The alienating inalienable: Rethinking Annette Weiner’s concept of inalienable wealth through Japan’s “sleeping kimono”

Julie Valk


Based on twelve months of ethnographic fieldwork in Japan, this article focuses on collections of gifted kimono that have accumulated in the home, which are usually intended to be passed from mother to daughter and thus enable the perpetuation of family history. I argue that the kimono, as an inalienable possession, is now not as often passed down as it was intended to be, and that this causes a sense of alienation to occur: alienation from the kimono itself, but also alienation from the family and the self within the family. Further, this article scrutinizes elements of Annette Weiner’s theory, which has not been examined in depth—such as the context in which inalienable wealth occurs—and explores the workings of inalienability in a large-scale, capitalist society such as Japan. I argue that inalienable wealth in these societies is particularly vulnerable to sociocultural, economic, and generational change, and that this has an important impact on the inalienability of an object—in other words, an object cannot be fully inalienable without the social context at least in part supporting its inalienability. I pay particular attention to the emotional labor needed to care for and transmit inalienable wealth and what happens when inalienable wealth is not successfully transmitted.

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.1086/708748