The ‘soft side’ of robots and elderly care in Japan

As Japan‘s population shrinks, and its proportion of elderly rises, the nation continues to avoid increasing immigration. Rather than hire humans to provide care for the nation’s elderly, Japan’s political leaders look instead to a robotic revolution to provide that care.

Inventions such as Paro, a robotic seal that coos and purrs, provide Japan’s elderly with virtual companionship and help them cope with solitude. Apparently the ubiquitous pattern of kodokushi (solitary deaths) detailed in Anne Allison‘s Precarious Japan  is more manageable if Paro is with you. However, Paro does not yet seem to have the ability to call the neighbors or an ambulance, or to get an elderly person’s distant family to come visit.

Overall, the growth in care robots is a boon for the robotics industry. But would obaachan rather talk with a robotic seal or a real human being—even if that human being is a Filipina caregiver? Will Paro and other robots go out after work and spend money in local businesses? Or pay into the nation’s pension and health insurance systems? Investments in robotic technology might help Japan’s elderly live independently for longer, facilitating physical mobility and providing games for the elderly to play. But hiring humans to do this work provides opportunities for human connection and a greater circulation of income, as workers spend their earnings in the Japanese economy. Inevitably, those workers will need to come from outside Japan, unless Japan’s care robots start having robot children …

Miss Universe Japan — spectacle, race, and dreams

Ariana Miyamoto’s victory in the Miss Universe Japan contest has raised debates about race, representation, gender, and identity. While hāfu women are very visible in fashion and mass media in Japan, these women are rarely Blackanese. Recent events, like a blackface performance by Momoiro Clover Z and a call for apartheid, in Japan have reminded us that Japanese society has a long way to go in acknowledging and accepting the diversity of its population. Thus Ms Miyamoto’s victory gives hope that maybe, just maybe, things are changing in Japan. Mitzi Uehara Carter’s blogpost shares some important insights on these issues.

Racializing the white nose in Japan

What is it with white noses in Japan? Can Japan get past its seeming obsession with whites as long-nosed tengu?

Racializing white bodies is pretty much guaranteed to make a splash, as we saw with Toshiba’s bread maker (which was so good it would turn you into a white person), and ANA’s new international service (which again could turn you white).

Now we get Proctor and Gamble’s new ad for laundry detergent. The detergent smells so wonderful that it makes white people’s noses grow and flap around. These people were already white, so there’s no race-changing going on, just oddly morphing white faces.

So, what is it with white noses in Japan? As a white person with a somewhat prominent proboscis, I’d really like to know. And I’m definitely not buying this brand of detergent. The last thing I need is a bigger nose.

If your clothes stink, do white noses shrink? Cue the George Constanza reference …

For a more detailed look at this issue, visit Arudou Debito’s site,

Japan’s Rightwing Violence Escalates

A march by the far left “Anti-Imperial System Action Network” is met by a ferocious series of counter-demonstrations by rightwing activists, with a thin line of riot police in between. These events occurred on August 15, 2013, on the streets of Tokyo.

“People want to watch people who look like them”?

From the Japanese television program “Takeshi’s Castle”

by Robert Moorehead

I’m quoted in a French news article on the limited appeal of Japanese television programs in Western countries. The journalist, Mathias Cena, questions the answer Japanese producers gave him as to why many Japanese programs are popular in Asia, but not in the West.

The producers claimed that audiences want to watch people on TV who look like them. But is that true? Isn’t the appeal of some shows due to the fact that the characters are different from us? Don’t we watch the super-wealthy, the beautiful, the glamorous because we want to be like them, but currently aren’t? What about shows like Jerry Springer? In The Money Shot: Trash, Class, and the Making of TV Talk ShowsLaura Grindstaff argues that part of the appeal of shows like Springer is that audiences feel that they’re better than the losers on the show.

Some Japanese shows are popular in part because the shows are Japanese. Shows like Iron Chef and Takeshi’s Castle fit the stereotype of Japan as a wacky, zany, crazy country—a stereotype routinely nurtured by Western press’s penchant for articles about Japan as inscrutable and bizarre.

It’s great to have a journalist seeking out a sociological perspective. Now if only someone writing in English could show sociology some love …

The Inherent Sexism of Low Expectations

by Robert Moorehead

The fall semester started just a week ago, and after class today a student nervously asked me if we could talk in private. We waited for a few students to grab their bags and head out the door, and then he apologized, saying that he had heard rumors from other students and he wanted to know if they were true.

He then explained that some students were saying that it would be hard for men in my classes to get good grades because I give women higher grades. I recognized the concern as one that a student had previously shared, when I asked for anonymous feedback from students. I explained that there was no basis for the concern, and the nervous student standing in front of me visibly relaxed and exhaled deeply.

I described the concern and the response that I had previously shared with the class—that if you looked at a few students’ scores, and saw that some men received low scores on their essays and some women received higher scores, you might think you’d found a pattern. But if you expanded your sample and looked at more essays, you’d find men’s essays that got high scores and women’s essays that got low scores. The pattern would disappear. Also, more women might get A’s simply because there are more women in the class. More women also get B’s, C’s, and F’s (our university doesn’t use the D grade), again because there are more women taking the class.

The student was especially concerned because there were more women than men in our class today, as if women were flocking to my classes and men were running away. But in my 13 years of teaching sociology, every class I’ve ever taught, except one, has had more women than men. Our major also has more women students than men, so do the math.

I thanked the student for his candor and willingness to talk about something so sensitive in his first conversation with me. I also told him I looked forward to him submitting great work in the class. Then, on the way home, I realized that this wasn’t about me.

The rumor is a veiled critique of women students. It sees some women getting higher scores and asks how that is possible, as if women’s academic success required explanation. It claims that women’s success must only come because women are receiving an unfair advantage. Without that advantage, the natural order would return as men’s scores rise and women’s fall. After this ‘aha’ moment, I felt guilty for not seeing this earlier.

Student rumors, like all rumors, tend to spiral outward and transform into more and more dramatic tales. But this case shows us that we need to move beyond being surprised by those tales to question the assumptions that drive them.

By the way, I also detailed to the student the steps I take to try to make the grading of student work as fair as possible. Before grading the essays, I read all of them once. I then re-read them and grade them. Next, I re-grade the first few essays to make sure I was applying the same standards to the first essays as to the ones I graded later. I take my work seriously, respecting the time and effort that students put into their academic work.

I also acknowledge that, as a human being, I’m not free of bias. None of us are. But if we’re trying to explain a low grade by claiming that other students must have received an unfair advantage, then we might want to ask why we think those students didn’t really earn their grades. We also might be open to the possibility that our own work might not be as good as we thought.

I’ll share this story with my classes, more to share a teachable moment than to dispel the rumors. I don’t know who first shared the concern, nor do I know who’s passing on the rumor. Nor do I care. Each class is a new opportunity for students to learn and grow. If I couldn’t let go of issues like this, then I shouldn’t be teaching. Whether some students believe it or not, nothing makes their professors happier than to see them succeed. Isn’t that why we teach?

The sociological context of urban ethnography

An interesting look at the common practice of packaging the depiction of the ‘other’ in getting ethnographic work published. As I figure out how to generate interest for ethnographic work on relations between Japanese and Peruvians in Japan–a setting that might sound exotic to some of my colleagues at ASA but to me and my informants is familiar and everyday–I feel pulled between the pressures to publish and the pressures to fairly represent the site, the data, the people, etc.

Vermont 2 China

Yesterday at the 2014 American Sociological Association Annual meeting, Wisconsin Sociology Professor Alice Goffman ran the disciplinary gauntlet in the form of an author meets critics session focused on her new book, On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City. Goffman has received a great deal of press for her work (e.g. here), and there has been, especially in the wake of the attention, expressions of hostility to On the Run. Critics have raised questions about the validity of the research, Goffman’s ethnographic focus on the most stereotypically “ghetto” of the residents of the neighborhood where she did her fieldwork, issues of research ethics, and the white and privileged position from which the book and its warrant seem to be emanating.  A large crowd turned out for the event, many attendees were looking for the opportunity to criticize the book and its author. The hostility was undeniable.

I would…

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An unexpected “gaijin moment”

English: Signage for hostess bars in Kabukicho...

English: Signage for hostess bars in Kabukicho, Tokyo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

by Robert Moorehead

At the beginning and end of each semester, my college faculty and staff gather for a fancy meal at a restaurant before a smaller group moves on to an Irish pub for a nijikai (second round of drinking). The nijikai crowd eventually shrinks down to a smaller group that heads to a third bar, for a sanjikai. At each place, everyone shares stories, laughs, and enjoys each other’s company in a mix of Japanese and English. Despite the fun, at the third stop I had a “gaijin moment.”

A “gaijin moment” is my Japanese adaptation of Eli Anderson’s “n**r moment,” in which non-Japanese are starkly reminded of their outsider status in Japan. In this case, the reminder came despite the smiles, laughter, and joyous karaoke singing of my colleagues.

The sanjikai took place at a small Japanese-style bar. The 16 people in our group settled in on couches in the back of the bar, as three Japanese hostesses came over to pour drinks for us, serve us snacks, and engage us in conversation. Thankfully, these women avoided the more dramatic flirting found in hostess bars, where the job is to flirt with customers, smile, sing, and get customers to buy drinks—what Rhacel Parreñas has defined as a form of sex work. (Anne Allison and Parreñas have produced great ethnographies of hostess work, for those interested.)

A Japanese woman in her 30s sat across from me and another foreign professor, poured us some watered-down drinks, and asked questions that non-Japanese often get—do you speak Japanese, where are you from, how long have you lived in Japan, etc. To her credit, she avoided exaggerated responses like “Oh really? Wow! That’s great!” Or maybe she read the look I probably had on my face.

English: Kabukicho, Tokyo

English: Kabukicho, Tokyo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While I understand the history of the hostess role, I also understand the gender dynamics of paying women to serve me. Pouring drinks, wiping moisture off the glasses, re-filling drinks (with extremely watered-down booze), clapping their hands in time to the karaoke singing, and pretending to be interested in whatever I might say. I couldn’t separate their smiles from the fact that they were being paid to show those emotions … that I was paying them for those emotions.

At that moment, I realized that I am unable to turn off the sociologist in my head. I couldn’t get comfortable with the hostess-customer relationship. While there’s no shame in working as a hostess, I would have preferred to have gone to Ing, a rock bar that several of us had unsuccessfully lobbied for. At least the bar we went to was better than the place we’d gone to previously, a depressingly dark bar where the hostesses routinely yawn, check their watches, serve stale snacks, and pour drinks that are essentially watered-down gasoline.

Then came calls for me to join the karaoke. I demurred, as I listened to my colleagues sing one Japanese song after another, from pop to rock to dance music, generations of Japanese songs I had never heard. A few English classics, like Elvis Presley, the Beatles, and Frank Sinatra, made their inevitable appearance. But it was the endless medley of Japanese songs that made me feel like a gaijin. Everyone was nice enough, and even the hostess eventually moved on to other people. But sitting through song after song that I had never heard before, but all my Japanese colleagues seemed to know by heart, made me realize that, despite all the music that we had in common, we grew up listening to very different things.

Black Sabbath 1977 Ozzy Butler Iommi - "R...

Black Sabbath 1977 Ozzy Butler Iommi – “Reality Show” (Photo credit: Whiskeygonebad)

Odds are that if my Japanese colleagues had found themselves listening to people (try to) sing the heavy metal and rock tracks I grew up with (time for some Black Sabbath or Iron Maiden karaoke, anyone?), they would have felt similarly. As people pushed me to look for songs to sing, I drew a blank. Feeling like an outsider, I couldn’t even think of what I’d look for. Not that I really wanted to sing, but I felt like such an outsider that I couldn’t imagine anything I liked being in the computer system.

Eventually, I got forced to sign the last song of the night, and while people were originally searching for “Hey Jude,” I got stuck with “We Are the World.” Seriously. It would not have been my first choice, or my second, or my 153rd.

The next day, all sorts of songs popped into my head, making me wonder even more about what had set me off. After more than 7 years in Japan, it’s interesting to see that I can still feel like a total gaijin.

So a little empathy is in order whenever a native complains about foreigners not fitting in. Fitting in is a long, bumpy road. And just when you think you’re in the clear … more bumps.