David William Plath (1930-2022)

David W. Plath accepting the Distinguished Contributions to Asian Studies award at the AAS 2013 Annual Conference
David Plath accepting the Distinguished Contributions to Asian Studies award at the AAS 2013 Annual Conference.

By William W. Kelly, Yale University

David Plath, one of our preeminent anthropologists of Japan, passed away peacefully from illness on November 4, 2022, at age 91. In a long engagement with Japan that stretched over seven decades, he was an ethnographer of deeply humanist intentions, a craftsman of precise and stylish writing, an innovative visual documentarian, and a generous teacher and mentor to generations of students and colleagues.

Dave was born in Elgin, Illinois in 1930. He had an early interest in writing and as a high school student worked for the town newspaper. He entered Northwestern University in 1948, majoring in journalism. On graduating in 1952 in the midst of the Korean War, he joined the U.S. Naval Reserve and served in the Pacific fleet. He was deeply moved by his experiences on shore leave in Japan, and after a year of ship duty, he requested a transfer to Japan; for a year, he was stationed at a small radio station on the outskirts of Yokohama.

After leaving the Navy, Dave entered graduate school at Harvard in order to sample the possibilities of academic study. He chose anthropology because of reading two books he had found in his Navy ship’s library: Ruth Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword and Clyde Kluckhohn’s Mirror for Man. Still, he was so uncertain if he was cut out for academics that during his entire first year, he carried his books around the Harvard campus in a brown paper bag. Only in his second year was he confident enough to buy a briefcase!

Dave earned an MA in Anthropology and Far Eastern Studies in 1959 and tried to obtain funding for doctoral fieldwork with a proposal to study patterns of leisure in everyday Japanese life. The committee rejected him because they thought he should be doing a rural community study like the other anthropologists of the time. His second proposal, to study a hot springs onsen, was also turned down as too frivolous. He was finally successful with a third proposal that allowed him and his family to spend two years in the central Japan mountain basin of Matsumoto, living in a village but moving around and studying the leisure and lifeways of townspeople, farmers, and, yes, onsen residents. His 1962 dissertation was revised and published in 1964 as The After Hours: Modern Japan and the Search for Enjoyment, an innovative and iconoclastic ethnography that both charmed and confounded its reviewers and presaged topics that much later became central to Japan studies.

As he was finishing his dissertation, he took an appointment at the University of California, Berkeley from 1961 to 1963, and then taught at the University of Iowa for three years. In 1966, he moved to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and remained there for the rest of his career, serving the Department of Anthropology, East Asian Studies, and the university in a number of capacities. He retired to emeritus status in 1998 but continued to be fully active in research, mentoring, and media production.

Dave loved teaching and working with students in many capacities. In 1969-70, he served as field director for the International Honors Program, leading two professors and 31 students on a nine-month round-the-world study tour. He wrote a curriculum module on Osaka for fourth-graders and in the 1970s, he was involved in to 30-program educational television course on Japanese culture and society produced by the University of Mid-America consortium. He started the university’s Year-in-Japan program. His graduate students went on to important positions in the U.S. and East Asia, and he always promoted their achievements and involved them in his projects, including two influential volumes that he edited, Adult Episodes in Japan (1975) and Work and Lifecourse in Japan (1983).

Dave always believed in the synergy of teaching and research. His publications number six books, some 60 articles, and about 120 book and film reviews; he has had a production role in over 50 educational video projects. These include at least three major fieldwork-based projects that followed The After Hours. In the 1960s, when the issue of counter-culture and commune living enlivened American sociology and popular media, Dave decided to go to Japan to study Japanese cases of utopianism and utopian communities. The result was several important articles and the 1969 book Sensei and His People: The Building of a Japanese Commune, about an intentional community in the Kansai region, Shinkyō, that was well-known at the time. The book combined his own translation of the commune’s history, as put down by the founder’s second wife, and his analysis of its internal dynamics, its complex adaptations to the outside world, and its place in a more comparative landscape of communal living experiments.

Few people noticed in the early 1970s that, despite having at the time the youngest demographic profile of all industrialized societies, Japanese scholars and planners were already beginning to think hard about the effects of a future “aging society.” Dave did take notice, and he undertook a third fieldwork project in 1972-1973 that intensively interviewed a large number of people in the Kansai region to explore what he called the life course of “adult human development.” The resulting book, Long Engagements: Maturity in Modern Japan (1980), is perhaps his most widely known work—and, he often said, the most challenging to write. It was valued because it gave ethnographic depth and cross-cultural breadth to a concept—the life course—that was generally treated in a very Euro-American frame. The book provided us a vocabulary of analysis that conjoined the emic (the ways in which Japanese cultural notions of maturity and self-actualization were given form and expression in the specific circumstances of individual lives) and the etic (how these lives can be made meaningful to similar studies elsewhere through concepts of convoy, consociates, and the like). And a decade before anthropology became self-critical of conventional ethnographic form and began searching for experimental alternatives, Dave provided a striking example of innovative writing, by juxtaposing the life trajectory of each of his four main adult interviewees against a well-known figure in contemporary Japanese fiction.

In the 1980s, Dave turned to a fourth project, which combined several of his analytical concerns, the possibilities for artisanal practice and artisanal expertise in an industrial world and life course trajectories in one’s later years. This time his fieldwork was done in collaboration with his wife, Jacquetta Hill, also an anthropologist at the University of Illinois-Urbana, and together they found themselves in a coastal village of women shellfish divers, the so-called ama still found in a few places in Japan and South Korea. The several articles and an award-winning documentary  (“Fit Surroundings,” 1993) beautifully rendered the social ecology of onshore relations and the aquatic zone of competitive working rivalries among these resilient artisans of the sea. [As part of their fieldwork (waterwork?), Dave and Jacqui followed the divers in the reefs, albeit with scuba gear that the ama banned themselves from using. I recall being the only anthropologist on a national funding committee when Dave’s grant proposal came up for discussion and the initial shock from my colleagues at his budget item for bringing scuba equipment to Japan—“this is what you all call research?” blurted out one of them. Fortunately, Dave’s reputation for serious, if unconventional, projects preceded the application, and he did get the funding!]

He never did finish the book that he planned on the ama divers because by the late 1980s, he was turning his passion and priorities to visual anthropology and the need, he strongly felt, for anthropologists to develop accessible academic documentaries to complement the popular media portraits of Japanese life. In the late 1980s he teamed up with Jackson Bailey of Earlham College to produce several documentaries on northeastern Japan. The project moved to the University of Illinois and became the Asian Educational Media Service (AEMS). For almost thirty years, Dave was the executive producer of AEMS’s production unit, the Media Production Group, which has developed over 30 video programs and documentaries on Asia that have been used in schools and broadcast in the U.S., Japan, South Korea and elsewhere. Among them are No New Ginzas (1992, on rural Japan’s global imaginings); Makiko’s New World (1999, based on a 1910 diary of a Kyoto housewife); Under Another Sun (2001, on Japanese in Singapore); Can’t Go Native? (2011, on Keith Brown’s 50 years of fieldwork in a Tōhoku town); and many more.

Although he is best known for his career in Japan anthropology, Dave was also a longtime collaborator and helpmate for his anthropologist wife Jacqui, whose own fieldwork, for over 40 years, has been with communities of ethnic Lahu in northern Thailand. They produced articles and films together on the Lahu, and they used their retirement funds to create a scholarship foundation that has supported educational opportunities for a great many Lahu youth.

Dave’s research was supported by numerous prestigious fellowships over the years (including Ford Foundation, Guggenheim, ACLS-SSRC, and Japan Society for the Promotion of Science) but he was especially gratified by two recognitions. In 2010 the Society for East Asian Anthropology established the David Plath Media Award, which is given out biennially for the best new media work, and in 2013, the Association for Asian Studies gave him its annual award for Distinguished Contributions to Asian Studies.

Dave’s final completed project was a deeply moving documentary, So Long Asleep: Waking the Ghosts of a War (he was working on two more media projects at the time of his passing). He did this in collaboration with one of his former doctoral students, Chung Byung-Ho, now professor emeritus at Hanyang University in South Korea. The documentary followed the project to repatriate the remains of the Korean men who were forced into slave labor in Hokkaidō during the Asia-Pacific War. Professor Chung relates that when he told Dave about his plans, Dave signed on immediately, and in the summer of 2015, rushed to set up a documentary team with his own funds. To cut expenses, Dave worked with only one camerawoman and with his grandson as an assistant, and he directed, edited, and subtitled the film himself that he finished in 2016.

With both words and images, Dave had a singular, beguiling style, evident even in the titles he coined—articles like “Land of the Rising Sunday” (1960), “Who Sleeps with Whom?” (1966), “The Last Confucian Sandwich” (1975), “Bourbon in the Tea” (1977), and “My-car-isma” (1990). For many of us, Dave was as warm and charming in person as he was wry and sparkling on the page or screen. He was expressive in gesture as well as in words. He could widen his eyes to dance to a pun and arch his eyebrows in incredulity. He was unpretentious in manner, generous to all, but uncompromising in his belief in the power and responsibility of ethnography to communicate to the best of one’s abilities the pleasures and poignancy of the lives of others. He was a master of the anthropological métier.