The outsider

Liza Dalby recalls a visit to Japan's Inland Sea, where island life is less harmonious than you migh

It was the middle of August, the summer of my first year as a graduate student. I had ended up on a small island in the Inland Sea, that narrow, almost lake-like stretch of ocean separating three of Japan's four main islands. The Inland Sea is dotted with even smaller islands, some inhabited, and some, rising like green gumdrops from the calm waters, too small for even a fisherman's hut. The first typhoon of the season lashed the deck of the ferryboat where I stood, blinded by rain and tears, fleeing the disaster of my first experience conducting fieldwork.

My island had two villages, one at either end. It appeared to be a textbook example of what the sociologist Émile Durkheim called (somewhat counter-intuitively) "mechanical solidarity" - a small, cohesive group with shared beliefs, activities and kinship ties. To an outsider's eye, the communities on this island in the Inland Sea were about as homogeneous as it was possible for a human group to be.

The people grew tangerines or fished, and every family had its own vegetable plot. Men and women worked side by side. Because this summer experience was supposed to be "practice fieldwork", I had come prepared with a set of questionnaires, drawn from my adviser's research project. But I was curious about everything, and I took my first foray into fieldwork literally. From Mrs H, I learned how to hoe up potatoes gently, without impaling them. From Mr H, I learned how to drop a line of octopus pots along the sea floor.

I discovered that eldest sons in small Japanese rural communities such as this had a problem. Sole inheritors of the family fields, eldest sons were once the favoured ones. Younger sons (and, of course, daughters) all left home to marry or go to vocational school, or even college, and get white-collar jobs in the cities. The eldest son still feels morally obliged to stay on the farm. Worst of all, the farm girls who once got a plum by marrying the eldest son now preferred to move to the cities themselves. And as the wife of the inheritor gets the mother-in-law, most island girls I met were planning to neatly sidestep both problems at once by shunning marriage to first sons.

I interviewed every islander who would take the time to talk to me. One young man, an eldest son, who was always eager to be interviewed, suggested that he would be more than happy to offer me a life as a farm wife. His mother was OK with the idea of an American daughter-in-law. She was impressed at how interested I was in all the old customs - unlike the modern young island girls, who were bored to tears by it all and could not wait to hop on a boat to the nearby cities on Shikoku. He knew it was unlikely that I would say yes, but he thought it worth a shot. His prospects were desperate.

I tagged along to the village cemetery for the Buddhist holiday O-bon. On this day, people invite the ancestral spirits back to the homes of the living. That evening there would be a huge bonfire with dancing and drinking throughout the night. Trying to be a good ethnographer, I followed up.

"How often do you visit your ancestral graves?" I asked one elderly woman, turning on my tape recorder. "What sorts of things do you bring?"

She thought a moment, counted on her fingers, and mused aloud, "Last week I went three days, I guess. No - it was four. But I didn't go on Friday even though I was already on my way, because . . ." She went on for five more minutes.

I began to realise that transcribing these conversations was going to be quite a chore. But at least I now understood that visiting your ancestors at the cemetery was like visiting your relatives next door. O-bon was the holiday when they reciprocated and visited you.

People made little effigy horses and oxen by sticking toothpick legs in cucumbers and eggplants, setting them in front of the altars for the ancestors to ride from the netherworld.

"Japanese ghosts don't have feet," explained one woman. "That's why we give them animals to ride on.

"And what about American ghosts?" she inquired politely. "Do they have feet?"

I was brought up short.

". . . and in America how often do you visit your ancestors' graves?" she continued. I turned off my tape recorder.

These were perfectly logical questions, but I hadn't expected to have the tables turned like this.

All the while I went along talking to people and taking notes, I didn't notice that my host family was becoming quieter and quieter. Then, one afternoon, Mr H exploded. Mrs H was upset that I did my laundry once a week instead of every day like a well-brought-up girl should. I was aghast. Why hadn't she said something?

"If you were a proper human being, you would understand these things without being told," he scolded. But that was small potatoes. By far the worst thing I had done was to talk to people from the other village.

"But you never told me I shouldn't," I objec ted, stung at the unfairness.

"If you were a proper human being, it would have been obvious to you," he rebuked me. "Now you've put me in a position of obligation to all those people."

I felt totally humiliated. Holding back tears, I slunk out of the room and went to pack my things. Black clouds were building on the horizon. I took the last ferry off the island that night.

Later I heard from others that Mr H was surprised that I'd left. If I had been a proper human being I would have known that the appropriate response was to apologise and beg forgiveness - which would have been magnanimously granted. Painful as it was, I learned from this, too. Mech anical solidarity is not always as harmonious as it may look from the outside.

Liza Dalby's "East Wind Melts the Ice" is published by Chatto & Windus (£12.99)

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, What now?