Primate Research Supplement
The 31th Congress Primate Society of Japan
Session ID : PN4
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Poster Session
Why Japanese primatology? A perspective from sociocultural anthropology
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International science is accomplished through a set of standards, practices and institutions considered milestones in a given discipline. In primatology, and more specifically, in the study of primate behavior, it has been noted (Asquith 2000, Takasaki 2000) that international science can often converge to standards, practices and institutions adopted or created by European and American scientists. However, early Japanese primatology promoted a different approach to the study of primates than those found in the Western countries; it was the first to assign the status of (proto)culture to primate behavior, as in the sweet potato wash by Japanese macaques (Macaca fuscata) (Matsuzawa and McGrew 1973, Lestel 2003), long before Western scientists would devote attention to primate culture during the 90's (Perry 2006). Therefore, I would like to explore some historical and epistemological reasons for this novelty and bridge them with current debates in sociocultural anthropology. Despite many idiosyncrasies in Japanese primatology some commonalities in its history can be retraced. First, Imanishi's work (2002) and concept of “species society” (shushakai) encouraged researchers to explain behavior and social structure by complex interacting factors. Secondly, Japanese primatology seems to have placed considerable importance to the context of behavior and acquaintance with animals, as well as to a holistic approach, favoring among others, long-term fieldwork (Asquith 2000). Thirdly, anthropomorphism has been used strategically, allowing the conceptualization of primate cultures (Takasaki 2000). At last, the emergence of the above-mentioned factors possibly relate more broadly to a Japanese non dichotomic worldview in which nature and animals are not set apart from culture and humans (Latour 1993, Asquith and Kalland 1997). Although the concept of primate cultures has not been yet fully debated in sociocultural anthropology, contemporary anthropology calls into question the Nature-Culture divide traditionally present in many Western societies, by contrasting it with alternative views (Descola 2005) like the Japanese (Houdart 2008, Ohnuki-Tierney 1987). Current Japanese primatology, even though operating on international standards, continues to carry on many of its historical characteristics, as well exemplified by the Ai project (Matsuzawa 2003), where daily interactions in a computerized laboratory setting are based on human-chimpanzee bond and where both fieldwork and experimental studies are conducted. Cultural diversity in science practices contributes to a better understanding of the subjects and phenomena scientists wish to unveil. Japanese primatology certainly earns its keep.

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