Anthropology That Extends Globally from the Home


Content (Abstract)

This article introduces the pleasures and difficulties of conducting research on a religious organization that transcends the borders of area studies, and discusses the modern significance of such research.


Main text

Original text in Japanese, translated by RICAS

1. Introduction

Currently, I am conducting research on the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, a religious organization that arose from Sunni Islam in India’s Punjab region in 1889. Headquartered in England, it reportedly has over ten of millions of believers around the world, with the majority in Europe, Northern America, and West Africa. This movement is said to be the most successful Islamic group in spreading the religion outside the Muslim world. Research of this global religious movement sheds light on a variety of issues that arise in the modern age as globalization advances, including questions about the nation-state, identity, belonging, gender, global movement of people, minority survival, and passing of culture on to succeeding generations [cf. Minesaki 2013b].

I began research on Ahmadiyya in May 2012. During my time at the University of Tokyo’s Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia as a research fellow of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (April 2009 – March 2012), I focused on Egypt as my field and studied how Islamic discourses were used by women from the perspective of women’s legal literacy, using fatwas and activities of women preachers as case studies. I am, of course, still continuing this research. In Egypt, home of al-Azhar University, one of the most famous and long-established schools for training ulama, people apply Islam to daily life and live with Islam as a practical guide. The fundamental motive for my research was my desire to carefully depict Islam in daily life from a gender perspective. I was drawn to materials called fatwas, which concretely present applications of Islam, and enjoyed the work of analyzing their questions and answers. I had thought I would continue to research fatwas and gender.

Why, then, did I embark on research on Ahmadiyya? When I met Ahmadis (adherents of Ahmadiyya), I saw the significance of studying them. Such research could shed light on the shape of Islam, as well as the shape of cultural anthropology, in the modern age of globalization. This essay is written to explain this significance.

2. The Asymmetric Character of Cultural Anthropology

The establishment of cultural anthropology as a discipline is not unrelated to colonialism and the Western gaze. Cultural anthropology was born as a need of colonial rule, and developed as an academic field for those from advanced countries to study foreign cultures. The unequal power relationship between developing and developed countries casts a dark shadow on the establishment and development of cultural anthropology. Within the field itself, criticism has been mounting on the discipline’s structure, in which the researchers often originate from advanced Western European countries and Japan (for Japan’s complex standpoint, see Kawahashi [2013] and Kato [2009]), and the subjects being researched belong to developing countries and are considered as “the Other” (see, e.g., Abu-Lughod 1991, 2002; Ota 2009; Kawahashi 2013; Kato 2009). Despite such assessment, it has been almost impossible for those who have been subjected to the anthropological gaze as “foreign cultures” to cultivate their own cultural anthropologies and return the gaze to advanced countries.

Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) is well-known for revealing the European and North American gaze toward the Middle East. The word Orientalist has been directly imported into the Arabic language and is translated as “Mustashriqīn,” someone who seeks the East. The term has a clearly negative connotation and is used in the context of criticizing Orientalism and Orientalists. An informant, a woman who works as a preacher in a village in a village on the periphery of Cairo (given the pseudonym of Shima’a in Minesaki [2009]), persisted in asking me, “You are an Orientalist, aren’t you?” until she could be convinced about my stance and way of thinking. She was clearly wary of the Western gaze, which perceived Islam negatively. In particular, she did not hide her strong rejection of and resistance against the Western gaze, which negatively perceives or eroticizes phenomena involving gender, such as the veil and polygamy. One-sided and erroneous interpretations, and the impact of these interpretations as circulated discourses, lead to anger and resentment.

I had the intention of respectfully and sincerely exchanging views with the informant. However, am I really so different from an Orientalist? To this day, she still has not read and will not read the ethnographic articles that I wrote in Japanese, in which she is introduced. The informant told me her views without being able to examine what would be written in the future. Even now, there is clearly an asymmetry between the writer and his or her subject.

Criticism has been leveled at the first-world gaze not only in the field of cultural anthropology, but also gender studies and post-colonial studies, by scholars such as Chandra Mohanty, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Uma Narayan, and Mari Oka (Mohanty, 1986; Spivak, 1988; Narayan, 1997; Oka, 2000). Even today, “we” (the great majority of Japanese anthropologists belong in this category) enjoy the privilege as the ones gazing at others.

When I think about the privilege of the first world, of being the writer and the presenter, I am always reminded of Noha. Noha was a very special informant in Egypt who allowed me to live with her family in the Shubra district of Cairo for eight months from September 2000. I learned a lot about life in Egypt from Noha and her family, especially from her mother, Fatima, and her sister Nermeen. I learned about social relationships, such as relationships with relatives, family budgets, cooking, etiquettes and manners, and how to worship. I also learned much about the mentality of Egyptians, including their displays of emotions. While all sorts of episodes are not something that can be included in academic articles, it is no exaggeration to say this experience of living together with an Egyptian family laid the entire foundation of my occupation as a researcher. Noha, her family, her close friend Marwa, who also let me stay with her family, and her family were my family in the field. They were my adopted parents, my teachers, and my benefactors.

Noha was about 20 years old at the time. She was a student in the department of Japanese language in Cairo University, and hoped to study in Japan one day on government funding. As the youngest child in her family, she was a bit self-indulgent. She was competitive, and had confidence in her Japanese ability despite not studying much. She did not tell flattering lies (which, in my honest opinion, is unusual for an Egyptian), making her extremely trustworthy. She was earnest, and had a decent sense of self-esteem. She was curious about different cultures, and tried to respect them.

To improve her Japanese, Noha regularly needed Japanese friends. I introduced to her several Japanese in Cairo as I was returning to Japan. The number of Japanese students in Cairo is much greater than the number of Egyptian students in Japan. The students whom I introduced to Neha were all conducting research on Egypt. One day, I introduced her to a new Japanese student. As always, she asked me, “What does she do?” I replied, “She’s studying Egypt during the Mamluk Sultanate.” Noha suddenly became irritated, clucked her tongue, and yelled, “Japanese people are always studying us! I’m so sick of them!”

I could hear what she was trying to say: “We Egyptians can’t go to Japan so easily.” Her irritation and anger when faced with the asymmetry and inequality between the researcher and the researched are still fresh in my mind. I could understand her anger that had erupted for a moment. She was correct without a fault. But there was no way out of this predicament. Noha wanted to go to Japan someday. However, that dream is still unfulfilled.

3. Anthropology Begins at Home

The asymmetric nature of cultural anthropology is not as overt as it was in the past, but it remains the fate of cultural anthropology, and it is karma for cultural anthropologists. Ahmadiyya, which appeared in Japan, my “home,” in a way transcends this asymmetry. I met Ahmadis through Ishinomaki, an area stricken by the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake. With a command of the Japanese language, they devoted themselves to volunteer work to help the survivors of the disaster. (I was introduced to them by an uncle on my mother’s side, Yoshiaki Shoji, who lives in Ishinomaki City in Miyagi Prefecture. He lost his home and office as a result of the earthquake and tsunami. For activities of the Ahmadis in Ishinomaki, see the paper by Minesaki [2013a] and the movie by Fujikawa [2012]).

As members of Humanity First, an NPO founded by the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in 1994, the Ahmadis made their way to Ishinomaki, a rusting local city being hit by waves of depopulation. We can see the character of this religious movement well here. Islam has a certain presence in Japan through mosques in urban centers such as Tokyo, Fukuoka, Osaka, and Nagoya. The cafeterias in the University of Tokyo have signs for Muslims indicating pork ingredients, and the university’s Hongo Keyaki daycare center prepares halal meals for school lunches. However, for the residents of Ishinomaki, it was the first time meeting Muslims. They were “the Other” in a literal sense. I did not think a day would come when I would hear the words, “There are Pakistani Muslims who came to the shelter,” which was what my uncle in Ishinomaki said to me on the telephone. Ishinomaki is indeed a place I call “home,” where my native Sendai dialect can be used. The Ahmadis came to this remote part of Japan. I think what they developed with the survivors and other volunteers through disaster relief efforts were bonds as compatriots who experienced a crisis together, and trust and a sense of accomplishment in transcending cultural differences and helping one another. While one should be warned against overly idealizing or romanticizing the relationships built in the midst of disaster utopia, we anthropologists can receive valuable suggestions from such relationships.

In my hometown, I unexpectedly met Muslims who traveled a long distance to lend a hand in the disaster. They spoke Japanese and they lived glocally in the global society. The diverse coincidences that happened as a result of the disaster were prerequisites for the gamut of events from meeting them to studying them. However, even if they seemed coincidental, these events also necessarily had their origin in globalization. This is because already included within Japan geographically are “foreign cultures,” “the Other,” as well as people who live on the fringe of society, who traverse linguistically and culturally between Japanese culture and other cultures. My experience represents two-way encounters at home. This means that what should be called “studies of different cultures at home” or “cultural anthropology at home” is already taking place.

This situation is not only an expression of globalization and postmodernity in our times, it also illuminates a path down the road to deconstruct the asymmetry between the observer and the observed in cultural anthropology. At least this is my hope when assessing this state of affairs.

At present, research of foreign cultures in a society is overwhelmingly made up of studies of different cultures within the society by those who belong to the mainstream culture (this includes my research). However, someday I want to read ethnographies by minority members who conduct fieldwork on majority members. Furthermore, speaking of desires, I hope that the future will bring ethnographies created together by minority cultures and the majority culture, all of whom are conscious of self-referentiality so as not to absolutize one’s privilege of giving accounts, and also conscious of the responsibility to return the gaze of others (Kawahashi, 2013: 59). Such ethnographies would be created by people who share geographic space, yet have different cultural backgrounds. “Cultural anthropology at home” in a globalized society may provide a lead in resolving the aporia that is the asymmetric character of cultural anthropology. (I may be too optimistic.)

4. From the Home to the World

The headquarters of Ahmadiyya has crossed borders twice, from India to Pakistan, and from Pakistan to England. The religion has many believers who have experienced a life of migration and border crossings. It is not unusual for Ahmadis to migrate again from Japan to another location because of marriage or business. Ahmadis live around the world, and speak a variety of languages. They show a breadth that transcends the framework of Asian studies and area studies.

To pursue this reality of transcendence, I am not just limiting the research on Ahmadiyya that I began from home to just that location. I will also follow its network from Japan and broaden my scope to overseas locations. They include England, where its headquarters is located; Pakistan, a former home; Germany and Canada, where many Ahmadis live; and Israel, where evangelization took place before the state was established. Ahmadis in Arabic-speaking regions, such as Egypt, Tunisia, and Palestine, took interest in a Japanese person who also speaks Arabic, and said to me, “Be sure to come to my home.” I may visit Egypt, my original field of research, again to study the Ahmadi Muslim Community. This research is rich with wonder, and will very likely provide me with valuable experience as a researcher.

Anthropology that extends globally from the home to the rest of the world also freely crosses linguistic, national, and ethnic boundaries. Seeking to realize trans-regional Asian studies, I cannot imagine leaving this alluring study of religion for the time being.


Abu-Lughod, Lila, 1991, “Writing Against Culture.” In Recapturing Anthropology. Richard G. Fox (ed.) pp.137-162. School of American Research Advanced Seminar Series.
―――― 2002 Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? American Anthropologist 104 (3): 783-790.
Ahmed, Leila, 1992, Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate, Yale University Press.
Fujikawa, Keizo (director), 2012, Ishinomakishiritsu Minato shogakuko hinanjo [Ishinomaki Public Minato Elementary School: Evacuation Shelter]
Kato, Etsuko, 2009, 「日本人‐ネイティブ‐人類学徒―劣等感も選良意識も超えた自文化研究に向けて―」[Japanese-Native-Anthropologists: Not the Inferior or Chosen]『文化人類学』[Cultural Anthropology] 71 (2):202-220.
Kawahashi, Noriko, 2013,『妻帯仏教の民族誌:ジェンダー宗教学からのアプローチ』[An Ethnography of Buddhist Clerical Marriage: An Approach from Religious Gender Studies], Jimbun Shoin.
Minesaki, Hiroko, 2009「イスラーム言説にみるジェンダー戦略と権威--現代エジプトの女性説教師を事例にして」[Gender strategy and authority in Islamic discourses: the female preacher case studies in contemporary Egypt], Gender Studies 12 (29): 77-91.
―――― 2013a「東日本大震災支援にみる異文化交流・慈善・共生 : イスラーム系NGO ヒューマニティ・ファーストと被災者たち」[Intercultural Experience, Charity, and Coexistence in Providing Emergency Aid in the Aftermath of the Tohoku Earthquake: A Study Focusing on Islamic NGO Humanity First and the Survivors], 『宗教と社会貢献』[Religion and Social Contribution] 3(1):27-51.
―――― 2013b「ディアスポラの信仰者 : 在日Ahmadiyya・ムスリムにみるグローバル状況下のアイデンティティ」[Diaspora Believers: Ahmadiyya Muslims’ Identity within Globalization] 『文化人類学』[Cultural Anthropology] 78 (2):204-224.
Mohanty, Chandra Talpade, 1986, “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses,” Boundary 2 12(3):333–58.
Narayan, Uma, 1997, Dislocating Cultures: Identities, Traditions, and Third World Feminism, Routledge.
Oka, Mari, 2000, 『彼女の「正しい」名前とは何か:第三世界フェミニズムの思想』[What Is Her Correct Name?: Feminist Thoughts in the Third World], Seidosha.
Ota, Yoshinobu, 2009,『増補版 民族誌的近代への介入:文化を語る権利は誰にあるのか』 [Interventions in the Ethnographic Modern Age: Who Has the Rights to Talk about Culture?], Jimbun Shoin.
Said, Edward W., 1978, Orientalism. Pantheon Books..
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty, 1988, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” C. Nelson & L. Grossberg eds., Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, University of Illinois Press. pp. 271-313.

* As we head into the third spring since the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake, I once again offer prayers of peace to both the victims and survivors. I wish to be involved with disaster aid for a long time from now on. Even if each of our strength is meager, may we continue our efforts.
Thank you for reading.



Associate Professor, Aichi University of Education