Book Review: Reluctant Intimacies: Japanese Eldercare in Indonesian Hands

Reluctant Intimacies: Japanese Eldercare in Indonesian hands. Beata Świtek, New York: Berghahn Books, 2016, 226 pp.

In Reluctant Intimacies, Beata Świtek invites the reader to consider the meaning of intimacy in the context of international migration. She traces the experiences of the first cohort of Indonesian care workers in Japan, who arrived in 2008 under the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) between the two countries. Her study sets out a detailed analysis of the EPA program, which made it possible for a select number of qualified Indonesian workers to train to become workers in care homes for the elderly for a period of five years, after which they were eligible to apply for long-term employment, if they could pass the national examination (in Japanese, alongside Japanese candidates). This was considered to be a high hurdle for the foreign workers, by both the Japanese and the Indonesians alike, so while it was theoretically long term, the migration was in practice often considered temporary.

The value of this book lies in its detailed description of the multiplicity of ways in which generalizations about the Other are simultaneously and continuously made and unmade. It delves into the everyday process by which people strive to make sense of the actions of those unfamiliar to them through stereotyping, and the subsequent complication of these shorthand images. In this sense, it traces a certain movement that would seem to characterize a range of encounters with otherness, including those in which anthropologists are commonly involved.

Świtek’s description of the research process in the first two chapters of the book is unusually detailed, but it should prove a helpful resource for budding fieldworkers-to-be. What particularly resonated with my own experience of fieldwork in Japan was the combination of a general openness to the scrutiny of scholars, combined with the difficulty of establishing permission to stay for long periods of time in institutional settings. Most institutions are happy to allow a research visit or a one-off experience, a guided tour, and some pre-arranged interviews. On the other hand, embedding oneself in an institution for a longer time requires a rather different role, such as that of a volunteer or some other internal participant. This bears directly on the topic of the book, insofar as one is either an insider, a member of the in-group, or else remains an outsider. The positionality of the Indonesian carers is discussed here in relation to their membership of various larger or smaller groups: the employees of a particular care institution, a soccer club within it, and; Japanese society at large.

Readers looking for close ethnographic descriptions of care-based relationships or interactions in this work might come away less than entirely satisfied. By Świtek’s own admission, the themes more commonly associated with care (such as the boundary between work and non-work) are replaced here with a focus on the activities performed by Indonesian carers, and the meanings attached to them, alongside the interpersonal relationships within institutions. Indeed, the book situates care work firmly within an ecology of socio–political discussions around immigration in Japan. Indonesian carers become a test case for models of immigration in this super-aged society with an enhanced demand for additional workforce and support for the elderly. Despite the relatively small numbers of the Indonesians participating in the program, their everyday proximity and bodily contact with the elderly in care homes places them in the limelight of the national media—an issue discussed at length by the author. Indeed, the book is as much rooted in ethnography of the Indonesian care workers as it is in the media coverage of their presence in the country.

This double view moves us away from the minutiae of everyday interactions, into the equally affective domain of the political and national. This will, no doubt, be of great interest to scholars of migration, but it does mean that less room remains for a discussion of the intimate space between carer and cared for, or what we might think of as the phenomenology of care. Many of the ethnographic descriptions instead address the problem of belonging, particularly in the context of the care institutions in which the Indonesians took up employment. While the generosity and warmth of many relationships are noted, frustration is also a predominant feature in these accounts: The Indonesian carers are sometimes treated in ways they did not expect and that make them feel confined to a set of basic tasks, with little space for initiative. On numerous other occasions they are treated generously, taken for trips and treated to meals, like valued guests.

This figure of the guest, though explicitly mentioned only in passing in the book, nonetheless stuck with me after I put it down. It seemed that not many Indonesians planned to stay in Japan long term, though they sometimes felt compelled to suggest they were at least going to give the examination their best shot, with an aim to stay, so as not to betray their employers’ sense of investment. What is unclear is whether the employers, the policy designers, or their coworkers really ever expected them to stay. Since Świtek focused on the Indonesian workers, her relationship with their Japanese peers and employers was affected by her apparent closeness with them. Though we do not have access to the less-guarded impressions of the Japanese on the matter, many of their actions suggest that they did not expect the Indonesian workers to remain in Japan. It was of utmost importance that they create good memories and that the Indonesians experience the beauty of Japan, a treatment fit for a guest. I was therefore left wondering: If the carers’ status as guests were acknowledged more openly by all sides, would the institutional negotiations of intimacy play out differently? No doubt, open questions like this one attest to the interest of the case presented in this book: Through care work, the intimate is revealed as clearly political. For ethnographers of Japan and Asia, as well as the scholars of migration, this is a valuable addition to the literature.

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