Conference Istanbul 2015 – Report Caitlin MEAGHER

University of Oxford

First, I would like to express my deep gratitude to the Toshiba Foundation for allowing me this opportunity.  As a doctoral candidate in the final stages (just prior to defense), the conference allowed me to present a paper that was based on my fieldwork data but which would not fit into the thesis.  Being able to present these reflections in a paper titled “Alternative Housing as a Hopeful Strategy in the Context of Uncertainty” for constructive criticism at this stage was extremely helpful to me personally.  The committee paired my paper with another on the concept ofba, and this pairing further helped me to think about and expand my theoretical framework. As I consider my career and future projects, this was a useful exercise in orienting my research interests. 

The conference was blessed with many provocative panels and papers, but a few left more lasting impressions and have led to further reflection in the passing weeks. The first panel I attended, organized by Cosima Wagner on the theme of “Robot Technology and Elderly Care in Japan” does not relate directly to my research interests, except to the extent that shared housing has been proposed as a response to the challenges of Japan’s aging society and the vulnerability that comes with social isolation. Nonetheless, the theoretical points presented in the two excellent papers – specifically, that Japan’s use of robotic technology is more limited than depicted in exoticizing narratives popular in the West, even in Western scholarship – has implications beyond the immediate subject of robotic technology.  The argument that the Japanese observe a unique ontology that fails to draw a strict distinction between human and non-human actors is one element of a vestigial commitment to Japanese cultural exceptionalism, a subdued version of nihonjinron.  These two scholars demonstrated with solid ethnographic evidence that those involved in the production (Rathmann) and application (Wagner) of these technologies do not blur the distinction between robots and humans, as often is suggested, nor is their interest in robotic therapies rooted in traditional spirituality. 

Another panel slightly closer to my own research interests on “Japanese and Turkish Women” featured three excellent papers by Glenda Roberts, Noriko Fujita (women in Japan); and Basak Can (women in Turkey). What these three very different papers had in common was their focus on women’s agentive action in contexts of uncertainty and structural vulnerability.  Each focused on the strategies (or, perhaps, the tactics) used by women to exert agency over their circumstances in the workplace.  I was unfamiliar with the context of Dr. Can’s work, the Turkish garment trade, but the structural position of women in the Japanese workforce is well reported:  as Miyako Inoue put it, “Before there were furiitaa, NEET, or precariaato, there were women” (Inoue 2013: 197).  Ms. Fujita’s paper discussed the strategies women and couples use to cope with separation due to forced relocation for work and demonstrated, amongst other things, that one effect of current challenges has been improvisation in the definition and dynamics of the Japanese household.  While Dr. Can’s paper was less hopeful, it demonstrated the ways young garment workers, subjected to overbearing bosses and various types of harassment and exploitation, cooperate to improve their workplace through gossip and the collective refusal to work late under circumstances, and with supervisors, unacceptable to them. 

Finally, the panel on “Family, Ageing, and Elder-Care” continued some of the themes introduced by the panel on women. Professor Jolivet’s paper on the (causes of) the declining birthrate and ageing population demonstrated that despite the tendency to lay the declining birthrate at the feet of young women and their unreasonable expectations (often expressed as “selfishness”) many young women do wish to marry eventually “izuremo”. Her very playful look into the proliferation of identity-based marriage introduction services demonstrated the individualization of romance and marriage processes.  Professor Goldstein-Gidoni’s paper on the rise of discourses about and media portrayals of ‘new fathers’ ikumen provoked an interesting discussion about changing masculinities in Japan, but one which was overwhelmingly sceptical about the extent to which the gendered division of labor in the home was affected by these efforts.  

These latter two panels demonstrated the interplay between continuity and social change in Japan.  That is, while cultural tradition retains its ideological sway, individuals improvise adjustment within changing structures and existential uncertainties.  The persistence of certain cultural forms – the structural vulnerability of women in the workplace and the unequal distribution of household responsibilities between men and women, for example – cannot be spontaneously overcome. However the strategies behind individual practices, particularly with regard to the structuring of their own lives and households, gives hope for Japan’s future.  

These themes are central to my own work, as they will be to most current scholarship.  The atmosphere of uncertainty – what Anne Allison terms “precarity” – in Japan has given rise to considerable innovation and courage in terms of rethinking, critiquing, and adjusting the cultural templates, particularly the domestic templates, available to them.  

Thank you again to Toshiba for its generous allocation of funding, making possible my participation in this important conference.

ReferencesInoue, Miyako (2013).  “Neoliberal Speech Acts:  The Equal Opportunity Law and Projects of the Self in a Japanese Corporate Office.” In Ann Anagnost, Andrea Arai, and Hai Ren(eds.) Global Futures in East Asia:  Youth, Nation, and the Economy in Uncertain Times, pp. 197 – 221.