Professor Robin LeBlanc

Washington & Lee University

February 4, 2005


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A Somewhat Different Path to a Japan Studies Career.
Academic Training.
Japanese Language Study.
Dissertation Research in Japan.
Research Topics and Methods.
Observing Housewives Use Their Place in Society Creatively
Reaction to the Book in the United States and Japan.
The Future of Japan Studies in the United States.
Current Research Projects
Concluding Comments.
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A Somewhat Different Path to a Japan Studies Career

Angel: How did you become interested in the study of Japan?

LeBlanc: The short answer is that congressional studies bored me. I went to graduate school to do congressional studies. My first term there I took a comparative class to satisfy a distribution requirement, and Japan was one of the cases we looked at. I always had thought Japan was interesting, but never had the opportunity to study it. So, I ended up doing a paper on Japan, and it started from there.

Angel: That’s interesting. You are the only Japan specialist I can think of who came to the study of Japan purely via the academic route.

LeBlanc: Yes. I had interest as a kid, you know. I thought Japan was interesting. I was interested in Japanese dolls and houses. But I didn’t go to Japan or anything like that.

Angel: And no special background prior to your congressional studies.

LeBlanc: Not really. The closest I came was in college. I had to take a religion class. So I took a class on Asian religion in which Japan was one of the many cases we looked at. But there was no such thing as “Japanese studies” at the school I attended. [Return to Topics]

Academic Training

Angel: Speaking of that, where did you receive your academic training?

LeBlanc: My undergraduate degree was at Berry College in Georgia, and my PhD is from the University of Oklahoma.

Angel: Those are two institutions we don’t usually associate with the study of Japan.

LeBlanc: Yes. At Oklahoma, when I decided to study Japan I had some disadvantages and some advantages. The disadvantages were that there weren’t really many specialists. There was, in History, Sidney Brown, who is retired now, but who is pretty highly regarded for his work on the Meiji Era and the Iwakura Mission. And he was the translator of the diaries of Kido Takayoshi. So he was there for me, and he had some interest in modern Japanese politics. But there wasn’t really much going on beyond that.

The advantage I had was that I was in a very well-funded and generous program. So, I went to my adviser and said, “I am interested in Japan.” At the time everyone was thinking, myself included … This was in the late 1980s. Thinking that Japan is important to the United States, and that it fits with congressional studies in American government generally because of our trade deficit and things of that nature. That was the era when Members of Congress were bashing Hondas and things of that sort. [Return to Topics]

Japanese Language Study

So I said I wanted to go to Middlebury and study Japanese instead of going to Michigan to do the summer statistics program, and he said, “Okay.”

Angel: So you went to the Middlebury language program here in the United States for your first language training.

LeBlanc: Yes. I started there, in fact, after my first year of graduate school. I went that summer to Middlebury, and they picked up all of the cost of that. I fell in love with Japanese, though it was very hard. Doing a summer at Middlebury when you can’t even say “Konnichiwa.” It’s a rough way to start.

But I really enjoyed it, and then I decided I wanted to try to get to Japan the following summer. That next summer I was able to get a fellowship. The Japan Foundation. I don’t know if they still do this. But they had a fellowship for foreign students of Japanese language, to go on sort of a two-week study tour. You had to compete – take an exam to compete for that at the Consulate. I did well and got selected to represent the Houston Consulate area.

So I went on that. When I realized I was getting to go to Japan, I asked the Congressional Studies Program if they would support or give me some money to stay a couple extra weeks and do some research. That was the summer of 1990. There had just been that big election. The Doi Boom had just happened, and I was interested in what was going on with Japanese women in politics. So they gave me extra money to stay, and I was there for a month or so.

Angel: Doing research and not language study.

LeBlanc: Well, the first two weeks was touring with the Japan Foundation, effectively language study because most everything that happened to us happened in Japanese. Home stays and things like that. And then the second two weeks was research. Which was difficult because my Japanese language skills weren’t very good at that point.

Angel: How did you get your language to the remarkable level it’s at now?

LeBlanc: I think I’m good at language. But while I was at Oklahoma there actually was a Japanese language program that had just started. Ken Miura, who was teaching that program was great. He set up special arrangements for me – independent studies. So I continued to study Japanese during the year. [Return to Topics]

Dissertation Research in Japan

When it got to the dissertation stage, my congressional studies fellowship guaranteed me a year in Washington, which is what everybody else had done. My adviser, Professor Ron Peters, said, “Here’s the deal. Come up with a few ideas. One, you can go to Washington. And the other one is what you would like to do in Japan. See if you can get a good enough fellowship. If you get a real fellowship we’ll consider letting you do that.”

So, I ended up getting both a Fulbright and a Mombusho, and I took the Fulbright. When that happened I went back to my adviser and told him that I really needed help with language. So he sent me back to Middlebury. I went back in the summer of 1991.

That meant when I hit the ground in Japan in the fall of 1991, I had fairly strong verbal skills and somewhat weaker reading and writing skills, because that’s just not a strength of mine. I made a really risky decision. I think it turned out to be the right one. But for a few months I didn’t know if it would be.

A lot of the people who went over on the Fulbright to do graduate dissertation research spent the first nine months or so at the Inter-University Center studying Japanese. I said I didn’t want to do that. I wanted them to take the money they would spend on my Center tuition and let me use it to hire a tutor so that I could just get into my field. So I started my field work and had a tutor I met with twice a week to work on reading and writing skills. At first that was really hairy.

Angel: That’s a hard way to do it.

LeBlanc: The good thing about it was that I was in the midst of Japanese all the time. There was no one to speak English to. I think that the effect of that was that my spoken Japanese, while full of all of the flaws of a non-native speaker, sounds natural.

Eventually, what happened with the reading was that since they had this woman working with me who was working only on the things I wanted to do, we were able to just pick out thing. We started with newspaper articles on political topics. I picked out scholarly books on my topic, and we worked through them. So I got stronger and stronger.

Angel: That’s a remarkable story. Let’s talk about your field research if we can. People would find that very interesting. How you arrived, what you did once you arrived, how you did it.

LeBlanc: Now when I think about it, knowing what I now know, I would never have taken those risks. But you can do it if you are ignorant enough. [Return to Topics]

Research Topics and Methods

I was influenced by a couple kinds of research. One was the work on Congress by Richard Fenno. He does all of this participant observer research. The other was Habits of the Heart by Robert Bellah that came out in the mid-eighties that tries to explain how Americans understand themselves. I was fascinated by it. I had this background in political philosophy. So I was fascinated by the way in which citizens philosophize in sort of ordinary terms how they fit into democratic life. Or the extent to which they don’t do that.

Since women were suddenly getting all of this attention in Japan, I wanted to know what was going with that. The whole image of this “housewife politician,” the person speaking from the perspective of the kitchen, or the mother. That image was interesting to me. I didn’t see it so much in American politics. So, I wanted to see how do these people who are fulltime housewives construct their identity in the modern political system.

So, I wanted to go live in the suburbs and try to involve myself in their lives. One connection I had was a professor at the Department of Political Science of Nihon University who had been an exchange student at the University of Oklahoma. I wrote him and asked for help. He agreed. And serendipitously, his wife was involved in the Seikatsu Club Seikyo, which was a group I already knew about. A couple of summers before I already had done some interviews with people in that group. They lived in suburban Tokyo. They were unbelievably kind. They helped me find an apartment. They were my guarantors so I could sign a lease with people who had never rented to a foreigner before, and introduced me a little. So, I met a few people from that family.

Then, I did things like … One day I was walking down the street and I saw through the window of this home security office a bazaar or yard sale going on. I stepped in and said in, at that time, my very bad Japanese, “What’s going on? What are you doing?”

They responded, “This is so interesting. You are going to want to know about it.” I told them that I was researching housewives and their shakai sankaku, and gave them my business card. The next morning someone from the group called me to say they were coming by to take me to their group.

That’s sort of how it started. I met people in that volunteer group and went out from there – what they call snowball sampling, I guess you could say. Though I didn’t have the exact word for it at the time. I just wanted to find ways of understanding the community.

So, there was little things like that. Everyone I met I would say, “I’m pleased to meet you and I want to know more about women and social participation, or women in politics.” And I was patient.

I think that’s something that doesn’t get said enough about doing this sort of research – the way I do it. You spend a lot of time sitting around feeling illegitimate. You make one phone call in the morning and you hope and pray that someone will call you back. Or you go to meet a group and you are utterly awkward and strange, and people don’t know why you are there.

During a later project, somebody once said, “This is a great life you lead, where people pay you to come to sit around in our shop.” I thought it was, actually, a great life. But also, that was a comment on the sort of bizarre lazy existence that I lived. The fact that it required enormous psychic energy to sit still and watch people …

Angel: And still get on with your research. This is what led to that remarkable book you published, Bicycle Citizens . Can you tell a bit about that?

LeBlanc: I think I had very loose questions going into the field. I think it was my background in political philosophy that was driving this.

Angel: Was that your undergraduate major?

LeBlanc: My undergraduate major was English, with a politics minor. I was one course short of a major in politics, but I never got it. My undergraduate mentor is a political philosophy guy, Dr. Peter Lawler. So I was really classically trained, and sort of conservatively trained, I think it’s fair to say, in reading the great books.

Angel: A real education.

LeBlanc: Yes, it was a real education. So I had these questions about what it means to call oneself a housewife; what it means to have a sense of community. There are all of these claims in studies of the United States, for example, about the need for community. But the definitions of community are very vague. And there are claims about Japanese social life, and Japanese identity. I’d read a lot of that. So I was sort of … I think more than anything I had the feeling I had to see it for myself to understand it. [Return to Topics]

Observing Housewives Use Their Place in Society Creatively

And so, as I began to be involved in these different groups, I was captured by two things. One was the tremendous sense of ambivalence that women had about their place in society. The other was the enormous creativity with which they used their place in society. And the fact that to be a housewife was to have a public persona. Mostly because they were ambivalent about being housewives.

Because they were ambivalent about being housewives, in their private lives they didn’t think of themselves that way. They would think, “I’m an occasional freelance editor, or I’m a part-time math teacher to students in my living room, or I’m a hiker and a mom.” They thought of themselves in terms of their hobbies or their part-time jobs. Things like that. Or just skills.

But then they’d have to get into public life in different ways, even just as a representative of the family, or the person who had to fill out paperwork for a bank. The next thing they’d know is they’d describe themselves as a housewife. Or even in circles at the park, when they met people at the park. And so they were stuck with this public identity. But, on the other hand, once they were stuck with it, they put it to good use. And that to me was really fascinating. And something that I thought was missed in a lot of the feminist literature. It points out how people are structurally oppressed. But it doesn’t talk a lot about the way people manage to be creative in the face of that.

Angel: Overcome their structural impediments.

LeBlanc: Yes, or manipulate structure. To change it in ways to their liking. There is some work out there now that is getting some attention. But I think that at the time I started my research, discovering the oppressive structure was a lot more important than talking about the possibilities of human beings making ethical choices in the midst of that structure – creative structure.

That’s one of the reasons I wanted to write the book. Capturing that aspect. They are not excluded precisely. They don’t define all of the terms on which they are allowed to participate. But they define some of them. And do so in a way that deserves attention. It has things to teach us. Not just because they are oppressed or marginalized. But because we can learn something from them. [Return to Topics]

Reaction to the Book in the United States and Japan

Angel: What has the reaction been from the United States to your book?

LeBlanc: I think, interestingly, American scholars have had really positive reactions, generally speaking – except within the discipline of political science where it had more negative reactions. I once had an interview at a top-ten school. Which I think I got on the strength of the book. But, I remember very well somebody screaming at me in one of the individual sessions, “With a book like this, you’ll never be published in the APSR [American Political Science Review].” I knew then I wasn’t getting the job. So I replied, “That’s really not to me a measure of success in life.”

But generally speaking, the response has been great. Even among people who study Japanese politics. Graduate students, for example, and that’s been fascinating for me, have said, “I really love your book.” There’s something for a lot of people that’s liberating about the idea of taking the people and their stories seriously. Particularly in politics where generally we have not done that.

Angel: But you’ve done it within a conceptual framework that really informs the study of politics. It isn’t just a series of stories. You relate them to how things work politically.

LeBlanc: Yes, I think this is what makes me a little unusual in political science. The way that my training in political philosophy informs what I see in the field. So it’s almost impossible for me to have a conversation with a person in politics and not think, “Wow, think about that in the context of …

On a different project I met this guy who was talking about schemes for reducing corruption in a local assembly. He sounded a lot like Madison in Federalist 10. It was fascinating to me. So, if you listen closely enough, the perennial questions remain. That was one thing.

The other thing was that when I listened to those people I would think that political science doesn’t have a way of listening to them. And then I’d think, “I want to speak back to the discipline and say what we do is good, but we can do other things too.”

Angel: So the only real negative reactions you have had have come from the mechanics – well, that’s not a nice term – but the workmen and the methodological people.

LeBlanc: Well, I think that some people in political science think that “empirical” means “quantitative.” I think empirical means something you observe happening in the world. So I think my work is empirical.

Angel: How could anyone would doubt that?

LeBlanc: So, I think the argument is sort of a definition of what really makes you a social scientist. And from my perspective you really are a social scientist if you are driven by this sense of doubt about the validity of your perspective. And that sense of doubt drives you to be very careful about what you observe, and how you observe.

And part of that carefulness is, to me, is about the categories with which you collect information. The quantitative specialists have a lot to offer. I rely on their research all the time. Sometimes people have taken me to be anti-quantitative, which is not at all true. But for me, the question that quantitative social scientists often don’t deal with that I do is, what are the proper categories for data collection. What constitutes a data point?

Angel: Also, to what end?

LeBlanc: Yes. So one of things I do is to go out in the field and try to collect vocabulary and come back and try to redefine what is “real.”

Angel: How has the Japanese reaction been to your research. Both academic and public, if that’s a reasonable distinction.

LeBlanc. Yes, well, there are different reactions. I think that generally my research is pretty well received. For example, I just had an article come out in a new gender journal in Japan that has an advisory board composed of everybody who does gender in Japan. It should be a good journal. They sent the article during the referee process only to Japanese referees, and sent me back the comments.

The comments were really good. There were things that they asked me to clarify or change. And there was one who obviously was a political scientist who wrote, “I don’t get this method. And why does she write in the first person?” So I explained that. But even that person said that these issues are really important and we don’t have ways of looking at them yet. So I think there has been a lot of positive response, including the Japanese professors who said they want to do work on the topic.

But interestingly, the people who actually are in the book have said, “Well, you know, you didn’t get this right, or you didn’t get that right. And I know that I’m actually Nishida-san, and the Nishida-san character is not a good depiction of me. I might have said that. But that’s not how I think anymore.”

Angel: That always happens, doesn’t it?

LeBlanc: Yes. Sometimes those conversations are very funny. I listen to them and think that I still can interpret what they are saying and how they say it. But it’s helpful to realize that you are not depicting truth, you are depicting a moment that you saw, that inevitably you saw, and the effect …. You are depicting it for you own purposes. To engage in a dialog that may or may not be important to people in the field.

Angel: Exactly right. Your subjects are not part of the discussion you are having. They’re almost never happy if you do a good job.

LeBlanc: Yes, and they are so right. It’s partial. It’s not the story of their lives. It’s the story of a political moment that can never really be …. But if you do a rich enough job, it will get people to thinking.

Angel: It’s how they fit into your story … not story, really, but your interpretation of how things happen. But the Japanese academic community has been positive about your work, then.

LeBlanc: Yes, I’ve had really good responses. [Return to Topics]

The Future of Japan Studies in the United States

Angel: Do you have anything to say about the future of the study of Japan in the United States, especially by social scientists?

LeBlanc: I think a lot about it. One thing … I end up talking with graduate students a lot. I go to a conference and they ask, “How did you do this?” And I think that partly it’s because my book came out of my dissertation and it’s unusual in that regard. Well, people do get books out of dissertations. But not this kind of book, usually. One thing that made me sad …. A person told me, “My adviser told me to put the people in the footnotes.” So, I said, “Do whatever you’ve got to do.”

But I think that there is good and bad news. There are a lot of young people in, say, the study of Japanese politics, or in the areas of sociology or anthropology somewhat related to my gender work, who are really full of all sorts of fascinating ideas. And they are digging in all kinds of new places. And they’re not producing the sort of monolithic image of hierarchical group-based Japan. And that’s really great.

The thing that bothers me a little bit is part of the same trend. A real habit in the American study of Japan to want to dig up the dirt on Japan.

Angel: Yes, is Japan a Good place or a Bad place? That type of question.

LeBlanc: Or they say, “Well, people say this is a good place, but there are slums.” Something like that. There is sort of a continuing arrogance, you know. Sort of showing ways that the modern subject is conceived in this oppressive way. Or critiques of Japanese nostalgia. Which on the one hand are legitimate. But on the other hand sort of comes from this position of …

Is it really so different from the old-fashioned position of “We’re the enlightened democrats, and we’re coming over to check whether you’ve done democracy right or not”? There’s still a lot of that. They go to Europe and get their continental theory, and then they go to Japan and prove that Japan is an oppressive society!

Angel: I find that frustrating too. It’s not the Japan that I’ve experienced over the past 40 years. The idea that we could come to some conclusion about whether Japan is a “good” place or a “bad” place is silly.

LeBlanc: Yes. Some days I think Japan is a terrible place, and I go to McDonalds. Other days I think .. Japan has become part of who I am. I was there at the right time. So the city in the world where I am most comfortable is Tokyo. And I think it’s part of the American academic enterprise. People don’t want you to stand up and say, “You know, there’s this housewife running this volunteer project in a suburb of Tokyo, and she has something to teach you.” By definition, since she’s a housewife she’s marginal.

So, there are multiple layers on … As academics, I think we have difficulty dealing with people who are “regular people” without being condescending. And then on top of that, as Americans, we still really have a hard time dealing with other countries, particularly Japan, without being condescending.

Angel: Or even defensive.

LeBlanc: And some of that … Some of the most sophisticated research that does have really wonderful contributions to make also tends to prove to us that Japan is a place that needs fixing. I am hesitant about that.

Angel: To me, it’s like Americans getting on television in Japan and telling the Japanese how they should run their public life. That always seemed an odd enterprise to me. The Japanese listen so politely. Like South Carolinians. People here listen so politely to Yankees telling them how they should live their lives. But, of course, we Yankees don’t realize those South Carolinians, while polite, think we are raving lunatics.

LeBlanc: People, for example, go on and on about the freedom of American women. Aside from the fact that we’re barely better represented in politics than Japanese women … That doesn’t make sense to me. What is freedom? In Tokyo, I drop my purse … This actually happened. I dropped my purse on the way back from my son’s daycare – which cost me half of what daycare costs here and was much higher in quality – and I freaked out, got on my bike.

In the middle of an intersection I ran into a policeman on his bike. He was so distraught. He said, “Oh no, you’ve probably lost a cell phone. You’ve probably lost your registration card. This is terrible.” He gets on his phone and calls the police station. Meanwhile, a little boy rides up on his bike with my purse in hand. I’m safe there, and that is a tremendous freedom. [Return to Topics]

Current Research Projects

I’m working on men now. That last article I finished was actually about men. The tentative title is “Can a Good Man Do Good?” It’s going very slowly, because my life’s so busy right now. But it’s based on research looking at men, doing participant observation in different local assembly elections, and in different groups.

I think it’s going to focus on two men. Just two people. So I’m really going to offend Political Science again. One of the things I want to do is to make the argument that even one idiosyncratic story can have powerful theoretical value. We believe that in presidency studies. But nowhere else.

Angel: Because the “N” is so small, I suppose.

LeBlanc: I’m looking at the different notions of what it means to be a man in Japan, and how those notions are connected to a sense of ethics and honor. It’s fascinating to me that there are different notions within these different political groups. There are masculinist notions. They depict a world in which men are responsible for lots of things, including the care of women. But they have noble ethics. Notions that are used to mobilize people to take ethical action in the use of, or confrontation of, power.

Angel: Are your two main subjects of different generations?

LeBlanc: Yes. The conservative guy is about my age, and he’s quite conservative. The other man is almost exactly the age of my dad. His son is my age. He’s not of the old Left. But he is kind of a citizen activist. They are very different. They are both sort of paternalist thinkers, but in very different ways. I think that leads them to make different choices. Both are very thoughtful about the way in which, as men, they are somehow responsible. They often will say, “Well, I’m a man so these are my choices.” Or, they’ll say of other men, “Well, if he’s going to be a real man, these are his choices.”

Once you prick up your ears, you realize that gender is not just about women, but it’s also about men. The things they do to make each other behave are really fascinating. One of the things I’ve traced out is the different levels of power among the men. A kind of conservative masculinism has an enormous requirement of deference. Deference that is not asked of women. That deference is fascinating. The piece I just wrote looks at the expectation that the man be the primary breadwinner. It really constrains the way middle-class men participate in public life. [Return to Topics]

Concluding Comments

Angel: Any further comments on your background or training?

LeBlanc: One thing that ended up being of tremendous benefit to me was that my dissertation committee was not a Japanese studies committee. My adviser didn’t have a reputation in Japanese studies to protect. Also, he was sort of unconventional in an intellectual sort of way. So he just said, “Write what you want to write. Write a book” He read it and asked hard questions. I think there’s something really important about that.

Sometimes Japanese studies as a community becomes sort of a caricature of the Japanese academic community. You go to these dinners and people spend most of their time talking about this series of connections to important people. I think generally in academia that is true, and it is exacerbated in Japanese studies.

Angel: We carry our meishi collections around for everybody to see.

LeBlanc: Yes. And that’s not good. I think there should be a little bit more appreciation of intellectual diversity. People get in these battles, such as the institutionalist approach versus others. As if anybody actually ever fit perfectly in any of those boxes. People want to know who wrote the person’s letters of recommendation rather than what they have to say. So, it’s often not even one’s own reputation but one’s reputation for knowing somebody who has a reputation.

That’s a shame, because it dishonors the idea that most of us got here by loving the life of the mind. I think there’s lots of room for positive feelings. But we shouldn’t be embarrassed to say that we are intellectual adventurers. And it shouldn’t all just be about the game of getting ahead.

I really want to be able to write work that is of value. When I’m writing I think about my students. And most of them don’t come in to the study of politics because they want an elegant theory. Elegant theories are beautiful things. But many of the students, even though they won’t admit it, are idealists. They think that in public life maybe we can do something better for human beings. And I want political science to think it is noble to do research that speaks to those people. That makes them think. That shows them examples of what’s out there. That’s humble work. Harder in some ways. It requires a lot of work in the trenches.

Angel: I think your work reflects that exactly. Someone observing you might say, “Oh, what a wonderful life, sitting around waiting for the phone to ring, or just watching what we are doing.” But others could say, “What she had to go through to write that book!” But I’ll bet you had a wonderful time writing the book.

LeBlanc: Sometimes it was wonderful; sometimes it was gruesome.

Angel: I understand that. To write what you did, you had to do more than just sit and consider how many voters can dance on the head of a pin. Thank you for your time today. [Return to Topics]