Moving from Japan to America made me keenly aware of cultural differences. As a result, I studied anthropology to explore what is culture and what role culture plays in our lives. I carried out major research in the US and Japan and also conducted fieldwork in Thailand, Taiwan, and China.
My interest in old age in America emerged when I witnessed the notable differences in the universal phenomenon of aging and culminated in my book, Through Japanese Eyes: Thirty Years of Studying Aging in America, in 2020. It demonstrates how older Americans negotiate the wide gap between the “ought” (e.g., being independent) and the “is” (e.g., needing assistance)—while being simultaneously guided and constrained by their culture—and how they manage to lead meaningful lives in a culture that regards senescence as an antithesis of its ideals.
Individuals’ motivations and negotiations also provide the major theoretical framework for my other studies. As strategic settings that elucidate these often hidden instigators of action, most of my past and current research has focused on the situations where people are under powerful cultural constraints. Rapid social change complicates the picture even further by making the existing cultural mechanisms inadequate or even untenable. My research on mortuary practices in Japan show how people who are subjected to the despotism of tradition often use it to their advantage and how they reshape the tradition to suit their changing situations and needs. Such agency of people is one of the major issues I address in my ongoing research on aging in Japan and the transformation of a Japanese neighborhood.
These studies illustrate my interlocutors’ ingenuity in coping with the attendant cultural problems and highlight not only the complex interplay among cultural models, social action, and individual experience but also the significance of human agents both as products and as bearers or creators of the cultural order.
Research Interests: sociocultural anthropology, psychological anthropology, aging, family, mortuary rituals, conception of time, social change, US, Japan, Thailand
2022 “Negotiating the Gap Between the ‘Ought’ and the ‘Is’: Older Americans’ Strategies.” In The Anthropology of Power, Agency, and Morality: The Enduring Legacy of F.G. Bailey. Victor C. de Munck and Elisa J. Sobo, eds. pp. 117-131. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
2020 Through Japanese Eyes: Thirty Years of Studying Aging in America. Rutgers University Press: New Brunswick, New Jersey.
2020 “Changing Mortuary Practices in Japan.” In Anthropology News (electronic version). August.
2018 “Evolving Funerals in Contemporary Japan.” in A Companion to the Anthropology of Death. Antonius C.G.M. Robben, ed. pp. 17-30. Wiley Blackwell: Malden, Massachusetts.
2016 “The Obligation to Give, Receive, and Make a Return: Comparing the Meanings of Reciprocity in America and Japan.” in the fourth edition of Distant Mirrors: America as a Foreign Culture. Philip R. DeVita, ed. pp. 242-258. Waveland: Long Grove, Illinois.
2014 “Evolving Funerals in Japan.” Anthropology News (electronic version). April.
2014 “Good Bye Rush Hour Trains, Hello Morning Walks: Changes in Morning Experience for Japanese Retirees.” lo Squaderno 32: 41-44.
2011 “Rites of Passage to Death and Afterlife in Japan.” Generations 35(3): 28-33.
2010 (editor) Social Change in Thailand: A. Thomas Kirsch, a Northeastern Village, and Two Families. CreateSpace: Charleston, South Carolina.
2010 “A Tale of Two Thai Families: Reflections on Social Change.” in Social Change in Thailand: A. Thomas Kirsch, a Northeastern Village, and Two Families. Yohko Tsuji, ed. pp. 65-96. Charleston, South Carolina: CreateSpace.
2006 “Mortuary Rituals in Japan: The Hegemony of Tradition and the Motivations of Individuals.” Ethos 34(3): 391-431.
2006 “Railway Time and Rubber Time: The Paradox in the Japanese Conception of Time.” Time & Society 15(2/3): 177-195.
2005 “Time Is Not Up: Temporal Complexity of Older Americans’ Lives.” The Journal of Cross-Cultural Gerontology 20(1): 3-26.
2004 "Raise as a Mirror of Gense: From Legally Sanctioned Ancestor Worship to Modern Mortuary Rituals in Japan.” in Practicing the Afterlife: Perspectives from Japan. Susanne Formanek and William LaFleur, eds. pp. 417-436. Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften.
2002 "Death Policies in Japan: The State, the Family, and the Individual." in Family and Social Policy in Japan: Anthropological Perspectives. Roger Goodman, ed. pp. 177-199. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
2001 “The Researcher and the Researched.” Anthropology Newsletter 42(5): 54.
1997 “AAA Session: ‘Rethinking Culture and the Individual’.” Anthropology Newsletter 38(2): 54.
1997 "Encounters with the Elderly in America." in the second edition of Distant Mirrors: America as a Foreign Culture. Philip R. DeVita and James D. Armstrong, eds. 89‑99. Belmont, California: Wadsworth. (Also appeared in the third edition, pp. 84-94, 2002.)
1997 "An Organization For the Elderly, By the Elderly: A Senior Center in the United States." in the second edition of The Cultural Context of Aging: Worldwide Perspectives. Jay Sokolovsky, ed. pp. 350‑363. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood.
1997 "Continuities and Changes in Conceptions of Old Age in Japan." in Aging: Asian Concepts and Experiences Past and Present. Sepp Linhart and Susanne Formanek, eds. pp. 195‑208. Vienna: Austrian Academy of Sciences.