Longitudinal study of women in Kobe

A Longitudinal Ethnography of Women in Kobe, Japan, 1989-2023

This project follows the life trajectories of a group of working-class women in Kobe in real time over the period of 1989 to 2023. Drawing on the same data, it has two sub-projects: (A) an anthropological study of life course, decision-making and well-being; and (B) a sociolinguistic study of language variations over time.

A Longitudinal Ethnography of Life Course and Well-being

How do the women navigate responsibilities of expanded social roles and opportunities and make sense of themselves and the social world of which they are a part? How do they decide and act under structural constraints, and develop their multiple identities across time and space? To what extent do their earlier life experiences affect their current circumstances? How do they make sense of happiness?

This longitudinal ethnography follows the same women and analyses a unique set of 33 years of longitudinal data collected from high school until age 50. Okano (a social anthropologist) has studied these women since 1989 (when they were 17-18 years old). The data includes her observation and interviews from one year of fieldwork at two high schools in Kobe, subsequent interviews with the women, and documents provided by the women, as well as other forms of primary sources (e.g., policy documents, media articles). Integrating earlier studies of the same women gives unique depth and insight to our understanding of life course which only real-time longitudinal ethnography can offer. The women’s narratives include retrospective accounts of past events, and prospective accounts of what is occurring now and what they expect in the future.

The Kobe women in the study belong to the generation that the Japanese media dubbed ‘rosu jene’ (lost generation). They entered a workforce in the 1990s characterised by structural changes resulting from the end of sustained economic growth; and an adult world whose social norms were resisted and changing. Social norms became more tolerant of diversity, both socially and institutionally. An increasing number of women chose the lifestyle of ‘ohitorisama’ (singlehood), which has contributed to Japan’s low birth rate and population decline.

Keywords: life course, longitudinal ethnography, women, Japan, identities, working class, happiness, pre-midlife.

Thirty Years of Talk: A Longitudinal Study of Language Variation in Kobe Ethnographic Interview Discourse (1989-2019)

This is an off-shoot sociolinguistic project, a more recent development from the above original longitudinal ethnography of Kobe women. This interdisciplinary project examines discourse from the women’s interviews in terms of linguistic and pragmatics features, identifies variations and attempts to explain these variations in light of sociological data (the women’s life trajectories and the sociocultural contexts) (ARC Discovery Grant 2017–2021).

How do we change the way we talk over time? How do we create our identities by the way we speak, and with what consequences? The study analyses shifts in the women’s language and identities by examining ethnographic interviews regularly conducted with the same women since 1989 when they were 17-18 years old. We aim to bring new insights into issues of language, gender, class and mobility in Japan in the context of transition from young adulthood to middle adulthood.

We expect the readers of the linguistic analysis to be interested in the anthropological study of longitudinal data as well.

Keywords: language variation, longitudinal ethnography, women, Japan, identities, life course, sociolinguistics

Research Team

(members listed in alphabetical order)


Social anthropology 

  • Okano, K. H. (in preparation). Women in their thirties in Japan: A longitudinal ethnography of life course and well-being. Routledge.
  • Okano, K. H. (2009). Young women in Japan: Transitions to adulthood. London: Routledge. xi, 320pp.
  • Okano, K. H. (2004). Japanese working‐class girls in their first employment: transition to adulthood. Journal of Education and Work, 17(4), 421-439. doi link.
  • Okano, K. H. (2000). Social justice and job distribution in Japan: Class, minority and gender. International Review of Education, 46(6), 545-563. doi link.
  • Okano, K. (1997). Third-generation Koreans' entry into the workforce in Japan. Anthropology & Education Quarterly, 28(4), 524-549. doi link.
  • Okano, K. (1995). Habitus and intraclass differentiation: Nonuniversity-bound students in Japan. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 8(4), 357-369. doi link.
  • Okano, K. (1995). Rational decision-making and school-based job referrals for high school students in Japan. Sociology of Education, 68(1), 31-47. doi link.
  • Okano, K. (1993). School to work transition in Japan: An ethnographic study. Clevedon, Avon: Multilingual Matters. xv, 286pp


  • Nakane, I., Okano, K., Maree, C., Takagi, C., Tanaka, L. & Iwasaki, S. (2022). Varying orientations to sharing life stories: A diachronic study of Japanese women's discourse. Language in Society. doi ink.
  • Tanaka, L., Okano, K., Nakane, I., Maree, C., Iwasaki, S. & Takagi, C. (2021). Japanese women's speech through life-transitions (1989-2000): An analysis of youth language features. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, 31(1), 119-143. doi link.
  • Takagi, C., Okano, K., Iwasaki, S., Tanaka, L., Nakane, I. & Maree, C. (2019). 縦断的インタビューデータにみる神戸出身女性話者のスピーチスタイル: ことばの経年変化とライフステージ (Changes in a Kobe woman’s speech styles across life stages: Longitudinal interviews 1989-2016). 方言研究』(Hôgen no Kenkyû), 5, 267-293.
  • Maree, C. & Okano, K. (Eds) (2018). Discourse, gender and shifting identities in Japan: The longitudinal study of Kobe women’s ethnographic interviews 1989-2019, phase oneLondon: Routledge. xiii, pp176.
  • Okano, K. and Maree, C. (2018). Phase one of the longitudinal study of Kobe women’s ethnographic interviews 1989-2019: Kanako 1989 and 2000. (pp.1-11).
  • Okano, K. (2018). Kanako’s worlds 1989-200: Growing up working class and shifting identities pp.12-34).
  • Tanaka, L. (2018). Dialect and discourse markets use: From adolescence into adulthood. (pp.35-58).
  • Maree, C. (2018). ‘Give me a break already’: Gender, laughter and the interviewed-self. (pp. 59-84).
  • Nakane, I. (2018). Rapport and discourse transformation in ethnographic interviews. (pp.85-111).
  • Iwasaki, S. (2018). Evolving questions, questions and affiliation in ongoing ethnographic interviews. (pp.112-140).
  • Maree, C. and Okano, K. (2018). Epilogue:  Shifting identities over the years and within ethnographic interviews. (pp.141-144).


For inquiries, please contact Professor Kaori Okano.