Materializing relationships: Embodying absent kinships in Japanese child welfare

Gregory Noble's picture
July 26, 2018
Subject Fields: 
Anthropology, Asian History / Studies, Japanese History / Studies

The Contemporary Japan Group at the University of Tokyo’s Institute of Social Science

(ISS, or Shaken), welcomes you to a lecture by


Kathryn E. Goldfarb

(University of Colorado, Boulder)


Materializing relationships:

Embodying absent kinships in Japanese child welfare




Thursday, July 26 from 6:00-7:30 p.m. at Akamon Sōgō Kenkyūtō Room 549, Institute of Social Science, University of Tokyo, Hongo Campus, University of Tokyo



This paper suggests that the lived meanings of kinship and family are sometimes best understood through exploring the absence of locally meaningful kinship ties. Rooted in long-term ethnographic research in Japan, I consider kinship relationships as both culturally and biologically rooted, focused not on heterosexual reproduction or biogenetics, but on the ways that relationships—particularly their absences—are perceived and experienced in the body, in sometimes surprising ways. Data for this paper come from research in a child welfare institution outside of Tokyo (a “children’s home”), research with foster and adoptive parents and families, workers within child welfare institutions, and people who themselves were raised in institutional and foster care. I show how Japanese child welfare caregivers interpret children’s bodily signs to guide their own understandings of the care (and neglect) a child has received in the past. I then explore how one of my own research subjects takes up contemporary understandings of attachment, neuroscience, and interpersonal trauma, suggesting that cultural anthropologists should take “biology” as seriously as our interlocutors do in their efforts to understand the material ways social ties shape lived experience.


Kathryn E. Goldfarb received her PhD at the University of Chicago and is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Her research explores how interpersonal and kinship relationships are embodied and shape holistic well-being. Her publications include articles on Japanese child welfare activists’ engagement with brain science (in Social Science & Medicine), discourses about “self-responsibility” among young people who grew up in Japanese child welfare institutions (in Japanese Studies), and an analysis of the ways foster and adoptive parents in Japan use the concepts of en and kizuna to discursively normalize their family relationships (in Social Analysis), in addition to numerous chapters in edited volumes. Her in-progress book manuscript is entitled, Fragile Kinships: Relational Futures in Japanese State Care.


The ISS Contemporary Japan Group provides English-speaking residents of the Tokyo area with an opportunity to hear cutting-edge research in social science and related policy issues, as well as a venue for researchers and professionals in or visiting Tokyo to present and receive knowledgeable feedback on their latest research projects. Admission is free and advance registration is not required. Everyone is welcome.
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