A year ago, Muriel Jolivet said, “Briefly, the subjects I studied up to now were, first, the social integration of Japanese male students through work. Then I focused more on women, and their social integration through work. I got interested in women and maternity in Japan, and wrote the book ‘Japan: the Childless Society?’ Then I worked on extended interviews with 60 men in the Tokyo and Kansai areas, who spoke about their families, their worries, their relations to the workplace, their families, their children, their fathers, and society at large.” The result was the recently published book “Homo Japonicus,” a Picquier edition.
Jolivet is young, a scholar and humanitarian, with many years of inside knowledge of Japanese society. She was born in Belgium to French parents. Her father, an entomologist, took his family traveling, so that as a child she lived far afield in Taiwan and different countries of Africa. When she stayed in Paris for senior high schooling, she went for holidays to visit her parents, who were then in New Guinea.
Inquiring, lively and book-loving, she studied Chinese for three years in high school, so that when she entered the University of Paris she was ready for something else. She decided on Japanese. In 1973, she said, “I had to have some fresh air. I applied for a scholarship to Japan.”
Alone in Tokyo, Jolivet attended Waseda University “to learn how to speak Japanese, very easy compared with what we were doing in university.” On her daily routines she went everywhere on foot and by cycle. During her initial two-year stay here, she met the man she later married in France, a Tokyo University lecturer in economics.
Jolivet received her first degree in Japanese and Chinese from the University of Paris in 1975. In Japan again, she studied in the department of sociology at the University of Tokyo. She accompanied her husband to Germany when he went there for research. She received her M.A. in Asian languages from Paris in 1977. Back in Japan, she studied again at the University of Tokyo in the faculty of pedagogy. She got a Ph.D. in Asian studies from the University of Paris in 1981, the year she became a full-time lecturer at Sophia University. Since 1995 she has been a professor. She has two young daughters.
With seriousness, Jolivet researches and produces her books in French, Japanese and English. “Japan: the Childless Society?” examines the factors behind the decline in Japan’s birthrate, and asks why Japanese women find it increasingly difficult to accept the terms and conditions of motherhood. The results of her survey were, she said, borne out “interestingly enough in the number of interviews I conducted for ‘Homo Japonicus.’ “
She speaks of the methodology she used, requiring that each interview be carefully documented and analyzed, which is based on the socioanalysis advocated by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. She prepared for her interviews by reading Japanese-language documents and books, and by attending conferences and talks, lectures, seminars and workshops.
In her interviews with 60 men aged between 21 and 79, she said, “I assumed the role of a ‘public writer’ or scribe, merely listening, writing, nodding and translating. Those interviews can be read as short stories arousing ‘voyeur interest’ in people’s private lives.” Her topics cover the problems men face, the effect of those problems on the couple, fathers divided into different age groups and fatherhood, marginals who live outside the so-called norms, and the homeless “who choose to evaporate.”
She spotlights artists, “a street singer, a live theater producer, a street painter.” Her marginals include a gay couple, an androgene and a transvestite. For her homeless and daily laborers, she interviewed in Sanya and Kamagasaki, speaking also with volunteers, doctors, ministers supervising soup kitchens and welfare workers. She includes victims of the Kobe earthquake, a war orphan repatriated from Manchuria and senior citizens. She describes some of the testimonies as “extremely touching.”
Jolivet said: “This work can be labeled or categorized in any genre one wishes to put it. I was led by my heart. The uniqueness of each testimony, the richness of each person interviewed, the powerfulness of some messages, were at times unbearable to listen to, to transcribe, but were revelations in themselves. One understands that in their situations one couldn’t have done anything else . . . or any better.”