A Day in the Field: Martha Tsutsui Billins

By ELAR Archive|April 16, 2018|A Day in the Field|1 comments

Today, Martha Tsutsui Billins from ELAR is on the blog discussing her current fieldwork in Amami Oshima, Japan. Martha is doing a Ph.D. at SOAS, University of London in Linguistics, where she is researching honorifics in Southern Amami Oshima, a Ryukyuan language spoken in Japan.

Amami Sakura (cherry blossoms) are brighter in color and bloom two months earlier than the rest of Japan due to the warmer climate

Please tell us a bit about where you are doing your fieldwork.

Amami Oshima is a small island south of Kyushu, Japan. Amami was part of the Ryukyu Kingdom until 1611, after the invasion by Satsuma (Japan). Amami Oshima and the surrounding islands eventually became part of Kagoshima Prefecture, though culturally and geographically Amami is more akin to Okinawa and the rest of the Ryukyus. Most of Kagoshima is actually a twelve-hour ferry ride from Amami! My research focuses on Southern Amami, spoken in Setouchi town. Setouchi spans four islands; the south of Amami Oshima (the “big” island), Kakeroma, Yoro, and Uke.

Viewpoint from Nishikomi Village, Setouchi

Amami Oshima is also home to many rare and interesting species of flora and fauna, including the endangered Amami Rabbit which only lives on Amami Oshima and neighboring island Tokunoshima. I finally saw one a few weeks ago!

Signpost letting drivers know to drive carefully to protect the Amami Rabbits (Setouchi)

When did you arrive and when will you be leaving?

I arrived in Amami three months ago, early January 2018, and I will be leaving soon, but am looking forward to returning as soon as I can! I’ve been very lucky to be welcomed so warmly by the community here, and I hope this is the first field trip of many.

At speaker Mr. Sato’s house. Mr. Sato is well-known for playing the shamisen in his youth (Seisui Village, Setouchi)

Speaker Mr. Okano singing a traditional Amami “shimauta” song and playing the shamisen (Kunetsu Village, Setouchi)

Can you describe a typical day in the field is like for you?

Every day is pretty different and depends on the schedules of the consultants. Usually, I spend three or four days a week driving around Setouchi meeting consultants at their homes and doing recording sessions. The island isn’t very big, but there is still quite a lot of variation between dialects. The roads are small and it takes a long time to get anywhere. A twenty mile journey can take over an hour. The remaining days of the week are spent at my host family’s home, processing recordings and doing transcriptions. I’ve tried to schedule “off-days”, but I often end up doing recordings on those days as well. It can be exhausting, but very rewarding and I’ll only be in the field for a limited time so I try to spend as much time with the community (either recording or not) as I can. Some of the consultants live on Kakeroma island (only twenty minutes away by boat), so some days I am on that island for the day.

Harvesting garlic (Seisui Village, Setouchi)

Amami speakers Mrs. Higashihara and Mrs. Asano preparing the freshly harvested garlic (Seisui Village, Setouchi)

I also have several weekly activities that aren’t specifically related to fieldwork, but which have been invaluable in helping me to meet people and integrate myself into the community. When I arrived I tried to say yes to everything I was invited to, and now I have a really nice routine of weekly activities (tennis at the local community center, traditional dance practice, etc.). On Fridays, I go to Maneki Salon, where I spend time with a dozen local elders. We make crafts or cook or harvest vegetables from their gardens. My host family owns a diving shop, so if the weather is good and I have a free morning, I can sometimes go diving or whale watching. This has been one of the most amazing non-linguistic experiences of my field trip.

A mother and baby humpback whale. These whales come to Amami to have their young before migrating north to Russia (Amami) -photo by Ken Ota

Snorkeling in Amami -photo by Ken Ota

What are you most looking forward to doing after returning from fieldwork? Contrastly, what will you miss most after completing your fieldwork?

Besides seeing my family (and my dog!), I’m looking forward to having reliable Wi-Fi, my own bed, and peanut butter.

There are so many things I will miss after leaving Amami, particularly the warm weather, the food, and of course the wonderful people and the slow pace of life. People here work very hard, but also prioritize the important things, like spending time with their family, friends, and neighbors. The community is very tight-knit. People help each other. In London, it can feel like everything is happening at once, and people are too busy to help one another. But in Amami people will take a beat and go outside to watch a beautiful sunset. People here seemed to have cracked the work-life balance.

Mr. Okano with his granddaughter, Koto.

Martha will be depositing data with ELAR upon her return to London. 

Post and photos by Martha Tsutsui Billins


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1 Comment

  1. WOW! What a great experience it is ! I enjoyed your descriptions Marti!

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