That “old hometown” motif might be a real place

I was living in the Kansai area of Japan a year after the release of Sen Masao’s 1977 enka ballad Kitaguni no Haru, “Spring in the North Country.” It blasted through speakers in shōtengai and could be heard all day and night on the takayoki-scented streets of Shinsaibashi. It soon became a karaoke classic and later a favorite tune sung by artists throughout East Asia, including Taiwanese singer Teresa Teng. The version by Sen Masao can be heard in this video:

How I hated that song. It seemed to ooze such smarmy sentimental pathos. It referred to that overused trope that later reached a marketing peak in the early 1980s, the notion of furusato, the native place or the old hometown. A Korean Japanese, Sen Masao projected a homey bumpkiness that suggested modest origins, even though he was by then a wealthy and urbane celebrity. He was originally from Iwate prefecture, an area of northern Japan that suffered greatly from the 2011 Great East Japan Disaster (Higashi Nihon Daishinsai). My young pals and I often uttered the song’s sappy refrain, “Shall I go back to the furusato?” in order to index ethnocentric and xenophobic types. Our furusato, our hometowns were still fresh and intact and at least to us, in no danger of disappearing.

Even filmmakers seemed to be in on the joke. There was the scene in the campy 1988 film Tokyo Pop, for instance, where rocker Hiro takes his American girlfriend Wendy out on a date to a Japanesey place, where they sit near a group of yukata-clad elders singing Kitaguni no haru. I recall feeling sweetly smug at being aware of the film’s clever intent. Here’s a trailer for the film:

I also relished all the academic treatments of furusato I read years later by fellow Japan anthropologists. Writings by Brian Moeran, Jennifer Robertson, Marilyn Ivy, Mille Creighton, John Knight, and many others analyzed the appeal of the furusato motif as a product of the postmodern condition and as the supreme cultural signifier of an “authentic” Japan.  The most extended analysis of the link between an enka song such as Kitaguni no haru and the furusato notion is found in Christine Yano’s 2002 book, Tears of Longing: Nostalgia and the Nation in Japanese Popular Song. Her work on enka is stimulating and satisfying, a discussion that helps me intellectually appreciate a music genre I don’t like at all.

However, more recently I have been wondering if past scholarly understandings of furusato might have been different if the scholars who analyzed the concept had been over 50 years old when they wrote them. In a brilliant essay entitled “Grief and a Headhunter’s Rage,” Renato Rosaldo  said  that “one should recognize that ethnographic knowledge tends to have the strengths and limitations given by the relative youth of field-workers who, for the most part, have not suffered serious losses.” When Rosaldo first conducted fieldwork among the Illongot in the northern Philippines, he was, as he said, not yet able to see the role of fury that resides within bereavement. It was only when his wife died suddenly that Illongot  discourse about grief, rage, and headhunting came to mean anything emotionally concrete to him. In other words, he tried to understand another cultural practice through his heart and not his intellect. Today when we refer to ethnographic empathy we are in debt to this example of exposure of personal life in professional writing.

In addition to differing  perspectives emanating from the anthropologist’s  own emotional situation or age, there is an interesting point once offered by rock musician and songwriter Lou Reed – “I don’t like nostalgia unless it’s mine.” I myself have no ethnographic authority when it comes to enka or furusato, but wonder if the nature of hometown longing might be something we can consider beyond abstract notions about national identity and marketing success. This might be a time when anthropological theory gets in the way of understanding lived experience. For many people, furusato may be more than a cultural symbol. It could be an actual place.

Totally fed up with more than a decade of icy Midwestern winters, and after years of grieving the deaths of a beloved father and favorite older brother, I was wishing I could live in my sunny hometown of Los Angeles once more. One day in 2010 I happened to hear Kitaguni no haru on the fly, and expectedly, I began sobbing. It wasn’t the conventional lyrics about budding magnolia blossoms and pine trees that caused this reaction, but the lyrics that muse about whether or not father and older brother are perhaps sharing a drink together.

Unlike the men in the Kitaguni no haru song, who are described as not very talkative, my father and brother loved to sit for hours playing poker, drinking and gabbing about good recipes, odd experiences, and the unbelievable jerks they had known. I miss them terribly, as well as the actual physical place where they once sat. It was longing for my furusato, perhaps mixed in with nostalgia for those youthful years I spent in Osaka that this song tapped into. I know very well that the section of the San Fernando Valley where I grew up is no longer the same. The corner liquor store is now a Middle Eastern take-out, and my father’s house has other people living in it. My hometown longing is not a desire for it as it was in the past. I simply want to return to my country of origin (I mean this literally, as the place of my ancestors before it was ever part of the US) with all its messy changes and excesses.

For Japanese folks, too, perhaps anthropologists need to account for not only the reimagined furusato, the one where ugly decrepit storehouses have been renovated into quaint thatched farmhouses selling sashiko quilts, but also, simply, the place where one grew up. Such a place might have been a flowering countryside or a dense metropolis, but wherever it was it is recalled with the same intense longing. Since a key theme of the 62th NHK Kōhaku Uta Gassen aired on December 31, 2011 (an annual New Year’s Eve music contest program) was the Great East Japan Disaster, Sen Masao was brought out of retirement to perform Kitaguni no haru. Asking Sen to appear in the lineup was one of many strategies used to process and come to terms with the loss of so many people and the destruction of so many places in the north country. So, while smart young anthropologists debate ways to theorize local concepts, people on the ground have very non-intellectual links to such ideas.

7 thoughts on “That “old hometown” motif might be a real place

  1. A beautiful essay and a marvelous point about the young ethnographer’s disdain for rank sentimentality versus the aging anthropologist’s empathy. For me, it is close to the bone as well. For most of the more than thirty years I have lived in Japan, my parents’ place at the head of Patrick’s Creek in York County, Virginia elicited highly conflicted feelings. It was a beautiful place to grow up, but also, of course, the place from which I removed myself as far as I could go. Now both my parents are dead. My brother and I are wrestling with the legal complications of an estate whose complex topography and related environmental regulations makes extremely difficult to divide evenly between us as our father’s will prescribes. Neither of us want to sell it off and divide the money equally. There are no hard feelings here, but as time drags on the neighborhood keeps changing. What was once a part of the county so rural that my mother, a city girl who grew up in Savannah, cried when my parents moved there is now being swallowed by McMansions. There is no going home to that home in my heart again.

    For those who may not know the background to what Laura is talking about, many Japanese adults living in major metropolitan areas during the 1980s were either immigrants from the countryside, who had poured into cities to become the industrial armies that provided the factory and office labor for Japan’s post-WWII economic boom, or those immigrants’ children. Connections with the countryside were still fresh and vivid, in a way I imagine as similar to my own feelings for York County, Virginia. What “hometown” means to more recent generations who have grown up as city kids is a fascinating question.

  2. Love the song.

    Enka brings back memories of evenings in rural Japan in hostess bars and karaoke with businessmen. It strikes the same chord of ‘saudade’ that flows through Fado. Different from nostalgia – it’s a sense of having moved on and a recognition that life can be melancholy. Losses exist. It’s more mourning and loving than simple nostalgia.

    It’s a strong emotion that I’m nto sure we have a word for in English – nostalgia doesn’t hack it, and it really is not sentimental in a deep way.

  3. Thanks John and Doug. I love the word natsukashii, which conveys that feeling of nostalgia mixed with appreciation of transience, sadness and longing that is suddenly triggered by a sound, smell or object. During the years I worked for a company in Osaka I often spent evenings drinking in hostess clubs with others from my workplace, and enka was always the sound track.

  4. BTW Many non-Japan anthropologists are familiar with Anne Allison’s book on hostess clubs, but there are other anthropologists who have written on this ubiquitous locale: John Mock, on clubs in Sapporo and other smaller urban areas, and Haeng-ja Chung, who has published on refined Korean hostess clubs in Japan

  5. Nice to see posts on Japan.
    My favourite take on furusato came from my Japanese brother-in-law. We were all back in rural Shikoku for Obon (festival of the dead) and he was driving us along a tiny “road” between rice paddies trying to find the graveyard where an uncle was buried. I had been reading Ivy, so I asked him what furusato meant to him. As he hunched over the wheel, sweating profusely from the oppressive August heat and trying not to snap at the kids shouting in the back of the car, he muttered, “Furusato? Furusasto wa ne…mendokusai!” (a pain in the ass).
    I think for many Japanese, particularly over the last couple of decades, furusato can also signify burdensome obligations. I would suggest that a proper understanding of furusato has to assume a spectrum that includes both nostalgia and resentment.

  6. Very moving, and very perceptive, Dr. Miller. Of course, I am not an anthropologist, but definitely appreciate the work you all do. The human experience of nostalgia, grief, loss, anger, and signification is certainly fertile ground for cultural study. I am finally getting old enough to have nostalic feelings for Queens, NY, my own ‘native place’, and even the Japan of the 1990’s when I first went over out of curiosity, mainly. I think when I ruminate on nostalgia and concepts of furusato, I tend to want to go watch Omohide Poroporo once again and laugh and cry with Takako. Thanks for sharing your insights and experiences!

  7. @Mark and Chris Thanks for the comments. I wonder if the emotion of nostalgia (versus the marketing concept) has been a little understudied in anthropology in ways that are separate from gerontology and life history studies. And, is it a valued emotion in some cultures and not others?

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