Japan proves rich for research and senses

Kathryn Goldfarb, a PhD student in cultural anthropology, spent the past year in an intensive Japanese language program in Yokohama, Japan. The recipient of a 2008 Fulbright fellowship, she will begin her dissertation research fellowship in September. Below is her account of a recent summer day in Tsurumi:

It looked like rain, but the crowds in the streets were undeterred. Girls and women in bright-colored yukata and people of all ages in happi coats mingled through food stalls offering grilled squid, Turkish ice cream, Chinese dumplings, Brazilian empañadas. The food selections express the diversity of my neighborhood in Tsurumi, Japan, home to a sizeable immigrant population—many of whom work at nearby manufacturing plants and a local science laboratory.

On this Saturday afternoon, I didn't linger to enjoy the annual neighborhood festival. I was meeting friends to go to a pottery sale at the Nakano Care Center, a city-funded community welfare organization that opened in 1998.

The center provides facilities for the elderly community and progressive programs for developmentally disabled young adults. The latter program, titled SELP ("self help"—a classic Japanese fusion of English words), teaches life skills and provides social opportunities for its young adult clients, many of whom suffer from autism and Down syndrome. The program has dramatically lessened their symptoms and improved their lives.

Groups of non-disabled employees work with disabled community members to bake bread and pastries, which are sold at the SELP store and café on the first floor of the center. They also make tofu, soy milk, and fermented soybeans, produce soba and udon noodles, roast and sell coffee, create pottery, and weave scarves and tote bags.

I was introduced to the care center in October 2008. I had come to Japan the month before, at the start of an intensive 10-month language program, which would precede my dissertation research, scheduled to begin in the fall of 2009.

My research on the Japanese family system had led me to contact Professor Tsuzaki Tetsuo at Kyoto Prefectural University, who specializes in the sociology of child welfare. He was leading monthly training sessions, held at the Nakano Care Center, for the staff of a new orphanage in Yokohama that would open in June 2009. It quickly became apparent that investigating the Japanese adoption system would provide key insights for my dissertation.

On this Saturday in June, we ate too much bread and bought too much pottery. As always, I felt grateful that I had stumbled onto such a rare resource: Where else could one find both delicious noodles and such a rich site for research?

When my friends and I returned to Tsurumi that night, the festival was in full swing. A woman with an infant in a sling on her back led a swaying, marching mass of people bearing a mikoshi, a portable Shinto shrine, through the neighborhoods.