Gavin H. Whitelaw, Associate Professor, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, International Christian University (ICU).
B.A. – Russian & Soviet Studies, Wesleyan University
A.M. – Regional Studies – East Asia, Harvard University
M.Phil. – Anthropology, Yale University
Ph.D. – Anthropology, Yale University
Postdoctoral - Research Fellow at Harvard University's Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies
• Sociocultural Anthropology
• Japan Studies
• Global Studies
• “Lights in the Fields: Convenience Stores and Metropolitan Japan" Japan Studies - The Frontier (Tokyo: ICU) 4:57-69. 2011.
• “Learning from Small Change: Clerkship and the Labors of Convenience,” Anthropology of Work Review. 29(3):2-8. 2008.
• “Rice Ball Rivalries: Japanese Convenience Stores and the Appetite of Late Capitalism,” in Fast Food/Slow Food: The Cultural Economy of the Global Food System, R. Wilk, (ed) (New York: Rowman & Littlefield) pp. 131-144. 2006.
• food culture
• popular culture
• consumption and commerce
• material culture
• urban anthropology
After spending a year in Moscow on exchange and graduating as a Soviet Studies major in college, Dr. Gavin H. Whitelaw was accepted into the Monbusho's (MEXT) Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program. In addition to working in Yamagata Prefecture for 3 years, he also spent a year teaching in Qingdao, China. Dr. Gavin H. Whitelaw later pursued his doctoral degree in anthropology at Yale University, receiving his Ph.D. in 2007. He was a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Harvard University's Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies from 2007-2008, and started teaching at ICU in the fall of 2008.
1) What led to your interest in the Japan? In your opinion, what makes Japan unique?
My interest in Japan did not begin with Japan. I was a Soviet Studies major in college. I immersed myself in Russian language, history, and literature and spent my junior year on exchange in Moscow from 1991-1992. Living abroad challenged the images and assumptions I had about the Soviet Union, indeed it reoriented my worldview.
As I was completing my soon-to-be obsolete degree, I decided to learn more about Asia and combine this self “education” with living abroad and teaching. Steered toward Japan by my college roommate who spent a year abroad in Kyoto and a personal interest in Japanese woodblock printing, I applied and was accepted to Monbusho’s JET Program. I lived for three years in rural Tohoku and taught at a pair of rural junior high schools. This experience—working, studying, and living in a small community in a wet and windswept corner of Yamagata Prefecture—gave me the opportunity not only to begin learning the language (and a dialect), but experience culture as an integrated whole. I constantly confronted issues of cultural stereotyping and essentializing, not just about Japan, but my own from Tokyo or Kyoto, embedded me in the daily life and mundane matters of a community. Rather than uniqueness, I gained an appreciation of Japan’s diversity and normality.
When I took my first ever course in Anthropology as a Master’s student, something clicked. I found a disciplinary environment that challenged me intellectually and valued the kind of approach that I had been informally practicing through half a decade of being abroad. So to sum up, what is important about Japan is not that Japan is particularly “special” but that it is thoroughly normal. To quote a mentor of mine, anthropology allows us to confront “the contingent and contentious emergence of meaningful conventions” that shape society. It is a way to better appreciate “how people are just like anyone else, yet in important ways, not like each other.” For me, Japan provides an extremely relevant place, but certainly not the only place, to engage in these important discussions and debates.
2) How are lessons on popular culture conducted in ICU? Are these lessons popular among ICU students?
From my own experience and in interacting with colleagues, it seems that the study of popular culture is often integrated into various courses taught by other disciplines. Professors at my institution, ICU, use particular theoretical approaches or disciplinary interests to engage with popular culture. I feel that one of the distinctive qualities of courses with popular culture content is the tendency (and willingness) of professors to incorporate a range of “hands-on” activities and material culture “encounters” into their lesson plans.
Courses that have popular culture content tend to be popular. For example, at ICU there is a course titled, From Ramune to Anime. The course is taken by Japanese and non-Japanese students. This year (2012) there are over 220 people enrolled. But the course is not just “pop and fizz.” It broadly deals with a social history of Edo/Tokyo and uses popular culture as a lens through which to understand and analyze the dynamics of change and continuity in an urbanized setting. The course is requires a decent pair of shoes, in the sense that part of the pedagogical approach is to get students out and walking in particular neighborhoods of the city, a method that provides a more embodied engagement with the material students are being exposed to in the classroom.
3) How do you conduct lessons on popular culture generally? Do you usually use physical and/or multimedia materials?
Whenever possible, I try to integrate “material culture” and multimedia into my lesson plans. Sometimes this is planned, other times it is spontaneous, emerging out of the more improvisational dimension of the lecture “performance.” For example, in discussing the “invisibility” and forgettable-ness of certain daily practices, I might ask students to remove receipts from their wallets. To make a point about “globalization” and technology, I might ask students to send a text message to a friend or peer on the other side of the planet. I approach popular culture from my own disciplinary perspective and attempt to connect popular culture to larger debates, issues and themes. In that sense, my efforts may be to open up popular culture to larger contexts and use popular culture as a vehicle for helping students engage in refreshing ways with their education and their world.
4) Lastly, what is the relationship between your research topic—konbini (convenience stores) and popular culture? For some people, it may be difficult to draw any connection.
This question is an important one and raises the issue of how “popular culture” is defined within the academy and elsewhere. In my eyes, the convenience store is the very essence of popular culture and points to the processes and debates that continue to inform our use of the term, “popular culture.” As Raymond Williams so elegantly reminds us in his work, Keywords (1985), “popular” and “culture” are common words with complex social histories. “Popular culture” has several meanings. Williams points out that “popular culture was not identified by the people but by others” and it carries with it older senses of “inferiority” and something done “to win favor.” I find such insight into the phrase helpful for thinking about the range of cultural forms and technologies that exist within consumer society. For some people, popular culture in Japan may be manga, anime, and J-Pop. That’s fine but rather selective application of the term. Why not include cell phones and convenience stores, or sushi, for that matter? Examining how Japanese popular culture is taught and, recursively, what Japanese popular culture may teach us is what makes a conference on the subject so interesting and relevant.