When the Tangible is Jeopardized the Intangible Remains: Reflections of AFS

Higashiyama Family land, Nagaoka City. From http://enjoyniigata.com

Last October folklorists from around the world gathered for the annual yearly meeting of the American Folklore Society. Congregating in New Orleans, last year’s conference theme was “The Continuity and Creativity of Culture.” One of the most useful things about these conferences isn’t what they provide in the immediate sense, but the ways in which the words and ideas of the presenters and speakers resonate in the months, even years, following the event.

Folklorist and regular contributor Nic Hartmann offers these thoughts on the role of intangible culture, local knowledge, hope, and building the future.

Of all the things that I learned while in New Orleans for the American Folklore Society meeting back in October, one of the most surprising was this:

In Japan, bullfighting doesn’t involve men fighting bulls, but bulls fighting each other.

(At first glance, you might wonder what this has to do with either my trip or this blog. But bear with me, I’m going somewhere with this.)

I heard about this bullfighting from attending a panel called “How Do Folklorists Respond to Disaster?”- a panel that was suggested by the senior folklorist I was shadowing for the last morning of the conference- but I never imagined that the symbology of bullfighting would be so significant. Based on my previous research about animal fighting, such as cockfighting, there was always some sense of dominance of one party over the other, and not what the speaker, Dr. Yutaka Suga, would tell us.

Dr. Suga, a professor at the University of Tokyo, was involved in research in the community of Higashiyama, located in Niigata prefecture, which is located along the Sea of Japan. On October 23, 2004, a 6.8 earthquake struck the central part of Niigata, causing a total of forty deaths; it was the deadliest earthquake in Japan since the 1995 earthquake near Kobe, as well as the deadliest Japanese earthquake of the 2000s. Not only did a lot of people lose their homes, but a lot of men lost their bulls, and for those men, the bulls were practically family.

Dr. Suga went on to say that, while having to stay in a disaster shelter, the men of Higashiyama, of all things, were discussing bullfighting, and what would happen to their traditions after the earthquake. For those men, bullfighting was considered a symbol of their community’s reconstruction, and the thing that helped them towards attaining recovery. The closeness between Dr. Suga and the community became so intense that he himself began bullfighting (eventually owning his own bulls), and was eventually given community roles. Fearing that he might have too great of an influence on the members of the community, they reassured him that he would have those roles because of his interest and passion in bullfighting, and not because of his education.

At a later point in the panel, folklorist Carl Lindahl pointed out that the best measure of a folklorist was how well they could master local knowledge. The passion that Dr. Suga brought into the community was a reflection of that; knowing that bullfighting was a symbol of their rebuilding, his energy for the sport brought him to become part of a community, rather than a distant and itinerant observer. Given that many aspects of folk culture, whether tangible or intangible, are reflections of identity, hope, and community, I realized that, in listening to the panel, that aspects of folk culture also bring constructions of identity, hope and community, and when tangible heritage is jeopardized due to disaster, it is the intangible that still remains. Those who are the bearers of such knowledge are the ones who know the most about the communities, and being there, full-time and rooted in a place, they are the ones who can build agency and community in tough times.

So whenever disaster hits us, or people around us, and things are removed, taken away, destroyed, the community cannot be subject to any of those. And because the community is rooted in something so intangible, it is possible to build a stronger, more sustainable community that will outlast such disasters, which are brief in a temporal sense but have a longer-lasting impact than most people imagine.

Nic Hartmann spent most of his life in Southern Indiana, but for the last three years, has been based in Canada, where is he currently working on a Ph.D. in folklore at Memorial University of Newfoundland. He has worked as a university instructor and as a students’ union official, and currently serves as web editor for the folklore journal Culture & Tradition. He lives in St. John’s, Newfoundland with his wife, Jen, and daughter, Mari, and is an avid dancer, baker and novice gardener.