collection, “Doing Photography and Social Research in the Allied Occupation of Japan, 1948-1951: A Personal and Professional Memoir,” described thus:

Photographs taken by anthropologist John W. Bennett in occupied Japan, 1948-1951, (a few were made in the 1960’s during his term at Waseda University), with comments on the photos by Bennett. Also included are extensive selections from Bennett’s professional journal of the period, and other documents. Consisting of a personal and professional memoir, this site is also a record of a unique experiment in social analysis and research that focuses on a period of particular significance in the development of Japanese and international history, politics, economics, and culture.

Here’s an excerpt from First Impressions: A Letter to Kathryn Bennett Composed at Intervals During 1949.

let us list some preconceptions of the writer, which have since been scrapped. More than that, he was totally unaware that they existed, and he an anthropologist, too. But we know that anthropologists are on the whole naïve and eager people, who rarely examine their own prejudices. I discovered after two days that I entered Japan with the unconscious assumption that all Japanese speak in high voices. This is false. 2. I entered Japan with the notion that all Japanese would be embarrassed when spoken to. This is false. 3. I had a half baked notion that Tokyo looked like a large park with museum-like buildings scattered through it (really kind of surrealist dream). This is false. 4. I believed that although most Japanese could read, only a few were literate. This is mostly false. 5. I believed that Japan was amazingly homogenous in physical appearance and behavior. This is completely false and true–see earlier confused remarks. 6. Finally, I had the firm belief that a careful reading of Benedict, Sansom, Embree, et.al. would provide one with the basic knowledge for research here. Maybe– but today I discovered that my most pressing need for information concerns government bureaus and the patterns of population movement.

To conclude this session, let us ask the question: What is the “Oriental” here? Is this the Orient? The initial Yokohama impression was negative–the damn place looked like part of Seattle, and the docks were so packed with Americans that one could hardly feel strange and eastern. In to Tokyo the impressions were so confused that I can hardly say what I felt; after a while in Tokyo and outside the Orient came in a physical sense–the “Japanesy” look as my dear mother used to say when she saw some bamboo bric-abrac; that is, delicacy, intricacy, retiring-ness, vistas of people in hedged fields, etc., etc. Japanese gardens and prints. For a couple of days I drank this in–every glimpse I could get. Concrete highways and western buildings and railroads didn’t figure–I simply didn’t see them. I recall one trip into town with Herb Passin in the AM and the only thing that I remember seeing on that trip was an ancient house on a farm with old style thatched roof. Well, all this will return when we go to Kyoto and similar places which retain the traditional appearance, but by now the Japanese feeling and visions have about disappeared, and all I see are the familiar sights of the urban world – the streets look like streets again. “Oriental” becomes not of the bric-a-brac dish garden business but the urban and rural world of the Japanese nation. I regret that I didn’t see Japan in my mystic and impressionable teens, when the garden view would have persisted. Not of course that I don’t see the differences–this communication is full of them–but the special naïve physical “oriental” look is about gone.

via The Marmot’s Hole (in turn via Neilbarker’s Seoul)

I suspect I’ll have more to post as I explore the archives. Takes me way back to my early childhood in Occupied Japan.

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