Conference Istanbul 2015 – Report Martin RATHMANN

Heidelberg University

The 26th JAWS Conference took place at Boğaziçi University (Istanbul, Turkey) from the 1st to the 4th of September, organized by JAWS in collaboration with the Japanese Studies Association in Turkey (JAD) and the Asian Studies Centre at Boğaziçi University. Most panels where held in the Faculty of Arts and Science, a faculty surrounded with greenery and with a view of the Bosporus.

This year the conference’s main topic was “Technology and Nature”, and assembled scholars came not only from anthropology, but also from other disciplines. This made it possible to have a closer look at a variety of topics, including current philosophical and ethical issues, social change, gender, elderly care, medicine and food. This diversity led to a better overall understanding of the field of science, technology and nature, but also its limitations, failures and influence on society, which became even more relevant after the triple disasters of March 2011.

The 1st September included tutorial meetings by senior colleagues and the opening reception in a restaurant on the Boğaziçi University campus. Due to the traffic situation in Istanbul I was not able to attend the reception or the tutorial meeting. Hence, I worried if I would be able to catch up with the other scholars. However, already on the morning of the 2nd conference day I got to know what afterwards had been mentioned several times, and is one of the strength of JAWS conference, is the family-like character and the openness of the community to include new members.

Instead of discussing the conference schedule, which you will also find in the conference program and the abstracts, and only explaining the panels’ content, I would like to write about my personal impressions and experience during the conference, as well as discussing two panels in detail. Nevertheless the diversity of the panels, the quality of the sessions, as well as the intensity of the subsequent discussions were outstanding. 

I was the one to open the panel on “Robot Technology and Elderly Care in Japan” with my paper “Technology and Demographic Change, with Visions and Concepts for Future Technology”. This paper was an attempt to present my research project and current developments of the use of robots in health care to a wider audience. My research interest is on the expectation gap between the public and developers of care robots. The current development of the Japanese government promoting robotic technology as the solution for issues arising from the demographic transition, i.e. a labour shortage in health care and increasing need for care due an over-aging society was discussed. Until the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 the government has set the goal to realise the development of autonomous care robots and through interviews with engineers it can be discovered whether this is feasible or what kind of robotic technology might be in use then. 

The second paper by Cosima Wagner was on “Elderly Care, Robot Technology, and the Quest for a Japanese ‘Roboethics’” and discussed the impact of the “robot revolution” strategy by the Abe cabinet and the “robotcare” initiative for establishing a roboethics discourse in Japan. In contrast to the optimistic assumptions of the government, that is seeing robotics as the miracle cure for demographic problems that will furthermore make it possible to avoid foreign labour, there are also critical voices on the use of robot technologies in Japan. The current discourse on the implementation is mostly one-sided and retro-perspectival driven, but should be proactive with treating social and ethical problems as well as addressing the issue of responsibility. One point is that most of the surveys on acceptance of robots have interviewed younger persons, which is not representative of the people who will be using them, which questions the often mentioned addiction to robots. This ultimately means that there might be a gap between the governmental and public assumptions. This suggests that there is a need to pick up social and ethical issues that are challenging the governmental activities in relation to robots.

After both papers and due to the fact that this panel consisted of only two papers there was plenty of time to connect my micro-level research with the engineers with Wagner’s macro-level research on robot policies in Japan. Both papers came to the conclusion that there is firstly the tendency to explain the acceptance of robots in Japan within a “specific” cultural framework, which quickly leads us into a nihonjinrondiscussion. Secondly, it is clear that there is a gap between the public sphere, the government and media with optimistic thinking on development goals in contrast to the more realistic views of engineers.

After the lunch break the rest of the day was spent with two double panel sessions. Panel session I was titled “Food, Science and Nature I” and was organised as one of three panels on this field. The first paper was on “Lifeworlds of Nature and Technology: Young Organic Farmers in Japan” by Nancy Rosenberger. Here Rosenberger contrasted the organic farmers in Japan to western ones through information she got via interviews. In Japan organic food seems to be sold as something that is delicious rather than using the organic “brand” which is not as appealing. Additionally the organic movement in Japan is not a political one and the reasons for eating organic food is not motivated by concerns about the environment but rather is premised on healthiness. 

The second paper was titled “Genetically Modified Food in Japan: Food Safety Standards, Technology and Governance” by Cornelia Reiher and it was in some way a good extension of the previous one. Prof. Reiher showed that not only is food a complex topic, but also that through genetically modified food several issues are coming together. Reactions to genetically modified food are primarily about safety concerns and less about health or environmental issues. This tendency might have been accelerated by the triple disaster in March 2011.

The third paper was on “Soup Kitchen (Taki-dashi) as a Social Experiment: Homeless Activism in Yokohama” by Jieun Kim. The information on soup kitchens was gained through a long-term investigation at a soup kitchen in Yokohama. The Japanese government implemented the park design law which allowed jungle gyms, but also regimented space for the construction of welfare facilities like shelters in public parks. Soup kitchens avoid problems with the law through their registration as disaster prevention centres. In reality these soup kitchens help the homeless and the lower social classes, which is also known by the government, but by condoning them it is possible to keep the homeless problem local. Rather than food and technology, the impact of policies on welfare became clear.

The common thread of all three papers was their connection to food studies and food in the context of social interaction or movement. Differences to the western understandings of organic farming and genetically modified food illustrated how the interpretation of technologies can change geographically. Additionally all three papers included fieldwork in Japan, which inspired me for my upcoming fieldwork. 

After three conference days and listening to a thematically broad variety of papers the end of the 4th day and the conference culminated with the dinner cruise on the Bosporus. The event had been only possible through the generous support from the Toshiba Foundation, the Japan Foundation, JAD as well as the local organizer Boğaziçi University. Aside from having dinner while seeing the scenery of the Bosporus at night, this was an excellent framework to end the conference with a final discussion with other scholars, exchanging impressions and not just personally saying goodbye to all, but also to use it as an occasion to build a “bridge” for joint activities in the future. My “bridge” is the participation in the activities of German and Japanese scholars on establishing an international robot research network.

Finally, I want to thank the Toshiba Foundation for their financial support without which I would not have been able to attend the conference. 

As a doctoral candidate at the beginning of his research project on technology and aging in Japan, the conference allowed me not only to present my first research outline, receiving feedback from a professional audience, but also to get to know about other aspects of technology, a broad variety of methods for fieldwork and the chance to get to know other scholars and their research projects. For me this conference was very useful for several reasons. I was able to gain ground in the so-called academic world by connecting to the family-like network of JAWS and it encouraged me, by delivering insights into the empirical work of other scholars, for my upcoming fieldwork in Japan. Last but not least, I not only learned a lot, but also enjoyed the conference a lot. This is the result of the devotional efforts of the organizers, student volunteers and the open-hearted JAWS “family”.