Published: April 25, 2016

On January 22, 2016, Dr. Chika Watanabe, Lecturer in Social Anthropology at the University of Manchester, presented the paper, “Tinkering with Difference: The Ethical Labor of Aid in a Japanese NGO.” Her visit was generously sponsored by the Center for Asian Studies and the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Center to Advance Research and Teaching in the Social Sciences, the Department of Anthropology, and the Program in International Affairs. Her talk was well-attended, drawing participants from departments of Anthropology, History, English, and affiliates of the Center for Asian Studies, and included a sizeable number of graduate and undergraduate students, many of whom took part in the lively Q&A.

Watanabe’s research focuses on a Shinto-based Japanese NGO that nonetheless identifies as a nonreligious organization, neither religious nor secular. Through the lens of this organization, she is interested in understanding the logics and practices of Japanese aid in Southeast Asia. She is currently in the process of producing a book manuscript based on her doctoral fieldwork, entitled Muddy Labor: Nonreligion and the Moral Imaginations of Aid Work in a Japanese NGO in Myanmar. Watanabe’s book examines what she calls moral imaginations of becoming one: a vision of human-nature interconnection based on claims of a Shinto ecology and aspirations to become one with others. Whereas Western aid is often understood as a response to the suffering of distant strangers, her project shows how the ideologies, experiences and politics of Japanese aid in Asia emerge from ideas of intimacy and oneness, with echoes of Pan-Asian imperialist ambitions. She is interested in how this approach to aid can be simultaneously meaningful and problematic for its participants.

A counterpart to her book project, the paper presented at the University of Colorado Boulder focused on the ways that Japanese aid actors discursively and pragmatically frame Japan as a model of development. Staff members at the NGO where Watanabe conducted her research, which conducts trainings in sustainable agriculture in Southeast Asia, stressed the importance of leading by example to instill “Japanese values” in non-Japanese trainees. Focusing on the NGO’s activities in Myanmar, the paper examined relations of imitation as a key way that aid workers imagined “making persons” who could bring about a sustainable future. However, imitations in practice can never be exact copies. Watanabe’s paper argued that Japanese and Burmese actors understood “development” as the ethical labor of tinkering with the differences that appeared in imitations, making copies that were almost like the models, but not quite.

Watanabe’s paper provocatively explored the ways that ideas of development are understood as scalable projects, such that “making persons” is part of “making communities” and even “making nations,” all processes based on seeing development as the imitation of “successful” examples—in this case, Japan. Ironically, Watanabe’s interlocutors did not problematize their own understanding of Japan as a model for imitation, in a context in which Japan is often viewed as a nation of excellent imitators, rather than innovators. Watanabe illustrated how, in the context of development work, these processes of imitation are imperfect, introducing variations in practice that cannot be traced back to the “original” model of Japanese agricultural work. Further, it was often unclear who was imitating whom, as pidgin Japanese and Burmese language use proliferated in aid communities. Most importantly, Watanabe highlighted how within the notion of liberal nation-building, ideas of “making persons” through imitation recapitulates familiar hierarchies across nations, incorporating and reconfirming uneven relationships into ideas of solidarity and cross-border labor.