Jaimes and Aico’s War Story: Sumimasen!
Research often feels like a process of managing confusion and uncertainty until we find conceptual tools to understand a situation. Failure (and subsequent redemption) are, after all, a well-worn trope in ethnography. The journey from outsider to insider is an effective literary technique that boosts the credibility of the storyteller.
My experience is an ordinary day’s work on a more asymmetric battlefield than a typical client project. On the 11th of March 2011, a magnitude 9 earthquake struck off the east coast of Japan, causing a tidal wave that devastated towns up and down the coast of Tohoku province. Travelling to Japan later that year, I was interested in how the earthquake had affected people around the country. They had been experiencing rolling power blackouts for several months in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear emergency and I wanted to get a sense of whether this might prompt change in a country that has experienced sluggish growth for nearly two decades. I was only in Tokyo for a week, with other commitments, but managed to set aside a day for some research time with Aico Shimuzu, a friend who works as a design researcher and innovation consultant in Tokyo.
Our very straightforward approach was to meet at a busy train station, a little way away from the usual Tokyo hotspots of Shibuya or Shinjuku, and simply approach people in the street, asking for a few moments of their time. We spent around 3 to 4 hours wandering through the streets around the station, striking up conversations when we could. As you might expect, more people said no to us than yes. It was probably quite helpful that we were a man and a woman, and Japanese and a foreigner. In a culture that can be very reserved, it was much easier for me to approach strangers than it was for Aico. This small cultural sin was more easily forgiven of a foreigner. My faltering Japanese also made for a great opening line, as Aico would have to step in and rescue our victims! In all we managed to have brief conversations with 7 people (some in pairs and some on their own). They kindly agreed to let us photograph them and told us about their experiences since the earthquake and what they thought had changed in Japan.
Their stories were moving, and worrying. They all agreed that things had to change, but the events of 11th March had shaken their confidence in the authorities. Some emphasised the need to appreciate daily life, as the things that are ordinarily taken for granted had become impossible for people in Tohoku. One woman felt Japan had become selfish, and needed to re-emphasise connections between people, telling us “In the end, we can never live alone. We have to help each other.”
Aico and I were struck by the earnestness with which the people we spoke to desired change. This was truly an event that made people notice that the infrastructure around them could not always be relied on. In a way, an event such as this is like a giant “breach” experiment, in which the unspoken assumptions we rely on to get along with each other have broken down. As we walked, Aico and I talked about all of these issues and the people who took the time to chat with us helped us learn a little bit more about our own perspectives and gave us fuel to think about things. In many ways, this type of guerrilla work is as much a tool for your thinking as it is a way to understand a topic. This is what I mean when I say it’s almost inevitably a failure. I don’t mean that it’s not successful, but rather that it can never hope to represent a coherent view. It’s simply too random. The people we spoke to had little connecting them, apart from the fact they were all going through the same experience in some fashion Doing this work outside Tohoku, we were a little distant from the events there and so were our participants. We also noticed that many of those who were willing to break stride and talk to us were from outside Tokyo, which says a little about both big cities and our process!
Our guerrilla tactics may limit the claims we can confidently make from this data, but we can still explore them as individual cases, and use them to frame our own thought processes. Eventually, our day of guerrilla research left us with more questions than ever, just like our participants, but often that’s entirely the right place to be in a situation which is fluid and unresolved. Discussing this piece now, a year and a half later, Aico makes the point that repeating the exercise would help understand whether the social ripples from the quake were still being felt, or if people were forgetting and moving on. At the time, Japan was still working on making sense of what happened to it all those months ago and this day helped sensitise us to that atmosphere of uncertainty and doubt.