Home | Index Japanese Archaeology last revised:
May 17, 2006

Fieldwork Opportunities
in Japanese Archaeology

by Charles T. Keally

This discussion reflects my knowledge of archaeological fieldwork opportuntites in Japan. This knowledge was acquired accidentally during 37 years of uninterrupted fieldwork here, mostly in the Tokyo area, and it could well be very unrepresentative. Even if my statements happen to be accurate, and I am not at all sure of that, there are certainly many exceptions. I am sure, however, that most (95% to 99%) excavation projects will require the individual to be freely conversant in at least spoken Japanese and to provide his or her own room, board and transportation. A reading ability in Japanese would certainly help. But these projects usually do pay wages and usually do not take volunteers.

There are about 370,000 archaeological sites in Japan, or 440,000 according to a recent report. That is roughly one site for every kilometer square of the country, 70% of which is mountainous and contains almost no sites. Consequently, Japan conducts about 8,000 contract (emergency or rescue) excavation projects each year (down from almost 13,000 in 1996). Although I have never seen a clear statement of what exactly is included in this figure, the projects apparently range from a few people excavating for a few weeks, up to 100-500 people excavating 1,000s of cubic meters of dirt during the year, on projects scheduled to run for several years to a decade or more. These projects consume around 97 billion yen (about US$880 million), down from about 132 billion yen (about US$1.2 billion) in 1996. And these excavations produce 2,000 or more excavation reports each year. This work is done by over 7,000 specialists and 20,000 to 50,000 fieldworkers. (Note that about 97% of all excavations conducted in Japan each year are contract projects.)

These contract projects have fiscal and moral responsibilities to the sponsor (who is ultimately the taxpayer and consumer), and they therefore effectively cannot take on inexperienced people for short-term work. If the project is going to invest time and money training someone, they want to keep that person for a long time. A few contract projects sponsored by poorer municipalities or companies will take on inexperienced people short-term as dirt movers, but the "archaeology" will have to be done on your own time.

There are also about 300-325 research excavation projects in Japan each year. I think most of these are run by universities, or museums or independent research groups, but some are run by various municipalities. Most of these seem to be short-term projects, usually run in the summer. Many will take students. Most of these probably do not pay wages, and most very likely will require participants to provide their own room, board and transportation, and to be freely conversant in Japanese. A few, at least, require participants to pay. There are very few excavation projects that can take people who do not speak Japanese. English is okay on some of these few (I know individual archaeologists who speak German or French, and there probably are a few who can handle Chinese, Korean or Russian).

Very, very few projects -- either contract or research -- will take people who cannot work 9 a.m to 5 p.m. five days a week. Effectively no excavation project will take someone who wants to work only half days. And it is rare for a project to accept people who want to work only 2 or 3 days a week. For all practical purposes, to get into Japanese archaeological fieldwork as anything but an observer, a person must be prepared to work full-time for several months at a minimum. It is illegal to work in Japan on a tourist visa. A resident visa, or a work or student visa with permission to accept wages for a specific job, is required. It should also be possible to get a research visa with permission to work for a few months on archaeological excavation projects directed by Japanese, simply because Japanese archaeology accepts few if any volunteers.

The Japanese fiscal year runs from April 1 to March 31, and excavation projects have to run in sync with this and with the weather.

(1) Excavation projects that require only a few months digging --
will usually start in May or later and end in November or December in northern Japan and usually by January in subtropical Japan (the Kanto Plain around Tokyo and most of Japan west of the central mountains).
(2) Excavation projects that require about a year to finish --
usually begin in May (sometimes in April) and run through November or December in northern Japan and through February or March in subtropical Japan, finishing the analysis and publication in the next fiscal year.
(3) Excavation projects that run for more than one year (which are common) --
usually start in May of the first year and continue without a break until the planned end in subtropical Japan, and with a winter break roughly from November or December to March or April in northern Japan. The planned end for these projects can be anywhere from 2 years later to 15 years later.
(4) The research projects that I know of --
run for 2-4 weeks in May or in August or September.

It can be hard to get on an excavation project after it begins, but there are notable exceptions to this. Also, a lot of projects in recent years do not hire directly, but rather acquire an excavation team through a company.

Foreign residents in Japan can often (usually?) find opportunties in fieldwork by contacting their local city archaeologist through the Social Education Section (Shakai Kyoiku-ka) at city hall. If your own city or town has no excavations going at the time, perhaps they can suggest some other nearby cities or towns, or archaeological excavation organizations, or you can check with these yourself. Results will rarely be quick -- several months to a year or more might be required before you get involved in a project.

For people outside Japan, the easiest way to do fieldwork in Japan for a short period is to come as a tourist and sight-see excavation projects. This is legal. It is also very educational. If you know a bit about Japanese archaeology before coming to Japan, most excavations will show you around for 30 minutes or so even if you arrive unannounced. Many will let you observe all day and answer some of your questions, as long as you do not disrupt their work. If you project yourself and your interest in Japanese archaeology well, I would be surprised if you had to visit many sites before you found one that would let you work with them voluntarily (even though effectively Japanese excavation projects do not take volunteers). It helps to have a letter of introduction from someone -- an archaeologist at a foreign university or museun, or an archaeologist in Japan -- but this is not an absolute requirement. But you most likely will have to provide your own room, board and transportation.

I get the impression that, as a rule, your chances of getting on an archaeological excavation project in Japan improve the further you get away from Tokyo. The chances in Tokyo are close to zero. I am not sure about the possibilities in the big cities of Kansai, or Nagoya or other very large cities. The provinces are more interesting and enjoyable anyway.

If you read Japanese, the resources for library research are overwhelming, with 1,000s of excavations being published every year, in addition to 100s (or 1,000s) of journal articles. Most municipalities have done considerable excavation and publication, and the excavation reports are always available at city hall, or the local museum or library. These can be researched there, with the local archaeologist handy for answering questions. And the library research can be enhanced by observing excavations in progress in the same city or locality. There is no limit to the research opportunities if you take this approach. I cannot imagine that this "library" approach would be illegal on a tourist visa, but it might pay to check before coming.

A few final points as summary:

  1. Expecting the Japanese to speak English without you speaking Japanese is imperialistic and racist. Do not do it.
  2. Keep in mind that archaeology in Japan is a business with fiscal and moral responsibilities to sponsors (taxpayers and consumers); it is not kids playing in a sandbox. Be professional in your attitude and approach.
  3. Demonstrate prior knowledge of Japanese archaeology and prehistory and demonstrate strong interest in learning Japanese archaeology. This projects a good image, and you need to project a good image to succeed here.
  4. Keep your criticism to yourself for the first 5 years you are in Japanese archaeology, and go very lightly even if you are invited to be critical before that. Remember, as a foreigner you are and always will be an outsider in Japanese eyes, and it takes a long time before Japanese accept criticism from outsiders, even other Japanese who are outsiders to the group.
    1. In Japanese society, people are "born" into any group that they are part of. That means that in Japanese archaeology you must start at the bottom as a "student" and never try to pass those who are ahead of you -- in time in the field as well as in position.
    2. Academic degrees are NOT a factor relevant to where you start in Japanese archaeology. Even if you come to Japan with a Ph.D. in hand, you still MUST start at the bottom and behave according to your status at the bottom.
    3. Japanese archaeology is different from Western archaeology, but that does NOT mean that it is poor archaeology, just different. Japanese archaeology for the most part does quite well meeting the goals of Japanese archaeology.

The Japanese Archaeological Association has recently been seeking ways to become more international. You could help them by contacting them directly (in English).

The Japanese Archaeological Association
Hirai Ekimae Kyodo Building, 4th floor
15-5 Hirai 5-chome
Edogawa-ku, Tokyo
JAPAN 132-0035

telephone -- +81-3-3618-6608
FAX -- +81-3-3618-6625

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