Tuesday, December 30, 2008


Well, after a bit of a rut as well as just chilling out around Christmas time, I decided to renew my efforts to find the robots! So I headed out towards Odaiba to see the science and technology museum. Apparently they have Asimo there (which I saw already at the Honda showroom---see my facebook profile pic). But once I finally got there, and after paying the expensive train fee (Odaiba is an island on reclaimed bay land), it turned out it was closed for New Years holidays. New Years is the most important holiday in Japan, important like Christmas in the West. Anyway, since I was already there and it was sunny out I decided to just take a walk around and see what I could see. Eventually I stumbled upon a mall/shopping complex. The inside was quite interesting, done up with imposing pillars, archways to look like a Roman street. Painted sky blue ceiling with clouds. Low lighting, and some italian restaurants with "terraces" on the "street front." Disneyland-esque. The Continental Europeans that I know would be aghast and disgusted. Kind of funny.
I walked through past the shops, kind of bored that I ended up in yet another mall, when I exited to find myself upon something. The Toyota showroom! Would I actually get to see robots today? So I went inside, kind of excited. Mostly just showroom cars, like you would think. But one area struck me. It was dedicated to hybrid vehicles. It had what you might imagine, some displays that explained Toyota's role in solving the world's environmental crisis and their amazing technology. Various screens, games, and activities to entertain kids. But what I also found was a series of displays that set out to explain how Japanese society, culture, language, food, etc. are all hybrid.

You can't really read them from these small thumbnails I guess. But basically they explain how the Japanese language is a hybrid, how the characters of written Japanese are hybrid characters, how the writing system itself is a hybrid of the different character sets (hiraganda, katakana, kanji). It explains how the silk road created hybrids between East and West. Food is at the "Hybrid Restaurant" is also hybrid, such as curry udon and california rolls. Traditional Japanese tools are "filled with hybrid wisdom" and Japan "has a rich culture of color combinations" that represent "the changing of the season and the beauty of nature." All of this I found very fascinating. What message is being sent? Some seem perhaps contradictory--the image of multicultural mixing versus ideas of Japanese singularity. And the relevance and links seem a bit difficult to see. What do environmental-minded hybrid cars have to do with ideogram/phonogram mixing in Japanese linguistics? These displays would seem to be aimed at children--families were the only ones in that area of the showroom, mostly so the kids could play with the various screens and activities (such as mixing colors). Most people just looked at the cars, or lined up for the various simulators. The focus on hybridity seems also relevant in light of the robots, which I eventually came upon (bingo!). Toyota had on display a humanoid robot that plays a trumpet (which is demonstrated at certain scheduled times), as well as two or three robot-walking assistants.

The walker robots seem a bit creepy to me. Anyway the display which you can partly see behind the second photo explains how they are part of a plan towards sustainable living. Perhaps they are supposed to be a more fuel-efficient system of transport, it wasn't completely clear to me. The display explains that "harmony through technology" is one of the goals--fitting technology and humans together in a society, a society that therefore seems to be hybrid. The i-foot robot in the top picture apparently "feels just like your own arms and legs." Kind of like Toyota's version of Gundam I guess.
I don't really think that a lot of people would necessarily or enthusiastically buy into all this, but then its interesting the way in which Toyota positions itself in relation to popular ideas like the environment or traditional Japan.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Bored and asleep

Well, haven't really had much inspiration to write anything. Not that much is really happening these days and after a while it can be a bit alienating just going around to random places in Tokyo and not really speaking much to anyone. But everyone has seen Lost in Translation right? So that sort of feels like a cliche. Further, I think I'm starting to get those grad student blues. You know the why am I doing this, going into huge debt and so forth, wasting my twenties (Perhaps the fact that I am a week away from being close to 30 than I am to 20 has something to do with that?). And complaining about your age on your birthday! Never done that, and such a cliche! I'm also inexplicably tired and constantly oversleeping. And the topic of sleep brings me to something.
I was reading Robertson Davies' The Manticore. I suppose most people haven't read it, so the basic idea is that the main character in the book is undergoing psychoanalysis by a Jungian in Zurich. It made me a bit interested to read more about Jung. But anyway, the doctor has him writing down all kinds of notes about himself, especially about his dreams. Normally recording dreams would seem to me to be self-indulgent and embarassing, the kind of thing I would never do. But since I feel like I am not doing or writing down that much now, maybe I should give it a shot? My basic conclusion after a few nights was that I am somehow too lazy for this. When I just wake up, the last thing I feel like doing is writing down dreams, and I write them in a way that is non-comprehensible. Actually, I find that about dreams in general. I have a great thought, ready to keep it when I first wake up, but after 5 or 10 minutes it starts to seem kind of ridiculous (combined with the vagueness of the memory) and I am just thinking "no that can't be it, what was it, what was it??" Actually, it was interesting because we had a discussion about something like this at a friend's dinner party. Basically he was talking about one of his lab mates and how this lab mate always tells everyone his dreams. An American and I were both a bit shocked that this would be usual lab conversation and giving each other looks that were like "too much personal information!" So anyway, there may be a few people that are psychologists reading this so I was wondering if you could tell me more about recording dreams, or if you, or anyone really, has ever done it. I had a friend a few years back who wanted to put them on video (I think I agreed to volunteer to do that, though immediately I was hoping that I would never have to!).

Friday, December 5, 2008

Writing, Reading

Well I've been thinking a bunch about writing and reading, and how they relate to fieldwork and ethnography, lately. There are a couple reasons why.

First, I think it is right that anthropology is really writing. Lots of people go places, and live there for a while, but most don't write up their experiences into academic jargon. So this point of Geertz, Clifford, whoever else I think is quite good (though I don't really agree with a lot of their other points or what they think follows from this). Anthropologists have "problematized" this notion by trying to write discordant ethnographies or whatever, trying to get away from making an all-encompassing narrative. But actually I think it is right-to-write the cohesive narrative. I think anthropologists (like all writers) should be trying to think more about narrative and what kind of narratives are effective.

Second, over the last few months I was reading Homage to Catalonia (Orwell), The Grapes of Wrath (Steinbeck), and the Cairo Trilogy (Mahfouz). These are good books but they struck me in a certain way to be nationalist... not necessarily in a negative sense but still. Anyway I'm not a literary scholar, this is just my feeling from reading these books. Further, my impression from talking to people in London (advantage of LSE is that you meet people from all over) is that many attach an importance to knowing and reading their own national literature. I don't think I really ever had this. So it got me to thinking about Canada and our strange breed of nationalism (for whoever was there, this includes the Canada Day celebration at the Maple Leaf Pub!). But browsing the book store one day, I decided, hey, maybe instead of just ignoring it I will actually look at the section labeled "Canadiana." That day I picked up a book on Canadian identity/nationalism, as well as another canadian fiction novel that I left in Canada. Anyway I finished it so I decided to acquaint myself with some Canadian fiction writers I could find here in Japan. I just finished an Atwood novel and now I am reading Robertson Davies. A few people have said to me that this is kind of funny/strange/whatever because I am now reading Canadian stuff while I am off in Japan... shouldn't I be reading Japanese stuff? I had the same debate in my mind at some bookstores here, while browsing through the "Japan-related" section of the English language books (which is usually a sizable chunk of the English books they have). But I decided actually I think it's more complex than that and by reading some Canadian lit I'm seeing myself, or the way we write "ourselves" as a nationalist narrative, vis-a-vis a similar Japanese self (or, really, narrated self--- by which I mean that I don't think there are essences of Japanese or Canadian or whatever, but still we try to make them, and one way is through a national literature). Okay, so all of this is really abstract and what does it have to do with anything?

Trying to keep myself occupied (the reading also comes in here, actually--- need something to do!), I've been visiting and hanging out in various places in Tokyo. Usually on the Yamanote line (a circle line that runs around the main of Tokyo), specifically in the area from Tokyo station up to Shinjuku. These areas just happen to be the most interesting to me, though I know that is snobbish as these are the publicized and famous spots. It includes Tokyo and Shimbashi (big skyscrapers and corporate headquarters), Shibuya and Harajuku (youth-centered areas), and Shinjuku (pretty much everything I guess). Anyway so I went to Ebisu, which is right around Shibuya. It's known to be a bit foreign/European feeling, many cafes, a good night spot area. I don't remember taking a look there before and anyway I wanted to go to this used English book store there (!!! was almost finished my Atwood novel). So I end up at this place called Yeibusu Garden Place. It's a newish development, not much like a garden at all. Department stores, pubs, restaurants, etc. But it does have a nice outdoor area (if more concrete/stone than "garden"), with an entrance lane flanked by potted trees leading into a main courtyard with benches surrounding a large chandelier displayed inside a glass enclosure. I read here for a while, watched some people with their dogs---this was the first I can remember seeing dogs this time in Japan. They were all small, well-groomed, short-leashed, and outfit-wearing. Very controlled. Anyways, after hanging there for a while, I went to my book store, had a coffee, came back. By this time it was dark, and all the Christmas lights were lit up. So there were many people walking around, especially couples, enjoying the evening. After milling around for a while, wondering whether I should go home and eventually deciding that it is best to try to observe something rather than sit on the couch, I tried my hardest to look around. So what is everyone doing? They are mostly taking pictures. Sometimes just with a cellphone, sometimes of their friend or companion (who are displaying the obligatory two-finger peace-sign hand gesture), sometimes with a full tripod setup. So I was thinking what is the attraction of taking pictures of everything all the time? Why is the main point of going somewhere in order to take a picture of it, which, at least for me and my complete non-knowledge of cameras, never looks as good as the real thing anyway? Everyone does this I know, though I would say that it is particularly prevalent in and among the Japanese (queue stereotype of Japanese tour group, all taking pictures of Subway and Pizza Hut). I had a few thoughts, but basically I decided to think on it and that most simple answers (to show their friends, to justify their expensive camera, to have something to do instead of just standing around) are just that---simplistic. Anyway so I left to go home, glad that I had at least observed and then thought about something that is vaguely about people's relation to technology.

Then on the train home, I was reading my book again, and I read this quote from Margaret Atwood's novel a Blind Assassin on p. 353: "The sun declines, the shadows of the curtains move across the bed. Voices on the street outside, unknown languages. I will always remember this, she tells herself. Then why am I thinking about memory? It's not then, it's now. It's not over". Which struck me. It was so coincidentally what I had been thinking about just an hour before.

So what's the conclusion? Well, really nothing. I'm writing down and analyzing everything, it only makes sense to write down and analyze the things you are writing down and reading. Reflexivity (or reflectivity... to drop the holier-than-thou, in-touch-with-my-sensitive-side baggage that goes with "reflexivity") is recursive afterall. That last part is for you Computer Science-y readers (if you exist...)

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Anime, Zizek

Well, went to Osaka a few days ago and met with some of the people from the lab I am going to be working at. As well, there was a conference and I listened in on some of the speakers. Today I met with another connection through a friend at LSE, had lunch with a few people from a Lab and they were very nice and helpful. Even though it doesn't seem like I do that much, I am now exhausted after writing notes for an hour or two. Anime is on in the background, singing some kind of theme song, and I am reading this on Zizek: The Deadly Jester. Which seems quite right, as I find him to be hilarious if not taken seriously, but since he is sometimes supposed to be taken seriously, deeply troubling. Anyway, will have a real post at some other point but just wanted to share the link! And somehow the TV goes particularly well with an article about Zizek. I'm not sure what channel this is, but there was just an ad for a Doraemon board game.

Saturday, November 29, 2008


Well, it is actually quite difficult to just wander the streets and find robots. But they do pop up more often then they would in Canada or the UK (or maybe I am just looking for every ad or poster or whatnot that has a robot on it)? But that's okay, wandering the streets is fine. But apart from eating sushi and watching Harajuku girls, a lot of my time is spent corresponding, completing various paperwork, and so on...

I find the impression in anthropology is often that you sort of land in a country, enter on some kind of vague visa, and then just disappear off in the bush. While I suppose you can talk facilely about the "urban jungle" of Tokyo, I'm not sure this line of reasoning works so well in Japan. Its actually kind of crazy---I'm not sure what other countries have this practice, but in Japan they photograph and fingerprint every foreigner as they enter the country. Of course, going through borders is always a problem and I know I have about the least of it as anyone, with profiling and all. But still I feel constantly frustrated by all the paper-pushing. It took about 7 months or more for the big institution of my laboratory and the big institution of my university to agree to terms for me to go to such lab, take the risk all on myself, and hand around/work for them. After finally having that resolved, there are still ongoing issues with the visa, which requires me to get signed documents saying how much money I have sent so they can go to the immigration office and send me a visa, which I am supposed to be outside of Japan to actually use (luckily they agreed I could do it at the Tokyo office instead of having to leave and re-enter). Now I'm also spending my time pinballing around to find an academic affiliation.

Anyway, on the issue of money. The other funny thing is that anthropologists are always worried about having too much more power and too much more money than those they work with. Which I guess is a valid personal concern. But let me tell you, I think in the scheme of things, its not so bad! One person told me that when he first came to Japan to do his PhD they decided he didn't have enough money and he could not enter. He said it was like a disaster, though luckily he could have his parents sign something. These issues are not unlike the UK, which I suppose is fitting seeing as how the UK and Japan are probably the bureaucrat capitals of the world.

So it is very Kafka-esque.
One person tells you to speak to another person who forwards you along to another person...
Funding foundations want proof of your visa before they will disburse your funds that you require in order to obtain your visa...

And so who can I even think of in anthropology who has written about this? That's right, our cohort's favourite, David Graeber ;)

Sunday, November 23, 2008

First Post

Well, I meant to set up a fieldwork blog and with DK being so diligent... I better start writing something!!!

While I am still getting used to this blogging about life, I'll just be a bit ramble-y.

I've been in Tokyo just over a week now. Here's my main thoughts on "fieldwork" so far, though it's hard to say really whether I am really doing "fieldwork". For starters, I'm still waiting to be able to start at my laboratory in January, as well as various visa issues, and trying to set up my academic affiliation. On the other hand, I need to do something with myself, so I try to at least go around (to places where there might be robots especially!) and take notes. We're told that we should take notes on everything, and take a lot of notes. Which is strange. Because on the one hand there seems to be so many things I could write down all the time. Especially in Tokyo, there is constant bombardment of shapes, colors, people. And that's with the inability to really read most signs properly and to understand the conversations going on around me! But it's also very exhausting to be taking notes about things all the time. It also seems trivial and sort of silly. A strange feeling, trying to observe all these things which might occupy your mind for a brief second and then be forgotten. Like on the train, I write down various gadgets that people are using as well as a description of the person using it. I write down interesting advertisements. I write down descriptions of pachinko parlours. It's also difficult I find to be very detailed about these things. How do I explain a pachinko parlour other than loud, smokey, and an overload of flashing lights and colours?This actually works better when you are kind of anonymous, as I can sit there and write in a notebook and nobody really cares. Of course, in a conversation with a person it is not all that easy to pull out a notebook and start writing. I suppose it is also an interesting exercise in memory... trying to put these things in mind and be able to recall them later.

The other thing is how much you feel like a spy, like you are somehow being dodgy! I mainly find this when observing people's behavior. For instance, I found a service robot that moves around a mall so I followed it around while browsing the shops in order to record people's responses. It's just very strange to be half-pretending to look at Lacoste sweaters or Japanese language magazines while I try to note down people's body gestures and interest in a robot that looks something like a giant vending machine.

But as I said, I don't have my laboratory yet and I'm also working on the language. So, it will be interesting to see what "fieldwork" and "note-taking" feels like when I have people who I interact with regularly as my "informants"!