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Second essay: Institutions and Individuals in Contemporary Japan

"If you want to get across an idea, wrap it in a person" -- Ralph Bunche

In this essay, I am asking you to do work that is very similar, though not identical, to the work that anthropologists regularly do. In research, an anthropologist works to describe real people and their lives, but also uses their cases to make larger points about the culture or cultures in which they live. In successful anthropological work, as we’ve explored over the semester, both of these levels are clear to the reader: the individual characters (who are sometimes quite difficult to forget!), and the larger points of analysis articulated by the anthropologist.

For this assignment, I am asking you to do a similar kind of work but, because (quite unfortunately) I do not have the time and funds to get you to Japan, I am asking you imagine and create the characters you want to represent. Let me be clear here and say that this is not what anthropologists do -- we do not “make up” our research interlocutors. But, for our purposes, I am asking you to write a creative essay that includes three key elements:

1) The character, characters, or situation you would like to focus on;
2) A means or method to share this story;
3) A larger point that you are trying to make about Japanese culture or society.

I recommend you begin by thinking about either a person you’re compelled by, or a big point that you want to make about Japanese culture. I highly recommend that you start by thinking about the people and situations that have already stuck in your brain! Which people from the readings are still rattling around your brain? Who did you identify with? Or who did you find so puzzling that you’re still thinking about them? Alternatively, what major theme or idea are you impressed by? Is there something that has surprised you?

To give one (relatively simple) example: You could write an essay that aims to demonstrate how informal power exists for OLs in Japan. (This addresses point #3, above). You could make this point by narrating the experiences of a salaryman or an OL. (These are the possible characters, point #1 above). As for the method of delivery (point #2), you could write a short story, or write a series of emails between two workers, or a script for a short play. Please think and be creative.

You can also be creative in the format of your profile.  Most will perhaps adopt an essay form, but I am open to other possibilities as well.  A "reflection essay" in school, a letter, an interview transcript, a panel discussion, a suicide note, a probation report, a funeral oration, and a job application are all examples of frameworks through which a lifeway can be revealed. If you would like to see some examples of such profiles written for the course in previous years, please see here. Note that I make these available to you with the explicit permission of the student authors. It will help immensely though to have a conception of the person(s) and/or sites in the context of your emerging understanding of contemporary Japan.  You will not be making an argument in the sense of a hypothesis to test.  Nonetheless, such a profile can and should make a point about what you are coming to believe through this course to be the significant features, linkages, possibilities, and pressures in contemporary Japan.

The construction of the essay as well as its subject offers a range of options.  Whether you adopt first-person or third-person voicing, whether you fashion the essay as a distanced "ethnographic" account or a life history "interview," whether you have a compressed time-frame ('a day in the life of...') or a longer-term perspective — these and other issues are part of the challenge and, hopefully, pleasure of the assignment.  Try out possibilities – on yourself, on friends, with me.

The assignment is designed so that the materials and ideas required can be found within the assignments and lectures of the course.  It is not necessary that you do outside reading or research.  You are free to draw on other sources and experiences, but I prefer that you devote your time and energy towards some creative synthesizing of the issues and materials of the course and towards a careful and stylish expression of those ideas. The suggested length of this essay is ten pages.  I am not strict about word count or page count, but there is no need to go on at greater length.  I always prefer a well-turned phrase to an extra page. Please see here for the form that we use in evaluating your final version.

I suspect that one of the more difficult aspects of this assignment will be figuring out what is a “realistic” character to create. Indeed, please notice, this is precisely the point of the assignment! Your task is to create and represent a Japanese person in a realistic way. Because this can be quite difficult to do on the first try, we ask you to turn in a full required rough draft. You will get extensive comments back about that, and have ample time to consult with us, before the final version is due.

You will be evaluated on the quality of your thinking and writing and on your ability to draw upon a wide range of course materials.  Avoid a simple recitation of my lectures.  I am more interested in how you have come to reflect upon them and relate them to the readings and video documentaries.  I recognize that the format of such an essay can make it difficult to reference your sources.  Footnotes, for example, may detract from the flow of your narrative.  I would suggest as a solution that you append a list of sources that have been directly relevant to your writing (including books and articles, interviews, "field" observations, lecture notes, and video documentaries).

There are two deadlines.  By Friday, November 7th at 5 p.m. on dropbox, you must submit a first draft of the essay.  I expect it to show a good faith effort to be engaged in the project, but I also expect that it will be rough, partial, unfinished, tentative, and preliminary!  This assignment will be graded, but it will be graded as a rough draft, and we will respond with suggestions and advice.  If you do not submit a first draft by this date, you will be ineligible for a final grade above a B.

The second, and final, version of the essay is due on Monday, December 15th by 5 p.m on dropbox. 

As always, I am available to meet with you to discuss your ideas and questions.