The National Museum of Ethnology (Minpaku) is a research center for ethnology and cultural anthropology.

Plant Materials in Changing Value Judgments and Social Interactions

Joint Research Coordinator OCHIAI Yukino

Reserch Theme List


Life-world, decontextualization, constancy

Major Objectives (Application 3: Extract of Research Objectives)

This research will take as its object of study the entire process in which human beings use plants as materials to make things, or for storage, exchange or consumption purposes. At the same time, the research will examine the ways in which their forms as “things” undergo physical transformation, the uses and objectives for things, as well as how value judgments regarding them have undergone change. We will also look at how plants are selected as targets from within ecosystems, and when the process for their becoming materials commences. We will also see how the ethnic groups serving as subjects undertake processing and intervention regarding these materials during the processes, and what kinds of things can be given form. We also will address the question of who assigns value and of what kind, as well as what kinds of mutual recognition and division of labor there is between the subjects found in the background to the processing of things.

The objectives of this research are to adopt a double approach regarding the various kinds of materials made from vegetation (plant materials) for studying external changes and transformation of meaning. By approaching things as the result of a mutual interaction between object and subject on the borders or their struggle, we hope to elucidate how value-assigning behavior undergoes change within broadening of space and time as well as the relationships among independent subjects.

Research Results

The results of this Inter-University Research Project can be summarized as follows:

  1. Foundational assumptions about the origin of plants and "things" were questioned.
    Starting with vegetation (Tanaka), via partially transformed forests (Kanzaki) and finally closely managed soil, increasing human involvement and differences in types of plants and their exploitation as resources was demonstrated. Reports were presented also on how non-human animals make use of plant materials (Kato) and on historical records concerning wooden artifacts (Daniels).
  2. Changes in the appearance and meaning of objects and relations between actors were analyzed and discussed.
    This was examined by investigating changes in luxury consumption within small regions. We examined natto (fermented soybean) production and consumption in northern Laos (Yokoyama) and the chewing of miang (fermented tea leaves) in northern Thailand (Sasaki). Changes in the use of objects by specific ethnic groups were examined by analyzing the uses of bamboo musical instruments among the Ruwa (Baba) and the shift from opium to stimulants among the Lisu (Ayabe). With regard to items produced and interethnic relations, we debated how the relationship between Pao and Burman affects the production of Myanmarese cheroots (Matsuda), and how local relationships in northern Thailand affect the supply of the bamboo used to make Theravada Buddhist offering containers (Iijima). The following topics were discussed to examine commercialization: the making of brooms for sale from tiger grass (Thysanolaena latifolia), the buds and leaves of which are fed to cattle (Takai); adding new value to mosquito nets as textiles among Thai peoples (Shirakawa); the increasing popularity of the seeds of Job’s tears (Coixlacryma-jobi) as a material for handicrafts (Ochiai); and cosmetics thanaka (wood apple, Limonia acidissima) being sold locally and considered for export (Tosa).
  3. The raison d’etre of plants was reexamined.
    As an experiment to rethink the meaning and significance of plants to people, we discussed how plants are portrayed in the folksongs of the Black Tai of northern Vietnam (Kashinaga) and intersections between people and other living things among the Karen (Hayami).

Overall, researchers from diverse fields selected topics from or related to plant materials that characterize the biodiversity in different regions and the life-world of different ethnic groups. This resulted in fruitful discussions on the processes by which plant materials are transformed into artifacts and economically valuable goods, and on behaviors that attach values to them.