Key words: Development, humanitarianism, NGOs, religion and the secular (esp. Shinto), ethics and morality, subject-formation, disasters, preparedness, play.
Euro-American aid programmes have often been seen to generate patronising, unequal relationships between those who receive the help and those who give it. This is sometimes attributed to the fact that those who give aid are very different to those who receive it. Under this paradigm, aid work becomes a relationship between givers and distant strangers. The solution, then, is often seen to be the creation of proximate relations and solidarity with suffering distant others.
My book Becoming One: Religion, Development, and Environmentalism in a Japanese NGO in Myanmar (University of Hawai’i Press, 2019) shows how we need to turn that problem-solution formula on its head to understand wider practices of aid—for example, Japanese aid programmes working within Asia. Instead of the humanitarian impetus as a response to suffering distant strangers, Japanese aid actors in Asia begin from the premise that their work is to create oneness with others, who are seen to be already ‘culturally similar’. They do this by drawing upon visions of pan-Asian solidarity, religiously-derived notions of ‘nonreligious’ environmentalism and the idea of ‘making persons’ (hitozukuri) through collective labour.
Becoming One is a case study of OISCA (Organization for Industrial, Spiritual and Cultural Advancement), a prominent Japanese NGO working in Myanmar and other countries in the Asia-Pacific region. OISCA’s aim is not only to alleviate poverty, but also to transform people. In the book I explore how OISCA aid workers use training as a tool for development, and promote communal life-styles, collective labour, and the idea that Japanese aid workers and the recipients of their aid form part of a larger Asian ‘family’. At first sight it might seem that aid work undertaken closer to home, in the spirit of a family-like solidarity, helps us avoid the patronising, unequal relationships that characterise Euro-American aid work. But my research suggests that this is not the case. The idea of pan-Asian solidarity promoted by OISCA is firmly rooted in ideological visions of ‘Japaneseness’ reminiscent of the imperialist aspirations of the past. Moreover, in viewing the relationship between givers and receivers of aid as a ‘family relationship’, OISCA staffers may also be perpetuating unequal relationships. Yet, the project of ‘becoming one’ is also meaningful for both aid workers and recipients, who find value in labouring together ‘like family’. My book illustrates the double-edged quality of discourses and practices of solidarity, and the need to situate humanitarian endeavours in specific regional histories.
My interest in how knowledge and people are shaped in transnational interactions continues in my second project, which focuses on disaster preparedness. Cooperation between people from different countries to share best practices in disaster risk reduction is crucial to strengthen each other’s abilities to survive disasters. But how can different experiences of and approaches to disasters actually travel between varied contexts of risk, politics, and socioeconomic conditions? I address this question by looking at the case of disaster cooperation between Japan and Chile, especially how ‘playful’ approaches to disaster preparedness (e.g. through child-friendly games) travel across contexts. The project has been supported by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS) (2016), the BA-Leverhulme small grant (2016-8) , and the Toyota Foundation (2019-2022).
I am also currently conducting a short research project on young people and resilience in the UK for the British Red Cross (2019).