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Imagining Our Digital Futures: The View From Japan

Laura Haapio-Kirk14 February 2020

Japan has gained a global reputation as being the sort of place where one can ‘imagine our digital future’ – from stories of men marrying their virtual girlfriends, to techno-cemeteries replacing tombstones with LED Buddhas, an imagination of ‘techno Japan’ has developed which can be quite removed from the everyday experiences of people living there. Japan has been slow in many ways to adopt new technologies despite an international perception of being at the forefront of technological innovation. This imagined futuristic Japan is perhaps a result of the prominence of robots and advanced technologies in Japanese popular culture, or because of the impression made on travellers by iconic bullet trains and singing washlet toilets. Day-to-day life in Japan is actually remarkably low-tech; the economy is still largely cash-based despite government attempts to encourage card and mobile payments, much bureaucratic work is still paper-based rather than computerized, and old technologies such as fax machines are still popular. Indeed the name of new Reiwa era (Japan’s new imperial era following the end of Emperor Akihito’s 30-year reign) was announced internationally in April 2019 via a fax sent to Japanese embassies worldwide.

On 26th of February I will present my work at a symposium in Sheffield called ‘Imagining Our Digital Futures: The View From Japan’. The event is organised by Sheffield University’s School of East Asian Studies, bringing together scholarship on technical innovations of Japanese art and design with discussions about the use of digital technology to understand Japan. The organisers envision Japan-focused digital research as a productive model for emerging and developing studies of digital cultures around the world. “Imagining our digital futures” requires us to look at our digital present, which in Japan is more commonly about the smartphone rather than robots. And the age-group who are especially keen to imagine a digital future is the middle-aged to elderly, who are finding digital means for challenging previous models of ageing. While Japanese youth have historically been seen to drive innovation in digital communication practices, older people are now starting to embrace the smartphone and are developing their own digital cultures.

My talk will present findings from long-term ethnographic fieldwork I conducted among older people in Kyoto and Kōchi Prefecture, examining ageing, health, and everyday usage of the smartphone. Given the economic and social challenges posed by Japan’s ageing population, the government has turned towards technological solutions, such as assistive robotic devices, to cope with a decreasing health and care workforce. Yet it is in everyday smartphone practices such as messaging, Googling, and using social media that older people are re-imagining care, finding new forms of independence, and crafting new experiences of ageing when compared with previous generations.

With many nations around the world exhibiting ageing populations, there is international focus on how super-ageing Japan is dealing with this demographic shift. By studying the digital practices of middle-aged to elderly Japanese people, this research demonstrates that the smartphone is increasingly central to their lives, and will be key to developing technological innovations for dealing with the challenges associated with ageing.

If you’re near Sheffield do come along, and also check out the Japan Now North festival in the week preceding the symposium with a range of film screenings and discussions on Japanese art, literature, and film. The festival includes a screening of the film ‘I Go Gaga My Dear’ by veteran Japanese documentary filmmaker Naoko Nobutomo. After the screening I will be chairing a Q&A with Nobutomo, discussing her film within the wider context of the Japanese ageing society.

The impact of physical work in old age

charlotte.hawkins.1716 April 2019

In Uganda, 70% of the workforce is employed in the ‘informal sector’ [UBOS, 2014], mostly self-employed in unregistered business. This is reflected in Godown, the Kampala fieldsite, where the majority of interviewees run their own small business, such as hawking fruits, market vending, driving bodas (motorbike taxis) and brewing waragi. Many of these jobs require physical labour.

The deterioration of physical health, accelerated by physically demanding work, can mean that old age presents a significant challenge to people who rely on their bodies for their income. This is the case for Achola’s husband, who throughout our recent interview, was busy bending to serve food to frequent lunchtime customers. It turned out he had chronic back pain. A visit to the hospital the day before had confirmed that ‘his spine is splitting’, a slipped disk. He’s not responded to other treatments and can’t afford a brace, so they’ve recommended surgery, but he’s nervous to weaken himself; he needs to work for his wife and grandchildren, and elderly relatives in the village. He was even planning to take the 10 hour bus to visit them the following day, ‘I have to go and farm, it’s the month’.

65 year old Palma also has back problems after 30 years of ‘moving with bananas’, carrying a basket to sell in town. She has to continue working to support her 3 orphaned grandchildren. ‘It was her parents to take care of them and her’, but now she has to do it alone. She struggles to pay their school fees, and in return, they cook, wash and clean for her. Sometimes she falls sick, and the family must rely on her neighbours to bring them food. Whilst she feels that her work has kept her active and healthy, she’s now tired, so hopes she can get a market stall so she can sit in one place.

Both stories here emphasise the reliance on family support in old age and the burden this places on individuals, especially when it breaks down. The head of physiotherapy at the local government hospital is all too familiar with such stories. He feels that informal workers contribute significantly to the Ugandan economy but are neglected by public services. He hopes for further investment in prevention and promotion to alleviate the impact of physical work on people’s bodies over time, seeking health protection for informal workers and advising them on how they can better protect themselves.

As part of the ASSA project, we plan to make a short film on the impact of physical work on older people’s health in Godown, that he can use to support further research, advocacy and community sensitisation to this end.