Interrogating Forms of Dissidence

An Approach to Physical and Mental Escapes from Japan

Marcos P. Centeno Martin, Birkbeck, University of London [About | Email]

Volume 18, Issue 3 (Book review 2 in 2018). First published in ejcjs on 16 December 2018.

Guarné, Blai and Hansen, Paul (eds) (2017) Escaping Japan: Reflections on Estrangement and Exile in the Twenty-First Century, London: Routledge, ISBN 9781138235243, paperback, 9781315282770 ebook, 255 pages.

Under the theme ‘Escaping Japan’, editors Blai Guarné and Paul Hansen have assembled a collection of essays for the JAWS (Japan Anthropology Workshop Series), presenting critical reflections on the idea of ‘escape’ as a form of estrangement and exile, as either physical or virtual forms of displacement. This volume brings fresh air to the anthropological study of modern Japan through research which has as its starting point three conference meetings. The contributors to this volume interrogate cultural and social phenomena to reveal experiences of feeling out of place and not fitting into a normative Japan. This ‘escape’ shows expressions of disorientation but also manifests a sort of clandestine sabotage of social expectations and subverts assumptions of cultural homogeneity. The notion of ‘escape’ is studied as a response to an imposed ideology, with the authors embarking on an assessment of a slippery phenomenon in which individuals never totally succeed in leaving behind their personal past, social constraints and cultural imaginings.

The anthropological study of Japan has been enriched in recent years by a more dynamic understanding of cultural identity through works on diversity (Graburn, Ertl and Tierney 2008; Lee, Murphy-Shigematsu and Befu 2006), social difference (Aoki 2000; Eades, Gill and Befu 2000; Kawano, Roberts and Long 2014; Kingston 2004; Maswood, Graham and Miyajima 2002) and critical approaches to hegemonic models on Japaneseness (Befu 2001). These contributions have been essential for overcoming the constraints of cultural essentialism and depictions of Japan as a harmonious and homogenous nation, a characterisation which has been seriously called into question since the mid-1980s (Aoki 1988; Morris-Suzuki 1998; Denoon, Hudson, McComarck and Morris-Suzki 2001; Eades, Gill and Befu 2000; Yoda and Harootunian 2006).

However, new approaches to multiculturalism have also recently been demanded as a consequence of criticism against the monolithic categorisations of difference (Ertl and Hansen 2015) and‘cosmetic multiculturalism’ based on the ‘F scheme’ of fashion, festival and food (Morris-Suzuki 2002). The authors present research based on sound fieldwork on multipolar phenomena instrumental for dismantling what Harumi Befu (2001), defines as ‘habitus of homogeneity’. Therefore, Guarné and Hansen propose the concept of ‘escape’ as an epistemological tool to encourage the contributors of this volume to reflect critically on personal struggles and contestations in contemporary Japan. But as John Mock asks (p. 222) in the afterword, what would be there to escape from? Despite other hegemonic political discourses, homogeneity did not make sense to scholars for a long time. However, the novelty of this volume is twofold: first, the idea of ‘escape’ is studied as both geographical escape and as mental escape; and second, contributors propose an escape as taking place either abroad or within Japan.

The first half of Escaping Japan focuses on this kind of mental escape—in cafés, alcohol, robotics, and literature. Chapters 2, 3 and 4 assess particular ways of escaping from normative masculinity. Patrick W. Galbraith focuses on emotional escape, tackling an ethnographic study of maid cafés where customers find an alternative masculinity, free from reproductive responsibilities in the context of the Japanese recession and neo-liberal deregulation of the 1990s. Galbraith shows how maid cafés work as spaces where intimacy is re-established and fulfil personal affective needs without expectations of reproductive maturity, explaining that this is what makes them so offensive to many Japanese.

Paul Christensen explores the oddly positive tolerance of inebriated people in public life. The text presents a critical approach to the relationship between masculinity and alcoholism, which seems to be socially acceptable. Christensen reveals how associations such as Alcoholic Anonymous and the Sobriety Association seek to escape these structures in which masculine identity is created around alcohol consumption. Hirofumi Katsuno explores issues of masculinity from another angle, focusing on the rise of amateur robot builders in Japan and their interactions with the cyber-world as an escapism that lies between fantasy and reality. To Katsuno, this leisure activity allows its practitioners freedom from a society full of anxiety and corporate constraints. Daniel White discusses the escape provided by the reading of Murakami Haruki’s literature, marked by narratives of escape from mainstream Japanese culture. White discusses the irony of how Murakami challenges the rhetoric of nationalism dominating Japanese public discourse today while his literature is appropriated as a national cultural institution. Thus, White assesses how Murakami defies the uses of soft power by bringing to the fore the translational dimension of his work.

The second half of the volume revolves around physical escape: Japanese retirees moving to Malaysia, Japanese tourists in Taiwan, Japanese seeking alternative ways of life in Hokkaido, and Ainu people moving to Tokyo. In chapter 7, Kylie Martin discusses the displacement of Ainu people from Hokkaido to Tokyo, which can be studied in terms of dislocation, marginalisation and re-invention. Martin shows that Tokyo offers an urban landscape that allows the younger Ainu generation to create hybridised forms of identity. This chapter explores new artistic activities, mainly using musical performances and innovative cultural and linguistic practices challenging traditional Ainu forms. Thus, Martin understands escape as a form of resistance from essentialist ideas of being Ainu, bringing to the fore cultural practices that illustrate new attitudes of pride and empowerment rather than pessimism about marginalisation. In Chapter 8, Paul Hansen focuses on rural settings of the Tokachi region in Hokkaido. Through his fieldwork with several informants, Hansen assesses the history of the marginalisation of the site, which attracts individuals seeking a way out of normative life, and discusses their human and non-human relations.

Chapters 9 and 10 address the idea of escape and transnationality. Chien-Yuan Chen deals with the paradoxes related to Japanese tourism in Taiwan. Escape is interrogated from a tourism-perspective, in which familiarity has replaced nostalgia to attract Japanese tourists. Chen reveals that strategies shifted from iyarashi Taiwan (Taiwan for sex tourism) to iyashi Taiwan (healing destination) for family tourism. Mayumi Ono discusses a specific form of migration to Malaysia, a kind of transnational retirement of elderly Japanese, which has been promoted by the Malaysian government and also prompted by a desire to escape from social constraints or shigarami(commitments). Through this research based on fieldwork carried out in Kuala Lumpur, Ono reveals how, ironically, Japanese retirees recreate the same social constraints in Malaysia that they wanted to escape from in Japan.

Blai Guarné’s text deals with an area somewhat in-between mental and physical escape. Combining social memory with the individual memory of his interlocutor, Guarné evidences the efforts of local authorities to forget their recent past. Guarné´s study reveals how the tensions of the fabricated furusato (homeland) promoted by Tachikawa erase from the collective memory any past related to the former military base hosted in this city. The chapter is supported by a study of the ideological use of language as part of the national construction, focusing on the role of loanwords in katakana in the new residential areas, as creating a liminal space between belonging and estrangement. Thus, the chapter assesses how the re-urbanisation of the city embarks on a contradictory self-orientalisation which boasts about its own cultural hybridity.

Throughout the various chapters, ‘escape’ is demonstrated to be a useful tool for assessing contemporary phenomena in Japan that underscores individual and social initiatives of change or rupture from normative social forms and mainstream culture. The book updates ethnographic studies of Japan by presenting diverse views that challenge old ideas of homogeneity in an innovative way. First, the contributors assess this matter in relation to the notion of ‘circulation’ as a dynamic system of global flows that have led to an increase of social and cultural interactions breaking down ethnic, cultural, language and national boundaries in an increasingly interconnected world. The strength of this approach is in rejecting the idea of statism and focusing on ideas of displacement and movement which defy the notion of shared homeland and national bounds. Second, this original ethnographic study counteracts discourses of homogenising social and cultural images of Japan, widening the scope from collective to individual dissidence, including personal struggles and initiatives escaping from tenaciously hegemonic models and normative life-styles. The chapters reveal a variety of reactions to marginalisation and exclusion assessing illustrative practices of emancipation. Third, the authors propose a renewed approach beyond criticism of cultural homogeneity that previously focused on a multi-ethnic, social and culturally diverse Japan. They offer a critical approach to the dichotomy the concept of ‘multiculturalism’ presents between ‘Japanese’ and ‘Non-Japanese’.

Escaping Japan: Reflections on Estrangement and Exile in the Twenty-First Centuryis a fresh and insightful account framing contemporary shifts in Japanese society in a suggestive and informative manner. The volume will be fascinating not only for students interested in the anthropology of Japan but also for those interested in wider aspects of Japanese society and culture. Readers will find crucial epistemological keynotes from which to interrogate issues of contemporary Japan, even beyond the case studies covered in the volume. Escaping Japanwill undoubtedly inspire a variety of research topics for advanced undergraduates and postgraduates.


  1. Introduction: Escaping Japan Inside and Out, Blai Guarné and Paul Hansen.
  2. Maid Cafés: Affect, Life and Escape in Akihabara, Patrick W. Galbraith.
  3. The Burden of Sobriety: Alcoholism and Masculinity in Japan, Paul Christensen.
  4. Robot Dreams: Play, Escape and Masculine-Romanticism in Japanese Techno-Culture, Hirofumi Katsuno.
  5. The Globalization of Melancholic Affect: Escaping Soft Power through the Literature of Murakami Haruki, Daniel White.
  6. Escaping through Words: Memory and Oblivion in the Japanese Urban Landscape, Blai Guarné.
  7. ‘Escaping’ the Hokkaido Homelands: Ainu Heteroglossia and the Performance of Ainu Urban Indigeneity in the Kantō Region, Kylie Martin.
  8. Kyoko’s Assemblage: Escaping ‘futsū no nihonjin’ in Hokkaido, Paul Hansen.
  9. ‘Escape’ to a Place of Familiarity: Transforming Japanese Tourist Imaginings of Taiwan, Chien-Yuan Chen.
  10. Fleeing from Constraints: Japanese Retirement Migrants in Malaysia, Mayumi Ono.
  11. After Words, Tien-Shi ‘Lara’ Chen, Blai Guarné, Paul Hansen, Susanne Klien, John Mock and David Blake Willis.


Aoki, Hideo (2000) Gendai Nihon no Toshi Kasō: Yoseba, Nozyukusya to Gaikokujin Rōdōsha [Japan’s Underclass: Day Labourers and the Homeless], Tokyo: Akashi Shoten.

Aoki, Tamotsu (1988) Bunka no Hiteisei[The Negativity of Culture], Tokyo: Chūō Kōronsha.

Befu, Harumi (2001) Hegemony of Homogeneity: An Anthropological Analysis of ‘Nihonjinorn’, Melbourne: Trans Pacific Press.

Graburn, Nelson H.H., Ertl, John and Tierney, Kenji (eds) (2008) Multiculturalism in the New Japan: Crossing the Boundaries Within, New York: Berghahn Books.

Lee, Soo Im, Murphy-Shigematsu, Stephen and Befu, Harumi (2006), Japan’s Diversity Dilemmas: Ethnicity, Citizenship, and Education, New York: iUniverse.

Denoon, Donald, Hudson, Mark, McCormack, Gavan and Morris-Suzki, Tessa(eds) (2001) Multicultural Japan: Paleolithic to Postmodern, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Eades, Jerry S., Gill, Tom and Befu, Harumi (2000) Globalisation and Social Change in Contemporary Japan, Melbourne: Trans Pacific Press.

Ertl, John and Hansen,Paul (2015) ‘Moving Beyond Multiculturalism as a Framework for Diversity in the Anthropology of Japan’, in John Ertl, John Mock, John McCreery and Gregory Poole (eds) Reframing Diversity in the Anthropology of Japan, Kanazawa: Kanazawa University Press.

Kawano, Satsuki, Roberts, Glenda S. and Long, Susan Orpett (2014) Capturing Contemporary Japan: Differentiation and Unertainty, Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Kingston, Jeff (2004) Japan’s Quiet Transformation> Social Change and Civil Society in the 21st Century, London and New York: Routledge.

Maswood, SeyedJaved, Graham, Jeffrey and Miyajima, Hideaki (eds) (2002) Japan – Change and Continuity,New York: Routledge.

Morris-Suzuki, Tessa (1998) Re-inventing Japan: Time, Space, Nation, Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.

Morris-Suzuki, Tessa (2002) HihantekiSozoryokuno tame ni – GurobarukaJidaino Nihon [In Search of Critical Imagination: Japan in an Age of Globalisation], Tokyo: Heibonsha.

Yoda, Tomiko and Harootunian, Harry (eds) (2006) Japan After Japan: Social and Cultural Life from the Recessionary 1990s to the Present, Durham: Duke University Press.

About the Author

Marcos P. Centeno Martin, Ph.D., is currently lecturer in the Department of Languages and Cultures at Birkbeck, University of London, where he teaches several courses of Japanese society, culture and cinema and coordinates its Japanese Studies programme. Before that, Centeno worked for several years at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies), was Research Associate at the International Institute for Education and Research in Theatre and Film Arts of Waseda University (Japan) and Research Fellow at the University of Valencia (Spain). His research focuses on documentary film, avant-garde, transculturality and representation of minorities in Japanese cinema.

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