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Anthropology, Development and Preparedness

Celie Hanson

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Anthropology, Development and Preparedness

About Dr. Chika Watanabe and this TKS episode: 

Dr. Chika Watanabe is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Manchester. In this episode of The Know Show Podcast, Chika eloquently discusses her fascinating research, which is more salient than ever in today’s climate. Chika critically analyses development aid, and questions what it means to ‘do good’. She also expands on her most recent research that looks to understand how we learn to prepare for disasters and what this tells us about society. She explains the way we need to be attentive to the taken-for-granted categories within these pedagogies, especially as disasters are becoming increasingly frequent, widespread and varied. 

 

A brief synopsis:

Chika begins by talking to Hussain about her early life, where she grew up in Japan, moved to Spain, and then returned to Japan and attended an American school. She went to university in the US and is now based in Manchester. She identifies that this meant she grew up in between different cultures, and that she realised anthropology asked the kinds of questions she had always been interested in; what it means to be part of a culture and inhabit different spaces. 

She goes on to explore how this shaped her work, and allowed her to study Japan from a transnational perspective. To provide an overview, Chika articulates the contradictions that seem obvious to her–that Japan has a strong ideology of homogeneity, but that contrary to this, its history suggests Japan is largely a product of its transnational interactions. She tells Hussain how her research looks specifically at Japan and Myanmar, and more recently, Chile. Essentially, she is intrigued by the way transnationalism is actually at the foundations of Japanese society, and what this looks like in the everyday. 

 

Critically analysing Japanese development aid:

Chika expands on her ethnographic research that pokes at these fundamental questions. She begins by telling Hussain about her work in Japan and Myanmar where she gained access to one of the oldest Japanese NGOs, aligned with the Shinto movement, which is often tied to right wing politics and politicians. Through this discussion, we see how Chika questions the notion of ‘doing good’, looking at the NGO’s international development work in Myanmar as an extension of Japan’s imperial ambitions during WWII. She explains how many senior members she spoke to were in their 70s and 80s and would tell her how Japan taught its colonies how to be proud of their culture. This exposed a generational gap in how younger people related to Japan’s history and place in the world. 

Chika importantly outlines how anthropology always takes into consideration the positionality of the researcher, as this impacts data in the trust that develops with participants, and thus what they will/won’t reveal. She uses her study of Japanese aid in Myanmar, and the silence that surrounds the historical colonial atrocities committed by Japan, to draw this out: 

I’m not sure if Burmese people didn’t talk about Japanese colonialism in Myanmar, because I’m Japanese, but no one really mentioned it. What they would mention was, a kind of, because you’re Japanese, you understand us little bit better than a European or an American.

Dr. Chika Watanabe

 

Disaster preparedness in Japan and Chile:

Chika and Hussain move on to consider her more recent area of study in disaster preparedness, which stemmed from her interest in international aid and cooperation. She identifies the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami as something that made her want to return to Japan and help with relief efforts. She noticed the soft power messages produced by the Japanese government, that positioned Japan as expert in disaster preparedness, justifying their aid programs teaching disaster risk management. Chika explains to Hussain that she focussed on Chile and Japan to understand this. She describes the way she found tensions between practical policy and her findings on the ground. Here, we learn the ways that anthropology can be attentive to the everyday, more nuanced processes in how people prepare themselves for disaster and the way they develop their own methods of survival within policy frameworks.

I’ve been working with a municipality in Chile...and they have a disaster risk reduction office in the town which is quite rare, and I’ve been following the man who heads that department...He puts on these activities for communities, often around children, to be prepared for disasters. But in the lead up to having these events he has multiple meetings with lots of different people and he changes the message a little bit each time, so everyone feels invested in the work putting together this event.

Dr. Chika Watanabe

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We are shown why it is crucial to pay attention to spaces like the above, to allow for preparedness to be more effective. She turns to the notion of resilience, which is often associated with ideas of adaptability and flexibility in preparation, but also involves  responding to emergencies in real time. Interestingly, we are given insight into the way that Chika’s research reveals the way risk reduction programs and activities teach resilience, but are also clear in highlighting individuals should not allow themselves to be trapped by what they’ve been taught. 

 

Future research and pertinent questions:

Using the last section of the episode to discuss where this leads, Chika tells Hussain that her research has pointed her towards questioning the assumptions about society that are embedded in preparedness approaches. She is especially concerned with the taken-for-granted conception of a household in preparedness efforts, which is ever more necessary within the context of COVID-19 restrictions and policies.

Listen to hear her unpack and critically analyse the assumption that the household is made up of a nuclear family, bounded by a physical entity, and often gendered within disaster preparedness policy and reality. She finds new ways to ask classic anthropological questions, questioning what constitutes a family, and what it means to belong in a family. This also comes at a time of falling birth rates and the growth of elderly households, disrupting the prevalent narrative of a nuclear family as equating a household. She leaves us asking how we should think about community based preparedness when people increasingly live alone. 

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TKS take home points:

In this TKS episode, we learn about the importance of questioning taken-for-granted categories in society. We are given an insight into the way we can critically analyse initiatives framed and justified through the notion of ‘doing good’. We are also shown the need to notice how preparedness features in our everyday lives, and the processes that take place within this. It is obvious why we need to keep questioning what we know, and how we know it, and Chika provides fruitful avenues for understanding this through her thought-provoking discussion on her fascinating work. 

 

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