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Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing Blog


Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing


Archive for the 'Japan' Category

Making ships and friendships

Laura Haapio-Kirk12 February 2021

During my fieldwork in Japan, my smartphone was indispensable as a tool for not only documenting my research through photos, video, and audio but also as a way to interact with my participants through social media which is now a large part of daily life for most people I met. It was important that I be on the same platforms that my participants were on – primarily the messaging application LINE. Often the first thing that people wanted to do when meeting for the first time was to add each other as a contact on LINE. I ended up with hundreds of contacts over my 16 months in Japan.

Many of these online connections have continued now that I have left the field, and some have resulted in further collaboration. Even though I returned from fieldwork over a year and a half ago, Miyagawa san, who is now 76 and lives in Kyoto, still sends me photos and videos of his hobby – model boat making. For him, sharing photos and videos of his craft is as much part of his hobby as the practice of boat making itself. I had hoped to return to Japan in 2020 to follow up with several participants and make some short films, but covid put a stop to that. Instead, I collaborated with Miyagawa san via LINE to make the film that you can see above. I sent him questions and he replied with videos. The process was very smooth thanks to his familiarity with video recording and his enthusiasm to share his hobby.

In the film, Miyagawa san explains how what started as a private hobby turned into a way for him to expand his social network online. He created an Instagram account to document his craft through videos and photos that he takes with his smartphone. Now over 150 followers watch the ships come to life as he glues, polishes and paints. He is happy that his hobby now connects him with people all over the world, and he receives many positive comments on his posts. Miyagawa san explains that having a hobby is integral for staying healthy as you get older. If this hobby can also lead to greater social connection in times of potential isolation, all the better. Miyagawa san’s story is highly relevant for these covid times and shows how sharing your enthusiasm for a hobby such as making ships can also make friendships.

The smartphone is a lifeline

Laura Haapio-Kirk23 October 2020


The film above is narrated by one of my research participants in Kyoto. Midori san (not her real name) is in her mid-sixties and chose to switch to a smartphone from her previous flip-style phone (garakei) last year when a big typhoon hit Japan. As she explains in this video, the smartphone provided a lifeline when she couldn’t access information at home as her electricity was cut off. For example, she could not find out if trains were running in order to check on her mother’s home in the neighbouring city of Osaka. At the same time as getting a smartphone she bought a portable charger so that in future emergencies she would not feel helpless, and she told me that many of her friends have done the same.

Japan regularly suffers from many natural disasters such as earthquakes, typhoons, and heavy rains. Midori san explained that she checks the weather every day on her smartphone during natural disasters and will not go outside, for example, if the temperature is too high during a heatwave. During my fieldwork in the summer of 2018, Kyoto was hit by a record-breaking heatwave: the temperature remained above 40 degrees Celsius for several days. Such extreme weather events can be dangerous, especially for older people.

The biggest disaster to hit Japan in recent years was the earthquake, tsunami, and subsequent meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant on the 11th March 2011 (the so-called ‘triple disaster’ of 3/11), in which roughly 20,000 people lost their lives. This event and the subsequent controversy over the way the government has handled the rebuilding and clean-up operations in the years since has left many of the people I met feeling that they cannot rely on the state to help them in times of trouble. Because of this sense of precarity and the worry that another big disaster is looming, the smartphone has become an invaluable source of comfort and support to people as a safety net in case of emergency.