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Book Review: Ryokan: Mobilizing Hospitality in Rural Japan

Book review of Chris McMorran's Ryokan: Mobilizing Hospitality in Rural Japan (2022)

Published onMay 20, 2024
Book Review: Ryokan: Mobilizing Hospitality in Rural Japan

Ryokan: Mobilizing Hospitality in Rural Japan, by Chris McMorran (2022). Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaiʻi Press.

Published in 2022, Ryokan by Chris McMorran is a richly detailed and highly informative ethnography of a Japanese inn (ryokan) and its staff, whose physical and emotional labor reproduce intimate and idealized forms of hospitality in rural Japan. In undertaking this project, McMorran has made a valuable contribution to the anthropology of work, for which he completed a year of intensive fieldwork in Kurokawa Onsen, located in Kumamoto Prefecture in southern Japan. He aims to tell us why Kurokawa’s ryokan remain important, thus complicating discourses of rural decline, by illustrating how locals in Kurokawa have mobilized national sentiment towards the countryside to cultivate a demand for ryokan hospitality. McMorran’s research shares an intellectual space with studies that challenge established motifs of working life in Japan (Takeyama 2016), enhance our understanding of the production of locality and national identity (Ivy 1995; Ganseforth and Jentzesch, eds. 2022), offer new perspectives on family and gender within shifting economic landscapes (Roberts 1994; Kano 2001; Borovoy 2005), and explore the social dynamics of hospitality (Galbraith 2011; Hansen and Gygi, eds. 2022).

The book’s preface introduces the Yamazakura ryokan and sets the ethnographic tone through a glimpse of everyday working life at the establishment. Important concepts in the text are foreshadowed through a scene of family crisis interrupted by the arrival of a guest, indicating the importance of both ryokan lineage and the ability of staff to switch into well-drilled performances of hospitality.

Chapter one distinguishes the ryokan from other spaces of hospitality, such as the Japanese hotel, highlighting their distinctive role within the country as a symbolic construction of Japanese characteristics preserved from Western influence. McMorran traces the significance of ryokan baths in producing a luxury homeliness, an intimate sensory indulgence of rare minerals and scents framed by resplendent views. From the baths, the author turns to ryokan work, the people providing bespoke care to make guests feel at home in the countryside. He details his rigorous participant-observation methods working alongside the ryokan staff, experiencing the exhausting nature of this labor. Through the story of coworker Suzuki’s complicated journey to Yamazakura, McMorran introduces the ryokan as a particular kind of space for its female workers – of escape, yet into highly gendered forms of labor, and importantly, of a nuanced relationship with their ryokan employers that is in equal parts nourishing and exploitative.

In chapter two, McMorran explores how the success of Kurokawa Onsen has hinged upon the manipulation of shifting and elastic narratives of furusato (“one’s native place”), which are both symptomatic of rural decline and essential to the appeal of the countryside to ryokan customers. He attributes much of the rise of Kurokawa in the 1980s to the vision and organizational savvy of locals, and in particular onsen legend Gotō Tetsuya, who shunned regional development trends by marketing the ryokan experience to an emerging clientele of city workers hungering for a “timeless” countryside. McMorran reflects insightfully that what ryokan guests experience as a “time slip” (26) in the countryside is in fact a space continually remade, aesthetically and ideologically, by locals who understand the appeal of their particular brand of resort.

These tensions surrounding national and local narratives of the countryside are then reframed around a scandal that happened in 2003 involving the refusal of a local chain hotel to accommodate customers with Hansen’s disease (leprosy). In examining the ensuing media backlash, McMorran deftly traces how the hotel’s removal from the Kurokawa Ryokan Association was caught up in an ongoing discourse about local and collective identity, its mobilization as a business model, and suspicions surrounding “outside capital.”

From the ideological work of landscaping, McMorran moves to the intimacy of service inside the ryokan, bringing the role of women and their gendered labor under closer analysis. His attention turns to the female head of the ryokan family business, the okami, who must ensure that guests’ every need is catered for, with attention to detail reflecting the particular “flavor” (aji) of her ryokan. We learn how ryokan dynamics echo the gendered division of labor in many Japanese homes, which are captured in playful fieldwork scenes in which McMorran is teased about his willingness to fold towels, set bedding, and undertake the work of a nakai, a female member of the service staff. The author reveals how different forms of work in a ryokan are policed and bound up with performances of femininity (hand gestures, a lightness of touch) and gendered expectations of service.

In chapter five, McMorran considers the important work of family succession – a subtle, behind-the-scenes, and intergenerational negotiation between the ryokan-owning parents and their children. The pressure of succession to a male heir is a responsibility shouldered by the okami. A particularly insightful section explores how succession planning is negotiated through deft maneuvering, appealing concessions, compromises, and even deception within the ryokan family.

Chapter six, “A Day in the Life,” is the ethnographic heart of Ryokan, divided across twelve months of fieldwork carried out between 2006-07, with a focus on a single working day. This is McMorran at his most embedded, at the level of daily toil – which he experienced as a member of the service staff. The chapter also functions as a behind-the-scenes tour of a ryokan, revealing the goings-on behind shuttered doors and off-access areas. McMorran pays attention to the everyday strategies of nakai and other staff by identifying how their pursuit of opportunities to temporarily escape work operates as a way to claim agency as laborers caught in the hamster wheel of ryokan service. Slowing the pace while mopping floors, for instance, is an effective way to pressure the okami into hiring more staff and easing the workers’ overall burden.

Chapter seven addresses McMorran’s closest interlocutors, the nakai, and is framed around the “out-of-placeness” of these female workers, who care for guests during hours when many Japanese women would be caring for their own families. Through the moving stories of Maeda, Nishihara, and Suzuki, we learn that nakai have often left marriages or families, escaped domestic abuse, or sought a space away from the trouble in their lives. McMorran exposes the tainted mobility of the nakai, whereby escaping the life as a shufu (housewife), they become “unskilled” laborers with limited career opportunities. He recognizes that when a ryokan offers women work, shelter, even childcare, it simultaneously mobilizes and traps them. And yet, as McMorran shows, the nakai nevertheless develop genuine bonds with the ryokan and its guests, even though the work of hospitality contributes to their marginalization.

In an important chapter for the anthropology of work, “Professional Care?” aims to explore the boundaries between “professional” hospitality work and the work of the nakai. McMorran draws upon preparations for a VIP visit to Yamazakura, which included the hiring of a male “hospitality expert”; here, the author superbly captures the ensuing tensions of how physical and emotional care become devalued as the “natural” work of gender. In this episode, while some nakai embraced the opportunity to learn new transferrable skills, others insisted that professionalized hospitality was incongruent with the “womanly role” associated with the home. McMorran concludes, “such women saw attempts at professionalization as the systematic devaluation of their natural attributes. It signaled a shift in understanding hospitality as something genuine and inseparable from the self, to something anyone could learn” (160).

As in other chapters, McMorran discusses his personal experience of fieldwork at the ryokan. I was keen to learn more, however, about how managers and staff at Yamazakura treated McMorran at a time when the ryokan owners would present their facilities in a most idealized way. How did his presence at this time impact the process of generating an atmosphere of furusato, or nostalgia for “old” Japan? How did he experience the ryokan as an employee when his appearance as a non-Japanese member of staff was a regular cause of surprise, and thus a potential kink in the “timeless” presentation of the business? Further exploration of these entanglements would complement McMorran’s otherwise-excellent monograph.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Ryokan and would recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about the much-cherished Japanese ryokan (and associated onsen) and about the role of hospitality in the continual renegotiation of Japanese national and cultural values. The book would make an excellent addition to courses on the anthropology of work and gendered labor. Japan specialists should consider reading this book for the complexity that it reveals about family businesses, as well as relations between the country’s center and periphery. Finally, Ryokan is a love note to the merits of participant-observation and a wonderful tool to spark discussion about the “brass tacks” of anthropological fieldwork.


Borovoy, Amy. 2005. The Too-Good Wife: Alcohol, Codependency, and the Politics of Nurturance in Postwar Japan. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Galbraith, Patrick. 2011. “Culture, Gender, and Work in Japan: An Ethnographic Account of Alternative Intimacy.” Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific. Issue 25, February 2011.

Ganseforth, Sonja and Jentzsch, Hanno (eds). 2022. Rethinking Locality in Japan. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

Gill, Tom. 2001. Men of Uncertainty: The Social Organization of Day Laborers in Contemporary Japan. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Hansen, Gitte Marianne and Gygi, Fabio (eds). 2022. The Work of Gender: Service, Performance and Fantasy in Contemporary Japan. Copenhagen: NIAS Press.

Ivy, Marilyn. 1995. Discourses of the Vanishing: Modernity, Phantasm, Japan. London: University of Chicago Press.

Kano, Ayako. 2001. Acting Like a Woman in Modern Japan: Theater, Gender, and Nationalism. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Roberts, Glenda. 1994. Staying on the Line: Blue-Collar Women in Contemporary Japan. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaiʻi Press.

Takeyama, Akiko. 2016. Staged Seduction: Selling Dreams in a Tokyo Host Club. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Author Biography

Robert Simpkins is a social anthropologist interested in our engagement with the world through art. A passion for music and sound drives his research, which has so far focused upon street performance and relations of sound in public space. His ethnographic research to date has been conducted in Tokyo and deals with issues of sound and selfhood, relationality in public space, gendered space, the body, affect, and well-being. He is the producer of Artery, an Arts and Humanities Research Council (UK)-supported podcast on art, authorship, and anthropology, with Dr. Iza Kavedžija (University of Cambridge). He is currently working on new writing, a short film about unhoused music, as well as a Dutch government-funded project on sonic environmentalism and Japanese intangible heritage.

Lawrence Wilkerson:

This is a superb study of the ryokan industry in contemporary Japan and more generally questions related to work and gender geometry dash.

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