Describing Tradition: A Problem in Anthropological Method

by johnmccreery

The following remarks are cross-posted from Open Anthropology Cooperative (OAC). It seemed serendipitous to receive a message reminding me that not yet a year ago we were discussing postmodern Christianity. Suppose that you are an anthropologist. You observe and participate in a local festival. Then you have to explain it.

It’s that time of year again. Mitsusawa High Town, the condominium complex in Yokohama, where my wife and I have lived since coming to Japan in 1980, has once again held its annual omochitsuki (pounding of the rice cakes). On Saturday I pitched in and helped to pull the necessary equipment out of the storage shed and get it washed and ready for use. That was a job for the men to do, outside, scrubbing and rinsing with cold water. Inside the High Town’s public meeting room women were gathering, bringing down pots of glutenous rice that had been parceled out among them for soaking overnight, chopping and wrapping sweet potatoes, first in damp newspaper, then in tin foil, ready to become yakiimo (roasted sweet potatoes) the next day, then chopping the vegetables that would go into the tonjiru (pork soup). A lot of people showed up. Many hands made light work, and the preparations were complete well before noon.

Sunday was the day of the mochi-pounding proper. A few hardy men were up to start the fires at 7:00 a.m. I drifted in around 8:00 a.m. and joined a crew busy pulling nails from the used lumber being used as fuel for the fires. The yakiimo crew had already started roasting sweet potatoes. The big wooden usu (mortars) and kine (wooden mallets) were already in place. After the nails were pulled, I drifted out and saw that the big steel soup pot (I’d guess 50 gallons or so) full of tonjiru was starting to bubble. The first batches of rice were steaming. The ladies in charge of distributing the finished mochi treats were setting up their table. Others were back in the meeting room, getting ready to assemble the treats. The former, who got to stand in the cold, looked younger than the older women who were making the treats in relative comfort.

An older man, locally regarded as the expert on mochi-pounding was teaching the art to a couple of younger men. The process begins (1) when a mass of steamed glutenous rice is placed in the mortar. Then it’s time (2) for one or more guys to grind it, pushing down hard as they rotate the heads of the mallets through the rice. This is the hardest work to be done. Next comes the pounding. The proper form involves a man who wields the mallet, raising it over his shoulder and slamming it into the rice, while a woman reaches in between strokes to fold the mochi back onto itself. Men will step in to do this if a woman is not available. Finally, (4) the pounded mochi is taken off to the meeting room where the older women shape it into mochi treats that reappear on platters delivered to the younger women at the outdoor tables, who are dipping in them in ground radish sauce (a savory version), rolling them in kinoko (ground soy bean) powder, or coating them with sweet azuki (red bean) paste. People who want to eat the mochi line up and pick the varieties they like.

By 10:00 a.m. or so, the men in the back, tending the fires, have already dispatched two large bottles of sake. Everyone is in a happy mood. The crowd is growing, filling up with people who come just to enjoy the festivity and free food. By noon the food is gone. The younger children, both boys and girls have had a chance to try their hand at wielding the mallet (a smaller one, their size). The festival is over. The organizers bustle about cleaning up. Both men and women participate in the clean-up. The division of labor is again along the lines of the men taking care of the outdoor equipment, the women the utensils used in preparing the mochi treats. Everything is tidy by 1:00 p..m., when the whole crew gathers in the meeting room for the uchiage “finishing up” party. The tables are laid with party snacks, mostly Japanese junk food, plus a few homemade items, and lots of beer, shochu (white liquor) and sake. The men congregate at one end of the tables, the one closest to the kitchen and back door that leads to the space where the men were doing their thing cooking the rice and sweet potatoes in the morning; the women at the other, the one closest to the front. Symbolic significance? Unclear. Should ask someone about that. The party goes on until 3:30 p.m. when most of the women and some of the men leave. A hard core of men, mostly members of the former softball team, hang around to finish off the booze. When I stagger home a bit after 5:00, I expect to be hungover the next morning.

Think of this as a field note. How does one proceed to extract information about “Japanese tradition” from what is described above?

Given that this is the 21st century, an obvious place to begin is a Google search for “omochitsuki.” It turns up 147,000 items. At the top of the list is the Wikipedia entry for mochi. It seems consistent with what I have observed. Ditto for a site designed to instruct Japanese-Americans on what this Japanese tradition entails. Things get more interesting when I start looking at other items, especially YouTube videos. Here I find an elaborate ritual that begins with a blessing from a Shinto priest in full regalia; then there is one with only a couple of guys in T-shirts, in what seems like an impromptu effort. I note how many of the videos depict what seem like all-male activities. I wonder what that’s about. I see stone mortars as well as wooden ones. Rice cooked on gas burners instead of wood-burning stoves. I could spend days checking and mapping the variations documented in this one source.

Therein, of course, lies the question. Is “Japanese tradition” an ideal type, imperfectly realized in all the variations? Performances whose nuances shift depending on actors, stagecraft and direction, while remaining fundamentally the same play? A grammar that allows a variety of equally legitimate forms, while excluding others as improper? An on-going series of bricolages/assemblages, to which new bits and pieces are constantly being added and subtracted?

Which is the better starting point? And which provides the best guidance when it comes to what to include and what to discard in writing up the final analysis?

2 Comments to “Describing Tradition: A Problem in Anthropological Method”

  1. Interesting! Well, since the traditions and practices of anthropology are also ideal types, performances, grammars, bricolages and assemblages I wouldn’t want to try to settle that question once and for all. We need something like a notion of ideal types or family resemblances to be able to say a tradition is Japanese and mean something by it, but of course there are many Japanese traditions and variants. Traditions must be performed and are therefore subject to the contingencies of actor, stagecraft, direction, setting, agenda, etc. etc.. Traditions are grammars in the larger sense of repertoires, which gets us back to performance. All of this is subject to necessary and contingent modifications in the bricolage/assemblage mode. The one fundamental mistake one could make would be to mistake these metaphors for literal descriptions. Which orienting metaphor you pick depends on who you want to be talking to and what you want to accomplish, I would say.

  2. Carl, I wouldn’t want to try to settle that question once and for all either. Here is what I wrote in another thread, alluding to the one cross-posted here.

    So I am interested in allowing for contradictory levels of analysis to co-exist, instead of providing closure…..

    So am I. Both life experience and research have persuaded me that theorists are all like the blind men describing the elephant. Only rarely are their ideas truly mutually exclusive, and even then each may have grasped something important that the others need to consider. That is what leads me to questions like the one I raise in my blog post on mochi-pounding and Japanese tradition. Should we think of tradition as as ideal type, performance, grammar or bricolage? Why not all four? Each of these concepts directs our attention to different aspects of ethnographic reality. Combined they yield a deeper, richer, thicker description and, I would argue, understanding of what’s going on.

    My most properly scholarly exposition of this, what shall we call it, perhaps “disciplined eclecticism” will do, can be found in my article “Negotiating with Demons: The Uses of Magical Language” (American Ethnologist, Vol. 22, No. 1, February 1995), where I examine the text of a Daoist exorcism in light of three sets of ideas about magical language—performative act, metaphorical action, and formalization—and find that they all have something useful to contribute to mapping the changes in language as the ritual proceeds from one stage to another.

    These are all steps on the path that has led me to the suggestions I make in my response to Nathan Dobson in the thread stemming from the mochi-pounding post.

    The notion that ethnographers should enter the field with a ready answer for “what is the main question that you are trying to answer?” strikes me as misguided. Where it comes from is, I suggest, the proposition that ethnographers are engaged in something analogous to experimental science. They should, therefore, have a clear focus on a question for whose answer they know how to collect relevant evidence.

    But aren’t we,in fact, more like a detective entering a crime scene, for whom prejudging what questions to ask and what evidence may be relevant is a major methodological error? Aren’t we more like Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, or the CSI crew, which is to say valued for the unexpected things we discover?

    Here I would add that neither Poiroit, Miss Marple, or the CSI crew, in particular, reject science. They use science where appropriate to build a convincing case, an activity quite different from designing an experiment or survey to test a particular hypothesis.

    So, yes, by all means. Don’t just allow contradictory levels of analysis to co-exist. Exploit their contradictions as guides to points of interest.

    Come to think of it, that’s something I learned from Victor Turner….

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