Fieldnotes: My interview fieldkit

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My current research is on disability activism in Japan and the United States. This article discusses the equipment that I carry when I do field interviews. My kit is optimized for size and weight. Everything fits into a regular backpack. If I know I won't need the computer to write notes, then the camera and iPod fit into a small handbag.

  • Apple iPod (40 gigabyte 3G)
    • iTalk microphone
    • BTI iPod battery
    • Latest podcasts to listen to on the train
  • Apple Powerbook G4 12"
    • AC adapter and extension cord
    • Microsoft Word
    • LogoVista System Soft Dictionary (Kojien; Eiwa/Waei Dictionaries)
  • Leica M7 (0.72x) camera - yes I'm resolutely analogue
  • Miscellany
    • Keitai mobile phone. You can't survive in Japan without your keitai.
    • Meishi business cards are also essential in Japan. You are no one without your meishi (名刺).
    • Notepad and pen (analogue technology is always necessary; great for writing notes on the train or for getting people's addresses/numbers)
    • Map. The small metropolitan map books by Shobunsha (昭文社) are the best. They are very compact but have great detail. They're designed for pedestrians, not drivers.
    • At least ¥20,000 in cash just in case my informants decide to go out drinking afterwards
    • Lip gloss. Cough drops. Lactose tablets. Pocket tissues. Other personal items.

iPod: My primary interview technique is unstructured personal interviews. I use my iPod with iTalk microphone to record them. I always request oral permission before interviewing. With the built-in battery, I get around 2 hours of interview time. With the BTI iPod Battery, I get more than 10+ hours (I don't know, I've never taken it that long). I try not to shut off the tape-recorder, even during breaks, since I forget to turn it back on -- or my informant says something really critical during the break.

PowerBook: I use my PowerBook G4 12" to take notes in Microsoft Word (using MSWord 2004's new Notebook View). I transcribe notes in romaji because it's faster and I don't have to worry about doing Kanji-henkan (i.e., I can blind-type and maintain eye-contact if I'm typing everything in romaji, but can't do so in kana/kanji). After the interview, I go back and fill in details. All of my fieldnotes are labeled by date and name, for example: 20050507-GraceHouse-Shirata.doc. They are in the same folder which helps me scan quickly to find a place or person I've interviewed. Someday, I'll post one of my field notes as an example. Not today.

The PowerBook G4 12" only gets about 2-3 hours of battery life. The AC adapter is often essential. My informants do not seem to mind. I bring an extension cord just in case the standard cord doesn't reach. I input data from the meishi I get directly into AddressBook. I also attach a comment to the entry that says when I interviewed them, this helps me synchronize it later with my field-notes. I take the voice recording files from the iPod, scans of any documentation they gave me, and put them in the same folder as my field-notes

Leica: I use the camera to take snaps of the office, portraits of the people I'm interviewing, and general scenery photos. This helps me situate the place and people in my mind. I have a terrible memory for names and faces, so this is an important part of my fieldwork. I'll often take a photograph of something (a sign in the office perhaps) in order to jolt my memory later on. I'm resolutely analogue because I'm an anachronism (actually because I enjoy analogue photography). I always request oral permission before taking photographs.

Different Kits for Different Purposes: If I'm doing mainly photojournalism (e.g., when I'm covering protests), then I carry an entirely different kit centered around my Canon 10D digital camera. And yet a different kit when I'm doing multi-day fieldwork. These will be discussed in separate articles.

[Read other articles on Fieldnotes in]


You use the iPod for fieldwork!!! I've been wanting to do that, waiting until I could save enough money to pick one up (grad school app related expenses and AAA raping me for money have not been kind lately). Everybody in my department thought I was crazy when I suggested that. Evidently I'm not! *bounces*

Actually the iPod is almost ideal for fieldwork - compact, great battery life, lots of memory. I wish it had a built-in microphone (since I always forget to pack the iTalk). With the BTI battery, I essentially have limitless recording capabilities. Everything is time/date stamped and synchronizes automagically back up to the Powerbook.

My iPod was actually given to me by theOxford University / Tokyo University ISS Prize for Best Article in Modern Japanese Studies. They wanted to award me a gift (rather than cold hard cash) and it's what I chose. I should have asked them to have it laser engraved! :-)

Note: the iTalk-iPod interface is buggy. One reason I don't shut off my iPod when recording is that it's not guaranteed to start up again. The proper procedure to follow is: soft-reset the iPod, plug in iTalk, immediately hit record. Do not stop the iPod until you are finished with the entire interview. Do not remove iTalk unless you want it to crash.

p.s.: Please get a TypeKey login so I don't have to manually approve your posts! :-)

You can't really claim to be fully analogue with a M7. You'd need to take your M3 or other non-battery-bound camera to do that :-)

How do you like the Biogon? I've been meaning to pick one up once my credit card balance recovers from a Summilux 50mm ASPH (I just had to get one in case Leica folds altogether). Of course, I don't have your talent in bringing up wonderful images like that photo of a Tokyo shoe-polisher feeding pigeons.

Your field trips are in first-world conditions, even among the more impoverished sections of the US or Japan, but I have read of people who go to really dirt-poor parts of the globe and pack a Canon battery-powered 4x6 dye-sub printer, so they can make prints on the spot and give them to the people they photograph as a thank-you gift. In many countries, less blasé about photography than our pampered industrial societies, these would become prized family heirlooms.

I have a typekey login; this is it. Yours is the first blog that I've actually seen typekey work on. No joke, I have 3 friends who use typekey and it doesn't work on any of their blogs.

I have a baby Canon printer which I got from a friend who needed cash enough to let it go quite cheap (probably cheaper than I could have gotten a big printer). It's an inkjet, not a dye-sub, and it isn't battery powered although I'm assuming you could get a battery pack for it. I like it an awful lot.


Karen, where do you go to get digital or film cameras fixed?

Right now my Minolta dImage 7 needs its card reader fixed (I think--it's hard to narrow down exactly what the problem is because, as I learned, Minoltas are really lovely cameras, except for the proprietary crap. And the fact that they're not very drop-resistant combines badly with the fact that the strap clips aren't very good).

And my Yashica-D needs its shutter-flash sync to, well, sync (although this is a lower priority because I rarely even have access to strobes).

Those baby Canons are great. They're better for printing papers at the library or in the field, the photo quality ain't that hot, but it's better than nothing. I have the ultimate field camera geek tool: a digital camera printer that uses Polaroid film to print. Very odd. The quality is of course that rather lovely polaroid pastel murkiness.

Here's a list of repair stores:
In the USA, I use Mark Hama and in Ukraine I use Oleg Khalyavin. But neither of them do electronic cameras, so I'm not sure where you should bring your dImage, except directly to Minolta. :-( That's the disadvantage of the newfangled plastic things.....

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Karen Nakamura published on May 9, 2005 1:17 AM.

Link: Yet another film vs. digital article ( was the previous entry in this blog.

Link: How the other 'hafu' lives (being half-Japanese) is the next entry in this blog.

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