Conference Istanbul 2015 – Report Susanne AUERBACH

Freie Universität Berlin

From the 1st to 4th September the 26th Conference of the Japan Anthropology Workshop (JAWS) took place at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul, Turkey. Convened by Cosima Wagner and Cornelia Reiher from the Freie Universität Berlin and organised by Selcuk Esenbel and Erdal Küçükylaçı from Boğaziçi University, the conference gathered over 80 people from all over the world to give a variety of presentations on the theme of the conference “Technology and Nature”. The conference theme being broad in its possible scope and at the same time, considering recent events like the 3.11. disaster, of enormous relevance, led to a high number of exceptional paper proposals, so the following three days were filled with two parallel sessions and a final roundtable discussion on Japanese Studies in Turkey. Before the conference proper started, the first evening offered the opportunity for a leisurely get-together with a lovely reception and a stunning view over the Bosporus Strait and the Asian part of Istanbul, which felt almost symbolic considering the gathering of scholars from East and West. 

The morning of the first day started off with two panels on “Robot Technology and Elderly Care in Japan“ and “The Unnatural in Life and Death“ which centred around questions of life and death/illness. Parallel to these was a session concerned with the aftermath of 3.11. Here presentations were especially focused on how the people directly affected by the destructive force of nature and technology dealt with reconstruction. Where can we find resilience and what form does it take? Most of the papers were a mixture of observations and introduction to ongoing projects. Of particular interest were presentations juxtaposing different social movements and developments. Man-made and technically improved seawalls were described as being planned in anticipation of future catastrophes as well as trees planted to function as a natural barrier for future tsunami. People staying and remembering on one side and women, who decided to leave in order to protect their family and children just to be confronted with stigmatisation, a new hibakusha, were described on the other side. Since, as mentioned, most of these are still ongoing projects, results were yet not quite clear to pin down, but presenters and participants alike were engaged in the discussion of possible conclusions, for example with regard to increased political involvement of hitherto non-political citizens and protest movements. 

The afternoon offered two panels on “Food, Science & Nature” and “Representing nature and technology in Japan” each. Here presentations ranged from the construction of soup kitchens in Yokohama, safety standards concerning genetically modified food or sake breweries in Japan to the representation of nature in tsukumogami (a kind of possessed object in Japanese folklore) and a closer look at the meaning of the popularity of moominville in contemporary Japan. 

“Food, Science & Nature“ presented a final panel on the next day, this time looking at the role of technology in aquaculture, the process of turning fish into functional food and the challenges for the dairy industry in Hokkaido. The second day also saw a return to the human body with two panels: “Medicine & Technology in Japan: Legal, Ethical and Governance Perspectives” and “Technologies of Gender/Sexuality and Problematization of Human Ontology in Japan”. Both panels showed how advancement in technology can be used to overcome failures or perceived failures i.e., socially constructed failures of the natural body as in the case of the universal design that is meant to assist disabled children and integrate them into non-specialised schools. At the same time we have seen that technology, its use and acceptance are always bound to social norms as in the case of the universal design, which, drawing (unwanted) attention to the disability has quite often singled out the children in the eyes of the others instead of integrating them. Other examples for this interaction of social norms and technology were presented through the case of sex-workers and men in Japan. Both groups use technology to improve their bodies according to the imagined ideal of the opposite: the customers in the case of the sex-workers and women in case of the men. This becomes especially relevant against the background of a Japanese society with changing gender roles, sexual stereotypes and a continuously low birthrate. Furthermore we saw how actors in the health sector, including those using and receiving these technologies on the one hand as well as the those entrusted with overseeing and regulating the use of these technologies on the other hand, are struggling with the challenges and risks that the application of technologies pose for the individual, e.g. the patient, as well as for society as a whole. 

Parallel to this, “Facing Crisis and Rapid Social Change in Turkey and Japan“ took place, spanning several sessions and encompassing topics such as women and the workplace, rural communities and festivals as well as issues of changing family structures and problems of an ageing society. 

The last day saw three final panels: “Sports, Music and Games“ which looked at the role of technology in sports, in nature-themed augmented reality apps, and the role of shared housing; “Anthropology & the City“ which posed a fresh approach to the phenomenon of Gyaru, and the challenges of nature that a neighbourhood association in Osaka faces while trying to get wisteria trees to bloom; and “State of the Art“ with a presentation on Japanese Studies in Japan among others. The afternoon was topped off with a roundtable discussion, where representatives of the Turkish universities discussed the state and the future of Japanese Studies in Turkey. 

For the final day the participants of the conference were invited to spend the last evening at a dinner cruise on the Bosporus. This was not just a pleasant end to a fruitful conference but also offered another opportunity to engage with various scholars, to continue and deepen conversations on topics and themes that came up during the conference, and to discuss future plans concerning joint projects or exchange programmes especially with Turkish colleagues. 

New to the conference was a mentoring programme for young scholars, where they were assigned to a more seasoned colleague to talk about their research, presentation or questions concerning fieldwork and publications among others. Since there was no predefined format, the tutoring could be adjusted to the individual needs of the mentee, which made it particularly beneficial. Besides practical tips concerning research methods or critical comments on the paper delivered, the very stimulating conversations also managed to bridge the sometimes rather big gap between the different generations of academics. This kind of programme is definitely something worth keeping and would most certainly be appreciated at other conferences as well. 

Thanks to the organisers and the conveners the 26th JAWS conference was yet another wonderful opportunity for scholars concerned with anthropological studies in and around Japan to meet up, connect, reconnect, exchange and discuss their newest research and projects in an inspirational setting.