Suburban Communities in Japan

Back to Japan

I sought to investigate the family and neighborhood lives of salary-men: the “typical” Japanese organization members. While much of the scholarly research on Japan during the 1970s and 1980s emphasized Japanese management methods and the dynamics of Japanese organizations, I sought to ask what happens to these workers (overwhelmingly men) when they go home. For this project (which formed the basis for my doctoral dissertation) I spent 26 months in the country to do fieldwork on two communities – a housing estate and a commuter village – and wrote about local associations and family life. My findings appeared in the volume “Changing Japanese Suburbia” and a number or articles.

My interest in the housing estate further prompted me to explore the discourses related to newly built neighborhoods in contemporary Japan. My focus on recently constructed housing estates was a corrective to many of the previous ethnographic studies that were overwhelmingly examinations of ‘old’ or ‘traditional’ neighborhoods or villages. On one level, the discourses on new housing developments is related to the reputational content of a locality, that is to the series of typifications and images that capture the character and ‘spirit’ of a place. On another level, I found that people often use the residential community as a medium for discussing or for evoking wider issues for example to promote or denigrate certain visions of what Japan was, is, or should be like. My study suggested that a fruitful way to explore the complexity of these discourses is to uncover the ‘folk’ models of locality which are held by different local groups. People use these models to describe, analyze and evaluate what goes on in their communities and to prescribe ways in which to change them.

In a project about the commuter village, my aim was not to add yet another explication of the concepts of ‘tradition’, ‘old’, ‘urban’, or ‘rural’ as they are used in contemporary Japan. Rather, using the case of the village I studied I extended the discussion ask about how the people think the national policies of place making effect concrete changes in their communities. I argued that in order to understand such reasoning there is a need to make explicit the assumptions about how ‘tradition’ is linked to social action and to personal characteristics. It is these purported causal chains which undergird assertions about the return to ‘tradition’ and to ‘past’ places as bases for identity and as remedies for current social ills. I also contended that it is crucial to understand how wider images of ‘villages’ are mobilized by local communities in their dialogue with a variety of (collective) significant others about local identity.


Changing Japanese Suburbia: A Study of Two Present‑Day Localities. London: Kegan Paul International, 1991. [Amazon Link]

Eyal Ben-Ari Mass Longevity and the Challenge of Community Care: A Study of Old‑Folks Clubs in Suburban Japan, Minzokugaku Kenkyu (Japanese Journal of Ethnology), 54(3) 275‑91. [Special Issue], 1989.

Eyal Ben-Ari A Bureaucrat in Every Japanese Kitchen? On Cultural Assumptions and Coproduction, Administration and Society, 21(4), 472‑92, 1990.

Eyal Ben-Ari At the Interstices: Drinking, Management and Temporary Groups in a Local Japanese Organization, Social Analysis, 26, 46‑64, 1990.

Eyal Ben-Ari Posing, Posturing and Photographic Presences: A Rite of Passage in a Japanese Commuter Village, Man, 26, 87‑104, 1991.

Eyal Ben-Ari Transformation in Ritual; Transformation of Ritual: Audiences and Rites in a Japanese Commuter Village Ethnology 30(2), 135‑47, 1991.

Eyal Ben-Ari Uniqueness, Typicality and Appraisal : A ‘Village of the Past’ in Contemporary Japan, Ethnos 3-4: 201-18, 1993.

Eyal Ben-Ari Contested Identities and Models of Action in Japanese Discourses of Place-Making: An Interpretive Study Anthropological Quarterly  68(4): 203-18, 1995.

Ralph Lutzler and Eyal Ben-Ari “Local Communities: Processes of Change.” In Josef Kreiner, Hans-Dieter Vulschleger and Ulrich Mohwald (eds.): Modern Japanese Society: A Handbook. Leiden: Brill. Pp. 277-303, 2004.

Wolfram Manzenreiter and Eyal Ben-Ari “Leisure and Consumer Culture”. In Josef Kreiner, Hans-Dieter Vulschleger and Ulrich Mohwald (eds.): Modern Japanese Society: A Handbook. Leiden: Brill. Pp. 489-524, 2004.