Different ‘Developments’: Japanese Anthropologists and Development

by Kazuki Horiuchi

Non-western countries, such as China and India, have become in the last decades major actors of international development (Madwsley 2013). Yet, distinguishing between traditional and emerging donors, might be an over-simplified dichotomy, as donors are not unified in their purposes, and their policies have changed considerably over the years (see Gu and Kitano 2018). Japanese development and anthropological engagements rely on complex political, social and economic histories of the time.


During the colonial period, Japanese anthropologists were highly engaged with Japanese colonial policies and collaborated with the military during the second World War (Nakao 2016). The Research Institute of Ethnology, which was established in 1942, was mainly funded by the military, and it was widely accused of being supportive of national policiesduring the wartime. They conducted fieldworks in a range of places, and document analysis of internal documentscollected by military and colonial officers (Nakao 2016, p. 385).

Later on, to recover the reputation of the discipline, ethnologists changed their discipline from ‘ethnology’ to ‘cultural anthropology’. By renaming the discipline, they aimed to disconnect the academia from the politics, and the anthropological engagement of warship became a taboo topic among Japanese anthropologists (see Price 2008). Ishida Eiichiro, who played a central role in post-war reconstruction of cultural anthropology, made the following argument in the Japanese Journal of Ethnology (Minzokugaku kenkyu):

The political power which let ethnologists do these research [during war time] and the research’s academic value are a very different issue. Within the research, there are not few research, under any situation, which could be provided to the human communities as significant academic outputs. (Ishida 1948, quoted in Sakano 2005, p. 471)

Japan endeavoured to reconstruct its relationship with the former colonies using the narrative of ‘development’ and ‘economic cooperation’ during the post-war era. Sato (2016) argues that Japanese post-war international development was driven by several internal agendas, such as rebuilding economic connections with Southeast Asian countries. The end of the Second World War led Japan to lose former colonies which used to supply raw materials. The country started an ‘economic cooperation’ with the Southeast Asian countries in the 1950s and the Japan’s Official Development Assistance (ODA) was provided. In other words, ODA started from the Japanese government’s intention to redevelop Japan and create trade relations with Southeast Asian countries. The aim and practices of international development started to shift after the 1960s. At the time, Southeast Asian countries became less central for Japanese domestic economic development as Japan developed global transport networks which allowed raw materials to be imported from all over the world. As a result, international development policies became less related to domestic economic development (Sato 2016), and more about fulfilling the ‘responsibility as the world’s top donor by providing international public goods and services’ (Kato 2016).

Having this dramatic increase of ODA budgets and narrative of social development (see Sato 2005), the 1980s and 1990s saw a significant increase of anthropologists’ engagements with development. In Japan, two strands of anthropology of development emerged.

The first school of thought was based on anthropological research in the post-war era Japan. As Shimizu (1999) points out, anthropologists in the post-war era faced difficulties, including lack of funding and political difficulties in conducting research in former colonies. Due to these problems, they conducted research in Japan, and it was only after the 1970s that Japanese ethnologists were able to conduct oversea research (Shimizu 1999). These anthropologists, keeping distance from political engagements, were interested in investigating local cultures using anthropological theories originated in the US and UK. One of which is the theories of kinship – based on the accumulated research in Africa – whose publications were massive at the time. Having American anthropologists primarily interested in kinship relations in Japan, Japanese cultural anthropologists conducted a range of research and endeavoured to contribute to the theories (see Nakane 1974). The first strand of thought was based on this group of people. Matsuzono Makio (1999), one of the main figures of public anthropology, pointed out that anthropologists and their publications should be useful for practitioners. There were emerging criticisms which pointed out the deficiency of anthropologists’ engagement with development (Yamamori 1996). Matsuzuno did not argue that anthropologists should join the development projects, yet he put forward the usefulness of ethnographies driven by theoretical interests, which inevitably entails analysis of impacts of development. This strand draws a clear line between anthropologists and development practitioner, yet emphasises the potential of the discipline’s contribution to development.


The second type of research is undertaken by those who have experiences in taking parts of development especially during in the 1980s and 1990s when Japan became one of the major donors of development. Under the ideology of locality (gemba), they produced knowledge which addressed problems based on their experience in local societies. These publications are written by those who have experiences joining development projects as practitioners, such as Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers (JOCV). JOCV is a volunteer programme operated by Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) which started in 1965. The book Development Assistance and Anthropology (Sato and Fujikake 2011) is one of the earliest research outcomes mainly produced by Japanese anthropologists who became anthropologists after joining JOCV programme. The chapters of the book focus on, for example, the roles anthropologists may play in development projects. They suggest, for example, anthropologists can engage as translators who can bridge the language development practitioners speak and those local people speak. The contributors are less interested in questions emerging from anthropological theories and debates, but rather they are interested in practical problems relating to public health and gender which they faced as volunteers. Another example of this strand of publications are JICA Project History Series. The first book of the series was published in 2010, and by 2017 18 books were published. The books are auto-ethnographic, as most of the authors took part in the ODA and volunteering projects. The books elaborate on the ‘success’ and the lessons they learnt from their experiences as development workers. Those of this strand are very positive about taking parts in development projects, and use the analytical framework of anthropology to produce practice-oriented knowledge.

Understanding the trajectory of a discipline and its engagement with a particular topic (in this case, development) is crucial to understand the significance of the knowledge. Dominant and influential anthropological research has been concentrated in the Western countries, and many of the introductory books of anthropology in Japan, for example, have been introducing the latest or essential theories of the West (e.g. Adachi 1995). Kuwayama (2008) critically examines the hierarchy of the production of anthropological knowledge, and problematises the difficulties of anthropological knowledge which represents culture being accepted in the mainstream – the Western – anthropology.

More actors, including emerging donors, have become engaged with international development. As we have seen, the ways in which ‘development’ has been conceptualised and discussed by Japanese anthropologists in the post-war era were subject to the contexts both political (colonial history) and economic (economic development of Japan and increase of volunteers joining JOCV) in which anthropologists are situated. The increase in the number of the actors involved in ‘development’ leads to an increase in its number of meanings. The historical trajectory of the term in each case and the knowledge’s relation with social, economic, and political contexts is important to know.

Acknowledgements: I am grateful to Professor James Fairhead who made me realise the how historical research are important and exciting. I also thank Chika Watanabe (University of Manchester) and Hatsuna Kasahara (Hokkaido University) for very constructive and insightful comments.


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Sato, K. (2005) Kaihatsu Enjo no Shakaigaku [Sociology of Development Assistance], Tokyo: Sekaishishousha.

Sato, K. and Fujikake, Y. (eds) (2011) Kaihatsu Enjo to Jinruigaku: Reisen, Mitusgetsu, Patonashippu [Development Assistance and Anthropology: Cold War, Honey Moon and Partnership], Tokyo: Akashishobou.

Shimizu, A. (1999) Colonialism and the Development of Modern Anthropology in Japan. in van Bremen, V. and Shimizu, A. (eds), Anthropology and Colonialism in Asia: Comparative and Historical Colonialism, Routledge: London and New York, pp. 115-171.

Yamamori, M. (1996) Kaihatus Enjo to Bunka Jinruigaku [Development and Cultural Anthropology]. in Sato, K. (eds) Enjo Kenkyu Nyumon: Enjo Genshou heno Gakusaiteki Apurouchi[An Introduction to Development Assistant Research: Interdisciplinary Approach to Development], Chiba: Institute of Developing Economies.

Kazuki Horiuchi completed his MA in the Anthropology of Development and Social Transformation at the University of Sussex in 2018. He is interested in how development and environment are conceptualised, especially by Japanese and Chinese practitioners and researchers. He is currently trying very hard to get used to his new life in Tokyo. Kazuki’s latest publication is ‘Diverse interpretations enabling the continuity of community renewable energy projects: A case study of a woody biomass project in rural area of Japan.’

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