Who am I? What am I doing here?

by johnmccreery

Anthropologist, adman, activist.
In Taiwan I studied magicians.
In Japan I joined the guild.

A self-supporting independent scholar who has lived in Yokohama, Japan, since 1980. Came to Japan as an unemployed academic, then stumbled into a career in the Japanese advertising business. Left Japan’s second largest agency, Hakuhodo, in 1996 and joined The Word Works, Ltd.

In my view there are three kinds of intellectuals. Empire-builders are visionaries with big ideas that they hope will take over the world. Gardeners who have found a small piece of the world that they will know more intimately than anyone else. I belong to the traders. We travel between a variety of fields and if we have any utility, it is that we sometimes are able to point the empire-builders and gardeners to things that they haven’t noticed from their bird’s eye view or nose-to-the-ground perspectives.

My peculiar career path has led me from anthropological fieldwork in Taiwan (1969-71), during which I spent a year and a half playing sorcerer’s apprentice to a Daoist healer. That led to writing a dissertation entitled “The Symbolism of Popular Taoist Magic” (Wade-Giles “Taoist” instead of the now preferred “Daoist”). After failing to get tenure I followed my wife Ruth to Yale, where she was a Ph.D. candidate in Japanese literature. When we started running out of money, I found myself a graduate student spouse job in the Yale computer science department’s artificial intelligence project. What I learned about computers in a year at that job got me my first job in Japan.

I returned to academic life with a paper published in the Journal of Chinese Religions in 1990 and a second paper that got me into american ethnologist in 1995. Meanwhile I’d been asked to do a seminar on advertising for the Graduate Program in Comparative Culture at Sophia University in Tokyo. That gig lasted a decade and eventually became two seminars, one titled “The Making and Meaning of Advertising,” the other “Marketing in Japan.” My book Japanese Consumer Behavior: From Worker Bees to Wary Shoppers came out in 2000. I then became heavily involved with Democrats Abroad and wound up spending a couple of years as International Vice-Chair, which gave me a perspective on the games that political people play.

My current project involves using social network analysis of advertising contest winners to drive an ethnography of the world of top Tokyo ad creators. A couple of other projects are simmering on the back burners. For a conference in Taipei in July, Ruth and I put together a presentation on the early history of city planning in Yokohama, a start on something that we really should continue, and that conference led to reconnecting with Chinese friends at the Institute of Ethnology, who are pulling me back toward where I started, the Chinese popular religion stuff. Other distractions include our amazing daughter Kate (Annapolis, Class of ’98, former Navy helicopter pilot, now doing a public policy master’s program at the Kennedy School at Harvard ) and our two grandkids, Keegan and Fiona.


3 Comments to “Who am I? What am I doing here?”

  1. Just as a weird tangent, when we went over to live in Italy in 1973-4 (I was 10-12 at the time) we were installed in an apartment owned by the university for the use of visiting professors. Among the thoughtful gifts left for us by the previous occupants were several thousand undistributed fliers for “Democrats Abroad for McGovern.” These were about 6×8″ in a nice medium-weight cardstock. No doubt they came at a quantity discount from the printer. We spent the better part of two years experimenting with how best to turn them into paper airplanes.

    Do you have a dog in the fight about whether it’s Taoist or Daoist? Is it one of those things where the actual pronunciation is somewhere between a T and a D, maybe with a glottal something that doesn’t have a letter in English? This is something I’d like to know more about – the pronunciation but even moreso the popular religion.

  2. Carl, you’ve nailed it. The actual sound is unexploded, missing the puff of air that accompanies the English use of the sound we label “T” as the first consonant in a word. It is also, however, unvoiced, unlike the English-sounding “D,” when it appears at the start of a word. In English it appears when the sound we label “T” is the second consonant, e.g., in “Stool.” Hold your hand in front of your mouth and alternate saying “Tool” and “Stool” and the difference will become apparent.

    The choice of “Taoist” or “Daoist” has political ramifications. “Taoist” is from “Tao” written with a “T,” as it is using the older Wade-Giles romanization. “Daoist” is from “Dao” written with a “D” as it is in Pinyin romanization. In the States, people of my generation learned Chinese using Wade Giles because Pinyin was the official usage of the commies in mainland China. Now, however, with the return of Hong Kong and the relaxation of tensions between Taiwan and the mainland, Pinyin has increasingly become the accepted academic standard, even in Taiwan, now that Chiang Kai-shek and his generation of hardline members of the KMT are history.

  3. Hi John,

    I look forward to reading everyone’s contributions to this blog. Interesting stuff.


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