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Donald C. Wood on Ogata-mura, Japan

As should any item or idea in which its creator has invested more than fifteen years, this book very strongly reflects my own life course and concerns. Having cut my teeth on the canon of English language anthropological studies of Japanese farming villages as an undergraduate student, but then having trouble reconciling what I experienced in Ogata-mura in 1995–1996 with what I had previously encountered in this body of literature, I came to want to make my own contribution to the study of Japanese farming villages in the twentieth (and twenty-first) century, but in my own way. As an anthropologist who earned post–graduate degrees in both the USA and Japan, I have attempted to marry the respective ethnological traditions of these two countries, while aiming for a broad audience of social scientists and students of Japan and its society.


First, Ogata–mura was far more lively and active than any village I’d read about in ethnographic reports. It was quiet most of the time, but there were many surprising spurts of activity. Most puzzling were the big events, such as the car and bicycle races. An impressive hotel was also being built. Soon after the completion of this facility it hosted an international conference on solar power, at which numerous researchers presented their findings and arguments in English. Most interestingly, however, the village was not only more active than I had expected—it was more political. There were serious issues being discussed (both openly and privately) and a few conversations with the right people brought me right into a major conflict between local farmers and the agencies of the government in Tokyo that was determined to do whatever it thought was right for the country regardless of what the people who actually worked the land felt. Not only this, but there were serious disagreements between village farmers, and between village and non-village farmers. The reality of modern Japanese agrarian life, I soon realized, was far more complicated than I had ever imagined. Of course, part of the reason for this was the fact that I was in Ogata–mura, which was created by the government on reclaimed land in the middle of a body of water that had once been the second–largest lake in Japan. Since the farms are relatively large, and since the government made them and selected the settlers itself (requiring them to promise to obey its rules from the start), it was always very concerned with forcing them to comply with its rules and policies. I had wound up—quite by accident—in what must be just about the strangest farming village in Japan.


As I progressed in my research and writing, I learned many things about the differences between the Japanese and the Western anthropological worlds. For example, at Texas A&M University, any time I told someone what I was researching and what Ogata–mura was, they would respond with great interest. I was often asked to guest lecture about my research by professors and fellow graduate students. However, as a doctoral student at The University of Tokyo (“Todai”), when I told a senior Japanese anthropologist in the department that I planned to return to Ogata–mura for field research and write my dissertation on the village, he simply asked, “Why study farming villages? Nobody lives in them anymore.” In a sense, this was true, but rather than despair I took his words as a challenge to write a dissertation (and later a book) that Japanese anthropologists would also find interesting (and I have tried). A less dramatic example of Japanese/Western academic differences: when I told the professor who headed my committee at Todai that I wanted to keep studying rural Japan, he said, “That’s great. But, you know, people don’t like to use the word ‘rural’ so much these days.” This was also important because, after all, the urban/rural divide that in the past was so characteristic of Japan is actually very fuzzy today (although it can still be said to exist).


As I worked and wrote I strived to incorporate the Japanese ethnographic tradition of meticulous field research and detailed data-collecting into my research, and also tried to avoid offering analyses that I was not prepared to support with plenty of concrete evidence. One researcher who read and commented on an early version of my manuscript recognized this and offered words of praise, which I appreciated, but another reader felt that the balance between description (coming from the Japanese tradition) and analysis (expected by the Western tradition) was skewed too far in favor of the former. In my revisions, of course, I struggled to strike a better balance between these. This reader also suggested that I use the word “rural” in my title—something that I could not do. I should note that, however, I did wind up incorporating part of this reader’s title suggestion into my final title, but not without a considerable internal conflict—merely another facet of my complicated struggle with the two different academic traditions I inherited from studying anthropology at the higher levels on both sides of the Pacific Ocean.


Finally, based partly on my research and partly on the fact that I live and work in Akita, northeastern Japan, I have felt strongly compelled to take a negative stance on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with which Japan is currently wrestling. I have only been able to conclude that at worst this accord constitutes an attempt by certain powerful parties to build a ring of neoliberal economic policy bastions around the Pacific Ocean, at the expense of the majority of the residents of the concerned areas. At best, it represents a means of extending the influence of Washington lobbyists across a wide swath of South America and Asia, and also Australia and New Zealand. I suppose it is only fitting that studying such a politically–charged village as Ogata–mura would lead me to writing an ethnographic study that ends on a strong political note.


Donald C. Wood is an Associate Professor at Akita University, where he has worked since earning a PhD in cultural anthropology at the University of Tokyo in 2004. He is editor of the Research in Economic Anthropology book series.  His book Ogata-Mura: Sowing Dissent and Reclaiming Identity in a Japanese Farming Village was published by Berghahn in September 2012.