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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.

We are all going to die before we get old

Daniel Miller2 December 2018

When The Who sang ‘I hope I die before I get old’, the underlying assumption was that unless they died first they would become elderly. For The Beatles we were already sitting by the fireside knitting a sweater or with grandchildren on the knee by the age of 64. As a result it is possible to give a precise date to the ‘death’ of the elderly, which is 28th May 2007, when a band called The Zimmers consisting of people who had to use zimmer frames, sang ‘I hope I die before I get Old’ on the BBC. They later also covered You Gotta Fight for your Right to Party.

When we started this project I was aiming to concentrate on what I called Mid-Life, roughly between 45-70. It didn’t take long to realise I had been hopelessly simplistic. Mid-Life would need to be between two other categories. But this doesn’t really work if people no longer regard themselves as getting old or elderly. What our fieldwork demonstrates is how variable this issue of age and elderly has become. To have a fixed age bracket makes no sense when people rarely live into that bracket in our Kampala site, routinely retire at 50 in Shanghai and are still planting rice at 95 in Japan. But the other major issue is that in each site one senses that becoming elderly is turning into a choice. Visiting our Palestinian site it was clear that many women in their sixties are comfortable taking on the clothing, mannerism and activities designated for that separate senior group that could be called elderly. In my own Irish fieldsite there remain some people where this is still the case. Most conspicuously at the rather misnamed Active Retirement Group that is dedicated to playing bingo and a few mild activities such as tea dances, but clearly rejected the suggestion that they might replace bingo on one occasion with computer classes.

As fieldwork has progressed, it has been increasingly clear that they represent a declining proportion of people, in that most I meet of the same age as those in this relatively (in)Active Retirement Group, feel no affinity with that shift into a category of elderly. Nor do they relate to the idea of mid-life. Instead they state firmly, if slightly apologetically, that they feel in almost every respect youthful. The Rolling Stones were prescient in that apparently, they will Not Fade Away.

The Rolling Stones at Marcus Amphitheater in Milwaukee, USA, performing at Summerfest festival on June 23, 2015 – Photo by Jim Pietryga (wikemedia commons)

The people I meet really do feel that youth was wasted on the young and they spend their time power walking, and bicycling if they are fit enough, or otherwise playing intensely competitive bridge and learning new skills such as painting or singing. They still listen to rock music and at least consider dating, if appropriate. When, as here, a 13 year old is desperate to see 72 year old Cher at Las Vegas the relationship between music and age is pretty unclear.

The other side to this change is that previously to be senior was to gain ‘wisdom’ and respect. This made sense in an agricultural society where older people were skilled as a result of longer experience. But the skills that matter more today consist of things like using smartphones. Many of these older people welcome this loss of wisdom because it is replaced by continued equality with youth, rather than being placed in another category. On a committee they are listened to simply to the extent that others find their argument convincing, the same as everyone else.

The category elderly is likely to remain but now seems to designate physical disability and the dependence upon others, within which the clearest example is dementia. People recognise that there will eventually be a physical deterioration leading to death, so the category is more about dying and incapacity, rather than entering a different cultural category. Until then they will not regard themselves as having become old, however white their hair or resplendent their liver spots. Different societies are moving in this direction at different speeds but my prediction is eventually we will all die before we get old.