Living up to legend

"Traditionalism" in a Tokyo neighborhood

By William Wetherall

A review of
Theodore C. Bestor
Neighbourhood Tokyo
Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1989
365 pages, hardcover

A version of this article appeared in
Far Eastern Economic Review, 145(28), 13 July 1989, page 60

Columbia University professor Theodore Bestor writes that luck is often "the unsung heroine of anthropological field work". He admits that he was lucky to be living with a Japanese family whose father had grown up in a certain Tokyo neighborhood that fit his image of a not-too-old-or-new, not-too-famous-or-notorious Tokyo neighborhood to a T.

And the father's father, a well-known retired local politician, still lived there. And the family introduced Bestor to a local real estate agent who not only found Bestor a vacant apartment above a shop on the main shopping street, but also happened to be the vice-president of the neighborhood association in which he had been active for decades. Better still, the realtor loved to talk. So Bestor signed the lease, plugged himself into the local network, and started taking notes. The result was a doctoral dissertation that he turned into this book.

Bestor calls his neighborhood Miyamoto-cho, and the anthropologist within him wants to know what keeps it going as the worlds outside and within it change. He shows -- because he set out to show -- that Tokyo's urban neighborhoods are not mere vestiges of villages; are not just political or administrative units; and are not stable because the old middle-class of small-scale self-employed merchants, factory owners, and craftspeople, constituting the core of such neighborhoods, is isolated from the outside world.

Bestor portrays the mundane, everyday life in Miyamoto-cho, through the social relationships in the neighborhood. This means mainly the social life of the old middle class -- self-employed entrepreneurs and family members employed in nonagricultural small-scale enterprises -- which accounts for about 20 percent of Japan's private sector labor force, despite stereotypes of neatly dressed corporate workers riding seniority escalators leading to retirement benefits.

Miyamoto-cho is stable because its 2,000 residents respond to outside influences and adapt to them in dynamic ways that maintain their communal integrity. They do this through "traditionalism", which Bestor calls "a common Japanese cultural device for managing or responding to social change." So his study is not about "tradition as an aspect of historical continuity," but is about "the manipulation, invention, and recombination of cultural patterns, symbols, and motifs so as to legitimate contemporary social realities by imbuing them with a patina of venerable historicity."

In other words, Miyamoto-cho residents traditionalize change. What they call "culture" does not come from history, but is affected, changed, or generated by living people. Such culture is not a product of the past, but results from a process in which people "invoke tradition to legitimate the present by reference to an idealized, ahistorical past."

In plainer English, Japanese generally, like Bestor's Miyamoto subjects, are easily persuaded that they are doing the right thing today, because they are vulnerable to ideological claims that what they are doing today is what their ancestors did in the past.

Bestor is too enamored to academia's lexical lard to put it so bluntly. But it is nice to read a work by an American anthropologist who appears to demur at the thought-terminating orthodoxy that culture is inherited. This orthodoxy sustains the myth that Japan is Japan because of its culture, whereas Bestor's thesis of "traditionalism" allows room for the view that much of Japan's "culture" has been recently created -- and continues to be nurtured -- by political forces.