Written by Genki Hase
“I had a lot going on in high school….”Suzu
At a board game cafe, Suzu, whom I met for the first time after graduating from the same middle school, said this to me. For a moment, I thought I caught a glimpse of her suffering in high school, but overall, she seemed brighter and more active than in middle school. Suzu and I, along with two other friends from the same middle school, were fully enjoying board games at that time, so I did not have the opportunity to further ask about what happened to her during high school, but I had this impression that she had already put her past behind.
I recalled this conversation when I started reading Vita: Life in a Zone of Social Abandonment, an ethnography written by Joao Biehl (2013) that depicts a complex of politics, economics, medicine, biology, and family which results in the abandonment of people. In this ethnography, Biehl attempts to examine the life of Catarina—a woman living in a place where the sick, the homeless, and the mentally ill are being abandoned—and explores Catarina’s subjectivity through dialogue and her collections of words stored in what she calls “dictionary.” Before I read this book, I had this vague impression that the main subject of anthropological study should be people, not an individual person. However, after reading this ethnography, I realized that people are in a person, and the world is observable from holding a dialogue with a person. Thus, I decided to hold a dialogue with Suzu, an interesting person who is brazen but sensitive, to know what happened to her and how she re-narrated her ‘self.’ After obtaining consent from her, we decided to talk in Koganei Park, Tokyo, a place familiar to both of us. The approach I took is a mixture of life history and illness narrative. However, this work does not aim to conclude Suzu’s narrative. Her life is ongoing. Therefore, I will keep this piece incomplete and open-ended. In addition, since Suzu’s interpretation of her past was explicit, I will not attempt to theorize her narrative too much, but I will try to underline the role of her illness in the process of construction of her ‘self.’
Katherine P. Ewing (1990) argues that “individuals are continuously reconstituting themselves into new selves in response to internal and external stimuli” (p. 258); therefore, ‘self’ is a collection of context-dependent self-representations. Although this point is made in the context of a dichotomy between the Western self and non-Western self, with this quote in mind, I started the interview by saying: “In order to make it easier to talk, I’m going from the far past to the present, and then future. I assume that when you are talking there might be inconsistencies, but I don’t care about it, so talk about what you want to talk about.” The interview is done in Japanese, and the translation is mine.
“What kind of person do you consider yourself to be?”
“I’m multidimensional and insensitive, and also I think I have guts. I constitute my ‘self’ in relation to the existence of others; thus, if others are different, my ‘self’ is different as well.”
“What made you start to see yourself and your ‘self’ in that way?”
“Being recognized by superiors is what drives me, I guess. Studying for high school entrance exams was exactly the case, and I think I have a strong tendency to seek approval from ‘adults.’”
“What is your definition of ‘adults?’”
“Father and mother… people who I respect.”
“How is your relationship with your family?”
“Very good. I was raised being loved by my parents, receiving all the emotions, including praise and anger.”
“Do you think being an only child has anything to do with your ‘self?’”
“Yes. My father’s stance towards me is: Do what you want, I will provide the money. My mother is more worrisome about what others will say about me, and she was overprotective, but she took such good care of me.”
What this initial conversation suggests is that Suzu is seeing her ‘self’ as a flexible subject. This seems to relate to the illusion of the whole ‘self’ discussed by Ewing (1990). For Suzu, the ‘self’ is interconnected with context-dependent self-representations so that the ‘self’ is versatile.
Although Suzu defines herself as “insensitive,” I found her sensitivity towards people surrounding her. Then, the emerging question is: How did she come to this representation of the self? As I continued asking about her life history, I found some events that helped narrate her ‘self.’ One of them is the experience of being surrounded by girls after it was found that Suzu and her childhood friend (who was popular among girls) conducted summer vacation research (natsuyasumi jiyu kenkyu) together during elementary school.
“When I was in elementary school, I enjoyed thinking about what the other kids were thinking right now. I was the one who knew what they were thinking.”
“What made you realize that?”
“I used to play with four childhood friends, along with their families. We frequently hung out and played together. But one day because of this relationship I was once questioned by girls in the classroom. They asked me why are you having the same research topic as him. I knew he was popular among girls so now I can digest it, but at that time, I got scared of girls. And then I realized that I don’t prefer to behave like a ‘girl.’”
According to her, it was right around this time that she began to be aware of how she would appear to others, and what ‘self’ should be represented according to who is surrounding her. Suzu’s realization that she did not like to be like a ‘girl’ could be thought of as a recognition of the gap between the projection of “girlishness” and her own projection, which may have been the event that led her to establish her ‘self’ in the presence of others, as seen in her later narrative. I think this became one of the events that allowed her to realize that the relationship between herself and others is not limited to herself and others, but extends to third parties.
Diagnosis and social clash
“In high school, I was blessed with good classmates and there are no more girls who said nasty things to me like in elementary and middle school, so my mental load was reduced. But my high school encouraged students to study hard for the university entrance exam as much as possible (…) then I started to feel like studying was really tough… becoming ill every time I take exams.”
“One day, when I was taking the final exam for the second year in the school infirmary, I fainted. I don’t have a chronologically ordered memory even when I tried to recall what happened at that time. (…) After I got myself back, one teacher suspected me of cheating on the exam. I was allowed to go to the bathroom during the exam because they knew I wasn’t feeling well so I think they thought I cheated in the bathroom, but I don’t have the memory. And I don’t think I cheated.”
“How did you feel at that time?”
“I was completely confused. I was interrogated for a week, suspected of exam cheating, but I have nothing to do with it (mini oboe ga nai).”
The Japanese phrase mini oboe ga nai is often being translated to English as “have nothing to do with it”, but if I directly translate the words used in this phrase, it means “body does not remember anything”. I thought that these two meanings the phrase entails well suit the situation that Suzu is describing. For Suzu, she cannot do anything with it because she simply does not have a ‘coherent memory’—which others seem to have—that can legitimize her claim of having nothing to do with it.
“After collapsing in the infirmary, my mother took me to see a neurologist, who diagnosed me as having epilepsy. I brought that written diagnosis to the teacher, but the suspicion never cleared… resulting in all zeros for the final exam for the second year.”
“When did you first recognize your health problem?”
“I didn’t know about it until I went to the hospital, so I didn’t think it was a big problem.”
“Why did you think so?”
“When I was still very young, I told my mother that “I have salt in my veins” to tell that my legs were numb, but my mother told me that it is normal. After that, I start to think most things happening to me are normal.”
“How did you feel when you visited the neurologist and received a diagnosis?”
“I felt relieved.”
“Because you received a diagnosis?”
“Actually not because of the diagnosis. What gave me relief is that people in the hospital were very nice to me. The neurologist even wrote what happened in the high school in the written diagnosis, so if I look back, I think I am still respecting ‘adults’ because the ‘adults’ in the hospital were nice. If they were not, I might be disappointed because the ‘adults’ in the school were the worst (saiaku). In terms of the diagnosis, rather than getting a diagnosis and calming down, I was thinking about how I could use this diagnosis to clear the’ suspicions of cheating. The social issue I was facing was the primary concern.”
“If you had to, how would you express your illness?”
“I’m unconscious, I don’t remember anything. I feel like I have amnesia, or a hangover and I don’t remember anything, but I’m not feeling like I’m ill because I have epilepsy.”
“How did your people surrounding you, such as parents and friends, respond to you regarding your health condition?”
“I never told friends, so I think they knew that my body is weak, since they frequently care about me when I was severely ill, but they don’t know that I have epilepsy. My mother, on the other hand, became very sensitive, and told me not to say that I have epilepsy to others.”
“Because of the stigma that is attached to epilepsy?”
“Yes. The doctor gave me a pamphlet showing the stigma attached to epilepsy. Being aware of that, my mother searched a lot about the issues that epilepsy patients might face.”
After Suzu introduced her first encounter with her health condition, she introduced two episodes that contrasted the difference between the students and teachers regarding the ‘adultness’. The first shocking event for Suzu occurred at a bus stop near the school. The teacher, who may or may not have known Suzu was there, said at the bus stop, “Do you know? There is someone in your grade who was cheating in the last exam,” to the students in Suzu’s grade. Although Suzu became afraid, not knowing how much people around her knew the issue she was facing, as she saw the students respond to the teacher’s words in an ‘adult’ way, meaning that they leniently responded to the teacher, she had to be skeptical as to which of them was the ‘adult.’ Another episode happened during the graduation ski trip. At first, she had no intention of going on a ski trip, but she was being told that she needed to go in order to graduate from high school. At that time, she was feeling an obligation that she needed to hide epilepsy from others. At the same time as well, she wanted to end her high school life as soon as possible, so her priority was to survive the current complex and graduate from school. Thus, she decided to join the trip. During the trip, since her health condition was still unstable, she stayed in the resting room most of the time. However, on the last day of the trip, she joined a specially prepared tour for the injured and sick students. Suzu told me that some students who broke their bones before the ski trip was joining that tour as well. According to Suzu, the tour took them to dangerous places such as icy mountain roads, so that Suzu became even more suspicious of the teachers—the ‘adults’—who were happy to offer this tour to the injured and sick.
“Did you think of something to do with those ‘adults’ in high school?”
“Before I graduated from high school, I was trying to figure out how to get revenge on my teachers. I wanted to do something, but I held back and got into university.”
Suzu says that she is insensitive towards others and herself, but her narrative tells the opposite. Suzu was always aware of the ‘adults’ who see her and the people who surround her, and she was trying to adjust her self-representations according to the context she was located in. In this sense, in my view, she is sensitive to situations that surround her and of course what is happening to herself and her ‘self,’ but it seems like she is narrating herself as “insensitive” to construct a ‘self’ that is not context-dependent, which is not a whole ‘self’, but rather a reference point where she can come back to. Moreover, Suzu often used the phrase “I needed to (…)” and not “I wanted to (…).” This may suggest that she is using others as a guiding light for her narrative, and this connects to the point where she said, “I constitute my ‘self’ in relation to the existence of others; thus, if others are different, my ‘self’ is different as well.” When I first heard Suzu saying this, the first thing that came into my mind was the quote by Frantz Fanon: “For not only must the black man be black; he must be black in relation to the white man” (Fanon, 1967, pp. 82-83). What I imagined from these words is that the so-called “subjectivity” including the ‘self’ and selfhood does not exist in the first place, but it is something that is created through various dialogues. In this way, perhaps, we can think of her illness as one of the comparative materials and constituent materials for defining her reality, just as she defines her ‘self’ in relation to others. The fact that she consistently maintains an attitude of thinking and enforcing tags and ideas for her own benefit suggests that she recognizes herself as an aggregate composed of such tags and forms a malleable self.
After listening to the whole story of her high school years, I asked her about the effects of her illness and the changes that had occurred since then.
“How did your illness change the way you live?”
“When I was in high school, I was aggressive and sometimes tried to gain an advantage over others, but through activities such as working in Greenpeace as a volunteer, which I started when I entered university, I lost my aggressive side and became a calm person. (…) When I was a freshman, I always acted alone, but now I am able to act in accordance with others.”
“How has your illness changed the way you feel and think?”
“I no longer harbor suspicions about people or think consciously about what’s going on behind their backs. In terms of activities in Greenpeace, I realized that it’s more important not to lose sight of what attracts me and what ‘I’ possibly want to do so of course, I invested my passion in thinking about environmental protection, but at the same time, I started to think of myself. I was able to take a positive view of my abilities.”
“You know, there is a French philosopher called Michael Foucault who argued that there are technologies such as diaries, pictures, and confession that cultivate the ‘self,’ but what do you think are your technologies of the self?” (Foucault, 1988)
“Maybe it’s the pictures of me that my parents keep in the house… My parents are so cute that they hang my perfect test scores in their room, but I guess I’m more aware of and constituting my ‘self’ through their actions and my representations in my parents’.”
“How was this experience of talking about yourself and your ‘self?’”
“I think I was in a strange place (tokoro), and I think I was able to cope with it and form a personality that is compatible with the society I am placed in. Looking back, I feel like I don’t need to be with other people, but I also feel like I want to be in step with them. Maybe this is a contradiction, but I would like to continue to cherish the attitude of having such contradictions and ultimately making decisions on my own.”
Biehl, J. (2013). Vita: Life in a zone of social abandonment. University of California Press.
Ewing, K. P. (1990). The illusion of wholeness: Culture, self, and the experience of inconsistency.
Fanon, F. (1967). Black skin white masks. Grove Press.
Foucault, M. (1988). Technologies of the self. In Technologies of the Self (Ed. Luther Martin, Huck Gutman, Patrick Hutton), pp. 16-49. University of Massachusetts Press.
This paper is originally written as an assignment for the course Anthropology of the Self (2021), offered by Dr. Takeshi Uesugi