Conference Istanbul 2015 – Report William H. KELLY

William H. KELLY
University of Oxford

The leafy and cat-strewn campus of Boğaziçi University in Istanbul was the venue for the 26thJAWS Conference, the main theme of which was ‘Technology and Nature’. Panels, organized in parallel sessions over three days, explored such topics as robotic technologies in elderly care; issues related to medical technologies and technology and disability; technology, gender and sexuality; the relationship between science and technology and nature and tradition; sports, music and games; and anthropology, the city and Japan following the triple disaster of 11 March 2011. There were also several extended (multi-session) panels organized under the titles, ‘Food, Science and Nature’; ‘Representing Nature and Technology in Japan’; and a five-session panel, ‘Facing Crisis and Rapid Social Change in Turkey and Japan’.

Although, collectively, the papers touched on a wide range of issues relevant to the anthropology of contemporary Japan, my comments are organized around two broad themes which, based on the panels attended, emerged as significant.

First, Japan’s demographic dilemma, its social, economic and political implications and prospects for change. Many of the contributions addressed (either directly or indirectly) issues related to Japan’s current demographic situation: its low birthrate, falling population and high proportion of citizens over the age of sixty-five; delaying and/or forgoing of marriage and child-rearing by the younger generation; the prospect of labour shortages, particularly acute in professions such as nursing and care for the elderly; gender roles and gender relationships in both employment and domestic spheres and an emergent (or at least proclaimed) government policy nexus aimed at promoting greater employment opportunities for women, particularly in professional, managerial and executive ranks, whilst at the same time making greater provision for maternity and paternity leave and child-care in order to facilitate and support family life.  

Martin Rathman provided a critical assessment of the development of robotics in care-giving in Japan, concluding that, although such technologies had their application in health care provision for the elderly and the infirm, projections of their potential to replace human caregivers were rooted in false estimates of the state of robotic technology and an over-optimistic view of technology in general. Cosima Wagner, in her paper, contrasted the enthusiasm of the Japanese government to develop and integrate robotic technologies in quotidian life in Japan through its well-funded “Robot Revolution Realization” initiative and the concerns of more critical voices to develop a code of ethics for the safe development and application of robots in society. Implicit in both papers was a degree of skepticism about the potential of robots, at least in the short term, to significantly remedy the labour implications of Japan’s population time bomb. 

In the third session organized under the title, ‘Facing Crisis and Rapid Social Change in Turkey and Japan’, Muriel Jolivet explored some of, “the fundamental reasons behind the postponement of childbirth” which lay behind an avalanche of government research studies on the topic of the declining birthrate in Japan and banal discourses about the prohibitive cost of raising children, suggesting as a significant issue among young Japanese willing to have children, “hesitance about the compatibility of a professional career with child care”. In accounting for France’s relative success in avoiding the demographic issues affecting many other post-industrial European and Asian nations, Jolivet commented that most French find having and raising children “fun”, perhaps reflecting the importance of collective attitudes in society towards the prospect of child-rearing and family life. Ofra Goldstein-Gidoni focused on changing concepts of fatherhood, as embodied in the term ikumen– men who actively participate in raising their children – but also as reflected through images of ‘new fatherhood’ which, “populate Japanese television drama, films, commercials and government campaigns”. In posing the question of whether “new fatherhood” in post-bubble Japan can be regarded as challenging, “the strong legacy of the breadwinner model and the alleged corporate gender contract”, Goldstein-Gidoni’s paper begs the question of whether Japanese society might be in the midst (or on the brink) of a paradigm shift in the articulation of marriage, family life, gender roles and the domestic economy akin to the nuclearization of the family, “invention of the housewife” (Vogel 1963) and emergence of the so-called breadwinner model which dates to the late 1950s/early 1960s and has persisted for much of the post-war period.

Other contributions which intersected with issues related to demographic circumstances in contemporary Japan included Katsuro Hirofumi’s paper on the growing interest in Ruinophilia – the exploration and photographing of abandoned places (factories, mines, theme parks, etc.) – in Post-Industrial Japan (Panel: ‘Representing Nature and Technology in Japan 1’); Laura Dales’ compelling re-visitation of the concept of ba (place) as a site or space for the production of intimate relations among the unmarried/unattached against the backdrop of demographic trends resulting in increasing numbers of Japanese living outside the context of the nuclear reproductive family for longer periods of their lives or, in some cases, for their entire lives; and Caitlin Meagher’s exploration of the role of (usually temporary) living in shared housing as a strategy – particularly among young, unmarried and underemployed women – in pursuing their dreams for the future and in thus cultivating hope amidst uncertainty in their personal and professional lives. Whereas Hirofumi’s paper focused on abandoned spaces, mostly in rural areas, unlikely to be redeveloped in a climate of acute rural depopulation (as Christoph Brumann pointed out in discussion), Meagher’s and Dales’ contributions both explored the emergence of alternative, mainly urban/suburban spaces (and institutions), for the articulation of new forms of domestic living and relationship formation (respectively) in a social landscape characterized (drawing on literature cited in Meagher’s abstract) by uncertainty, precarity and ‘ontological anxiety’.

The second broad theme that emerged is the nature/technology dichotomy and the relationship between the natural and unnatural/technological (OR from Japan shrinks to “Japan Sinks”).

In the panel, “The ‘Unnatural’ in Life and Death”, Louella Matsunaga’s paper examined the classification of hospital deaths as ‘unnatural’ or unusual in Japan and the United Kingdom (specifically England and Wales), whilst Jason Danely, in his exploration of the widespread use of feeding tubes to sustain the lives of dementia patients in Japan, posed the question of “what is natural to or unnatural in life and death”. In the lively discussion which followed, the question of whether any hospital deaths today could – in light of the extent of reliance on sophisticated life sustaining technologies – be considered ‘natural’ was raised.

Several papers considered related themes in various narrative contexts. Alex Jacoby (same panel), in his analysis of Hirokazu Koreeda’s film, Air Doll, explored how the artificial body of Nozomi (a blow-up doll) serves as, “a metaphor for the inauthenticity and disconnection of lifestyles in the modern city”, “a technological solution to a natural desire”, and as a vehicle for dramatizing, “the way in which the question of what it means to be human has been problematised by modern advances in technology”. In the panel, ‘Representing Nature and Technology in Japan 1’, Fabio Gygi explored the notion of animation and the, “problem of what the ‘nature’ of man-made objects actually is” through his analysis of Shibusawa Tatsuhiko’s essay on Tsukumogamiki, whilst Griseldis Kirsch pondered the relationship between natural calamity and technological solutions in Higuchi Shinji’s film, Sinking of Japan (2006) [based on the novel by Komatsu Sakyo (1973)], including its particular resonance in the aftermath of the triple disaster of March, 2011.

Papers by both Bill Kelly (Yale) and Bill Kelly (Oxford) invoked (in different panels) Bryan Pfaffenberger’s work on the anthropology of technology, in the former case through a treatment of sport as a, “socio-technical system” in which distinctions between the human (the ‘natural’ body) and the technical – the material accessories and equipment of the sportsperson/athlete (from skis and poles of the elite skier to the artificial limbs of the para-Olympian) – become spurious; and in the latter, through an exploration of the ways in which images illustrating enkasongs in the context of karaoke (including images reflecting constructions of nature) are organized and projected through technical systems (karaoke machines) which not only mediate social intercourse and human relations in the context of karaoke singing, but also, to some extent, represent the material embodiment of those relations. 

Michael Facius (“Delivering Nature in Smart Phones”) conducted a tour through recent augmented reality (AR) applications which, through the enhanced technical capacity of recent generations of smartphones (huge processing power, combined with high resolution cameras), create “visual and aural overlays” which “transform the environment on the screen”. Examples include Penguin Navi (2014), an application in which virtual penguins guide prospective visitors to the Sunshine Aquarium in Tokyo; an application for Starbucks involving animated augmented reality butterflies; ARART, which, “breathes life into objects” and the application, My Day, My Room, a virtual pet application for android. 

Finally, Noriya Sumiya provided a fascinating exploration of monozukuri(lit. making something tangible from something else, but with the implication in popular discourse of making something in a Japanese way), tracing the multiple discourses of a term which embodies not only elements of technical know-how, but also moral, religious, and cultural dimensions.

Other contributions less directly related to these two themes included Susanne Klien’s analysis of hip hop culture in Hokkaido; Romit Dasgupta’s paper on cultural and human interactions between Japan and Turkey; Masahi Oguchi’s overview of Japanese Studies in Japan and three very interesting and informative contributions on anthropological practice, paradigms and the production of anthropological knowledge by Blai Guarné (“Juxtaposing Sites: the Anthropology of Japan and the Anthropology of the Mediterranean in the Production of Anthropological Knowledge”); Josef Kreiner (“Paradigm Changes in Japanese Anthropology during the 20thCentury”); and comments by ‘State of the Art’ Panel Chair, Akile Gürsoy on the historical development and current state of anthropology in Turkey. 

Academic explorations of the relationship between nature and technology were mysteriously enhanced by the omnipresence of cats on the university campus, casually slinking in and out of academic sessions and even disrupting one speaker, Caitlin (or ‘Cat’?), by leaping (repeatedly) onto the podium and pacing across her computer keyboard mid-presentation. Other highlights included several wonderful explorations of Istanbul ‘after hours’, including a near-monumental quest by a dozen or so colleagues for the elusive Olympiad fish restaurant (where patience and perseverance were ultimately rewarded) and an evening dinner cruise on the Bosporus, in the course of which (following a brief interlude of Arabesk-esque song), the technological prowess of the DJ and natural inclinations and abilities of a number of conference participants converged on the dance floor. Much gratitude to Professor Selcuk Esenbel and her colleagues and students at the Asian Studies Centre at Boğaziçi University and to The Japanese Studies Association in Turkey for so generously hosting the 26thJAWS Conference, to conference organizers, Brigitte Steger, and JAWS, and to the Toshiba Foundation for its financial support.