In Memoriam: Dr. Roger L. Janelli (1943-2021)

Roger L. Janelli of Indiana University with his wife, Dongguk University Anthropology Professor Emeritus Dawnhee Yim, on May 5, 2007. Photo courtesy Kyoim Yun.

Roger L. Janelli, an anthropologist and folklorist, passed away in the early morning of January 19, 2021 in Seoul. Janelli was among the first generation of Korean folklore and anthropology scholars in the United States, and his work as an educator, researcher, and writer was critical to the foundation of Korean Studies. He was Professor Emeritus of Folklore in the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology and the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures at Indiana University (IU), where he had taught for 32 years (1975-2007). He is survived by his wife, Dongguk University Anthropology Professor Emeritus Dawnhee Yim.

Throughout his career, Janelli moved between the worlds of U.S. and Korean anthropology and folklore and was a strong advocate for moving away from a “west-centric” academic engagement. Early in his career, Janelli worked closely with Korean mentors, most notably the eminent anthropologist Yim Suk-jae. A lifetime member of folklore and anthropology societies in Korea and the United States, he championed equal engagement among academic professionals. In an interview with his former student and anthropologist Sue-Je Gage, Janelli noted:

I am often concerned that a number of Korea-based anthropologists attend the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, but few outside Korea are members of the Korean Society for Cultural Anthropology or attend its annual meetings. I worry that this is a manifestation of intellectual imperialism to which anthropologists ought to be especially sensitive and hope that it can be abridged or eliminated entirely.

(2007: 65)

If one’s early life is seen as a determinant of future success, Janelli’s path would seem unusual. Born in the Bronx, New York City in 1943 to an Italian-American family, Janelli went to Georgetown University to become an accountant, a subject that he soon found “dull” (1986: 2). Interested in the folk music revival of the 1960s, he spent hours each day playing the guitar instead of studying. Caught between a job prospect and a passion for folk music and folklore, he chose to pursue a master’s degree at the Wharton School of Business because the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) had a thriving folklore program. After a summer course on folk song, Janelli took additional folklore courses before completing his MBA and departing to serve in the U.S. armed forces.

Here is where fate, it seems, stepped in. Convinced by Janelli’s argument that it would be a shame to waste his accounting skills working as a radio maintenance officer in Vietnam, where he was originally assigned, recruiters sent him to Korea as a budget advisor for the Korean army. “[T]hat meant I got training in Korean culture before I [attended the program]” (1986: 4). While in Korea, Janelli “[lugged] around this heavy tape recorder to various places in Korea, recording … snippets of music […]” (1986: 7). His interests were redirected toward folk religion and kinship systems when he befriended two young scholars at an ethnology museum, one of whom eventually became his wife. After serving for two years in the army, Janelli returned to school, earning an M.A. in folklore, an M.S. in anthropology, and a Ph.D. in folklore from UPenn before launching his career at IU.

Throughout his time at IU, Janelli spent nearly six months each year living in Korea and conducting research, which led to significant publications. Ancestor Worship and Korean Society, co-authored with Dawnhee Yim (Stanford University Press, 1981), presented pioneering research on ancestral beliefs and practices in Korea. Published at a time when Korea was an unexplored region in ethnography, the book was lauded for its meticulous account of life in rural Korea during the 1970s and translated into both Japanese (Daiichi Shobo, 1993) and Korean (Ilchogak, 2000). Making Capitalism: The Social and Cultural Construction of a South Korean Conglomerate (Stanford University Press, 1992), also co-authored with Dawnhee Yim, proved groundbreaking in its evaluation of corporate culture as a form of tradition. Within its pages, he artfully wove the norms and practices of Korean corporate life with those of military and kinship structures. It was one of the first influential volumes written on corporate life in anthropology, validating the study of such social structures as anthropological. He also co-edited The Anthropology of Korea with Mutsuhiko Shima (Japanese National Museum of Ethnology, 1996) and published many articles in premier journals such as Man and the Journal of American Folklore.

Janelli chaired the Joint Committee of Korean Studies of the American Council of Learned Societies and the Social Science Research Council and served on the editorial boards of folklore and Asian Studies journals. In 2006, he and his wife established the Yim Suk-jae prize for the top anthropological monograph in Korea.

Perhaps his most profound and lasting impact was in his role as an educator and mentor. At IU, Janelli taught classes in Korean vernacular heritage; East Asian popular religion; Korean political economy; East Asian ethnography, identity, and intellectual history. Janelli held research and teaching appointments on campuses world-wide, including University of Tokyo, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Yonsei University, University of Texas at Austin, University of Washington, Lincoln University, University of Maryland, and UC Berkeley. He devoted much time to determining ways to help students move to the next level, always with sharp yet gracious critiques. Janelli’s influence is evident in tributes from a host of his former students representing diverse fields and disciplines. As one such tribute encapsulates, “He was always human. Always thoughtful. Always kind.”

Hilary Finchum-Sung, Association for Asian Studies
Kyoim Yun, The University of Kansas, Lawrence

References Cited

Gage, Sue-Je Lee. 2007. “Conversation with Roger L. Janelli” Anthropology News 48 (7): 64-65.

Interview with Roger L. Janelli. Conducted by Jeanne Harrah-Conforth, 29 April 1986, Bloomington, Indiana. Indiana University Center for Documentary Research and Practice, #87-17-1, 2.