All posts by lauramiller


Laura Miller is professor of Japanese studies and anthropology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Elevator Girls

In an old New York Times essay a journalist commemorated the Japanese elevator girl’s voice as being especially piercing and high pitched. Other Americans have similarly made fun of this feminized service occupation, describing it as a particularly extraneous and vacuous job. Japan’s first elevator girls appeared in 1929, when the newly reopened Ueno branch of Matsuzakaya Department Store promoted novel features such as air conditioning, its own post office, and eight elevators operated by women. Since then elevator girls have been of great cultural interest, appearing in numerous comics, a TV drama series, films, Hello Kitty incarnations, novels and in other media. She was a big hit in this McDonald’s commercial from 2006, in which she munches a burger with one hand while preventing a passenger from boarding by pushing the close button with her other hand. The words “I want to eat now” appear on the screen.

Video link.

[Unfortunately, embedding is disabled for this video, if anyone knows of a different version we can use, please let us know in the comments. -the editors]

I want to take the elevator girl seriously as part of a larger effort to reclaim women’s cultural history. In a forthcoming book chapter I track the history and representation of this feminized occupation, as well as the training and experiences of contemporary elevator girls. For example, the high-pitched voice that so irritates foreigners is intentionally fake. As part of their training elevator girls practice speaking in a crafted vocal performance in order to alert customers that they are not available for chatting up: they are on duty in their professional roles. The pre-determined announcements, delivered in the Tokyo-based “standard” dialect, also allow women from diverse regional and class backgrounds an opportunity to work in elegant surroundings in a desired urban location. The work and the uniform strip elevator girls of individuality, thus allowing the observer to imagine their own fantasies about these women (not surprisingly, elevator girls figure prominently in fantasy media and pornography). But for the elevator girl herself, the vulnerability she might experience working in such a public service job is protected by the uniform and scripted speech.

Keeping it Honest

At a regional Asian Studies conference recently there was a roundtable event held to highlight a documentary film on L. Keith Brown, professor of anthropology emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh. The film, produced and directed by David Plath, is “Can’t Go Native?” Keith was there on hand to answer questions about his long engagement with the people of Mizusawa, Japan. A few years ago Mizusawa folks held a 50th anniversary to honor his years of anthropological fieldwork there. Whoa. Huh? 50 years going to one fieldsite? One of Keith’s comments was that doing fieldwork in the same place over such a long period of time “keeps you honest.” You can’t, he said, blow into town for a one-shot roughshod survey like those University of Tokyo researchers often do. One question from the audience was “How many other anthropologists have been celebrated like this by the community where they do research?”

Great question. I can’t answer it.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

Trivializing the girl stuff

In the 1990s when I shifted my research focus away from business interactions in Japan to the beauty industry, I was criticized by some anthropology colleagues, especially male ones and the archeologists and biological anthropologists. In Japan, older people I met said my decision was a waste—all those years of studying the Japanese language just to look at the silly things women do? Mottainai. This is, obviously, the sort of attitude feminists see as the crux of androcentrism. Girls and women are a force behind many financially lucrative markets that are often overlooked because of their feminized nature. For example, I found that in 2003 there were 173,412 documented beauty salons. By contrast, that same year there were 7,530 wedding and funeral services, 67,789 auto repair shops, and 14,136 software businesses. It is like the point Annette Weiner made: just because men don’t value the activities of women doesn’t mean that the anthropologist should ignore them, too. The dismissive attitude hasn’t changed much, but my list of interesting female-oriented activities and cultural production has grown, and now there is enough for another book. The new work in progress, tentatively entitled Japanese Girl Stuff, includes material on the divination industry, self-photography, novel script (writing system) elements, grotesque-cute aesthetics, Lolita slang, and more.

Teaching anthropology in the coming years

Are we preparing the next crop of anthropology PhDs who enter American academe to deal with the great shift in educational culture? With some states trying to pass laws that will enable students to excuse themselves from learning scientific concepts, what sort of undergraduates will populate US universities in the future? How is this going to impact the teaching of anthropology?  I wonder how new professors will be able to teach basic anthropological ideas about evolution, marriage, sex and gender in the coming years.  And then there’s the additional issue of classroom audiotaping. Do you allow students to record your lectures? What if you get a job teaching in a state where conservative activists, often not even students, infiltrate the classrooms of liberal professors with the intent to tape and misrepresent them on the internet?

I don’t think I like my fieldwork site

What if we don’t like our fieldwork site? I’m not only talking about “failed research” or the problems of doing fieldwork discussed by Amy Pollard.  Her study of graduate students doing their first research projects revealed that many felt lonely, fearful, frustrated, depressed, trapped, and paranoid. I have in mind an additional issue: I don’t like this place. Is it possible to untangle the fieldsite from the fieldwork and the fieldworker? Why is it a taboo topic for anthropologists to discuss?

My research trips to Moscow some years ago were successful. I was there as part of a large, multi-member project on second language acquisition by American university students during study abroad. I liked the research carried out on two solo trips in 1990 and 1991. But I never wanted to go back a third time, or ever again. It was not simpatico. I enjoyed meeting with Russian people but did not appreciate the actual physical location–the food, the smell of the air, the toilets, and the other mechanics of being there.

Unlike the American students learning Russian who were the focus of the study, I was never bothered by pesky Soviet era fartsovshchiki, black marketers who hounded foreigners for their jeans, cigarettes, and watches. I was not targeted as a foreigner except by the KGB agents assigned to trail me. This was most likely due to my sensible shoes and a shabby Columbo-like raincoat. The young university students studying Russian during a year abroad could never understand why some people instantly knew they were Americans and immediately began stalking them. Perhaps it was their clean, color-coordinated clothes? There was also the way they walked around the streets with big smiles on the faces (from a Russian perspective, only Americans and the cognitively impaired do that). I was left alone and never had any bad experiences. Russian people were kind and had a wicked sense of humor I found very appealing. Yet I lack any feelings of positive nostalgia or longing for the place. This contrasts with my feelings of affection for Japan, where I always look forward to returning for research.



The concept of “departmental fit”

Isn’t it normal for academic anthropologists to change their research interests over time? Usually we are hired into departments to fill specific ethnographic and theoretical slots. Department course offerings in smaller universities especially are built around these varied areas of expertise. It can therefore present a problem when faculty depart from their university or retire, leaving courses in a planned curriculum menu untaught.

But what happens when faculty are still in residence but no longer have the same teaching and research interests? Are the consequences from this shift different for particular types of faculty, and is this one of the hidden areas where power relations in a department come into play? One sees many instances in which, say, a person is hired as an expert on Thailand but once they are tenured will only do research on tourism in Southern California. Or, hypothetically, a biological anthropologist is hired because of his research on hominid fossils but later decides he will only do primate observations at a local zoo. Is the pressure on junior faculty to stay within a narrow slot hindering their development and creativity? Is it justifiable for senior faculty to use “departmental fit” as an argument for tenure denial when they themselves mange to justify their own radical retooling?

Junk to you, cool artifact to me

I was teaching a course on writing systems in Chicago, and funding from a small grant allowed me to limit the class size. So we loaded into a van and visited museums in the area that house unique script artifacts. I also arranged for guest scholars and curators to talk to us about specific writing systems. One place on our itinerary was a museum at the University of Chicago, were we admired some rare Chinese “oracle bones.” These are bovine scapulae and tortoise plastrons carved with the earliest forms of Chinese writing.

Fake oracle bone, made around 1910

The graduate student curator assigned to talk to us about the oracle bones was smart and conscientious. When asked “Doesn’t the Field Museum have any of these?” he sneered, “Oh no, those are ridiculous fakes,” which for me was the most interesting thing he said. What he didn’t know about is my quest to find appropriated and pseudo writing. The counterfeit oracle bones I eventually photographed at the Field Museum of Natural History are now among my prized items. My students have also contributed great finds to my growing collection: a pair of Wisconsin socks woven with fabricated Egyptian hieroglyphics (lots of birds!), a coin purse with gibberish Chinese characters embroidered on it, and a gorgeous azure silk-screened T-Shirt with an upside down Japanese poem. Continue reading

The journalist calls the anthropologist

[Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Laura Miller.]

Anthropologists are routinely exhorted to make our work accessible to non-academics, to do strident outreach, to engage with the public, and to otherwise not hole up in our academic enclaves. Part of our effort involves fielding inquiries from journalists. We should be happy that writers are interested in talking to us and wish to include our opinions, right? Over the years, journalists have frequently left me telephone messages or sent email along these lines:

Dear Professor,
I’m a writer for Massive News, and I’m currently doing a story on Something Interesting. As you are an expert on Something Interesting, I would greatly appreciate a comment from you. My number is xxx. Since I am on a tight deadline, however, please call me within two hours.
Thank you,

I have found that often these journalists simply want to seed their articles with a few canned comments that will endorse their spin, and that they don’t actually care about my ideas. If you work in an academic environment in which you must constantly prove the relevance and worthiness of anthropology, as the majority of academic anthropologists at non-elite schools do, you might give in and provide what you hope will be an innocuous blurb. Continue reading