I'm often asked why I chose to study the culture of Ancient Egypt for over a decade and then suddenly switched to studying Japan. The usual question is "well, how did you get from there to there?"
I started off at uni studying Philosophy. The joy of Philosophy is that you question everything, your ways of thinking about the world, reality, imagination, religion, science. One of the first things you realise is that nearly everything we take for granted is not based on logic or fact. Rather it's based on the way we uniquely, as a culture or even as a species conceptualise the world. It follows therefore (and this is the exciting bit) that 99% (ballpark figure there) of what we consider to be true is not necessarily so.
Many philosophers concentrate on establishing what IS true, what are the grounding principles that we can be certain of and what, if anything, can we build upon them. Descartes wanted to know if there was anything in the world that could definitely be considered 'real' for example. This is quite useful if you're looking for the truth because one (I think relatively acceptable) definition of a fact is that it is a statement that corresponds with reality. It's therefore very hard to have any facts (or truth) if you can't work out what reality is. The joys of metaphysics.
But that's an aside because the thing that I became really, reeeeeally interested in was the 99% of shiz with no definite answers, which humanity HAS nonetheless provided answers for. By this, I mean things like, what is good? What is evil? What is god? What is death? What is real? What is imaginary? And while many philosophers look for answers to these questions, I ended up on a slightly different path. You see, even though there may be no answers to these questions, for any society to function, it has to provide answers (imagine a society that had no idea what was real) and even if these answers are guesses, they have to be universally accepted within a community.
By this point, I had started studying Ancient Egypt and one of the first things I noticed, probably because I was drowning in Philosophy books at the time, was that, although the Ancient Egyptians had no explicit Philosophy - they did not analyse their own thought structures in the way that the Greeks did - they DID have different concepts of reality, of truth, of imagination, of time, of god. They had their own answers and the very fact that they did not analyse them meant that their culture grew out of these concepts relatively undisturbed because, let's face it, what is real and what is true are at the very basis of any world view.
So instead of asking, what IS true, I found myself asking, if I used the Egyptian concept of truth, how would that change the way I look at the world? And can this, in turn, explain other elements in their culture that at first seem strange or incomprehensible.
And that's what I found I enjoyed the most, trying to understand how people think and conceptualise the world so that, instead of being 'foreign' to us, the culture becomes comprehensible through an internal rules structure that may seem strange to an outsider, but once it is understood, holds together through cohesive inner logic.
So why did I at first study Egypt and then begin to study the history of Japan? Well, one is quite separate from the other. When I first started studying Egypt I suppose I was looking for answers to some very big questions and the Egyptian concepts of reality and of the gods meshed well with many of my own ideas. When I gave up my PhD, I took a break from studying. I had to; I was burnt out. I was also facing some big questions about my career, where I wanted to go in life etc. I felt that I hadn't really done much with my life. I'd just worked for other people, hadn't become hugely successful, famous or rich and hadn't started a family.
But actually, like with truth and reality, there is no absolute definition of success and I guess we sometimes come across things at just the right time in life. I started going to cons and I became interested in manga and anime and, in particular, the samurai class. Although success may have been defined by how many heads you could take on the battlefield I decided maybe not to take it so literally, but I was interested in the self-definition of the samurai as 'servants,' the idea that doing well in life did not come from being better than everyone around you, but from enacting your role, however mundane (and let's face it, by the end of the nineteenth century most of them were bureaucrats and administrators - like me!), to the best of your abilities. The idea that there could be an innate pride in that, though certainly not limited to that culture, is taken to a new level by the formal structures of bushido.
And that's what took me into my research into Japan, a desire to start examining the world from THAT point of view to see if perhaps it works for me. While studying the religion of ancient Egypt, I never shared my personal investment in the project, though some of my friends know that it massively affected my personal spirituality and answered many questions that I, at the time, had about religion. What people saw, rather, were the academic papers and exam results. In fact, I got to a point in my academic career where it would have been near suicidal (career-wise) to admit that my own spirituality was bound up with what I had learnt. It has been a great pleasure to have that weight lifted from my shoulders with my studies of Japan, but essentially, I'm doing the same thing. With Egypt, I found answers to spiritual questions. In traditional japan, I'm finding answers to questions of social and career success.
Many anthropologists define culture as a set of tools we use to understand the world. Maybe I'm taking this a little too literally by changing the set of tools now and again to suit my needs. Which I guess answers the other question I'm so frequently asked: "Are you going to stick with Japan now?" For now. For now I will.