27 October 2016

Ethnography & Tourism: Part III

Part of the blog-writing duo had the opportunity to travel from Canada to Japan for one short week. During this time, blogger Jennifer Long wanted to explore the question: What are the similarities and differences between ethnography and tourism?

These blog posts are meant to explore the differences and similarities exposed by 'being away' for very different purposes, that is, as an ethnographer or as a tourist. Yesterday was a culminating affair as to why my partner and I have come to Japan. At this event, we were wined and dined like guests from out of town (read on below), but not just as guests from Canada but as guests from around the world (as the group boasts delegates from 21 different nations). Every morning our party eats breakfast, shares our daily events, and eats dinner with people speaking different languages, although English does predominate. Having stated this, our shared dinners have items that are eaten and enjoyed around the world with a focus on Japanese cuisine. Mark Augé who so long ago (1995) argued that non-spaces created so-called 'passenger' experiences as the delegates and their handlers are trotted through events and activities similarly (Augé uses the airport lobby or check-out line at a grocery store to describe how non-space is generated).

Up until tonight, this event has been business-oriented however, starting last night we have embarked on a lengthy cultural tour. As part of the entertainment of a celebratory dinner, we were treated to a 'traditional' drumming show. The drummers were dressed in what North Americans might consider ‘traditional’ Japanese print suits and white shoe covers. In their final song they invited each of the contestants as a display of global unity. In the past, scholars believed that local displays of traditional or cultural dances, rituals, and other art forms for tourists actually worked to reify cultural traditions and practices. These transactions between locals and tourists were thought to take advantage of the local peoples who were losing out in a larger neoliberal framework. As voyeurs, tourists solidified their ideas about difference and “othered” the exotic peoples and the culture they visited (and soon left). In response, other scholars have argued that tourism plays a role in supporting economies in unstable times and empowering individuals in how their own cultural traditions and practices are viewed and commodified (see Cole 2005 for an overview of the debate).

As guests of a national corporation, our participation as one of many delegates complicates the matter in my own experience. In bringing together the multinational perspective of this event, the display of the hosting culture could also be seen as part of a national culture building activity and one which helps various delegates, mind you employees, gain perspective not only on their own but their employers’ identity. What I mean to say is that in this particular microcosm, the role of traditional displays of culture could be understood as a means to link historical practices with some of the most innovative and cutting edge technologies coming out of this country (as per the identity of the corporation hosting this event).

As I continue to walk the line of tourist, guest, voyeur and short-term ethnographer, I am struck by difference (for example, the naming of each employee on the wall of the factory we visited in terms of knowledge and rank as a sign of prestige and more likely, rank and file). I’m aware that I'm receiving a constructed picture of Japan that is both historical and cutting edge - multifaceted as any one national identity would be. Yet, I want to call to attention that this multifaceted perception is afforded on account of my being able to see behind the curtain (as a guest on this business trip) and, as a guest of gracious hosts (post-business cultural tours). I will have to write more on this later; I’m literally on my way to see a ‘Ninja Show’ according to my bus guide.

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