Engaged Anthropology Grant: Ji Eun Kim

While a doctoral student at the University of Michigan, Ji Eun Kim received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant in 2010  to aid research on “Building the Future and Mapping the Past: Urban Regeneration and Politics of Memory in Yokohama, Japan,” supervised by Dr. Jennifer Robertson. In 2016 Dr. Kim received an Engaged Anthropology Grant to aid engaged activities on “Encounters: The Ethics and Practice of Care in Underclass Japan”.

In the summer of 2016 I was once again standing on the waterfront of Yokohama listening to the waves gently lapping at the pier. Turning my head to the left I could see the skyline of high-rise buildings measuring up to the name of the district as ever, Minato Mirai 21, the Future Port 21. If I turned my back from the sea, just a twenty minute walk towards the inland it would lead to Kotobuki district where I conducted my dissertation fieldwork. Once the nation’s third largest day laborers’ quarter the district had become a stronghold of homeless activism at the time of my fieldwork in 2010. Tracing the intersecting fates of the two districts I was constantly brought back to an incident that occurred at this waterfront which left an indelible scar in local history. In February 1983, when the grand land reclamation project of the Future Port was under way, a homeless day laborer was found bleeding in a garbage can in the waterfront park with his ribs broken to the extent of almost being folded into half. The assailants, the police found out, were teenage boys, who had been carrying out a series of attacks against homeless laborers in the area claiming to, “clean the garbage off the city.” The collaborative activities launched by local organizations in the aftermath of the attacks, from the nightly visits to the homeless to the open-air soup kitchen, were my focal points of engagement and research during the fieldwork period. The view of the Future Port became a reminder for me of the violence lurking behind fantasies about the future. The serenity of the waterfront seemed cruelly indifferent to the struggles of the underclass and local activists.

Returning to the field site a year after completing my dissertation I originally planned to organize a workshop inspired by the Clemente Course for the Humanities. I had envisioned a trial workshop with invited scholars in the humanities in the hope of fostering conversations about the ethics of care and existential questions beyond the issue of immediate survival. However, after consulting with several long-term activists, I realized that such a project involving external experts could reinforce the hierarchy that was likely to exist between outsiders and local people. Given the increasing media attention to externally funded projects in the district, long-term activists were wary of bringing in external experts who had not gained trust from local residents through prior commitments. Taking into account these concerns I reached the conclusion that an in-depth discussion among long-term activists and supporters about their own views of social engagement in the district would be an exercise worthwhile in itself.

In collaboration with the Kotobuki Workshop (Kotobuki Wāku), a supporters’ network that hosted regular seminars for college students and volunteers, I organized a colloquium under the title of “Living Together (Tomoni ikiru koto).” Coordinated to take place after the monthly flea market on September 10, 2016 the colloquium was hosted in a sheltered workshop located a few blocks away from the market. After offering a brief overview of my dissertation to set the ground I facilitated a discussion among a dozen of participants, most of whom had spent years engaged in respective support activities in the district. Starting with a critical assessment of the title of this colloquium, “living together,” which was a phrase often used by advocates of anti-discrimination, we further discussed the role of collective memory and shared narratives. I asked if embodying the narratives of others, like Hiroshima’s A-bomb legacy successor program would work in our context. One activist who worked for a publishing company noted the difficulty of narrating one’s own story in an intriguing manner. Others remarked that the simple act of listening could heal wounds on both sides, reflecting on their own respective experiences of listening to Kotobuki residents. Another line of discussion followed my question of whether communal burial practices in Kotobuki could work as a model of crafting alternative social ties in aging Japan. A young activist who was preparing to take over her father’s funeral business concurred with me and shared her plans of pursuing environmental activism through alternative burial practices such as scattering ashes in the mountains. Criticizing the family ideology underlying the unsustainable and exclusive ancestral burials another activist and social worker noted how the household registration system caused unwanted disruptions in the living arrangements of impoverished families when they sought welfare assistance. Wrapping up the colloquium, I added that living together in a degrowth and post-labor society might necessitate enacting various forms of mutuality and solidarity.

This engaged project intended to offer renewed insights into the existing activities of engagement in the field site. I hope that the threads of discussion be carried on by the participants as they continue their engagement in the nightly visits to the homeless, the soup kitchen, disability workshops, and youth seminars. In addition to reconnecting with key organizations and sharing copies of my dissertation I was also able to build a new relationship with a group of health activists and assist in their sessions of free medical counseling in the district. Discussing possibilities of continuing engagement in their activities I agreed to write reports for them on topics such as medical support for the Syrian refugees in Germany or mental health care in Korea. All in all, my trial and error during this project led me to rethink what it meant to be an engaged anthropologist in a field with a rich legacy of engaged activities. This engaged project explored the potentials of staying attuned to the rhythms of activities rooted in long-term commitments in the hope of amplifying their reverberations.

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