Aso 2.0: Regional Well-Being in Japan

The Aso-Region on Kyūshū Island – rediscovering a field of research for Viennese Japanese Studies

The Aso-region is famous for its volcano and the surrounding caldera located in central Kyūshū. Tourists visit this geologically interesting place to enjoy its distinguished nature and the religious importance of the local Aso shrine. It is administratively divided into the northern part (Aso-shi) and the less populated southern villages (Minami-Aso-mura and Takamori-mura). Most of the research conducted in the Aso-caldera mostly focuses on the northern part and its remote villages.

The Aso 2.0 project is closely linked to its predecessor study of the 1960s led by the Japanese Studies Department of the University of Vienna. In our research, we examine village life in the region from different perspectives, such as sociology, political science, anthropology and human geography. We regularly exchange our experiences in meetings, at which guest speakers are highly welcomed. Specialist on Japanese anthropology, Joy Hendry, and Japanese sociologist Takeda Shunsuke (Shiga University), among others, gave us inspiring insight in their research. We have been visiting Aso to conduct fieldwork there as often as possible. We also enabled our students to learn how to conduct fieldwork hands-on at an excursion in summer 2018. Our work is further enriched by a fruitful cooperation with Kumamoto University that have made possible several workshops in Vienna and Kumamoto until today. We are proud to state that our emphasis on the region has not only resulted in several talks and publications (see Publications & Presentations), but also in a number of master’s and doctoral theses.

History of the Aso-project

The Aso project was the first major research project at the newly founded Institute for Japanese Studies at the University of Vienna in 1965. The primarily ethnographic joint project of the Institute’s employees at the time, Alexander Slawik, Josef Kreiner, Erich Pauer, Sepp Linhart and others, with field visits in the years 1968 and 1969, was intended to contribute to the international body of research on the rural culture and society of Japan in its regional diversity. The idea behind the exploration of the volcanic Aso-basin in the south of the country for an integrated interdisciplinary examination of its history, material culture, religion, sociology, botany and natural resources, was on the one hand a critical view of the results of western Japan-experts who, whether in the form of classic ethnographic studies of individual villages (Community Studies) or investigations treating Japan as a whole, created the impression of a strong homogeneity of Japanese culture and society. On the other hand, the regional studies of Japanese scientific associations, who served as a model for the study in many ways, were criticized for not living up to their claim of interdisciplinarity.

The Institute’s fifty-year founding anniversary served as an inspiration for the head of the Japanese Studies section, Wolfram Manzenreiter, to turn what started as a reflection on the history of Japanese Studies in Vienna into a new research focus. Just like fifty years ago, the new research focus was to deal with aspects of regionality beyond the Japanese metropolises and exploit the methodological advantages of Community Studies and interdisciplinarity. As a first interim step in the realization of the project "Aso 2.0", Wolfram Manzenreiter and Johannes Wilhelm organized the workshop "Viennese Japanese Studies 50 years ago: The Aso project"on April 10 and 11, 2015, in Vienna. In addition to contributions dealing with the scientific context into which the original project was embedded, as well as an exhibition curated by Johannes Wilhelm and his students, and an exhibition of original materials documenting various aspects of the field study, Erich Pauer, Sepp Linhart and Josef Kreiner gave insights into their personal experiences during the project. This allowed participants of the workshop to gain an idea of what it meant to practice fieldwork 50 years ago

The fact that scholars of Japanese Studies went to do fieldwork in Japan - today a matter of course -, presented a downright revolutionary endeavor at the time. Granted, cultural anthropologists from the United States in particular had been conducting field studies in Japan since the 1930s, especially after the Second World War. But the Japanese Studies community of the German-speaking world, which consisted exclusively of (classical) philologists at the time of the Aso project, responded to the conference reports of their Viennese colleagues with great astonishment, and some had little understanding for its existence. The interdisciplinary system of the project was a major innovation. Although, partly due to a lack of continuity of personnel at the Institute, a lack of funds and tightening data protection legislation in Japan, ultimately only a few of the individual studies were completed and published, the project was crucial to the development of the German-speaking Japanese Studies: This was the beginning of a modern form of Japanese Studies, founded in cultural and social sciences, evolving alongside the existing philological tradition. At the same time, it gradually became customary for Japanese Studies scholars of any provenance to conduct field research in Japan.

In many ways, fifty years ago such research was a far more troublesome business than it is today, which is why in July 1968, the Wiener Zeitung reported, not entirely unjustified, of a "great expedition" by Austrian scientists, headed by Prof. Dr. Slawik from the Institute of Japanese Studies of the University of Vienna. Not only did the group, in order to travel to Japan at reasonable cost, require a journey time of around six days. There was also no digital photography, which is why a donation of 100 color- and 100 black-and-white-films had to be acquired from Fujifilm and constantly carried around, in addition to the already heavy photo equipment. Above all, there was no internet through which the team members in Vienna could have accurately informed themselves about the situation in the field in order to plan the field stay appropriately or gather first data and other research materials. Researchers had to wait until after arriving in Japan to find out which administrative establishments had useful materials, or could otherwise be of help. Further, certain villages that were selected for a closer examination turned out to be to be inappropriate, or it was discovered that certain issues could not be investigated - either because no information could be retrieved, or because so much material was available that it could not be organized and processed in the short time of the field trip in a time where computers, copiers or scanners were not readily available.

While the Aso project also examined the current social conditions in the region, it was characterized by a strong historical and ethnological orientation. Thus, the documentation of discarded agricultural implements (many of which are now archived in the Vienna World Museum) was a central aspect of the study; whereas another aspect concerned the analysis of traditional social village structures. The relative remoteness of the Aso region favored such projects, but at the same time it was an obstacle to the exploration of Japan as an emerging economic power.

Research on Aso today

Today, however, Japan is affected by demographic shrinkage, which poses a number of problems in social and economic terms, and nowhere can this process be observed more clearly than in the rural areas of Japan. The Department of Japanese Studies at the Institute of East Asian Studies of the University of Vienna has therefore decided to examine the area again, fifty years after the first Aso project, this time as an example region for the many problems, but also opportunities that exist in rural areas, not only in Japan, but increasingly also in Western and Central Europe. Coordinated by Ralph Lützeler, the project will be re-aligned interdisciplinarily and also investigate the subjective well-being and social vulnerability of the local population, in addition to socio-economic structures and derived endogenous potentials.

End of August 2015, with the involvement of students, a panel presentation highlighted different dimensions of the project at the Conference of the German-Language Association fo Japanese Studies in Munich.

Wolfram Manzenreiter analyzes well-being in Aso by conducting interviews and participant observation in volunteer and local associations. He further examines its differences in rural and urban areas and presented preliminary results at several occasions in Europe in 2018.

Ralph Lützeler focuses on demographic changes in the Aso region and shows disparities within several areas. Together with Barbara Holthus he also researches on parental well-being in Japan: They point out how urbanization and the several dimensions of well-being affect regional differences. Their project was presented as a poster at the Annual Meeting of the VSJF 2017.

Dionyssios Askitis and Sebastian Polak-Rottmann currently work at their dissertation projects on social aspects of subjective well-being in Aso. Following a mixed-methods-approach, Polak-Rottmann examines the role of political participation by conducting fieldwork, while Askitis quantitatively analyzes different factors for well-being from a psychological perspective. They presented their project at the VSJF 2017 conference and started collecting their data.

Antonia Miserka focuses on migration in the Aso-Region in her master’s thesis. She handed out questionnaires and conducted fieldwork during her stay at Kumamoto University. Together with Wolfram Manzenreiter, she was responsible for the excursion program for Viennese students to Aso in 2018.

  • Miserka, Antonia
  • Takeda, Shunsuke (Shiga University): April 2018 - September 2018

Publications & Presentations

2018Takeda, Shunsuke: "Succession and Reconstruction of Festival in Overaged and Depopulated Communites: Focusing on the Role of Mediator between Inhabitants and Migrants", Vortrag an der Universität Wien, June 25, 2018.
2018Polak-Rottmann, Sebastian: "Feldforschung in Aso: Wolfram Manzenreiter im Gespräch mit Sebastian Polak-Rottmann", Minikomi: Informationen des Akademischen Arbeitskreises Japan 87, 53-58.
2018Spletzer, Signy: "Here to Stay - The Revitalization Initiative of Zen of the Aso Region and its Impact on the Local Community", Lützeler, Ralph (Hg.): Rural areas between decline and resurgence. Lessons from Japan and Austria. Wien: Universität Wien, 167-170. (=Beiträge zur Japanologie 46).
2018Wilhelm, Johannes: "Disaster Resilience in Coastal Pacific Tōhoku: Restoring Livelihood after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake", Lützeler, Ralph (Hg.): Rural areas between decline and resurgence. Lessons from Japan and Austria. Wien: Universität Wien, 131-150. (=Beiträge zur Japanologie 46).
2018Holthus, Barbara and Lützeler, Ralph: "Project Report A: Regional Differences of Parental Well-Being in Japan", Lützeler, Ralph (Hg.): Rural areas between decline and resurgence. Lessons from Japan and Austria. Wien: Universität Wien, 93-97. (= Beiträge zur Japanologie 46).
2018Manzenreiter, Wolfram: "Rural Happiness in Japan: Contrasting Urban and Rural Well-Being in Kumamoto", Lützeler, Ralph (Hg.): Rural areas between decline and resurgence. Lessons from Japan and Austria. Wien: Universität Wien, 43-64. (= Beiträge zur Japanologie 46).
2018Lützeler, Ralph: "Living Conditions in Japanese Rural Areas: Stuck in a Downward Spiral?", Lützeler, Ralph (Hg.): Rural areas between decline and resurgence. Lessons from Japan and Austria. Wien: Universität Wien, 15-26. (= Beiträge zur Japanologie 46).
2018Manzenreiter, Wolfram: "Gender and the maintenance of social life in rural Japan", Université Paris Diderot, May 3, 2018.
2018Manzenreiter, Wolfram: "Uncool Japan?! Vom Leben auf dem Land", Vortrag anlässlich der Ausstellung Cool Japan, Bremen Überseemuseum, April 17, 2018.
2018Manzenreiter, Wolfram: "Social institutions and village life in rural Japan - a 50-year perspective", University of Hamburg, April 16, 2018.
2017Manzenreiter, Wolfram and Lützeler, Ralph: "Introduction: Rural Japan Revisited", VSJF Annual Conference 2017, Vienna, October 31, 2017.

Poster Presentations:

  • Manzenreiter, Wolfram: "Exploring Rural Happiness in Japan"
  • Holthus, Barbara and Lützeler, Ralph: "Parental Well-Being in Japan: Regional Differences"
  • Askitis, Dionyssios, Hundsdorfer, Stefan and Polak-Rottmann, Sebastian: "Social Relationships and Happiness in Rural Japan and Austria"
  • Spletzer, Signy: "Regional Branding in Rural Japan"
  • Wilhelm, Johannes

Section Meeting:

  • Polak-Rottmann, Sebastian: "Japans passive Landbevölkerung? Eine Betrachtung der Vorstellungen von politischer Partizipation und Demokratie in der Aso-Region in Kumamoto"
  • Spletzer, Signy: "Here to stay: An analysis of the revitalization initiative Zen of the Aso region and its impact on the local community"
  • Wilhelm, Johannes: "Institutional aspects of village organizations in Aso"
2017Holthus, Barbara and Manzenreiter, Wolfram (Hg.): Life Course, Happiness and Well-being in Japan. London and New York: Routledge.
2017Holthus, Barbara and Manzenreiter, Wolfram (Hg.): Happiness and the Good Life in Japan. London and New York: Routledge.
2017Takeda, Shunsuke: "Sairei ni okeru chiiki shakai no konfurikuto to dentō keishō no dainamizumu", Vortrag an der Universität Wien, September 13, 2017.
2017 Manzenreiter, Wolfram and Holthus, Barbara: "Outsider/insider: being different in rural Japan", 15th International Conference of the European Association for Japanese Studies, Lisbon, September 1, 2017.
2017 Manzenreiter, Wolfram: Panel Convenor "Fractured rurality in contemporary Japan", 15th International Conference of the European Association for Japanese Studies, Lisbon, September 1, 2017.

Individual Presentations:

  • Lützeler, Ralph: "The marginalization of rural Japan between myth and reality"
  • Wilhelm, Johannes: "We just want to be, staying here … Life, social vulnerability and resilience in a depopulating hamlet"
  • Ichinose, Tomohiro: "Debate on the relocation of the residential area and the construction of a tsunami seawall in Mōne, Kesennuma City after the 2011 Tsunami Disaster"
2017 Möller, Hannah: "Auf Spurensuche in Japan", uni:view from March 15, 2017. [Link]
2016 Manzenreiter, Wolfram: "Das Glück auf dem Land: Wohlbefinden in Kumamoto im Stadt-Land-Vergleich", David Chiavacci und Iris Wieczorek (Hg.): Japan 2016. Politik, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft. Munich: Iudicium, 205-306.
2016 Aso: Vergangenheit, Gegenwart und Zukunft eines Wiener Forschungsprojekts zum ländlichen Japan. Wien: Abteilung für Japanologie, Institut für Ostasienwissenschaften, Universität Wien. (= Beiträge zur Japanologie 45). [Link]
2016 Lützeler, Ralph: Panel Convenor "Rural areas in Japan - between decline and resurge", The 2nd EAJS Conference in Japan, University of Kobe, September 24-25, 2016.

Individual presentations:

  • Lützeler, Ralph: "Living conditions in Japanese rural areas: Stuck in a downward spiral?"
  • Holthus, Barbara: "Parental well-being in Japan: Regional differences"
  • Manzenreiter, Wolfram: "Rural well-being in Japan: Reexamining the Aggregate Kumamoto Happiness Index"
  • Wilhelm, Johannes: "Vulnerability and resilience as seen in a post-disaster rural environment"
2015 Eder, Andreas: "Kommunalpolitik im Raum Aso. Lokale Identität, Politische Partizipation und lokale Demokratie", 16. Deutscher Japanologentag. Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität. Munich. August 27, 2015.
2015 Gesswein, Katharina und Lydia Marinoff: "Selbstdarstellung des Tourismusgebietes Aso", 16. Deutscher Japanologentag. Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität. Munich. August 27, 2015.
2015 Getreuer-Kargl, Ingrid: "Projekt Aso. Die Vision einer Forschungskontinuität", 16. Deutscher Japanologentag. Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität. Munich. 26. August 2015.
2015 Getreuer-Kargl, Ingrid: Panel Chair "Aso 2.0", at the 16. Deutschen Japanologentag. Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität. Munich. August 26-27, 2015. [Link]
2015 Holthus, Barbara: "Familien in Aso. Soziologische Ansätze", 16. Deutscher Japanologentag. Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität. Munich. August 26, 2015.
2015 Huber, Matthias: "Arbeitsmarkt und Arbeitszufriedenheit in Aso", 16. Deutscher Japanologentag. Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität. München. August 26, 2015.
2015 Lützeler, Ralph: "Aso heute. Ein ländlicher Raum in der Abwärtsspirale?", 16. Deutscher Japanologentag. Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität. Munich. August 26, 2015.
2015 Manzenreiter, Wolfram: "Aso 2.0. Überlegungen zu einem Teamprojekt", 16. Deutscher Japanologentag. Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität. Munich. August 26, 2015.
2015 Manzenreiter, Wolfram: "Ländliches Wohlbefinden in Japan. Skizzierung einer Langzeitstudie in Aso, SW-Japan", Vienna. December 16, 2015.
2015 Manzenreiter, Wolfram: "Vom Glück, in Aso zu leben – und zu forschen", Energy in Modern Japan. Past, Present, Future. VSJF Annual Conference. Leipzig. November 22, 2015.
2015 Miserka, Antonia: "Rückmigration ins Aso-Gebiet", 16. Deutscher Japanologentag. Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität. Munich. August 27, 2015.
2015 Ölschleger, Hans-Dieter: "Das Aso-Projekt aus Sicht von ethnologischen Ansätzen in der Japanforschung", 16. Deutscher Japanologentag. Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität. Munich. August 26, 2015.
2015 Pickl-Kolaczia, Brigitte: "Matsuri und kollektive Identität", 16. Deutscher Japanologentag. Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität. München. August 27, 2015.
2015 Raab, Hannah E.: "Unterstützung der älteren und alten Bevölkerung in Aso. Der Aso-shi kōreisha ikiiki Plan", 16. Deutscher Japanologentag. Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität. Munich. August 27, 2015.
2015 Trauner, Ya-Sin I. and Timothy Primus: "Gender - ein vernachlässigter Aspekt bei Aso 1.0? Der Rollenwandel der Frau im Ländlichen Raum Japans", 16. Deutscher Japanologentag. Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität. Munich. August 27, 2015.
2015 Wilhelm, Johannes: "Soziale Vulnerabilität und Resilienz", 16. Deutscher Japanologentag. Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität. Munich. August 26, 2015.