Riles: Response

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Power and truth in Japanese ethnography

Annelise Riles, Cornell University


As a longstanding admirer of Japanese anthropology, and one first introduced to this field through the formidable Fijian ethnographic and historical work of Naoki Kasuga, I am both thrilled and perplexed by this special forum. By definition, any account of a discipline’s analytical genealogy and novel contribution is in some sense partial (Strathern 1991), and therefore prompts others, such as myself, to “fill in the gaps” with other conceptualizations and orientations.

I am concerned that what I want to “add” to the account may disappoint Professor Kasuga and his colleagues who, in this forum, seem to present their singularity and significance (their inventiveness) as a scholarly collective in terms of additions to a Euro-American canon of social theory (i.e., the ontological turn, science and technology studies, etc.). My own admiration for their work is placed elsewhere, but I fear that they so take this other contribution for granted, as the baseline convention of their work, that they themselves do not entirely perceive it as the magnificent contribution that it is for me. The contribution of this work, for me, lies in the craft and commitment of ethnography, and the transformative possibilities it entails.

I first met Professor Kasuga the ethnographer as a young graduate student in Suva. I still remember the awe of those first encounters, and even the little bit of shame they produced in me that productively shaped my own evolving definition of my own work. These were the post- Writing culture days, in which we had all digested the claim that Leach had made up his data, the evidence that Malinowski hated his informants, the point that anthropology should be “cultural critique,” and so on. Professor Kasuga himself was engaged at that time in the final research for his magisterial volume of historical anthropology about Apolosi Nawai, the Fijian millenarian leader who so confounded the colonial authorities (Kasuga 2001)—a project that spoke powerfully to historical anthropological debates about colonial politics, indigenous forms of resistance, and their legacies for contemporary politics of culture. In conversations over coffee with me, Professor Kasuga engaged passionately with these theoretical debates, keying his own fieldwork and archival research to them.

Yet what actually shocked and dazzled me was the model of Kasuga the ethnographer. His Fijian was impeccable, but even more impressive than this was the depth of his relationships with Fijian intellectuals. These were big, deep, powerful relationships—something far beyond instrumentalizable “contacts” of the kind that were more common among even foreign scholars with longstanding relations in Fiji, mutually defining relationships of real need on both sides. I remember catching a glimpse of a look on Kasuga’s face when he turned from anthropological theory to the personal difficulties of a friend of his—a colleague of both of ours, but in actuality a mere acquaintance of mine in Suva. It moved and awed me. There was an honesty and yes, a power to that moment that I began to see as animating Kasuga’s work also. I never personally witnessed Kasuga’s relations with his principal informants in the mountainous area of the Viti Kambani movement, but as I read his current work on the Suva “old folks home,” I once again feel the power of that kind of empathy and of a connection which cannot be produced instrumentally.

This kind of connection to the ethnographic subject—shared among many Japanese anthropologists as simply the unstated expectation of fieldwork—is something that is subtly but qualitatively different from the expectations of commitment to one’s informants (expectations that are also rigorous and significant, but often framed in the language of scholarly capacity, ethics, and professionalism) among many Euro-American ethnographers. At the time that I first encountered this subtle difference, through the privilege of working alongside both Kasuga and Hiro Miyazaki (also first trained in ethnographic methods in Japan), I had recently read Donna Haraway’s Primate visions (1992). Readers may recall a chapter in that book on Japanese primatology in which Haraway focused on the different conception of the human-animal divide at work in the way Japanese primatologists built relationships with their animal subjects. I remember thinking that Haraway misrecognized a different conception of the relationship between researcher and research subject—of the power, politics, and pleasure of research and the relationship of means to ends in the research act—for a different relationship of the human to the nonhuman among Japanese scientists, and that the former might be more destabilizing of the modernist apparatus than the transgression of the boundary between human and nonhuman that energized science studies at that moment. This orientation is modeled, not taught. Japanese anthropologists are often trained, at the outset, in team research in which they have the opportunity to observe the craft as produced by elders.

This orientation toward the field has, in my view, a special political valence in postwar Japan in which the failure to activate humanizing connections within and beyond the nation-state had and continues to have devastating political consequences. In such a political context the very possibility of the kinds of ethnographic relationships many Japanese ethnographers aim to cultivate with their informants and the kind of commitment to the subject matter—to the detail it involves, to the confluence of epistemological and social relations in which neither supersedes the other, to simply living alongside others, in the fullest and truest sense of the term—is itself a courageous and quite destabilizing act. To some extent, the act of field-work relationality obviates the “outputs”—it stands on its own as an accomplishment, regardless of the analytical payoff of the work. This treatment of the written-up artifact as somewhat after or beyond the point quietly turns the modernist scientific paradigm on its head in ways that are liable to go unnoticed on both sides of the Pacific. The outputs that result can take the form of convention (as in ethnographies that conform closely to a standard mid-century form) or it can take the form of playful invention (as in Kasuga’s own work on crime fiction, his engagement with mathematicians, and so on). Yet, what looks like a generational or theoretical break between projects only appears as such if one takes the final product as the point of the exercise.

As Bruun Jensen and Morita’s introduction rightly suggests, the group of scholars showcased in this forum is a special subset of Japanese anthropologists—a group defined by an interest in making a contribution to a different body of Euro-American anthropological theory. Yet my own reading of Kasuga’s work, as well as Professor Ishii’s paper, would emphasize connections to this theory that begin in the engagement with fieldwork detail. Kasuga’s ethnography among elderly Fijians relegated to a public institution begins from his constitutive appreciation of exchange relations in Fiji, which in turn lead to a scientific curiosity about what happens to the human being who is denied access to such relations, and also provides the grounds of a constitutive appreciation of the work of Marilyn Strathern, for example. The theoretical payoff of this kind of work is apparent in this issue, both in Professor Ishii’s incisive rethinking of Alfred Cell’s analytical apparatus and in Professor Kasuga’s creative reconfiguration of classic themes of temporality and personhood in exchange theory by reflecting on an ethnographic context in which these become inaccessible.

I have emphasized a stylized difference between genres and ethics of ethnographic practice here, but of course there are also continuities and echoes among the two traditions. Kasuga’s appreciation of the tension between fiction and nonfiction in the ethnographic project, located not in “writing culture” debates but in the power (Kasuga’s word for Strathern’s work) of relations of the field, grounds a kind of epistemological and aesthetic experimentalism in ways quite similar to Marilyn Strathern’s work, in my view. Conversely, we Euro-Americans increasingly navigate a political milieu in which the sheer social fact of the kind of relationality entailed in the Japanese ethnographic project—relations that are intellectually instrumental but exceed this instrumentalism in so many ways—becomes a powerful political and epistemological act. It is the continuity that I see drawn out in this issue and one that I wish to embrace as a beacon for my own work.


Haraway, Donna. (1989) 1992. Primate visions: Gender, race, and nature in the world of modern science. London: Verso.

Kasuga, Naoki. 2001. Rasputin in the Pacific: Historical anthropology of the Viti Kambani movement. Kyoto: Sekaishisosha. (In Japanese).

Strathern, Marilyn. 1991. Partial connections. Asao Special Publications 3. Savage, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Annelise Riles is the Jack G. Clarke Professor of Law in Far East Legal Studies and Professor of Anthropology at Cornell. Her work focuses on the transnational dimensions of laws, markets, and culture across the fields of comparative law, conflict of laws, the anthropology of law, public international law, and international financial regulation. Her most recent book, Collateral knowledge: Legal reasoning in the global financial markets (University of Chicago Press, 2011), is based on ten years of fieldwork among regulators and lawyers in the global derivatives markets. Her first book, The network inside out, won the American Society of International Law’s Certificate of Merit for 2000–2002.