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PhD fieldwork in Japan: two lessons I learnt

11 January 2023

Undertaking fieldwork overseas can be one of the most exciting and eye-opening parts of a PhD. Here, postgraduate research student Lauren Constance from School of Modern Languages shares her experience of fieldwork in Japan, and the two big lessons she learnt.

Since Japan’s borders were closed to international tourists for over two years as a result of the country’s tough measures against the spread of COVID-19, I had resigned myself to the fact that I would not be able to conduct any fieldwork in Japan during my PhD. However, from June-August 2022, I was lucky enough to be accepted to the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science’s Summer Fellowship Programme. This funded a two month research trip to Japan to enable me to collect data for my PhD project – which looks at the communication of eyewitness experiences in Japanese memorial museums. In the 64 days I was in Japan, I managed to visit over 40 museums in 17 different cities which memorialise a range of events, from the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, to the 2011 triple disaster of the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown, which affected various coastal communities in Japan’s Tohoku region. I learnt so much from this experience, including two big lessons:

  1. Take opportunities, be flexible, and be brave!

Although I do advise getting in touch with potential participants beforehand, when undertaking international fieldwork and site visits, it can sometimes be the case that you just fall upon an opportunity which you hadn’t initially planned for. There were a number of times I was walking around a city, looking for a particular museum, when another would just pop up on Google Maps that I had never encountered when doing my online research! It’s about being brave, going up and introducing yourself and, from my experience, most people are willing to help.

One time I came across a museum in Ishinomaki, (Miyagi Prefecture) and when I told the staff about my project, they let me join a walking tour of Japanese businessmen from Tokyo being guided around the local area by a survivor of the 3.11 earthquake and tsunami. Another time, I turned up at a local museum in Minamata, and the curator asked if I would like to meet a survivor of Minamata Disease, who then took time to talk to me about her experience – and was so excited that someone had come all the way from the UK to visit her.

At another museum I found by chance, I ended up being able to listen to a lecture from a 92-year-old survivor of a Prisoner Of War camp in Siberia – which was so powerful to be able to hear first-hand.

  1. Take time to reflect

One of my biggest regrets from my fieldwork trip was that I didn’t give myself enough time to reflect. Although my packed schedule allowed me to collect lots of valuable data, sometimes, I would visit 3-4 different museums in one day, then the next day immediately set off for the next location. Not only was this extremely tiring, but not giving myself the time to reflect between site visits meant that I was always going in with the same approach and same interview questions to each participating museum.

Now that I’m back in the UK and just starting to undertake my data analysis, listening back to my interviews, I can hear where I should have asked a follow-up question, or asked a participant to elaborate further on an interesting point that they made. I think if I’d given myself time to reflect on previous interviews, perhaps even re-listen to them later that same day, I could have followed up on these points quicker, and taken what I had learnt to the next interview. It would also have given me a good excuse to slow down and check out more local cafes, instead of living off of instant Ramen and ready meals!

Have you undertaken fieldwork overseas, and what lessons did you learn? Get in touch with Lauren on Twitter @const_lauren