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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.

The stigma of illness during coronavirus in Japan

Laura Haapio-Kirk17 July 2020

 

A graphic vignette showing two people.

Care workers adapt to the coronavirus in Japan. Names have been changed. Illustration by Laura Haapio-Kirk.

“We often hear the word jishiku repeatedly during this (coronavirus) time. Jishiku means, Ji: self, Shiku: 粛 refrain, or restrain.  In my opinion it’s very much based on Japanese mura (village) culture where everyone looks at what everyone else is doing. It is the big reason why the elderly in rural areas are so nervous to be infected, although the cases are quite low there. You will be mura-hachibu (ostracised) if you get infected in a small mura where everyone knows you well.”

Speaking with Dr Kimura, a social nutrition researcher at Osaka University who conducts fieldwork in Tosa-cho, the same rural Kōchi town where I spent time, she asserts that mura culture is alive and well in rural areas while diminishing in urban areas around the rapid economic growth period of ’80s and ’90s (kodo keizai seichou). The small communities that remain in rural areas who still practice rice-farming tend to be close-knit and everyone knows everyone else’s business. “Here, gossip travels faster than the internet”, says one local woman in the town.

The number of coronavirus cases has remained relatively low across Japan, however now (in July 2020) the numbers are rising in major cities, and Kōchi city, which is a one hour drive away from Tosa-cho, has reported cases again after the prefecture was declared free of coronavirus months ago. This uncertain time has significantly impacted on the lives of older people who are largely remaining at home, with events and social clubs cancelled. But even when things open up again, the social stigma of illness may act as a deterrent to engage freely in social activities. The fear of social ostracisation because of a perceived lack of self-restraint may be greater than the fear of the illness itself.

Yamakubi san, the head of the social welfare office, who usually co-ordinates household visits by social workers, has been motivated by the virus to explore ways for her staff to keep in contact with elderly people remotely. While some are confident with using a smartphone, many others are not. Many older people still use flip-phones and landlines and would find it difficult to engage in video calling. If one of the main issues facing older people during the COVID-19 pandemic is social isolation, this is exacerbated by the inability to use new communication technology. But when older people are interested in developing their digital literacy, such as by joining a smartphone club – as is the case with a number of people in Tosa-cho, they are keen to explore the potential of smartphones for keeping connected during this time. For example, I am part of a LINE (Japanese messaging app) group that that consists of a group of women in their 60s and 70s, which has become a space for sharing virus-related information and photos of home-made facemasks. COVID-19 has shown just how critical digital literacy interventions are when tackling social isolation, which can be compounded by the stigma of catching the virus.