home > writings

...Consumption and Material Culture in Contemporary Japan
Michael Ashkanazi & John Clammer (eds). London: Kegan Paul International Ltd, 2000, 319 pp. $65.00 (hardback).

This paper first appeared as
Fletcher, Gordon (2000) "The New Renaissance: Computers and the Next Level of Civilisation (Book Review)", Media Information Australia: Culture & Policy, August, No.96, pp.202-203.

Consumption and Material Culture in Contemporary Japan is a diverse collection of essays that attempts to provide an insight into Japanese culture(s). Each essay represents this culture through consideration of a specific material culture item or consumption practice. These topics represent a cornucopia of cultural phenomena and range from discussions of lunch boxes and swords to sex work and 'body projects'. The editors, in the introduction, present a critique of previous material culture works that have focussed on Japan and present an argument for more sensitive and specific readings of Japanese material culture. This argument appears to reflect, at least in part, an attempt to intellectually align the volume with Japan Studies rather than Sociology, Anthroplogy or Cultural Studies. The bibliography for the collection reveals only tangential engagement with European, American and Australian work in these other disciplines. Whether this is a conscious ommission or a reflection of the claimed specificity of material culture and consumption studies in Japan can only be conjecture. However, while the introduction provides both a theoretical and political framework for the volume its articulation in the individual essays is less definite.

The collection's stated theme is little more than a tenuous connecting thread between some essays. In some cases there is tendency towards primarily descriptive works that are stylistically informed by 'hard science' discourses, this includes Rodriguez del Alisal's discussion of Japanese lunch boxes (bentô-bako) and Hendry's "Material Objects and Mathematics in the Life of the Japanese Primary School Child". As a consequence these papers present a wealth of details and historical background but relatively little critical discussion. While this is obviously a criticism, such material is indispensible for others with similar research interests. Hendry's essay is also the most traditionally 'material culture' in its approach of all the essays presented.

Other contributions, such as Lumsing's, "Prostitution, Dating, Mating and Marriage" appears to struggle through its ethnographic material under the theoretical assumption that gender is constituted as a binary construction. The underlying self-confessional basis for this particular essay presents an additional layer of interpretation and complexity that further shifts its attention further from the collection's overall theme. Lumsing's essay is fragmented, the complexities of sex work, gender identity and the 'consumption' of sex are joined in an almost haphazard fashion. The regularity of references to his forthcoming monograph, coincidentally available through the same publisher, suggests that the work presented in this collection is a small shadow of a much more comprehensive and thoroughly argued work.

The contributions by the two editors each, in different ways, attempt to integrate the perspective laid out in the introduction with specific examples of Japanes culture. Ashkanazi works in a comparative framework with his "Swords, Collectors and Kula exchanges". The comparison and argument is perhaps an obvious one; exchange in both these situations is not based solely on some arbitrary economic value but involves complex consideration of aesthetics, provenance, history and the social relationship between giver and receiver. However, as nearly half of this essay is dedicated to discussing the Kula exchange in detail, it suggests that the editors intended this volume to be an introductory reader for Japan studies or, possibly, material culture studies. Clammer's "The Global and The Local", offers a similar comparative approach. By arguing for the specificity of consumption practices in a particular suburb in Tokyo, Clammer appears to defeat his own argument in light of the contemporary influences of globalisation on Japan - and the suburb in question.

Notwithstanding these issues, this volume has its merits. A collection which deals exclusively with Japan and one which tackles the paired research areas of material culture and consumption is possibly justification in itself for some libraries. For undergraduate students in any of these fields the collection is a useful insight into the 'doing' of research and the range of material that can be studied in the of any of these fields. The introduction to this collection bemoans the lack of material culture studies in social research despite its apparent increased applicabilty to the interpretation of contemporary 'postmodern' consumer orientated environments. Curiously, this has become an almost cliched premise for most material culture studies published in the last two decades. While it is hard to deny this claim for legitimacy and validity, collections such as this need to present and encourage a more critical and theoretical engagement with the 'problems' of material culture studies - irrespective of its specific application - before it will throw off this 'underdog' image. Until this occurs, material culture studies will be consigned - like the cases of museum curios that it helped fill - to the backroom of academic research.

Gordon Fletcher
School of Film, Media and Cultural Studies
Griffith University