JSPS Quarterly
No.45 2013 Autumn

Research and Life in Japan by a JSPS Fellow (31)

Dr. Alena Neviarouskaya
Dr. Maja Veselic

Lecturer, Department of Asian and African Studies, University of Ljubljana, 2011-2012
Visiting Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Sociology, Beijing University, 2010-2011
Ph.D. (Anthropology), University of Ljubljana, 2009
Junior Researcher, Asian and African Studies, University of Ljubljana, 2003-2008
University Diploma (Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology and Sinology), University of Ljubljana, 2003

Hailing from Slovenia, Dr. Maja Veselic has been conducting her research with her host Associate Prof. David Slater at Sophia University since 2012 under a JSPS postdoctoral fellowship.

What are you currently researching under the JSPS fellowship?

My research is mainly concerned with the disaster relief and recovery efforts carried out by Japanese Buddhist priests in the aftermath of the March 2011 tsunami and nuclear meltdown (called 3.11) in northeastern Japan (Tohoku). Immediately after the earthquake, these priests were quick to mobilize their extensive networks to collect and efficiently distribute food provisions and other aid. Many of their temples in and around the disaster areas opened themselves up as evacuation shelters. Also, following the lessons learned from the 1995 Kobe earthquake, they soon initiated activities such as tea parties to offer the tsunami survivors and nuclear evacuees basic emotional and psychological support. Kokoro no kea, or “care for the heart,” as this kind of work is called, has become the main focus of their efforts now that people have settled down in temporary housing units and the need for material support has gradually waned. In addition, the Buddhist priests continue to perform their traditional role as ritual specialists for the dead, performing funerals and memorial services for those who perished in the disaster or whose graves had to be abandoned due to high levels of radiation. In Japan, and especially in Tohoku where ancestor veneration is still held important, such care for the deceased is an inseparable part of the care for the living. Finally, many priests in the Fukushima area are engaged in decontamination projects and in raising public awareness of the residents’ plight. All of this has worked to change the perception of Japanese Buddhism, both internally and publicly.

How did you become interested in your research field?

In my previous doctoral and postdoctoral research, I examined the ethno-religious revival among the Hui, a predominantly Chinesespeaking, ethnic Muslim group in China. In the case of Islam, as well as other religions in China, an important aspect of their revival has been the boom in religious NGOs and charities. Like in Kobe, the Sichuan earthquake in 2008 served as a powerful catalyst for religious and non-religious social engagement, especially in terms of volunteering. This, I thought, offered rich ground for comparisons.

How did you get to know your Japanese host researcher?

I had heard of Prof. David Slater from a close friend who was a sociologist in Japan, but neither she nor any of my colleagues had had any personal contact with him. I therefore wrote directly to him explaining who I was and what I wanted to do in my project. By that time, he was already directing a research unit titled “3.11 as Crisis and Opportunity” and had been teaching a seminar on the Tohoku disaster since the fall of 2011. He was taking his students to various disaster areas to volunteer and to collect video-recorded narratives about life after 3.11. So my project became a small part of this greater endeavor, which is still ongoing. While I am in charge of my particular topic, I should emphasize that my research is truly a collaborative effort and could not be advanced without Prof. Slater and his students.

Besides the earthquake, did you have other reasons to choose Japan to pursue your research?

While conducting my fieldwork in China, I was very impressed by some of the young Japanese researchers I met there. Also, having worked in the Department of Asian and African Studies at the University of Ljubljana, I had heard many great things about Japanese academia. However, it was really thanks to my above-mentioned friend, who had for years encouraged me to seriously consider working in Japan for a while, that I decided to apply for the JSPS fellowship.

What is your impression of your host institution?

Sophia University is a small private university and as such has a research infrastructure that is more limited than big state institutions. However, its Faculty of Liberal Arts is famous for its bilingual student body. For someone like me who didn’t know any Japanese before coming to Japan, this meant it was relatively easy to find people to assist me in my research. Moreover, the fact that all the university’s classes are held in English has allowed me to take full advantage of the great work the students have been doing in Prof. Slater’s Tohoku course. Also, my host institution serves as an important connecting point for numerous foreign-based researchers in Japan, providing me with many opportunities to meet interesting colleagues. Lastly, the ideal location of the university in central Tokyo makes it easy to avail myself of the facilities of other institutions. All in all, Sophia is a very good fit for me.

Generally speaking, what is your impression of Japan’s research environment?

I find it amazing that despite the country’s decades of difficult economic times, Japan still invests a great amount of money in research while continuing to fund a wide variety of projects in the humanities and social sciences, disciplines that have suffered a lot in Europe during the recent economic crisis. As I mentioned, I believe Japanese scholars are conducting excellent research. Unfortunately, at least in the fields of my interest, they don’t publish much of their results in English. Another shortcoming I see, though it doesn’t apply to my host institution, is the extremely hierarchical and overly communitarian nature of researcher groups in Japan. This makes it difficult for outsiders and young scholars to approach seniors without appropriate introductions by others. Once a senior researcher takes you under his wing a lot of doors can open for you, but it may be difficult for you to work with other researchers depending on the relationship they or their seniors have with your mentor. That said, I find younger Japanese scholars to be very open, engaged and eager to exchange ideas. One final observation: As a social scientist, I cannot help but note how predominantly male the Japanese academic sphere is.

What are your research achievements under the JSPS fellowship so far?

The thing I am most proud of is the sheer amount of video interviews that I and others within this large collaborative project have managed to collect so far and the temporal continuity of this data, starting from about six months after the disaster up until literally yesterday. We now have more than 400 hours of oral narrative interviews by people from all walks of life in all three affected prefectures.

What do you do outside your research work?

For me, work and pleasure often mix. I do most of my field research on weekends due to availability of my research assistant. Although this means work, at the same time getting out of Tokyo into the countryside or to the seashore can be wonderfully relaxing. I have done a bit of traveling outside Tohoku as well, but there are still many places I hope to visit before I leave. I spend quite a lot of my free time studying Japanese, which again is a challenging yet also extremely rewarding activity. Apart from that I meet friends for meals or drinks and read some fiction when time allows. Also, I like going to the sento (public bath).

What do you think of life in Japan—its culture and customs?

I find living in Japan to be very comfortable. Of course, knowing many kanji characters from my years of interest in China and Chinese was of great help upon my arrival, and now that I have learned some Japanese it is even easier to go about everyday errands. Among the many things I like here, there is a sort of eclecticism ranging from religious practices to food and fashion. People from other parts of Japan tend to think that the inhabitants of Tokyo are too serious, murky or unfriendly, but try bathing in my local sento, taking in a sumo match or a summer matsuri, or riding the late Friday night Chuo Line train, and you will see a very different, friendly face of Tokyoites.

Before coming to Japan, what kind of image did you have of the country? Has your perception changed after coming here?

I imagined Japan and especially Tokyo to be a super-developed futuristic high-tech place, full of skyscrapers, where people live their lives past each other. But I was wrong. While people here really love their gadgets I don’t think that on average they are more technologically savvy than, for example, Europeans. There are surprisingly few high-rises in Tokyo and the city is full of small cozy shops and izakayas. As for the locals, they are not only polite, but also genuinely friendly. In my experience, the reason why it might be difficult to make Japanese friends is that people are simply too busy to be able to meet each other frequently. The one stereotype that has proven to be true is that people spend too much time at work.

What do you plan to do after your fellowship ends?

I will return to Slovenia, but I plan to look for opportunities to come back to Japan for shorter periods of time. Although the empirical part of my project here will be over when the fellowship ends, the work itself will not. Prof. Slater and I are currently writing two joint publications and plan to finish another two before I leave. Still, the wealth of the data collected simply calls for a continuation of our collaboration as do some other research ties that I have woven during my stay here. I find it hard to imagine this to be the first and the last thing I will ever do in Japan.

Please give some advice for young researchers who may be thinking about doing research in Japan?

Come, come! You won’t regret it.

During our interview with Dr. Veselic, she told us about details of her research very enthusiastically, showing a deep fondness and understanding of her Japanese colleagues, the residents of her community in Tokyo, the local people of Tohoku, and Buddhist priests. The very wide and deep relationships and understanding, both academic and personal, she has developed with regard the Japanese and Japan will, we are certain, continue to be a catalyst for advancing the internationalization of Japan’s research environment. We hope that Dr. Veselic will find future opportunities to come to Japan and do joint work with her Japanese colleagues through JSPS’s various international programs.

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JSPS Quarterly No.45 2013