2016 Virtual Edition: Chika Watanabe

Postscript to Past Loss as Future? The Politics of Temporality and the ‘ Nonreligious’  by a Japanese NGO in Burma/Myanmar

Recently, I had two separate conversations—one was with Ramah McKay and the other with Tom Yarrow and one of his PhD students, Taras Fedirko—where we pondered how we could theorize and write about questions of time and temporality in development projects. Anthropologists have commented on how development relies on a teleological orientation toward the future while humanitarianism presumes the immediate present in a mode of crisis (Redfield 2005; Scherz 2013). But these observations are often made in passing, and we noted the curious absence of ethnographies that explore the “labour in/of time” (Bear 2014) in the everyday bureaucracies and practices of development aid. Ramah and Tom both offer new paths in this sense: in Ramah’s book manuscript, The Work of Care: Time, NGOs, and the Multiplicity of Medicine in Mozambique (forthcoming), and in Tom’s Development Beyond Politics: Aid, Activism and NGOs in Ghana (2011).

My 2013 article was the beginning of my continuing interest in the dynamics of time and temporality in one of the oldest Japanese NGOs and its activities in Myanmar. It is far from being an ethnography of labor in/of time, but it offers the contours of the temporal logics, politics, and implications of Japanese aid workers’ claims that their work was “nonreligious” (shūkyō ja nai). I argued that the stance of being nonreligious was tied to the assertions of alleged Shinto Japanese values such as the harmonious coexistence with nature, which Japanese people tend to see as having been lost in a modernized and industrialized Japan. What this NGO offered, then, was a form of what I called a “redemptive dream”—a way for Japanese people to turn their sense of loss of the past (“Japanese traditional values”) into a momentum for the future, specifically by seeing the development of Asian others in “a Japanese way” as a vehicle for Japan’s renewal. It was an exploration into the intersections of national loss, the hopes of starting over, the vestiges of imperialist dreams, and the fears of a historical return in an inter-Asian form of development aid. I wanted to get at the simultaneous aspirational and oppressive possibilities offered by these dreams of a second chance.

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Trainees from around the world learning together how to prune trees in one of the programs studied, OISCA Training Center, Japan, 2009 (photo taken by the author)

Although it is not explicitly about time and temporality, my book manuscript (under preparation), Becoming One: Nonreligion and the Moral Imaginations of a Japanese NGO in Myanmar, is also an attempt to convey both the meaningfulness and political consequences of Japanese and Burmese aid workers imagining a future of “becoming one” (hitotsu ni naru) as an ecological planet and across cultural boundaries, despite ambivalences, conflicts, and failures. The ethos of becoming one in an inter-Asian context shows moral, political, and historical underpinnings that differ from the humanitarian sentiments behind Euro-American forms of aid. In part, I understand the allure of “becoming one”—of connections and solidarities—in the context of increasing social alienation in a “precarious Japan” (Allison 2013) and post-war Japan more generally.

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NGO staff and trainees salute the flags of Japan, OISCA, and from trainees’ countries in a daily ceremony, OISCA Training Center, Japan, 2010 (photo taken by the author)

Yet, recent political developments to the right, led by Prime Minister Abe Shinzō, cast an unshakeable shadow. Since the publication of my article, we have seen the passage of the State Secrecy Act (himitsu hogo hō) in 2014 that allows the government to withhold information deemed necessary for state security and the move to change the renouncement of war in Article 9 of the Constitution to allow for “collective self-defense.” Abe and his followers refer to the threat of China and North Korea as reasons for this securitization and militarization of Japan. But they also have an agenda that goes beyond these immediate issues and is based upon nationalist and neo-imperialist desires to rebuild a “beautiful Japan.” These visions are encapsulated in organizations such as Nippon Kaigi whose mission is to promote so-called Japanese traditional values, revise history books to erase Japanese imperialism’s atrocities, rewrite the Constitution, and advance a pan-Asian unity. Abe is a member of the organization and so is the president of the NGO I studied who is a board member, alongside other prominent Shinto and conservative religious figures, business leaders, politicians, and intellectuals.

Amidst all of the attention that the media is giving to this rise of right wing politics in Japan, it is important to note that the trend is not new. My article shows that the redemptive dream of recuperating a lost past—Japanese Shinto values, for example—as a way to forge a new future is an aspiration that resonates with the visions espoused by Abe and Nippon Kaigi, and has existed as the operative imaginary in the NGO that I studied and its supporters since the 1960s. As such, I contend that historical revisionist and neo-imperialist hopes were never erased after 1945, but rather, re-channelled into certain development aid regimes and organizations throughout the post-war years. “Liberal” and “illiberal” Japan were never separate.

Nevertheless, I want to avoid turning critique into easy criticism. Instead, I want to understand and convey the moral imaginations as well as political implications and struggles of the aid workers’ worlds. I wish that in the article I had elaborated more on the processes of deliberation and ambivalent efforts among Japanese and Burmese aid workers, and how these played a part in their imaginations and enactments of the future. I wish that I could rewrite the piece for so many reasons.

In some ways, the dreams of a second chance among the people I worked with resonate with my own hopes for redemption—that this postscript, or another article, or the book, will give me a chance to do what I did better. I do not agree with the political position of the NGO, but I can learn from their hopes in returning, repeating, and redoing in my own compulsion of writing. I can learn to be implicated in the temporal politics of their worlds as a way to do critique without writing myself out. Perhaps, recognizing the echoes of our hopes for a second chance between others and ourselves is a good starting point for understanding the rise of politically and culturally ‘repugnant others’ (Harding 1991) in Europe and the United States, as well as Japan. Criticism is easy; the challenge of critique is recognizing how ‘they’ and ‘us’, you and I, are caught up in each other in aspirations for a better world, whatever that might mean. And what better way to show these entanglements than ethnography.


Allison, Anne. 2013. Precarious Japan. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Bear, Laura. 2014. “Doubt, conflict, mediation: the anthropology of modern time.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 20(S1): 3–30.

Harding, Susan. 1991. “Representing Fundamentalism: The Problem of the Repugnant Cultural Other.” Social Research 58(2): 373-393.

Redfield, Peter. 2005. “Doctors, Borders, and Life in Crisis.” Cultural Anthropology 20(3): 453–473.

Scherz, China. 2013. “Let us make God our banker: Ethics, temporality, and agency in a Ugandan charity home.” American Ethnologist 40(4): 624–636.

Chika Watanabe is a Lecturer in Social Anthropology at the University of Manchester in the School of Social Sciences. She has worked with various development, emergency relief, and other NGOs since 2002 and continues to hold an interest in international aid work from both academic and practitioner perspectives.