Thursday, May 8, 2014

URSP Student Gregory Marshall Explores Japanese Expatriate Mortuary Rituals and Objects

Being trained as an Anthropologist, we are warned that there will always be situations where our ingrained biases from our enculturation process will blind us from understanding a concept from its intended meaning. I believed I had covered all my bases regarding my own biases until they were pointed out to me by a person I was interviewing for my project on Japanese expatriate perceptions on death and mortuary objects. While discussing understandings of the afterdeath, an interviewee pointed out that to her, and as I would find it through further interviews to many other Japanese expatriates, a concept similar to heaven is not permanent—slamming home the realization of an unknown bias I had never expected to have, and worse, that there were likely many more that I would not find or have pointed out to me.

My interviewee picked up my bias when I was trying to confirm my understandings of what she said to me by rephrasing to her what she had just told me about her understandings. After hearing my rephrasal—littered with hand gestures and tonal emphasis—she quickly repressed a look which portrayed feelings of “He’s not quite getting it”, “I need to correct him, this is important”, and “I don’t know how to phrase this”, and I knew there was a fundamental block to my understanding of this simple, yet important concept similar to ‘heaven’. After a moment, what felt like a long moment, my interviewee leaned forward and said “This [Amidha’s Pure Land] is not like heaven. It is not a ending point, simply a place without pain…”

Struck for a moment, I began to realize what had happened and the light bulb flicked on. First, I realized that I had committed in my mind ‘the’ Anthropological faux pas of inserting bias. Second, and perhaps more embarrassingly important and a lesson I sincerely believed I had conquered over my vast and rich 23 years of life, people who have done this before—my teachers—they were right….. Curse them!