Conference Istanbul 2015 – Report Sonja GANSEFORTH

Leipzig University

The opening reception of the 2015 JAWS conference in Istanbul highlighted the beautiful location of the hosting institution, Boğaziçi University, which hadan abundance of plants and dozy cats (that would later even take over the speaker’s desk on occasion) and an astonishing view over the Bosphorus. This first event set the tone for the rest of the conference, which was marked by an exceptionally open and friendly atmosphere. Being able to enjoy the hospitality of Boğaziçi University and of the Japanese Studies Association in Turkey (JAD)was also very exciting for me as a scholar of both Japanese and Middle Eastern Studies to get to know better the Turkish scene of Japanese Studies.

The events of March 11th2011 are still very present in the minds of most scholars and not surprisingly also figured in special panels dealing with the aftermath of the 3.11 disasters in Japan. After a number of approaches and initiatives for rebuilding and coping were discussed in the first session, the second session titled “Trauma/memory/analysis/politics: The anthropology of Japan’s Triple Disaster, four years on…”, chaired by Mitch Sedgwick, presented different perspectives from contested (re)construction measures and politics to industrial technology and disaster in art and literature. Alyne E. Delaney’s paper on construction plans for new seawalls after the 2011 tsunami offered interesting insights into the problematic nature of technological fixes, their effects on local livelihoods and social networks, and democratic deficits in the decision making process. It was a great pity that the author was not able to be present in person in order to discuss her findings in depth. Starting from the vantage point of a newly risen fascination for industrial aesthetics, Peter Wynn Kirby then turned to the technological ramifications of the nuclear accident in Fukushima and the insurmountable complexities of containment and decontamination. Maja Vodopivec presented an intriguing analysis of the role of futurity, disaster and contemporary political context in manga and other postmodern cultural works, focusing especially on the 2008 manga Coppelionthat foreshadowed a nuclear disaster in East Japan. With a view on possible new democratic opportunities of political activism in post-2011 Japan, Phoebe Stella Holdgrün showcased her findings on young – and often times female – newcomers to politics in the Greens Japan party, looking at their perception of risk, their political as well as personal motivations and the relationship between political activism and subjective happiness. Mitch Sedgwick’s commentary drew connections between the different aspects raised in the presentations, with one common theme being the question of (the possibility of) democratic participation, and another asking about the usefulness of the concept of social capital.

The panel “Food, Science & Nature” chaired by Cornelia Reiher was perhaps of most direct relevance to my own research interests and I was glad to present my thoughts on the transformation of fish into high-tech functional food commodities here, and to receive stimulating comments and questions from the audience. Going over three sessions, the panel was exceptionally rich in contributions and well put together. The first session started off with a vivid presentation by Jieun Kim on soup kitchens and homeless activism in the former yosebaof Kotobuki in Yokohama. Relating her own experiences of fieldwork in Kotobuki, Kim discussed the changing meanings of the place and of the activism taking place there. In the following paper, Nancy Rosenberger introduced the lifeworlds of young organic farmers in contemporary Japan, painting them as neoliberal folk who creatively and unideologically appropriate technologies, become lay scientists, take entrepreneurial risks and make compromises in order to reconfigure the agrifood system from the inside. She pointed out that in contemporary organic farming discourses, consumers’ health and well-being take priority over more fundamental ethical motives such as the protection of natural habitats. Cornelia Reiher noted similar tendencies in her overview of opposition to genetically modified foods in Japan since the 1990s, where food safety is the main concern as well as the subject of fierce contestation by consumer advocacy groups, scientists, bureaucracy, government and the food industries. 

The panel “Technologies of Gender/Sexuality and Problematization of Human Ontology in Japan” chaired by Satoshi Tanahashi dealt with technologies of modifying human bodies in different contexts of sexuality and power and generated a lively discussion well beyond the actual session time frame. Genaro Castro-Vázquez’ paper on penile cosmetic surgery in Japan introduced several methods of male body modification, mainly drawing on the perspective of practitioners and medical centers that offer such services, indicating that Japanese discourses on ‘gender panics’ and vanishing masculinity, homosocial feedback and imagined female preferences seem to be important motivating factors to undergo surgery. Yoko Kumada talked about the use of technologies of the self by female sex workers based on very long-term field research with remarkable access to interview partners. She highlighted fascinating tensions between technology, nature and the body as sex workers are employing technologies in order to craft ‘naturally splendid bodies’ in order to meet different customers’ demands. Akitomo Shingae offered interesting insights into new developments in reproductive medicine and discussed their consequences for homosexual couples, whose legal rights in Japan are especially limited in the areas of marriage and child adoption. If babies could carry the genes of both of their same-sex parents, this might have far-reaching implications for naturalistic definitions of family and parenthood. It was interesting for me to see how Foucault’s concept of ‘technologies of the self’ was being applied in different contexts such as sex workers and agricultural newcomers in the session described above.

Combining a number of rather diverse studies, the panel “Anthropology & the City” chaired by Christoph Brumann brought together different aspects of nature and technology in Japanese cities. Emilie Letouzey presented an in-depth study of a re-cultivation project in Osaka, where a neighbourhood association with mostly housewives is working hard to turn their city district into a flourishing neighbourhood of wisteria. Despite many techniques and efforts employed to make the flowers blossom ideally right in time for the newly invented flower festival, the plants often refuse to abide by this prodding and programming, throwing light on the mixed agency of accomplishing blossoms and on the cultural production of the boundaries of life. Yusuke Arai turned to different urban flowers in his extensive presentation on gyaruand gyaru-oin Shibuya. Based on long-term and in-depth field work, Arai argued that the popularization of social networking technologies has been an important factor in the transformation of the gyaruscene in Tokyo, contributing to its mainstreamization, virtualization and also normalization through surveillance effects. Looking at young Romanian women in Osaka, Adrian Ovidiu Tamas analysed the role of language as a marker of social class in their usage of Japanese and came to the conclusion that most Romanian woman working as hostesses in Japan still tended to be discriminated against in their new environment. Turning to an issue concerning all city dwellers, Rebecca Tompkins mapped out the complex networks of physical, technological and intangible components of the waste management system in Tsukuba city. Tompkins stated that, based on cooperation and coordination of institutional, civil society, private companies as well as individual agencies, this system is very susceptible to errors and disruptions, for example if one agent fails to cooperate or has not been accounted for (such as non-human living beings – mold, crows etc., as one commentator pointed out). This panel was one of the last two sessions of the conference, which was rounded off with a round table on Japanese Studies in Turkey.

I would like to express my gratitude to all the organizers and volunteers from Boğaziçi University and from JAWS, who managed to put together an inspiring program and conference framework. I am also very thankful to the Toshiba Foundation for their financial support, because given my current employment situation participation in this conference would not have been feasible without it. My private tutorial was especially useful for a discussion of my research focus as well as possible career choices and strategies. It was very helpful for me to receive an experienced scholar’s advice with a perspective from a Japanese academic background. The social events such as the reception on the first day, the concluding dinner cruise on the Bosphorus and the numerous coffee breaks were an invaluable occasion to get to know other scholars from various geographical backgrounds working in the same field as well as to meet old acquaintances and friends. They also were the figurative icing on the cake of an overall inspiring and wonderful conference.