Laura Miller: Although there is a growing literature on queer sexualities and identities in Japan, there are fewer studies devoted to queer linguistics in the English language scholarship. Your book is very accessibly written yet is firmly planted within both of these research domains. What inspired you to work on a project that would address this research gap, yet still not require extensive knowledge of the Japanese language on the part of the reader?
Claire Maree: I am delighted, and somewhat relieved to learn that the book is accessible to readers. As a key aspect of this research project is examining the rich social semiotics of script manipulation and design elements of popular media texts in Japan, I really wanted to be able to convey that to readers. So, I came up with a complex system of transcription symbols for the written texts, and for the script that appears in the audiovisual media as well. When combined with the conventions used for transcriptions of spoken texts, I was hoping that this would provide an insight into the layerings of meaning inscribed onto many contemporary media texts.
Language is a fundamental component of representation and performance of a wide diversity of genders and sexualities. Focusing specifically on Japan, research on conduct literature illustrates how notions about how one must (or must not) speak and communicate are overwhelming tied to gendered notions of personhood. Communicating as a successful businessperson, a caring parent, an attractive potential marriage partner are entangled with understandings of what it is to be a businessperson, a parent, a marriage partner. Moral panics that circulate around correct language use are regimented by cisgender, heteronormative, able-bodied, middle-to-upper-middle-class, urban centered ideologies of selfhood and citizenship. Subversion of these ideologies is also done with and through language. Creative use of and manipulation of language within queer communities is one such example. In this project I am interested in cultural practices that commodify such practices and mobilize them within mainstream cultural flows.
Laura Miller:You analyze the figure of the Japanese “queerqueen” through linguistic performance and media representations. For those not familiar with this term, could you describe what it means in your book?
Claire Maree: queerqueen figures are flamboyant and creative individuals who offer wickedly acerbic commentary of popular culture and personalities. I take the term from a particular moment in contemporary Japanese culture when the so-called “queen-personality” (onē-kyara) saturated lifestyle media, and in particular the make-over genre. The term “queen” (onē) emerges from queer culture and the term entered mainstream consciousness around the turn of the millennium. Despite being touted as a “new” phenomenon, the queen-personality (onē-kyara) figure can be under understood as recycling a familiar cultural trope—that of the (sometimes) cross-dressing, (sometimes) cross-speaking figure who is a hybrid of men-who-love-men and the effeminate queer man.
The term queerqueen is written in lowercase throughout the book. This is to avoid formulating a fixed, characterization of queerqueen and avoid it being used a static nomenclature. Rather, I aim to examine how the queerqueen has historically been inscribed into popular media texts through processes and practices of language-labour. That is, through collaborative practices such as transcription and editing. This collaborative work arranges specific linguistic stylizations to appear as authentic representation of personalities who are positioned as queerqueen figures. These are curated as linguistic excess. The linguistic excess exceeds conventions of written and spoken Japanese—something that is both delightfully entertaining and politically subversive, and also in need of constant taming.
Laura Miller: You talk about the ways queerqueen linguistic performances are commodified and packaged. For example, there are a number of spectacular star-queens promoted by the Japanese culture industry. Can you tell us a little about one of them?
Claire Maree: One writer and personality who has emerged as a super-star queerqueen figure in contemporary mainstream media culture is Matsuko Deluxe. Matsuko is a prolific columnist who gained mainstream popularity in the early 2000s, before transforming into the face of variety programs in the mid-2010s. The title of his collection of columns published in 2001 as I am Matsuko Deluxe is subtitled in English as “me, a sexy human-being torpedo!” In queerqueen: Linguistic Excess in Japanese Media, I analyse the late-late television show Matsuko no heya (Matsuko’s Room; Fuji Television Network, 2009-2011). Unlike the busy sets and text-on-screen style of variety shows of the same era, Matsuko’s Room is stark. The show pivots on a staged (im)politeness that is exploited for laughs. Creative censorship beeps are edited into the show in the post-production process to regiment Matsuko’s speech as excessive. Within the context of the tightly constructed “unedited” feel of the show, self-censorship inscribes limits of disclosure.
Laura Miller:How do changes in the media representations of the queerqueen personality correspond to changes in stereotypical norms of gender and sexuality?
Claire Maree: I see these both as intertwined in non-linear ways. Part of what I argue in this book, is that sexuality, desire and gender are essential to the business of mainstream media, and that new trends and supposed booms around these are created though processes of reclassification and repackaging. How media representations may or may not map onto social change and/or legislative change, however, is a complex issue. For example, attempts to put forward legislation that “promotes understanding of LGBT people” were abandoned in May, and Japan’s Supreme Court’s Grand Bench has just this month (June, 2021) has upheld a 2015 ruling that requiring married couples to use the same surname is constitutional. My current collaborative project focuses on this issue—of how booms and the backlashes occur simultaneously as media discourses intersect with socio-cultural stereotypes in the context of political discourses, and transnational flows of discourse.
Xiao Ke: It was an absolute joy reading this provocative and rigorous book on Japanese “otaku”and manga culture, especially during the pandemic. Given that “otaku” literally means “your home,” we now might want to compare notes with “otaku” – whether seeing them as “cool” or “weird.” In doing so, perhaps we could reflect on, and better our own experiences at home. Can I make a detour to firstly ask: has anything new come up in the manga/anime market in Japan relating to the COVID-19 lockdown that you would like to share with us?
Patrick Galbraith: Thanks for inviting me to chat! I appreciate your kind words about the book, and this opportunity to exchange ideas. So, life and love in the time of COVID-19. I hesitate to make too much out of “otaku” meaning “your home,” at least when written in specific Japanese scripts, because it is in that sense more or less just a polite second-person pronoun used in certain settings and regions. It has always been my experience that stories of the basement dwelling, socially awkward geek are greatly exaggerated. I mean, Henry Jenkins was already highlighting it as a trope in his foundational contributions to fan studies in North America in the early 1990s. All it takes is a visit to a convention or an idol concert to disabuse ourselves of the stereotype. If anything, the absence of the hyper sociality of fan gatherings was a felt difference in 2020. All of us, not just “otaku,” were spending a lot more hours at home alone. We are seeing fascinating new ways of engaging online and through social media to generate shared experiences. This was all happening before, but with more time and fewer options, things exploded last year. The rise of virtual YouTubers, for example, and not only in absolute numbers, but also their broad and diverse followings outside of manga/anime fandom. That’s striking, because this form of masking, or animating a character rather than exposing yourself, is so prominent in manga/anime fan cultures in Japan, but many believed it was sort of niche or limited in appeal. Similarly, the fact that anime was trending on streaming services accessed around the world speaks to the ongoing normalization of fannish interests and lifestyles, including manga, anime and related media and material. Indeed, aren’t we all sort of being cultivated into fan audiences by streaming services and social media? Personally, I was stunned by the reaction to the manga/anime franchise Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba. It was serialized in the flagship magazine Shōnen Jump from 2016 and received an initial anime adaptation of 26 episodes in 2019, but last year, as the manga completed its run, printed volumes took all the top spots on sales charts and the first animated film became the highest-grossing release in Japanese box office history. With only 26 episodes of anime released! And it’s not a standalone film by a famous director intended for all audiences, but a simple continuation of the animated series based on a relatively young manga series for boys! And it broke this record during the pandemic! The manga and anime were everywhere, on everyone’s lips. I confess that I did brave the outdoors to see the film in a theater on its opening weekend in Tokyo, and, even socially distanced and masked, the energy and excitement in the room were just incredible. Unbelievably social, sharing an experience then and there before, if you’ll forgive the analogy, going out to spread it further in the community. It really is awesome animation, both in the television series and especially the film, but there can be no doubt that the manga/anime-industrial complex, creating a steady stream of fans and fueled by their collective movement and power, exceeded all expectations in 2020. The amount and quality of anime coming out right now? Overwhelming.
Xiao Ke: Despite being a long-term on-site participant observer of Japan’s anime culture, you spent half of your book tracing historical discourses since the 1970s instead of ethnography proper: from male bishōjo (beautiful girls) fans, lolicon (those who are obsessed with Lolita figures), to the formation of the otaku label and the affect called moe (to sprout, or perhaps a response to erotic and lively cuteness). We also saw how these subculture discourses are transformed into – or how they cashed-in on – seemingly new or exotic stories in the mainstream. Why and how did you choose this archive- and discourse-centered method in writing this book? Also, in doing this, did you receive pushback from reviewers at different stages?
Patrick Galbraith: Is the decision controversial? To my mind, it’s straightforward fieldwork. I touch on this a little in the introduction, but positioned in Akihabara, I was confronted with unfamiliar words and concepts. My basic field language is Japanese, but I also needed to learn this other language in order to think and speak as my informants did. Exposing those meanings and getting a sense of the language is a necessary step for the reader to enter into the field with me and see and be in the world otherwise. Moreover, these terms can be slippery and invite misunderstanding. So, right off the bat, notice how you glossed the terms bishōjo, lolicon and moe, which differs from what emerges in those first three chapters. It may not seem crucial to underscore the cuteness in bishōjo characters, or to say precisely how lolicon in this context defines Lolita figures in relation to the two-dimensional, but doing so sharpens the focus and clarifies why some manga/anime fans were labelled otaku. What about moe? You emphasized eroticism and liveliness, hedged with perhaps, but the concept is more holistically an affective response to fictional characters. There really isn’t another word for this concept specifically, which is why I spent time on it and traced the stories that people tell themselves and one another about moe and how an affective response to fictional characters makes sense in contemporary Japan. There’s a history here shaping meaning, and meaning not in the sense of definitions, but rather significance. This is why I wrote those first three chapters.
Xiao Ke: In the first three chapters, you emphasized how manga consumers are imagining a kind of queer masculinity alternative to the normative salarymen in Japan. And I was fascinated by this recurring gender-crossing theme of being seen or treated not as men: from male bishōjo manga readers (46), otaku discussions (59), to male customers in maid cafés (214). Something that caught my eye is that you introduced a writer on this theme, Itō Kimio, as “a pioneer of men’s studies” (22). You also showed us that the Japanese public has very reflexive analysis of the otaku phenomena and East Asian masculinity, not unlike media scholars. Can you say a bit more about Japan’s ‘men’ studies’ and how it might have influenced you intellectually? And to what extent have Japan’s student groups and university scholars collaborated in constructing and negotiating the otaku scene?
Patrick Galbraith: Given all that was brought under the umbrella of men’s studies in North America, I understand why that might catch your eye, but, in the context of Japan in the 1990s, danseigaku meant something very specific. It starts with the realization that there is a problem with men, specifically friction engendered by rubbing up against outdated and ossified norms. In his first major publication on the topic in 1993, Itō Kimio casts into stark relief the stubborn rigidity of middleclass masculine ideals in Japan. Things have been changing so much – think Anne Allison’s Precarious Japan – and yet there is still this notion that men need to be stable income earners, start and support families and generally be a presumed normal. These are not normal times, and normal does not work for everyone anyway. I’m reminded of Jack Halberstam’s analysis of the common sense of reproductive maturity and growing up in a capitalist society. For Itō, the problem is that those not achieving the norm or unable to escape the long shadow of hegemonic masculinity are made out to be failures and feel like losers. The phenomenon is what Lauren Berlant calls a “normativity hangover.” I’ll be blunt in saying that insistence on norms that are no longer achievable for many or even most can be fatal. The norms are toxic, leading to seething resentment and anger and potential violence toward self and others. Japan is not unique in this, as jumps off the page in Guy Standing’s global analysis of masculinity among the precariat. In contrast, one thing that really stood out in the field was how the people I met were not committed to being normal or being real men. Looking back at manga/anime fandom from the 1970s into the 1980s, there appeared to be those who opened up space to imagine and create alternatives to reality. These are the failures initially labelled otaku, specifically in context those men who failed to be putatively real men getting with supposedly real women and instead fixating on fictional girls. One does not have to believe that every single fan so labelled was exclusively oriented toward the two-dimensional to grasp that they were doing something different, something understood to be wrong or weird, and that’s why they were singled out and labelled as other, as otaku. If what these fans did was fail, then I think Halberstam is quite right that we can “fail well,” and in so failing, imagine other ways of living and moving on in the world. It starts with a sense of unease with things as they are, which can lead to a rejection of the imperative to grow up, man up or face reality. Things don’t have to be this way. Embracing alternatives, imagining and creating them together, is how we leave behind the toxic sludge that keeps us stuck in place and poisoning ourselves and one another, poisoning the world. It is also an invitation to live with fictional and real others in a more-than-human world. This is something of the broader aim of Otaku and the Struggle for Imagination in Japan. Now, there is a tendency for Japanese critics, experts and authorities on otaku to denounce and deny contemporary movements, which undercuts emergent political potential. This is especially so when it comes to issues of sex and gender, which make some older, established figures nervous. The thing is these talking heads dominate popular outlets with a discourse that establishes their identity, historical moment and objects. This is really clear in the case of Okada Toshio, who I introduce at the beginning of the Akihabara chapter. Part of the reason I adopted a different approach to thinking about otaku in terms of movement and performance is because I am opposed to closing down and policing the boundaries of a supposedly true, authentic and real identity for otaku. Reviewing popular publications by otaku experts about otaku, it turns out that their closely guarded identity is very masculine, even exclusively so, which resonates with recent and ongoing discussions of toxic masculinity in fan cultures around the world. What I saw among otaku, especially those who in Akihabara were once more distinguished as weird otaku, is the possibility of something other than a macho world in stasis or decline.
Xiao Ke: On the one hand, your book offers us a view of the uniquely lively Japanese manga history and culture. On the other hand, we read the less well-known but common stories of gentrification, state branding, censorship, policing, occupation protests and crackdowns. As you demonstrate in your ethnographic chapters on Akihabara, “[i]n the promoting and policing of ‘otaku’ in Akihabara,” “otaku” performances are “trivialized, naturalized and domesticated” (182). In dealing with imagined excess and perversion, from your experiences as an American researcher on Japan, can you say a few words about the differences, similarities and connections between Japan and the U.S.?
Patrick Galbraith: While I am originally from the United States, I cannot speculate about the vibrant and diverse fandoms that are at times there called otaku.”However, there are a few things that I can say based on my fieldwork in Akihabara, a destination for international fans of manga, anime and related media and material. Indeed, one aspect of the fieldwork was leading tours through Akihabara for visitors, who I asked for impressions afterward. Many of the Americans I encountered identified as fans of anime, but they were a little shocked by what they saw in Akihabara. Pokémon and Studio Ghibli this was not. While famous for the density of stores selling manga, anime and related media and material, and really it was the eye-catching signs and packed shelves that people loved to photograph, Akihabara was still very much colored by its past as the epicenter of adult computer gaming. That is, games where the player interacts with manga/anime-style cute girl characters in ways ranging from casual conversation to explicit sex. From computers to computer games, Akihabara had subsequently transformed into a space overflowing with bishōjo manga, anime, games, figurines, costumes, fanzines and more. People were pretty open about what they were buying and selling, even extremely explicit stuff. Things have changed a lot with growing expectation of outside scrutiny and aggressive policing, but I remember many visitors from the United States back then being more than a little concerned about the imaginary sex and public sex culture. In general, there seems to be a lot of anxiety about the prevalence of sex in manga, anime and related media and material. And it isn’t just the United States or fans who are taken aback. The recent moves to strengthen regulation of imports of erotic manga to Australia come to mind. This incident, like so many others, was triggered by watchdogs stumbling onto images of manga/anime-style cute girl characters, specifically an example of moe media called Eromanga Sensei, which is far from pornographic, but nonetheless intended to trigger a response. Attempts to ban books crossing the border appear quaint when this and so much more is readily available on the internet, and I suspect many fans around the world familiar with manga/anime aesthetics wouldn’t even bat an eye as they download or stream the likes of Eromanga Sensei, but the anxiety about manga/anime sex is notable and consequential. New legal regimes are being formed and negotiated. The late Mark McLelland, a resident of Australia, referred to this as “juridification of the imagination,” which may well inspire us to seriously reflect on issues of freedom of imagination.
Xiao Xe: Your last chapter is on maid cafés and the role-playing relationship between customer masters and maids. You seem to have a reserved stance regarding this space, and ended by citing Sara Ahmed’s “affect aliens” and posed the question: “those that do have to worry about their savings and are not as confident as King that things will work out. Where do they go?” (222) Did you leave out anything that you’d like to elaborate on but could not possibly fit into the book? Also, do you have anything to say about queer and straight female consumers – as well as laborers – of the manga/anime market in Japan?
Patrick Galbraith: My concerns are related to those who cannot get a place at the table or feel at home. Right after that line you quoted I discuss the troubling case of Katō Tomohiro, who killed seven people and wounded 10 more on the streets of Akihabara in 2008. I was right there in a nearby café typing up fieldnotes when it happened. It’s not something I’ll ever forget, and I don’t want to forget it. In the frenzied media coverage, people debated whether or not this man was an otaku, and pointed out that he visited a maid café. This was obviously not what drove Katō to commit the heinous acts he did. His despair and desperation were much more directly rooted in precarious economic and social circumstances. In Katō, I saw someone without the time or money to come to a maid café and become a regular and part of the circle. So, there’s a limit to having social support systems and platforms tied to disposable income and free time, which not everyone has, especially now. There is, however, another issue, which I raised earlier. Katō wanted a normal life, the good life, and his conviction that he could and should achieve the status of middleclass masculine normalcy turned to resentment and violence. I co-authored a study with David Slater at Sophia University, which had us in part examining the online posts Katō made from his cellphone, and what we found there was chilling. Katō kept beating himself up for being a failure, pushing others away due to a compounding sense of shame, all while blaming himself and others for his failure and loneliness. This is the swamp of toxic sludge I previously mentioned, and it sucked him right down into its depths. To get out of the death spiral, we need alternatives. We need to imagine and create them, together. And we need to find ways to open up the circle and draw others in. The incorporation of characters and roleplay does seem to help in many cases, especially when fantasy and play are social and shared. Many maid cafés have transitioned to targeting primarily tourists, which makes them less amenable to long-term relations, manga/anime connections and roleplay have become less pronounced in these establishments and smaller niche places have shut their doors due to COVID-19, but there is a lot of potential here. To your question about the diversity of staff and customers, there are many cafés in Akihabara and beyond that attract men, women and trans and queer folk, and I know people behind and in front of the counter who are gay, straight, lesbian, bisexual and a dozen other orientations besides. There is recent and forthcoming work on this and related topics, for example from Sharon Kinsella, Michelle H. S. Ho and Shunsuke Nozawa. “Cultures of animation,” to borrow a turn of phrase from Teri Silvio’s tremendous book Puppets, Gods and Brands, seem to allow for new relations to and between bodies, fictional and real.
Xiao Ke: Two related concluding questions: Beyond the context of your book, do you have any thoughts regarding how people communicate and curate imaginations in general? What are other old or new ways, other than manga/anime and character-plays, that you recognize and would group into what you propose as an “anthropology of imagination” (16)?
Patrick Galbraith: I wonder about communicating and curating imagination, but a pressing issue is opening spaces of imagination. Spaces at the margins, spaces in between, spaces that push against the limits of reality. Concomitantly, of immediate concern is resisting the territorialization and colonization of the imagination. I regularly find myself rereading Theodor Adorno and the Frankfurt School, and it seems to me that his dystopian nightmare of a withering of the imagination has only become more relevant with the acceleration and intensification of new technologies. Our minds are occupied, our attention divided up and sold off. We are alert and distracted, simultaneously hyper attentive and checked out. The ceaseless march toward the cliff seems inevitable. I recall hearing someone, probably Slavoj Žižek, quip that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than a modest change in capitalism. What a stinging, scathing indictment that is, especially for anthropologists, who are committed to learning and teaching other ways of seeing and being in the world. We can do better, and perhaps that’s partly what you mean by communicating and curating imagination. As the late David Graeber so passionately argued, we can see from the ethnographic archive that things have been organized differently in other places and times. It does not have to be this way. There are already existing alternatives right here and now, and we should encourage the curiosity to seek them out and the flexibility to follow along. Back in the 1980s, Tanya Luhrmann wrote that anthropologists haven’t paid much attention to imagination, but after Arjun Appadurai’s intervention there has been so much groundbreaking scholarship contributing to the anthropology of imagination. You can look back to imagine alternatives, as Graeber does in Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology and Possibilities, or work through alternative modes of thinking and experiencing otherness that Ghassan Hage introduces in and as Alter-Politics. I especially like that this is not simply anti, and there’s a positivity we can get behind. Another world is possible, and it’s ours. What Teri Silvio is doing in Taiwan with cultures of animation as distinct from performance, and Eduardo Kohn presents as an ecology of selves in Upper Amazonia, are related, and the list goes on. Work like Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World is as poetic as it is provocative. Anthropology to some extent has always been about the imagination, a human imagination that does not stop at the human or human world as we know it. Embracing this legacy is our politics and our power.
Page 99 of my dissertation contains a theoretical discussion on fantasy, situated in arguably the least ethnographic of chapters. The dissertation itself is about Japanese players of the popular online game Final Fantasy XIV. Based on participant observation in both urban Tokyo and the virtual game world, I argue that players develop “fantastic intimacy”; appreciating fantasy as separate from offline social identities, yet drawing on fantasy content to slowly build intimacy with players, which frequently culminates in offline relationships.
One example are romantic encounters between players, which many communities explicitly prohibit. However, if these occur out of serious, long-term commitments to the ludic framework of the fantasy world, these are often welcomed, and players may even organize a virtual wedding ceremony to celebrate publicly. Subsequently, groups of players also gather in the physical world, often using themed cafés to retain some visible reminders of the fantasy world which initiated their relationship.
Unfortunately, page 99 lacks ethnographic material showcasing such relationships. Perhaps the closest it gets to the actual field site is when I discuss fantasy’s potential to encourage an active relationship with the user, noting that taking active control over one’s in-game physical appearance stands in sharp contrast with offline Japanese society, where dress-codes and forms of communication are so rigidly determined, often along gender lines. Here I reference Teri Silvio’s animation theory, which plays a prominent role in how I interpret player–avatar relationships.
Page 99 also contains a discussion of “Facebook fantasies”, where I juxtapose fantasy-themed virtual worlds against social media such as Facebook. I argue that both contain:
“carefully constructing a character profile by drawing from one’s imagination, using that character to build intimacy with others, the value of presenting an internally coherent ‘world’ or ‘character’, and measuring success by quantitative parameters such as ‘likes’, numbers of ‘friends’, or ‘levels’.”
In neither case, the profile contains a verifiable relationship to a physical referent. Yet, since interactions through social media are perceived as being closer to consensus reality, there is value in presenting virtual worlds as fantasy, since its users seem to be more conscious about the dangers of drawing a straight line to the physical world.
In sum, while page 99 contains little about the players that form the heart of the ethnography, the discussion on fantasy builds towards the core conceptual argument of fantastic intimacy.
Mattias van Ommen. 2020. Intimate Fantasies: An Ethnography of Online Video Gamers in Contemporary Japan. University of Hawai’i at Mānoa. Ph.D. Dissertation.
Daniel White: In addition to the variety of topics you have explored in Japan over your career, you have been researching and writing on robotics for more than a decade now. Given your work has long been noted not only for its archival rigor and ethnographic attention to detail but also for its accessibility, could you outline how you might describe this book’s main arguments to an audience full of the many roboticists you have spoken with over the years? Would you add anything else in addressing your anthropology colleagues once the interlocutors had left the room?
Jennifer Robertson: My address to roboticists would be the same with or without anthropologists in the room, for the reasons that my book is aimed at a broad readership inside and outside of “the academy,” and that—at the risk of appearing immodest—all parties, roboticists and anthropologists included, could benefit from my observations. A key point I make several times in Robo sapiens japanicus (RSJ) is that roboticists and anthropologists researching robotics alike must guard against contributing to hyping gee-whiz robots and to exaggerating the virtues (and vices) of artificial intelligence. With perhaps the exception of iRobot’s Roomba and industrial robots already installed in factories, most robots aimed at non-military consumers are one-off prototypes and not viable, much less reliable, products. Amazing robot videos are heavily edited and speeded up, and the scenarios do not represent real-world conditions and applications.
Just this past month, articles and editorials have appeared in leading robotics journals that provide a reality check for roboticists. To summarize: overselling robot capabilities has proved to be a dangerous strategy resulting in the very recent shutting down of a number of companies whose robots were celebrated in the past several years as revolutionary household appliances. Jibo—Time magazine’s “Best Inventions of 2017”—mentioned in my book, was crowd funded on Indiegogo (for nearly $4 million) but the eponymous company never delivered their product and closed out this year. Roboticists (and, I might add, those who research, study, and write about robots) need to admit their failures and to reflect on how to learn from them.
Daniel White: In the book you explore how “robots tend to both mirror and embody state and corporate ideologies and priorities” (p. 82). Can you discuss some of the ways these state ideologies contribute to the gendering of robots, especially considering how Japanese roboticists have long embraced theories and design strategies that explore intelligence as a necessarily embodied phenomenon?
Jennifer Robertson: You’re asking two different questions: state/corporate ideologies and embodied intelligence. First of all, we should not assume that technology per se is liberating; technology can provide certain freedoms, but it can also be experienced as repressive and even alarming. Technology and robotics are not neutral fields. They are infused with values that transcend their usefulness and convenience. Because robots are very complex, very expensive machines, state and corporate funding is crucial for their development, and thus robots tend both to mirror and to embody state and corporate values, ideologies, and priorities which are conservative and tend to reinforce the status quo. As a sidebar note—robotics in the US is heavily supported by the Department of Defense, and today in Japan, robotics are incorporated into the lucrative weapons economy.
Embodied intelligence, as I elaborate in my book, refers to a dynamic coupling of a robot with its environment. Home/personal robots are envisioned as co-existing with humans in spaces designed for the human body, thus they should resemble humans. Among roboticists across national/cultural areas, there is a consensus that intelligence (however that is defined, and there are many working definitions) cannot exist in an abstract form but requires a material body. That material body is almost always gendered, and the gendering of robots is contingent upon what role the robot (humanoid, in this case) is imagined to assume. Since many human roles are gendered, and since most roboticists take for granted the sexual and gendered division of labor—females as homemakers occupying a domestic space, males as breadwinners occupying a public space—their robots are also gendered from the start at the design stage. In short, roboticists (the vast majority of whom are males who have neither taken classes in gender studies nor questioned the social construction of gender) inscribe and reinforce in their creations the binary sexual and gender(ed) status quo that remains for them self-evident. Even gender-neutral robots like Roomba tend to be named and gendered by their owners.
Daniel White: You survey a number of ways that both robotics engineers and government officials imagine harmonious futures of people living intimately with robots, a notion that strikes some people both inside and outside Japan as somewhat creepy. However, particularly in your analysis of Masahiro Mori’s famous notion of the “uncanny valley,” you suggest that people exhibit a capacity to adapt rather quickly to any “eerie” feelings they may initially feel toward a robot. Can you say more about Mori’s concept and what your reading of its temporal dimensions implies for the politics of human-robot interactions in Japan and perhaps beyond?
Jennifer Robertson: As I explain in RSJ, what is uncanny about the “uncanny valley” is how this idea has been misunderstood! Mori came up with the idea of bukimi no tani (“eerie-feeling valley”) in 1970 before the production of humanoids. In a nutshell, he proposed that a woman (he deliberately chose a female protagonist) who shook someone’s hand not knowing it was a life-like myoelectric prosthetic, would scream and freak out once she realized that what she assumed was flesh and blood was not. Mori drew a graph that hypothesized as a “valley” the shock of realizing that something one was convinced was an ordinary human was actually an animated mannequin. Subsequently, “uncanny valley” emerged as a condition to avoid in designing robots and was also appropriated by literary critics who grafted the concept onto Freud’s thesis of the uncanny (about which Mori knew nothing). As I argue, even if said woman screamed upon squeezing a prosthetic hand, she would quickly recover—in seconds. We humans encounter differently-abled, “differently” appearing bodies all the time, and quickly adapt to an enhanced “normal.” Perhaps ironically, Mori, who was a teenager during WW2, seems to have forgotten the disabled veterans in his midst, many of whom were fitted with prosthetic limbs. The literature debunking the earlier “natural law”-like acceptance of the uncanny valley hypothesis is now quite extensive.
Daniel White: In the text you skillfully weave together histories of technology, the life sciences, and art in illustrating how the boundaries between artificial and “natural” life in Japan are differently drawn. For example, in your discussion of the biologist Makoto Nishimura’s famous “proto-robot” Gakutensoku in 1928, you suggest that many scientists in Japan have long held the attitude that robots and humans exist “in a network of animate entities” (p. 13). This point seems critical to your broader discussion on how cutting-edge technologies can actually serve in the reproduction of tradition. I wonder, then, what happens to this particular cultural attitude as it comes into contact with certain globalizing aspects of robotics research and design in Japan, especially as researchers in Japan increasingly collaborate with students and researchers from abroad?
Jennifer Robertson: Should “something” happen? The spiritual/existential orientations of individual roboticists, from Shintō’s animism and Buddhism’s moral system, to the Abrahamic monotheisms of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, do not seem to affect the ways in which they collaborate in the laboratory. What inhibit “global” intersections and synergies are the constraints imposed by, to use an ever relevant phrase, the military industrial complex (aka the state). Moreover, collaboration with non-Japanese researchers (in Japanese and foreign laboratories) can yield innovations that can be applied and adapted to Japan-specific conditions and needs.
Daniel White: Your ethnographic writing style has been incredibly consistent over the years, characterized, as you describe, by a “reticulate aesthetics” that is “eclectic, genre-crossing, discipline-crossing,” and held together by a coherence that “comes from the interlaced elements and not via the superimposition of a particular theoretical edifice” (p. 31). Given your own training in art and art history, as well as your illustration of how roboticists integrate artistic elements from manga, anime, and theater into their own design practices, were you ever tempted to experiment in terms of ethnographic design, such as by incorporating some of your own artwork? Could you discuss what role you see for artistic experimentation in today’s practices of ethnographic writing and the communication of anthropological research?
Jennifer Robertson: I see myself as creative in identifying and demonstrating montage-like linkages that generate a new awareness or interpretation of events and socio-cultural phenomena. That I am able to do so is because I have accessed and amassed over decades of rigorous, interdisciplinary research, lots of ethnographic, historical, literary, image-based, and musical data and media that are instrumental in crafting comprehensive backstories and generating manifold “dots” to connect. Among these data and media are artworks that evocatively address and redress the role(s) of technology in society. Thus, in RSJ, I refer to the work of Japanese feminist artist Miwa Yanagi (specifically, her photography series Elevator Girls, 1994-1999) and Korean-American artist Nam June Paik’s Robot K-456 (1964-1982). I do not simply include artworks as self-evident or as mere illustrations, but as a non-textual mode of interrogating, in this case, social applications of robotics and human-robot interactions. I did include one of my own collages in a recent article (“Looking Ahead by Going Back.” Anthropology News website, July 18, 2018) to illustrate Prime Minister Abe’s imagination of the future Japanese extended family, including its robot members. The bottom line for me (or my “approach”) is my fiduciary responsibilities as a scholar. I have always initiated a research project based on my experience or fathoming of rhetorical, expressive, local dynamics that intersect in ways to form distinctive patterns which inform the structure and content of a book or article. I do believe that there is a lot more that anthropologists can do to experiment with various literary strategies in crafting their ethnographies to create more dimensionality and texture in their description and (re)presentation of local phenomena. These include montage—my own use of which was informed by John Dos Passos, whose U.S.A. trilogy (1938) I read while writing my doctoral dissertation—as well as various typefaces and fonts, popular lyrics, and a variety of images from which information is extracted, to name a few. Reading more literature and less social science is critical in learning how to craft an ethnography!