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Reviewed by:
  • Disability in Japan by Carolyn S. Stevens
  • John Traphagan (bio)
Disability in Japan. By Carolyn S. Stevens. Routledge, London, 2013. xvi, 186 pages. $145.00.

Over the last two decades, a growing body of literature in anthropology and other areas of social science has focused on policy issues as well as the lived experience of disability. In part stimulated by the volume Disability and Culture edited by Benedicte Ingstad and Susan Reynolds Whyte in 1995, several anthropologists have produced interesting ethnographic works exploring the ways in which culture influences the conceptualization and experience of disability. Ingstad and Whyte edited a second volume in 2007, Disability in Local and Global Worlds, to show how the field had grown and matured since their initial volume.1 During this same period, several other books explored specific issues related to disability, including Many Ways to Be Deaf: International Variation in Deaf Communities, edited by [End Page 473] Leila Monaghan, Constanze Schmaling, Karen Nakamura, and Graham Turner.2

Largely due to Nakamura’s work, the Japanese cultural context has seen important ethnographic research related to disability. Nakamura’s Deaf in Japan: Signing and the Politics of Identity (2006) and her recent A Disability of the Soul: An Ethnography of Schizophrenia and Mental Illness in Contemporary Japan (2013) represent two of the most important ethnographic works related both to disability in general and to Japan in the last decade or so.3 In addition to Nakamura’s contributions, other research has focused on disability and caregiving in Japan following the growth over the last 20 years of social science literature that encompasses policy-oriented and ethnographic research related to aging in Japan. And Ototake Hirotada’s memoir, Gotai fumanzoku (1998), brought the topic of disability to the bestseller list. In short, there has been a great deal of interest in disability, broadly understood, in Japan for about two decades.

Less well explored in relation to disability in Japan is how the experience affects children and parents of disabled children. This is where Carolyn Stevens’s work represents an important contribution to the social science literature on disability in Japan. Her book will be of interest not only in disability studies but also to scholars interested in childhood and child-rearing practices in Japan. One of the many fine entries in the Routledge book series associated with the Japan Anthropology Workshop, Disability in Japan provides new and very helpful research related to the provision of care in the Japanese context.

The author points out that this is not a traditional ethnographic work because it is not based upon traditional methods of ethnographic research; she describes it as more of an “autoethnography.” The research involved, and is partly in response to, her own experience as the mother of a daughter with a “severe intellectual disability” (p. 2) who is also a Japanese citizen. Stevens’s personal experiences of working through the governmental maze of support for disabled individuals and encountering the cultural aspects of social marginality that can accompany disability in Japan (as elsewhere) provides a great deal of insight into the workings of the Japanese care management system as it relates to disability. Stevens notes that autoethnographic approaches are at times viewed as an “illegitimate form of scholarship” due to their inability to privilege the objective gaze associated with modernist [End Page 474] social science research (p. 3). Although I think she is right to address this issue, she has done an excellent job of balancing and triangulating her personal experience of raising a disabled child in Japan with a wide range of primary and secondary sources, particularly in the form of information related to disability policy in the Japanese context. Indeed, her experience as a parent gives this book a depth of understanding that would be difficult to achieve without the knowledge gained through her encounter with the Japanese caregiving system.

Stevens begins with a discussion of the variable definitions of disability in play within academic and governmental circles, as well as a brief review of the literature related to disability studies both internationally and in Japan. She does a good job of covering some of the Japanese-language work on disability, but her...