Susanne Klien interviews Prof emer. Josef Kreiner

Josef Kreiner


Josef Kreiner is Professor Emeritus, Bonn University. Born in Vienna, Austria, in 1940, he has conducted numerous fieldwork projects in Southwest Japan and the Ryūkyū Islands. He was professor of Japanology and director of the Institute of Japanese Studies at Bonn University from 1977-1988, founding director of the German Institute of Japanese Studies, Tokyo from 1988-1996, and Specially Appointed Professor and Director of the Research Center for Modern Japan at Hōsei University from 2008-2013. Presently, he is a visiting fellow at the Institute for International Japanese Studies at Hōsei University.

Susanne Klien

Susanne Klien is Associate Professor at the Modern Japanese Studies Program (MJSP) at Hokkaido University. Her research interests include the practice and transmission of intangible cultural property in contemporary rural Japan, subjective well-being and alternative lifestyles, regional revitalization, and contemporary youth culture in Hokkaido. 

Q: Could you tell us about your first encounter with Japan?

Actually it was quite unexpected for me to end up studying Japan as I was predominantly interested in ethnology and had already started working as a volunteer at the Vienna Museum of Ethnology. There I met a young lecturer called Nebesky-Wojkowitz who was considered as one of the most talented emerging scholars in Vienna ethnology. His book “Oracles and demons of Tibet” is still a classic today. His work really impressed me. As I had also taken classes in Sanskrit at secondary school, I was thus very open to studying India. In any case, Nebesky-Wojkowitz left for Sikkim to do fieldwork and told me to start my studies in ethnology. When I went to the university to get information, by chance I ran into [Prof. Alexander] Slawik who would be my supervisor. Slawik was in Japanese studies and had just been to Japan for the first time at the ripe age of 60 and I ended up studying with him. 

I hung out with the first Japanese exchange students in Vienna, by chance three of them in anthropology – Obayashi Taro, Sumiya Kazuhiko and Shiratori Yoshiro – who was researching Southwest China. We would be together every day until midnight, Slawik told all these incredible stories about Japan, it was 1958 and there were only three students at this ethnologically oriented institute of Japanese Studies in Vienna. To be precise, there was no official Japanese Studies department in Vienna, it was part of the Institute of Ethnology. So without thinking much about it, I ended up studying Japan with a focus on the contemporary. 

Before the war since 1938 there had been a “Japan-Institut” in Vienna with Oka Masao as Japanese guest professor and Ishida Eiichirō as student. But after the war there was neither money nor interest in Japan, so the department of ethnology served as a resort for those interested in Japan. So for me personally, as I had started out in a museum, I have only been very keen on engaging in museum work, I think that was important for my further work. And I was lucky in the sense that I had a chance to go to Japan quite early in my career as an exchange student in 1961 – I don’t think that would be possible nowadays. I was only twenty and was put into the graduate school (daigakuin) as a research student (kenkyūsei), although I could barely communicate in Japanese, you can imagine. Today everything is so rigidly regulated, students are affiliated with one university and one sensei. I was studying at Tōdai with Ishida Sensei, Izumi Seiichi and Egami Namio, these were my three supervisors, but it was actually Oka Masao who influenced me most. He was at Meiji University at the time in Social Anthropology (shakai jinruigaku). 

Through Oka and his historic approach to ethnology I started concerning myself with questions such as where the Japanese had come from, where and how Japanese culture had originated. On the other hand, Oka’s assistant Gamō Masao was into Social Anthropology and agricultural village sociology (nōson shakaigaku). I also spent time with Ariga Kizaemon. At some point Ishida took me to Yanagita Sensei who recommended to go to Amami and that was the starting point of my Okinawa research, perhaps as the only foreign student at the time. There were perhaps only fifty Monbushō financed foreign students back then. We had to come to the Monbushō on the first of every month to collect our scholarship in cash and to provide evidence that we were still alive and around, it was quite different from nowadays. On that occasion I met the other students but there were no other anthropologists, mostly literary studies, archive study or philologists. 

Due to my influence by Slawik, I was quite anti-philology to the point that I got the nickname of “Japanology basher” since for me the philologically oriented Japanology was not sufficient. Personally I think that we need to concern ourselves with contemporary Japan. In my times research was focused on agriculture, nowadays it is urban Japanese society. Just as Japanese society is changing, the study of modern Japan needs to change its aims and methods. So that’s how I ended up studying rural villages, preparing museum collections. 

Under Slawik and together with Erich Pauer (who later moved to Marburg) and Sepp Linhart I did a collaborative research project in the Aso region in 1968/9. One aim of this project was to start a collection of Japanese agricultural tools for the ethnological museum in Vienna. This project had a huge influence on Pauer’s later research as he wrote his doctoral thesis on agricultural technology before moving on to the issue of modernization and history of technology in Japan. The reason we chose agricultural tools as a topic was that in the 1960s Japan saw a strong movement towards mechanization. We collected hoes, spades, ploughs, harrows, sickles, all these agricultural tools had hardly changed since the Yayoi period and then all of a sudden there was this wave of mechanization, from one day to the next there were these special tractors. There was this enormous change happening so what we did was urgent research in the sense that this was one of the last chances to collect such tools, especially if one wishes to start from the assumption that Japanese culture was strongly shaped by wet culture rice cultivation (although I would not subscribe to that). But of course, wet rice cultivation is a strong feature (just think of Yanagita and Ishida). So this is why we collected these tools and why Vienna now has an excellent collection of agricultural tools.

Q: Could you talk about the changes of doing fieldwork then and now? 

I don’t think that fieldwork is really different now. What was easy back then was that we had access to the first Meiji period koseki from the 1870s. The only obstacle were the officials in the municipal offices who were quite reluctant to look for these dusty ancient materials stored away but today all of these cannot be accessed any longer for privacy reasons. So we could access these materials and gain insight into family structures and households back to the early 19thcentury. In the first koseki we can still find the names of the grandparents of the head of the household who were born around 1800, which offered excellent insights. The village structure was more or less intact in the 1960s. 

Nowadays most villages have a high rate of aged citizens, the productive generations left for the cities. This depopulation trend started just back then. The issues we face today are completely different as compared to back then. I think nowadays we would not get the results through fieldwork in village communities we got before with these issues such as dōzokudaikazokukachōken etc. How can we get these insights through interview or participant observation nowadays, I think we need other ways of framing these issues. This is why it is so interesting for me to see that the East Asian Institute in Vienna is planning to restart the Aso Project. It is the re-study of the same region after an enormous change in society. There is no point any longer to study family structures in traditional societies; nowadays we need to examine issues of elderly care or the impact of settlers from Osaka or other places who have moved to Aso in order to establish their second home (bessō) on the landscape, and the question how these newcomers integrate into the community. So the problems we are faced with as researchers have changed but I find it very positive that there is still a common line through this Aso project with former times.

Q: What about the challenges of research Japan then and now?

When we started our research (Linhart, Pauer and I) we discussed what kind of Japanese studies we would like to train people in, we wanted to create a focus on social sciences in the Japanese studies, that was the biggest challenge. I think we managed to do this through a broad education in the first two years of study and then more intensive education in shakai kagaku under Linhart… rōdō to kyūka (work and leisure), I think that’s what it was called in Linhart’s institute, plus the theme of play. 

Pauer moved into economic history, modernization, contemporary technology, and I having moved to Bonn, was pretty soon drawn into the issue of setting up the German Institute of Japanese Studies in Tokyo (DIJ Tokyo), an institute of the German Federal Government which in contrast to other such German research institutes in various foreign countries was not focused on history but working on contemporary Japan. That was the time of the bubbly economy. Our first and most important project I think was the project on value change, and later back in Bonn, ethics in medicine. We always had a comparative perspective as well, analyzing Japan and Germany. 

1968 was the year when Japan exceeded the gross national product of West Germany. That was a big shock for the German government. At the same time, there were student protests taking place in both countries… The German government made efforts to learn more about Japan, how have the Japanese managed to achieve this? German Japanologists like Horst Hammitzsch always rejected introducing this focus on the contemporary into their philologically orientated Japanology. 

So the project of establishing the German Institute for Japanese Studies was delayed, but then Minister Heinz Riesenhuber, who had a direct link with Japan as his brother was teaching at Sophia University and was thus familiar with everyday life in Japan, made the point that getting to know Japan is not only about the economy but also about society and science. When we had a meeting in Bonn, Prof Roland Schneider from Hamburg, Prof Wolfgang Schamoni from Heidelberg and two other colleagues. We were all in favour of the proposal of establishing the institute but called for two posts to have a focus on history and cultural studies, too. All the other German research institutes maintained across the world have a focus on history with a comparative emphasis. Despite all the opposition, the decision to establish the institute in Tokyo was finally asserted and I was asked to be its first director. 

Since having moved to Bonn, I was considered the white raven who did something that my philologically oriented colleagues could not do. In that sense, I was like a member of a minority since I worked on contemporary issues. This relates very much to the sense of isolation Joy Hendry mentioned in her interview. The sense of isolation we felt in Vienna was outstanding. We felt marginalized by our colleagues in Germany; we thought that they did not want to have anything to do with us as we had a contemporary focus. And we German speakers doing research into Japan were also isolated from our French colleagues, and it is still difficult today as they mostly do not speak English and keep to themselves in their research. And we were also isolated from our English speaking colleagues. When I read the interview with Joy Hendry, she says that there were only four English speaking colleagues in anthropology researching Japan at the time, mostly in the US. 

In Vienna, research had in fact been carried out on Japan since the late 1950s. But this is not really known elsewhere as we were not connected across countries at the time. The situation improved with the foundation of the European Association of Japanese Studies (EAJS). This was an attempt to break out from this isolation on the part of us Europeans and to obtain financial support from Japan as well. At the Pen Club Congress in Kyoto in 1972 hundreds of Japan researchers from all over the world were invited and the establishment of the Japan Foundation was announced plus an American Committee working together with the Japan Foundation. 

We were only few Europeans present at the time, Richard Storry from Oxford, me and a few others. As the Americans were already well connected with Japan through that committee and the US was clearly an important partner for Japan, it was very clear to us Europeans that Europe only came second or even third, after Japan’s Asian neighbours. At night in the hotel lobby we talked about the idea of getting together among Europeans and starting some kind of organization. Storry said that he would welcome us in Oxford the year after, so in 1973 the EAJS was officially founded. Patrick O’Neill (SOAS) was the first elected president and I was the first secretary in Vienna, Vienna being a place where it was easy to talk with our colleagues from East Europe on neutral territory. Since then, EAJS membership has grown rapidly, there were more than 1000 colleagues attending the conferences in Tallinn and Ljubljana. 

And now we have JAWS [founded in 1984]. I was hoping that those colleagues working in or with museums would also get together, but this does not seem to be happening, which is a pity. One of the reasons is that most curators are not only in charge of Japan but the whole of Asia, with many of them having only basic Japanese language skills. Personally, as an anthropologist I consider collaboration with museums as very important, collections of Japan for display in Europe often say much more about us than Japan, how do we perceive Japan? If you keep in mind that an exhibition at the National Federal Art Hall in Bonn in 2005 with objects from the Tokyo National Museum had more than 100.000 visitors. It is impossible to have so many readers as the author of an academic article or book. With a visually appealing exhibition you can reach more people and get your ideas on Japan across to a much bigger number than through written texts. 

Q: How do you perceive the recent closure of a number of Japan studies institutes?

I am rather an optimist on this issue, I don’t think that the situation is so bad in fact. We have had a great number of new institutes that were established in the 1970s and 80s in Germany, the UK and Italy. Of course, universities generally need to cut expenses and Japan studies certainly belongs to those disciplines that are at risk of being eliminated, but so are others. There have been fusions with other Asia sections, I think it is important to support one another. In Bonn, for example, Japanese Studies was quite strong, with robust number of students and through fusing with Indian and Southeast Asian Studies we could save Indian Studies from being closed. In other universities, perhaps Indian Studies can help to save Japanese Studies. 

I also believe that a close cooperation with the method-oriented disciplines such as history, social sciences etc. is really important. People considered me mad when after the closure of folklore studies, sociology and anthropology in Bonn I made a remark that it would have been better to close down Japanese Studies as we did not have a partner to talk to afterwards…it is very important for us to have a network with the methodological disciplines. But going back to the topic of the position of Japanese studies, we still have a great number of students interested in studying with us rather than a decrease.

Q: Which scholars have influenced you most?

Well, Slawik – I will not elaborate here, but he was like a father to me. Then Oka Masao with his theory of different cultural complexes that entered and shaped Japan at different times. Oka was definitely a strong influence, and with regard to research on Okinawa, Hokama Shuzen, who was later at Hōsei and founded the Research Institute for Okinawan Culture there. It was he who showed me (more than Yanagita) that in Japanese culture two cultural systems coexist, the Okinawa tradition (uchinanchū) and the mainland tradition (yamatonchū). I was very impressed with that. As a personal friend, Sumiya Kazuhiko was very important, with whom I conducted comparative fieldwork in villages in Okinawa and in the Eifel area in Germany. I thought doing this kind of research, with one colleague being from within the culture and one from outside was very insightful and I learned this approach from Sumiya.

Q: What advice do you have for younger colleagues thinking about starting an academic career?

Difficult question. I think mastering many European languages is very important and you also need this outside of academia. Otherwise there is no way of knowing what colleagues in France, Russia and other countries are working on. Jürgen Berndt and Bruno Lewin in Germany were the only ones who could speak Russian. In Russia we have hundreds of colleagues in Japanese Studies from Saint Petersburg to Moscow and Vladivostok. European languages should get more attention than previously in my opinion. For the native speakers of the English language the strong focus on English is actually a disadvantage in my view as they think that they know already everything; the French publish very much in their own language, and we have quite a lot of research output in the respective European languages as well. So we should be learning more languages both in Europe, but also in the United States so that they do not end up gazing at themselves too much.

Thank you!

(The interview with Prof Kreiner was conducted by Susanne Klien at the JAWS conference 2015 in Istanbul. Pictures: Brigitte Steger, Istanbul)

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