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Imagining Our Digital Futures: The View From Japan

LauraHaapio-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.

Keeping up appearances: the importance of ageing smartly

Charlotte EHawkins24 November 2018

Gloria works for KCCA (Kampala City Council Authority) cleaning the roads, starting every morning at 6am. This often means she arrives late at the bi-weekly meeting of a support group for women in Godown where we first met. She hopes to set up her own business, investing in a machine for grinding g-nuts and sesame, but it would cost 2 million Ush ($535), capital she doesn’t yet have. Meanwhile, she said she makes ends meet by “joining hands together” with her sons, all in their 20s. She earns 180,000 Ush ($50) each month, putting 80,000 Ush ($22) on food and 20,000 Ush ($5.50) on beauty products, including make-up and hair oil. “Even without money I have to be smart. I don’t need to be shabby”. The rest goes on rent and her sons ‘top up’. I asked what they do when there’s a health emergency to pay for, and she said, “we rarely fall sick” thanks to her prayers: “when you light a candle for Mother Mary you cannot fall sick”.

Gloria’s hair and make-up collection. Photo by Charlotte Hawkins

Gloria’s candles for prayer. Photo by Charlotte Hawkins

Almost 10% of her monthly salary is invested in being ‘smart’, a word often used here to compliment the visible effort someone has put into their appearance, “you’re smart today!”. Gloria is not alone in stressing the importance of ‘keeping up appearances’, despite financial constraint; as one older man explained, dressing well and looking good are “a way of gaining public trust”. Or as at the weekly parties for a women’s savings group in Godown, the ways the beneficiary and her two ‘honourable members’ dress up is an important part of the celebratory proceedings. They often design and tailor their matching outfits, taking photos of each other and themselves on smartphones. Even the bar will be ‘dressed’ according to the beneficiaries’ preference, with different colour fabrics and lights draped on the ceiling and walls.

Women dancing and looking smart at a weekly party for their savings group. Photo by Charlotte Hawkins

Taking photos of a beneficiary, dressed up for her party. Photo by Charlotte Hawkins

It seems that another way to look smart, especially for older women, is to look young. According to my research assistant, who grew up in the area, many of our female interviewees lie when we ask their age, wanting to seem younger than they really are. Whilst being called ‘Jajja’ (grandmother) signifies respect, so do remarks on a deceptively youthful appearance. Ageing gains admiration, but particularly if you’re smart.