New Beginnings: Embarking on Dissertation Research in Japan

Hello all! Welcome to my blog, where I’ll be keeping a record of my life in Japan and PhD dissertation research throughout the next year. For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Frank Mondelli, and I’m a PhD Candidate at Stanford University in the East Asian Languages and Cultures department. My dissertation, “Deaf Media: A Genealogy of Assistive Technology and Communications in Japan” explores how the cultural and technical dimensions of Deaf assistive technologies, from hearing aids to subtitles to algorithmic sign language, have impacted communications infrastructures, popular culture, language use, and the lives of minority populations in an increasingly diversifying Japan. My research is generously supported by a Fulbright Graduate Research Fellowship from the Fulbright Association and the Japan-U.S. Educational Commission.

Fellow Stanford Fulbrighters! Pictured: Me on the left, crossing my arms, and Stanford PhD Candidate Kevin Niehaus on the right, leaning on the wall. We're both smiling and in front of a sign that says "Fulbright Japan" - we're right outside their offices.
Fellow Stanford Fulbrighters! Pictured: Me on the left, crossing my arms, and Stanford PhD Candidate Kevin Niehaus on the right, leaning on the wall. We’re both smiling and in front of a sign that says “Fulbright Japan” – we’re right outside their offices.

I intend this blog to document my work and progress on my dissertation, although it will have two additional functions. The first is demonstrate how research may be applicable to a variety of not only academic inquiries but also to pragmatic pursuits in social equity in Japan, the United States, and elsewhere. As corny as it may sound, I firmly believe in the power of an engaged academics to play an active role in making our world a better place! The second role of this blog is to document my life as a PhD researcher with a disability, in my case hearing impairment. I’m not used to opening up about my personal experiences in this regard, but I hope I can serve as a resource for future researchers, both Japan-related and elsewhere, on navigating this kind of lifestyle where accessibility can be a frequent concern.

So, let’s get on with it! Below are some bullet point-style recaps of what I’ve been up to since I landed in Japan three weeks ago:

Settling In: The first few weeks of moving into any new location to research are usually taken up by logistical and bureaucratic processes, and this time was no different. I settled into my housing, reopened my Japanese bank account, obtained various documents needed to prove my residency and conduct daily life here, and so on. It’s always a challenge to do these kind of things in large government buildings since you usually walk up to a teller and are then told to sit back down and wait until a number is called, which is primarily an audio cue. This means instead of sitting and passively waiting I always have to be very alert in case I’m called, which can be a bit tiring.

To alleviate things like this I tried to obtain something called a shogaisha techo, which is like a disability card. In my case I was told by the ward office that I had to get a hearing exam by a local doctor who would then advocate for my acceptability. So off I went, although skeptical I would actually qualify, because the kind of hearing impairment I have is unilateral, which means I can hear in one ear but not the other. This kind of impairment is rarer, and is often left out of definitions of disability (once, I did not qualify for a Rochester Institute of Technology disability scholarship because they had no formal way of recognizing my kind of hearing impairment at the time).

Sure enough, I was told by the Japanese audiologist that unilateral hearing impairment does not fit into the Japanese legal definition of disability, because they consider me to “have no problems leading a normal life.” There was no use trying to fight it, so I let it be, and then to my surprise one of the assistants came back to me as I was leaving and asked me out of curiosity what kind of hearing aids I use. I showed her and she was surprised that I had two devices – one that transmits sound from the deaf ear to the hearing ear (it’s a Phonak CROS II). She remarked that in Japan, they don’t believe in that solution for single-sided deafness, and that only by amplifying sound on the “good ear” will anything work – “that way of doing it is much easier for the user.” My own experience contradicts this, funnily enough, and it was another reminder of a guiding theme of my research: technologies do not exist in a vacuum, as they are always already embedded in complex political, social, and cultural networks.

Professional Events: My first weekend after arriving I attended the 16th Annual Disability Studies conference in Kyoto. It was great for meeting some people and getting reacquainted with the status of the field in Japan as I begin my work. I especially appreciated the serious effort put into making the conference as accessible as possible – both in terms of mobility and availability of information. I have to say, anytime I attend an event and there’s a text-to-speech service, I get that much more excited, because it means my ability to more effortlessly understand what’s going on around me has dramatically shot up.

Speaking of text-to-speech services, the weekend after that I attended what’s called a gasshuku, or professional getaway trip, with oioi, a prolific sign language entertainment troupe. We were split into two groups and were given two days to come up with a skit using gestures and sign language, and the most important part was NOT using our voices to communicate with any language at all (laughing and such was fine though!). This koe-nashi seikatsu (voiceless living) enabled incredible conversations about what language and communication mean in the first place, and I was touched by the solidarity and warmth that emerged from the group as a whole. Since I’m not a native signer, the presence of text-to-speech for many of the activities was very helpful, although of course I’m endeavoring to get my signing further up to speed. The best part, though? I got to play an evil wizard with a giant cape!

Finally, I attended the 2019 Fulbright Welcome Reception, where I was able to reconnect with some old friends and meet some new ones. It’s always tremendously exciting to get to know peers, researchers, and professionals doing incredible things in Japan and the US. It also brought back nice memories from the 2014 Fulbright Reception, which I believe took place in the same hall. I can’t believe it’s already been five years…

Meetings and Research: I also had a number of meetings since I’ve arrived. One was a routine visit to the Fulbright offices where I caught up with all of the incredible people who work so hard to support research and culture exchange year after year. I also met up with Dr. Ito Mamoru, sociologist and media theorist, who has generously agreed to serve as my primary advisor at Waseda University, and Dr. Toeda Hirokazu, professor of literature and visual culture at Waseda as well (Toeda-sensei has come to Stanford in the past and I was lucky enough to take a literature seminar with him and get to know him better!). Both of these meetings helped me to think about my research workflow, source hunting, and general know-how in doing dissertation research in Japan.

Finally, this week I got properly started on original research by heading to the National Diet Library, one of the largest libraries in the world and a great starting point for casting a wide net and seeing what one finds. I went with my dear friend Mark Bookman (also a former Fulbrighter in our 2014 cohort), since I had met with him a few days prior and decided we’d go, do our own research side-by-side and see how we can help each other out. It was a great experience – not only because I’m just naturally (very) excited at being inside giant libraries, but also because it was great to see Mark’s process in action, given that he’s been doing his own dissertation research since last year. I started off simple enough by just searching for “hearing aids” as a key word and seeing what popped up from oldest to newest, and left with some great materials and useful leads.

Misc: I was delighted to see that for Aca-Media‘s 50th episode, the rest of the Podcast Production Team decided to use an interview I conducted with Dr. Usha Iyer the day before my qualifying exam in June (!) on a variety of topics centered on the “area studies” question in film and media studies and what a more globally engaged theory looks like. Check it out – Dr. Iyer is a remarkable researcher and teacher and offers some serious food for thought.

I also learned that a panel I’m in with Kaitlyn Ugoretz of UC Santa Barbara has been accepted to Association for Asian Studies 2020 Annual Conference in Boston next year! We’ve designed an exciting “lightening round” style panel on qualitative (not just quantitative) digital humanities work on Asia, and we’re super excited about it.

Finally, life can’t be ALL research and work, so I’ve found a local jazz piano teacher and have been practicing every day. (Maybe that’s also a kind of work, but it’s so much fun!) And maybe, just maybe, I’ll upload some pieces sometime…



So that’s been my time in Japan so far! I’ll be posting weekly – at least that’s my aim – so expect shorter posts in the future, and feel free to reach out to learn more about anything I’ve mentioned or to start a conversation. See you next time!

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