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Recent publication: ‘Emotion work via digital visual communication: A comparative study between China and Japan’

Xin Yuan Wang12 August 2021

In the age of the smartphone, communication is becoming more visual. Through the smartphone, the production and circulation of digital visual media have become as costless and accessible as audio and text-based communication. However, as anthropologists, we argue that there is a pressing need to understand local forms of visual communication in the digital age, where the visual has become an essential part of daily communication. A recently published joint article by my colleague Laura Haapio-Kirk and myself addresses this inquiry based on comparative research across China and Japan.

In China and Japan, we are dealing particularly with the rise of visual digital communication among older adults. The ethnographies undertaken across both fieldsites as part of the ASSA project show how visual communication via digital media enables more effective and efficient phatic communication and emotion work. In addition, the ethnographies point to a question about ‘authenticity’ in interpersonal communication. For example, in some cases, the deployment of visual communication via the smartphone is not so much about being able to express ‘authentic’ personal feelings but rather, in being able to effectively establish a digital public façade according to social norms.

A finding from Japan, where Laura Haapio-Kirk conducted fieldwork, focused on stickers being used on the country’s popular LINE messaging platform. These are often personalised in various ways, including through the purchase of tailored sticker sets with a person’s name embedded within the stickers. These are often given as gifts.

A research participant in her late 70s, Wada-san, communicated via LINE messages daily with her daughter who lived in another city, often sending stickers that let her daughter know what she was up to throughout the day. The particular sticker set she downloaded featured a humorous and feisty grandmother character (see photo below). Wada-san’s daughter explained the following: ‘she sends me meaningless things (muimina koto), things that are just part of her daily activities’. Added together, this constant flow of messages made them feel closer in a way that was less burdensome than frequent phone calls throughout the day might be.

 

Figure 1. ‘Grandmother’ LINE sticker set by ©ushiromae.

Similarly, one of the most common genres of communication among research participants in China consists of daily greetings and festival greetings. One of Xinyuan’s research participants, Suiqing, would wake up, select an image of flowers or natural scenery (taken by herself or sourced from the Internet), edit a greeting text which she would overlay on top of the image (such as ‘good morning’ or ‘I wish you a happy day’) and send it to her various WeChat groups, which are overwhelmed with visual greetings (as can be seen below).

Figure 2. A screenshot of a WeChat group conversation among Suiqing’s old work colleagues. The first image reads ‘good morning, good luck, daisy’, the second reads ‘Friendship is the most precious thing, good morning’ and the third reads ‘be happy and joyful’.

To read the open-access article ‘Emotion work via digital visual communication: A comparative study between China and Japan’, please go to: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/20594364211008044

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.