Conference Istanbul 2015 – Report Cosima WAGNER

Freie Universität Berlin

In my report on the 26th JAWS conference 2015 in Istanbul I would like to comment from three different perspectives: as a program convenor, as a panel organizer and from a participant point of view.

As a rather new member of JAWS I was very excited to be asked to develop a concept for the call for papers together with my colleague Cornelia Reiher (Freie Universität Berlin, Germany). For the main topic of the conference we chose the title “Technology and Nature in Japan” because we are both convinced that the progress of science and technology, with their potential but also their limits and failures – especially their impact on nature and society – is one of the most controversial debated subjects in contemporary Japan, reaching a new tragic and urgent dimension after the triple disasters of March 2011. 

As described in detail in the call for papers, it is often said that optimism about the ability of technology to offer solutions for challenges faced by society – from environmental pollution to demographic change – is rather high in Japan. However, there have always been voices critical of the hegemonic industrialised lifestyle with large protest movements by ordinary citizens, as in the case of “Minamata disease” or the situating of nuclear power stations in rural areas. Recently, the triple disasters of March 2011 undermined people’s faith in the power of technology to master the natural world and drew attention to its impact on people’s lives and the environment. The safety of nuclear power was particularly called into question. As a result, a growing number of people today are longing for “the natural” that they believe has almost vanished from their lives. 

Therefore, our aim for the conference was to explore in which ways the concepts of nature and the visions for the development and use of future technologies are socially and culturally embedded. By analysing agency and the network of actors involved in producing knowledge about science, technology and nature and by investigating how such knowledge is sold, promoted or possibly discarded in everyday life in Japan, we particularly aimed at stimulating discussions on the following questions:

  1. How are (concepts of) technology and nature constructed, negotiated and translated into practices, and how is the relationship between the two imagined, discussed and challenged in Japan? 
  2. What can anthropological research on nature and technology contribute to our understanding of Japan?

Although we had hoped that the topic would attract the interest of JAWS members, we were quite overwhelmed to receive such a large number of excellent panel & paper proposals, and consequently planned two parallel sections for all the three conference days. While 10 Panels with 47 papers touched upon the main topic of “nature and technology” from a wide range of perspectives, two further panels with 20 papers touched upon other subjects, grouped in panels on “Anthropology and the City” and the large section on “Facing Crisis and Rapid Social Change in Turkey and Japan” organized by the local host Selcuk Esenbel (Bogazici University) and Tolga Özsen (Canakkale University). Thanks to the generous support of Japan Foundation, another panel organized by the local hosts on “State of the Art of Anthropology in Japan” with guest speakers from Japan (Oguchi, Masashi; Sumihara, Noriya) and Germany (Josef Kreiner) could be included into the final program as well.

Within the framework of this short report, it is not possible to summarize all aspects of the many papers which contributed to the discussion of the above questions. But in the following I would like to summarize three papers from two panels, which took up the question of how technology futures are constructed and how this can be studied with an anthropological – especially participant observation – research design. 

In his paper on “Residues of Technological Utopia: The Formation of Ruinophilia in Post-Industrial Japan” (Panel on “Representing Nature and Technology in Japan”, organized by Lola Martinez, SOAS, University of London) Katsuno Hirofumi (Osaka University of Economics) reported on his fieldwork with the NPO group “J-heritage” and their efforts to document remains of Japan’s “glorious industrial revolution”, a most famous example being the newly assigned UNESCO world heritage site Gunkanjima (Hashima coal mine island) 15 km off the coast of Nagasaki prefecture. He situated the so called haikyo-boom (廃墟ブーム) of gazing, fotographing and documenting abandoned ruins of modernity all over Japan within the “heterotopia” concept of Michel Foucault, referring to the differing layers of meaning which spaces like these ruins can obtain. According to Katsuno, by glimpsing the remains of 20th centuries’ aspirations of modernity and symbols of Japan’s rise to a hyper modern consumer society (i.e. exemplified through sites of abandoned theme parks like Kejonuma Leisure Land/Miyagi prefecture), members of the J-heritage group gain senses of adventure, fear (from “horror-like” experiences in dangerous ruins) but also comfort (iyashi) when they see nature recapturing the derelict technologized places. 

In this way, the “ruinophilia” movement not only shows how former concepts of technology futures were once put into practices which are preserved in these industrial heritage relicts, but also how these futures can become outdated and markers for societal change in Japan. Katsuno concluded that by discussing which industrial ruin has to be commemorated groups like the J-heritage team not only contribute to the history of Japan’s rise as a high-technology nation, but also shape expectations for prospective visions of a technology-empowered society of the future.

Prospective visions of a robot technology assisted future were the focus of a panel on “Robot Technology and Elderly Care in Japan”, organized by myself. The panel addressed agency and networks of actors involved in promoting robot technology for elderly care in Japan from a cultural anthropology perspective. Here, technology development was viewed not as a “neutral” or “rational” process, but as a process in which different social actors with different visions and ethical values investigate concepts of mechanization as a premise. During this process, models of use are inscribed into the design of the new technological products (service robots) and communicated through government strategy papers, advertising, instruction manuals, and so on. 

The first paper on “Technology and Demographic Change, with Visions and Concepts for Future Technology (e.g. a “robot-assisted society”)” by Martin Rathmann (Heidelberg University) illustrated the background for recent government activity to develop a future robot technology market as a solution for demands caused by the demographic transition of the Japanese society. In order to contrast political strategy planning with actual activities and mindsets of robotics researchers, Rathmann introduced results of his fieldwork with the Technical Committee on Robot Assisted Therapy (RAT) of the Society of Instrument and Control Engineers (SICE), who are conducting research on therapeutic applications of robot technology in nursing homes in Tokyo. In his PhD-project Rathmann plans to conduct semi-structured interviews with robotics experts who are working on the development of robots for elderly care. His main question is whether the high expectations of the government (and also the media) can be matched with actual technology development and how robotics experts respond to these challenges (e.g. the mindset of engineers and their expectations for developing care robots). In his talk Rathmann presented results of a preliminary study with four engineers showing an expectation gap of what roboticists expect to be feasible and what the government and media promote as visions. In the next steps Rathmann will continue with the interviews and focus on the influencing factors for the development of market-ready elderly care robots, the visions which drive the engineers, and their view on the usefulness of robots for Japan’s ageing society.

In my own talk I introduced the concept of “technology futures” as a methodological foundation for analyzing discourses on future technology development. Technology futures are notions of future developments where technology plays an important role. They are present in research and development, are part of our notions of a sustainable society, characterize current debates about science and technology and raise questions about the future of man and society. Technology futures and the communication about it may decide about success or failure of development processes (Grunwald 2012: 23).

For the methodological analysis of technology futures it is necessary to undertake a “vision assessment“, where the specific contents and premises as well as fears and expectations underlying these technology futures are uncovered (Grunwald 2012:138). By applying this concept to the “Robot Revolution Initiative“ (robotto kakumei inishatibu) since 2014/2015 of the Abe cabinet, the “technology push“ character and the economic focus of the state visions for a robot assisted society could be shown. Although the development of care robots is proposed to rely on “actual needs” of elderly people, a participatory innovation process is not enacted. Therefore, critical voices like the research group for an “applied roboethics” are calling for the development of a Japanese Roboethics Charta in order to contribute to a prospective technology assessment. The lack of empirical research on the needs of elderly people and the allegedly, but not yet empirically proven, (high) acceptance of robots in Japan in general was a final point of discussion. 

In a third talk Jennifer Robertson (University of Michigan Ann Arbor) had planned to elaborate on “Robo-Sexism in Japan”, but unfortunately could not come to Istanbul. Based on recent fieldwork and in preparation for a new book on the subject, she would have illustrated the gender bias in recent robotics promotion and would have argued “that robots are being gendered and deployed by interconnected agents and agencies to reproduce and reinforce a perniciously sexist division of labor and space together with the traditional patriarchal extended family system (ie)”.

As program convenor, participant of the conference and panel organizer I can conclude that anthropological research on technology and nature is indeed giving substantial insights into the development and state of the Japanese society. In fact, it is only through fieldwork with individuals that practices of handling technology in everyday life or discarding it, of turning to “alternative” sustainable lifestyles or acting as “citizen scientists” can be observed. This can also contribute to a more differentiated analysis of the allegedly high influence of Shinto-belief on technology acceptance, which was a point of discussion on the conference as well.

Here, a lack of anthropological research on technology has already been criticized by Science & Technology Studies (STS) researchers in Japan. In 2012 Itō stated: “Until recently, very few trained in sociology or anthropology participated in STS research in Japan, and many of those trained in the history of science tended to work on pre-modern or early modern European science, often focussing on intellectual history rather than social history“ (Itō 2012: 552). Therefore I hope that there will be other opportunities within the JAWS-framework to present further research findings and continue discussions started in Istanbul! 

In the end the Istanbul conference left me with many deep impressions: the fascinating city on the Bosporus, the wonderful university campus with its beautiful fauna and buildings, the great hospitality of the local hosts and their perfect organisation, and especially the openness and kindness of the JAWS research community. I would also like to express my sincere gratitude to Toshiba Foundation for supporting my conference participation, which not only enabled me to get a multitude of inspirations for further research on the topic, but also for building new research networks by getting into personal contact with many researchers I had previously only known by name from their publications. Together with Katsuno Hirofumi we even inaugurated an “anthropology of robotics” research group, which will keep-up with Japan’s “Robot Revolution” through more case studies and vision assessments. I am looking forward to our next meetings!


Grunwald, Armin (2012). Technikzukünfte als Medium von Zukunftsdebatten und Technikgestaltung. (Karlsruher Studien Technik und Kultur; 6). KIT Publishing.

Itō, Kenji (2012). “Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and Early Social Studies of Science in Japan.” East Asian Science, Technology and Society (EASTS). 6(4): 549-554.