Religion, Development, and Environmentalism in a Japanese NGO in Myanmar
International development programs strive not only to alleviate poverty but to transform people, aid workers and recipients alike. Becoming One grapples with this process by exploring the work of OISCA*, a prominent Japanese NGO in central Myanmar. OISCA’s postwar origins at the intersection of Shinto, secularism, and rightwing politics, and its vision of inter-Asian solidarity and a sustainable future helped shape the organization’s ideology and activities. By delving into the world of its aid workers—their everyday practices, discourses, and aspirations—author Chika Watanabe seeks to understand the NGO’s political, social, and ethical effects.
At OISCA training centers, Japanese and local staff teach sustainable agricultural skills and organic farming methods to rural youth. Much of the teaching involves laboring in the fields, harvesting produce, and caring for livestock: what they can’t use themselves is sold at nearby markets. Watanabe’s detailed and multi-sited ethnography shows how Japanese and Burmese actors mobilize around the idea of “becoming one” with Mother Earth and their human counterparts within a shared communal lifestyle. By exploring the tension between intentions and political effects—spanning environmentalism, cultural-nationalist ideologies of “Japaneseness,” and aspirations to make the world a better place—Watanabe highlights fascinating questions and both positive and negative outcomes.
Becoming One weaves together vivid descriptions of the intensive, intimate, and “muddy labor” of “making persons” (hitozukuri) with the wider historical resonances of these efforts, decentering common understandings of development, NGOs, and their moral and political promises. This engaging and thought-provoking book combines insights from anthropology, development studies, and religious studies to add to our understanding of modern Japan.
*Organization for Industrial, Spiritual and Cultural Advancement
This is one of the most rewarding and thought-provoking works on Japan I have read in a long time. Readers are immersed in the intellectual and activist world of a pioneering Japanese international NGO and confronted with fascinating questions about religion, national identity, and the humanistic desire to make the world a better place. An outstanding achievement.
Becoming One tells a strikingly different development story between Japan and Myanmar. Its graceful, clear-eyed view reveals ambivalent possibilities of international solidarity, alternately inspiring and disturbing, grown from muddy connections between neotraditional faith and ecologically attuned agrarian labor.
Becoming One is a rich ethnographic study of a Japanese NGO’s development and aid work in Myanmar that traces its religious roots in Ananaikyō, a postwar new religion, and its transformation into a carrier of a ‘nonreligious” Shinto environmentalism. It provides a persuasive account of how particularistic Japanese values and ideals—Nihon no seishin—were translated and cultivated through its staff and training program. The ideological and financial links established between the organization’s leaders, the Liberal Democratic Party, and the nationalisitic Nippon Kaigi, confounds and challenges our conventional association of international aid with liberal politics. Highly recommended.
Receive the latest UBC Press news, including events, catalogues, and announcements.Subscribe to our newsletter now
Read past newsletters