Describing Tradition: A Problem in Anthropological Method

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, they 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?

Any suggestions?

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Comment by John McCreery on January 27, 2012 at 5:05am

And, ah yes, that old chestnut, etic vs emic. It's a beautiful example of an idea that made sense where it originated, phonetic vs phonemic analysis in Kenneth Pike's linguistics but was then taken up, distended and blurred, resulting in a lot of what Gerry Berreman exquisitely labeled "Anemic and Emetic Analysis." I take my stand with Victor Turner, who taught me that ethnographers work with three kinds of data, our personal observations (what we ourselves see, hear, smell, taste, touch), what people tell us (native exegesis), and other stuff (ideas and results of other research) that we bring to our analysis. Vic insisted, quite correctly I believe, that none of the three was "The Answer." All are only bits and pieces from which we try to construct a convincing account of whatever it is that we're talking about, and we shouldn't be surprised to discover contradictions, when, for example, what we observe and what people tell us appear to be contradictory. 

Enough, enough. This is one of my favorite hobby horses. I do love the old nag....

Comment by John McCreery on January 27, 2012 at 4:56am

Jendju, good to hear from you. First, on the personal front, yes, Ruth and I are permanently settled in Japan. Recently, however, we have been spending two or three months a year in the States, lending a hand with the grandkids as the amazing daughter continues to amaze: now out of the Navy (we were in Corpus Christi, TX) for the births of Keegan (now 5) and Fiona (now 3), graduated from the Kennedy School at Harvard (two summers in Cambridge, MA), now working for IBM (last summer in Fairfax, VA; shortly headed there again since son-in-law Pat is a Marine Corps pilot and will be spending three months in Qatar. 

Turning, however, to your comments. I detect a fundamental difference in our views of language and anthropology. You seem greatly concerned about whether X is or is not Y, a question in which I now have not the slightest interest. My approach is now entirely pragmatic. Thus, if my neighbors say that the rice-pounding ritual is part of Japanese tradition, I take what they say at face value. My interest is in what "tradition" might imply to a thoughtful observer. It is certainly not, to me, what Victor Mauer seems to think in the thread on honor killing, an irresistible force compelling people to behave as they do. The objective fact that when push comes to shove only a relative handful of individuals turn out to organize the event and that total participation is, at most, say 20% of the community on whose behalf the event is organized, suffices to dismiss that interpretation as nonsense. How, else, then, might we think of tradition. I think of a few possibilities, ideal types, performances, grammars, bricolages. What interests me is the way in which each points our eyes and ears to different aspects of the events in which we participate. The ideal type directs me to look for consensus, for the taken-for-granted stuff on which everyone involves agrees. Performance directs my attention, instead, to staging, language and gesture and how this performance of the ritual differs from those I see on YouTube. Grammar makes me ask if there are rules of which participants themselves may be largely unaware that determine what is or is not an acceptable version of the ritual. Could, for example, some of the mochi be pounded by a clever kitchen appliance I can buy at a local department store and still be distributed for consumption as part of the event? I have been told that this idea was considered several years ago, but the electrical circuits weren't up to supplying enough power for the number of machines required. Bricolage? Where did this or that piece of equipment come from? At least some of the pots and pans were on loan from residents in the complex. Others had been purchased by the local government association and are stored between ceremonies in a collectively owned storage shed. The wood-burning stoves? A community member who owns a small metal-working shop made and donated them.... The "theories" in question are not mutually exclusive. Considering each in turn as we read the field note, we find ourselves attending to questions that one theory points to, which others neglect. Is a fifth or sixth "theory" possible? Of course. The more the merrier. 

Comment by Jendju Collins on January 26, 2012 at 8:37pm

And finally John, your last question:

Could we argue, then, that a proper thick description should embody all four?

I would have to take issue with the phrase "Proper description" - according to who, for what purposes, under what context?

Of course it could embody all four, it probably doesn't have to, but more importantly, is that it could embody many other kinds of aspects.



Delighted to converse with you again John,

Are you retired now?

Have you and your wife made Japan your home, for life then?


Regards, Jendju Collins



Comment by Jendju Collins on January 26, 2012 at 8:36pm

Your 4th question:

Our topic, however, is "tradition." What happens if we reverse our approach and attack it from the outside in?


John, from the outside is an etic approach. It has its value. But I have always delved deeply from an emic approach and got the most fantastic results.

The etic approach is used to speak to other academics about what is going on in academically constructed terms, or even key informants, depending on the individual's level of understanding.

It's an outsider objective (to what degree, depth, and level of understanding varies) view of what is going on.


Comment by Jendju Collins on January 26, 2012 at 8:35pm

Your question 3:

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?


John I think it depends what the research question is that the anthropologist is addressing.

Your question:

Is "Japanese tradition" an ideal type, imperfectly realized in all the variations?

Again, which Japanese traditions are you referring to, is a question I would have asked.

You would have to choose some core traditions that have stood the test of time and discuss why. ( I refer you to my own dissertation that specifically addresses this).

In the final analysis you would provide the data acquired from fieldwork re these core traditions and what is going on here.

Final analysis: go back to the research question.

Enough exposure and experience with the data in the field would tell me what is going on.

What did the core data you found in the fieldwork tell you. This is what is included in the final analysis.


I would not take categorical theories to the field, observe a ritual, and say where do I slot this.

My approach is inductive not deductive.

Plus I would add, being extensively familiar with the literature prior to the Egypt fieldwork, and in my case very familiar (from experience) with Middle Eastern/African culture before I even went to Egypt was a huge bonus for me. John one of the biggest bonuses for me during my Egypt fieldwork (ongoing) is that I had serendipity and synchronicity working with me almost 100 % of the time. Consequently the data I unveiled was astounding and profound. Moreover, during the 2 years of fieldwork for my Masters, the same occurred.

Comment by Jendju Collins on January 26, 2012 at 8:34pm

sorry john did not realize text i could post was so limited.

I'll break it down into addressing each question you asked.

continuing from my 1st post:

There are participants who, after many years of following a modified version of a ritual, no longer know it was a modification and transmit that "this is the way it has always been done."

There are participants that believe their rituals and traditions have never been altered in any way throughout time.

Just a little sidenote I observed from my own fieldwork.


As for asking if Japanese tradition is an ideal type, my mind automatically asks, which Japanese tradition are you specifically referring to? There are many.

Yes, they can be differentiated from other traditions of other cultures, and you can use the umbrella term "Japanese tradition" but they are also differentiated among themselves. Each has its core template (your word ideal) adhered to in varying degrees.



Comment by Jendju Collins on January 26, 2012 at 8:26pm

John McCreery!!!!!

I am absolutely delighted to find you on this list.

We communicated often on Anthro-L back in 1999-2001 and beyond when I was doing fieldwork in Egypt for the first time with the Bedouin.

Loved our dialogues.

Wondered about you often through the years.

I see you are still in Japan.


I read the traditional rice ritual you described and you asked how one would interpret this as a fieldnote.

You then went on to describe how you went to the internet – gave number count, then utube videos etc.

Interestingly, I did not do that. As I was reading the process for the ritual, interpretively, various components jumped out at me, as points for further exploration. A couple of examples here.


1. Informal Educational component: vertical  transmission of the ritual – older man showing younger men how to do mochi-pounding.


2. in the below paragraph:

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.


I immediately caught the symbolism of the male/female space demarcations.

 I thought of Rodney Needham's 1973 Right and Left. Essays on dual symbolic classification.


You know John, there is much male/female spacial division in Bedouin culture.

What I found comparatively interesting about your example, is that it was the males who were at the back by the food while the females were at the front.

Of course this would be completely reversed in Bedouin culture. The females would be at the back or most internal space – far from the front. While the males would be at the front – where visitors, (strangers or known), would come but have no access to the females.

Qualifier: close male relatives are not held by this restrictive rule.


John, I have to say, I would not have gone to the internet for my knowledge and understanding of this FIELDNOTE. Rather, during this specific ritual process I would have gone and spoke with participants, and participated in, the process itself. This would have given me much more data to fill out the fieldnote.

I myself would have probed more during the actual preparation of the ritual, to provide deeper understanding of the roots of the specific tradition. Not a lost opportunity however, as it can still be done by going and speaking with many of the people that participated.

That is first hand experience data.

Only later would I have perhaps gone to the internet or in my case (many )books to see what information could be found historically, or by other fieldwork – anthropologists, or other professionals that had been exposed to and/or participated in the process.


Re your 2nd question:

Therein, of course, lies the question. Is "Japanese tradition" an ideal type, imperfectly realized in all the variations?

There may be a 'template' (Ideal type) but over time, variations – many times out of necessity, occur.

John, many years ago I read an article, I cannot remember the author's name now, but the point I remembered was that the particular African ritual under discussion required milk. There was no milk, some substitution was used.

What appears to be a small and insignificant detail, was not to me.

This small alteration in a very old ritual was significant.

There are participants that recognize the necessity for modifications to performing traditions and rituals. And it is no big deal, they recognize change, and flow with it.

There are participants who, after many years of following a modified version of a ritual, no longer know it was a modification and t

Comment by John McCreery on January 23, 2012 at 3:14pm

Nathan, I'm not saying that it doesn't matter. In the short run, it matters a lot—as a demonstration of what you are capable of. And without the short run, there is no long run.

Seriously, my aim is not to discourage you or to tell you what to do. As a man in his late sixties, I have no dog in current fights for grants, jobs, or tenure. I'm just looking back and sharing a big of experience and what I think I learned from it. You will do what you need to do to get where you want to go. Then, someday, when the problem of securing funding for first fieldwork is behind you, you may get a chance to relax and reflect. But this is not that moment for you. I know that and wish you the best of luck.

Comment by Nathan Dobson on January 23, 2012 at 1:59pm

Aspiring graduates are still being told that they will come back with very different ideas. It's encouraged! The idea that your proposal doesn't really matter in the long run seems strange from the point of view of someone busting their guts to produce one. Saying that you need to prove that you are adaptable is replacing the bar with another one. How many roads must a man walk down?

Comment by John McCreery on January 20, 2012 at 1:53am

Nathan, I recall, in what I hope is not an overly edited memory, discussing this issue with one of my advisors at Cornell in the late 1960s. The advice I heard was that if you come back with something different from what your proposal described, that in itself is no big deal, if you do a good job with what you discover.  At the grant application stage what you are demonstrating academic competence, i.e.,  if you do stumble across something interesting, you know how to pursue the questions you settle on.

Later, working in the advertising industry, I discovered a similar system. A first presentation is also often simply a demonstration that the agency you represent has interesting ideas and the resources to execute whatever concept the client finally decides on. Once past that hurdle, the concept actually executed may turn out to be radically different from what was originally proposed. 

I don't sit on committees that allocate grants. Never have, never will. But if I did, I would ask of every application, "What's this kid going to do if this plan doesn't work out?" and look for evidence of the resilience and imagination that rising to that situation would require.

I wonder, are these kinds of observations useful to you?


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