2019, Otsukaresama Deshita (Wrapping Up a Year)

Well, it’s been a month since my last update, and here we are at the end of the year. My first three months in Japan are coming to an end, as hard as it is to believe. But before I get too sentimental, let’s dive into the update!

Me standing outside in front of a giant Christmas tree at Rikkyo University.

Writing and Research: I have continued my focus on the history of hearing aids and sonic hardware in the 20th century, and I think I’ve finally got a pretty good grasp on the overall contours and flow of the history of hearing aid production and distribution. I’ve gotten this grasp by carefully browsing numerous newspaper archives, medical journals, education journals, corporate documents, and similar sources. Some of the stories I’ve found have been more or less what I expected (like the development of digital hearing aids in the late 80s/early 90s) but others came out of nowhere for me, like how certain police forces apparently contacted the largest hearing aid manufacturer in Japan to supply them with what were essentially wiretapping devices to monitor dissenting forces like the Communist Party – although police representatives would eventually deny that was the nature of what they were doing (instead of 盗聴器 touchouki, or “stealing hearing device,” the term we would usually translate as wiretapping device, they used the fairly uncommon term 秘聴器 hichouki, or “secret hearing device”).

This is an example of one of those really “fun” stories from the data that I haven’t made any decision yet as to how it would feature in my dissertation. There is a lot I could do in terms of theory with this, like maybe bring in Erkki Huhtamo and Jussi Parikka to talk about nonlinear cross-historical connections between different kinds of material objects and their unforeseen relations to sociopolitical phenomena. But, before I get too excited about something like this, I’m stopping to ask myself: what does this actually do for the larger academic story I’m telling – a story I intend to be both an intellectual contribution to the fields I’m working in as well as a broader, actionable call for a more equitable and diversity-friendly society? I suppose this is all to say that much like media archaeology might say about material culture, dissertation research is anything but linear, as I’m experiencing firsthand already.

Part of the reason the wiretapping story is both interesting to me but uncertain as to its final place is emblematic of a larger aspect of my current sources: I’ve yet to uncover significant amounts of firsthand accounts of hearing aid and other assistive tech user experiences. This is both because 1) the sources I’ve focused on – like medical journals and so on – usually prioritize the points of views of those making the technologies as well as attempting to shape the way they are used, which is an important part of my story to be sure, but one I would like to complemented by firsthand accounts; and 2) the reality is that in terms of the deaf population, the early history of hearing aids is characterized by their relative inaccessibility, and the rate and circumstances of hearing use is always already complicated by cultural, personal, and technological factors.

My response to this reality is that while user numbers (especially in the early days) may have been small, the existence of hearing aids themselves did a number of things that more broadly intersect with the deaf population and Japan infrastructure/culture as a whole: they helped further particular cultural institutions like oralism in deaf education, they served to become a cultural sign of hearing disabilities before Japanese sign language became more openly discussed in broader media outlets, and they were vital in being “technological training grounds” for the development of transistor production in Japan, which would go on to have massive ramifications for electronics development more generally. Still, even with all of this, I feel the need to uncover more sources that highlight the specter of “experience” of assistive technologies (of course I’ll need to qualify this statement methodologically and theoretically down the line).

The good news is I’ve begun to find such stories in unlikely places. In the newspaper archives I mentioned earlier, I’ve found people writing into self-help columns seeking advice because being hearing impaired has destroyed their marriage/career prospects. One high school student in the 90s wrote how both their parents and teachers all but effectively barred them from going to college because being hearing impaired was considered to be an instant deal-breaker. An elderly mother from the 70s wrote that they desperately wanted to see their hearing impaired child get married, but nothing was working out. Another woman wrote in saying being hearing impaired “angered” her husband. In most of these cases, the person working the advice columns would respond that wearing hearing aids – the latest and the greatest – would help alleviate these problems. As someone who is unilaterally deaf and who has experienced educational discrimination and so on, I felt impacted by these stories in a deep way. It’s a strange experience finding kinship in these old words, not knowing who these people are or what has become of them.

All this is still just dealing with what I’m conceiving of as Chapter 1, although in the process of this work I’ve gathered tons of sources I’ve put off to the side for the other parts of my dissertation. Starting late January I’ll be shifting gears a bit to broader cultural representation and assistive technologies integrated in what we more traditionally conceive of as “media,” such as television and film, and of course I’m looking forward to dive into actual deaf literature.

Professional Events: As I mentioned in my last blog post, I was able to present at the Anthropology of Japan in Japan (AJJ) fall meeting in a panel with Mark Bookman and Patrick Galbraith. It was great to get some of the ideas on hearing aids and transistors out in the open, and it served as the first time I’ve explicitly presented fresh dissertation research! More importantly, it opened questions for me on the precise nature of my “narrative,” which of course I’m still thinking about.

I also taught two guest classes at Rikkyo University for a diverse range of students in sociology, political science, media studies, gender studies, and so on. I say “classes” but they were really more like “workshops,” where I combined aspects of my new dissertation research with the theoretical questions I grappled with in my oral exams earlier this year, asking things like what the difference is between media and technology and what counts as assistive technology, which leads wonderfully into questions on what disability/diversity are and how they are represented in literature, film, and so on. I’m grateful for the opportunity and grateful for the students who went along with a workshop containing such difficult questions!

I was also very privileged to watch an early edit of a film that’ll be released next summer called 咲む (Emu, which could mean both “smiling” as well as “budding” like a fruit or plant), which is sponsored by the Japan Federation of the Deaf and is a fictional narrative about a young Deaf woman’s journey to the countryside for both personal and professional reasons. I not only had fun, since I’m a major film nerd and I’d never been to an early edit event before, I was also deeply moved, and I can’t wait for other people to see it. It’s certainly going to have a place in my dissertation where I talk about Deaf-sponsored and Deaf-produced media, and I’m going to have a lot of fun doing a deep reading of it when the time comes.

Finally, on a more public-facing side, I’ve gotten an article published on Accessible Japan with some tips for traveling to Japan with hearing disabilities (although I tried to make many of my suggestions more broadly applicable). Do check it out and hopefully it can help if you’re going to Japan for the first time.

Misc: Still with me? Well, I haven’t been up to a whole lot aside from work, but my spouse did visit me during some of this time, and we found some time to do some more “tourist” things like check out some zany performances in Tokyo or go down to Kamakura (where the literature nerd in me gushed about being on the beach where “the student” and Sensei in Natsume Soseki’s Kokoro were). It was of course wonderful to be together for a bit – personal time is very important in a profession where it’s possible to just be working all hours of the day.

Finally, I’ve been continuing work on both the piano and the keytar…

So that’s it for 2019! I may post a more general year reflection at some point, but this post has gone on long enough. Suffice to say I’m so grateful to be able to do my work and I’m thrilled about continuing throughout 2020 and beyond. Now bring on the photo collage!

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