AAS Annual Meeting

Japan Session 701

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Session 701: Safe Practice in Japan

Organizer: Stephen D. Robertson, , Japan

Chair: Carla Takaki Richardson, University of California, Santa Cruz, USA

Discussant: Hirokazu Miyazaki, Cornell University, USA

“Safe and sound” (anzen, anshin) is an oft-heard motto for ideal collective practice in Japan. Safety consciousness, however, may embody the negotiation between collectivities and individuals over responsibility for the assumption of risk. The delineation of “safe practice” is expressed in both the technocratically mandated material culture of the modern state and the unspoken rules and patterns of traditional social order; for every safety poster, hazard symbol, or corporate rulebook, there are corresponding community volunteers,senpai mentors, and PTA traffic wardens. These reciprocal discourses underlie practices of etiquette, evaluations of propriety, and attributions of responsibility that govern collective life in public arenas—from escalators to freeways, public toilets to swimming pools, and theatre halls to festivals. This dual provenance, however, suggests slippages, conflicts, and overlaps that must be creatively negotiated by the individual subject. Like Michel de Certeau’s conceptual city, safety norms and regulations circumscribe lived spaces that are selectively appropriated or overlooked by those who inhabit them. This panel continues the theorization of risk as it informs the separation of public (state, community, family) expectation from individual action, and the strategies by which responsibilities for the assurance of safety are variously assumed and assigned by each to the other. Specifically, we examine the degree of consistency or coherence in expressions of cultures of safety within several distinct Japanese contexts—automobility, industrial design, and the politics of public spectacle. To better foster a lively conversation among presenters and attendees, each paper is limited to fifteen minutes, followed by approximately five minutes of comments by a fellow panelist and five minutes of discussion with audience members.

Giving Way or Blasting By: Gendered Discourses on Safety and Speed on Public Roads in Japan
Joshua H. Roth, Mount Holyoke College, USA

Despite the emphasis given to traffic safety such official institutions and practices as Japanese driving schools and seasonal safety campaigns, a completely contradictory discourse on speed and thrills flourishes within the popular culture of racing, video gaming, car magazines, film, manga, and animation. How are the mutually contradictory discourses on safety and on speed sustained? Do these discourses cause some degree of cognitive dissonance or have they been compartmentalized in such a way that people are not troubled by any sense of conflict? This paper explores the way that dichotomous gender roles have been mapped onto the domain of automobility. Gender schema organizes the conflicting discourses on safety and speed in Japan, providing each with more staying power, but at the same time feminizing safety. This paper also explores whether shifts in the underlying gender schema may lead to a great sense of conflict between these discourses, and what sorts of compromises between them may be forged.

Pillars of the Community: Risk and Responsibility in a Japanese Festival
Stephen D. Robertson, , Japan

As public spectacle, Japanese festivals (matsuri) are notorious for the enthusiastic, rowdy, and potentially dangerous behaviour of their participants. However, it is also often the case that involvement in such festivals serves as a form of recognition for local civic participation and community service, and they may therefore be interpreted as being structured by symbolic regimes of precedence and prestige, as well as the political contours of civil society. An as yet unexplored consequence of these assertions is that the resulting valorization of risk results in the concentration of responsibility, as a concomitant of risk (Giddens 1999), in the actions of individual participants, rather than in the decisions of festival authorities or public officials. This traditional ethos of personal responsibility is changing, however, as regional economies increasingly promote festivals as performances for tourist consumption, with the promise of a spectacle simultaneously daring, enjoyable, and above all, safe. Along with more intricate organizational strategies for crowd control and public safety, organizers have increased pressure on participants to conform to an imposed discourse of safe and mutual enjoyment. This attempt to constrain individual risk, however, also challenges implicit hierarchies of value. These conflicting dynamics clashed in May of 2010 when two men fell to their deaths during the sexennial celebration of Nagano Prefecture’s Sacred Pillar Festival (Onbashira-sai). Drawing on ethnographic data from my own participant observation and archival sources, the paper explores the ways in which discourses of risk and responsibility are negotiated by festival organizers, participants, and a consuming public. Giddens, Anthony. 1999. Responsibility and Risk. Modern Law Review 62(1):1-10

Signs of Danger: Universal Design and the Communication of Hazard in Kobe, Japan
Carla Takaki Richardson, University of California, Santa Cruz, USA

This paper examines discourses of risk in the design and consumption of hazards information in Kobe, Japan. The city suffered massive losses following the 1995 Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake, and many observers have claimed that the devastation was exacerbated by a lack of emergency information available to residents pre- and post-quake. Since then, city officials, researchers, designers, and non-profit groups have responded by fashioning Kobe into a "universal design city" marked by safety and comfort. "Universal Design" (UD) is an approach to engineering safety into consumer products, buildings, and everyday objects. While UD practices are not limited to Japan, such projects are vigorously pursued there in part because UD's "barrier-free" design philosophy addresses public concerns about consumer safety in a rapidly aging society. This paper stems from ethnographic field research on informatics and disaster risk management, and focuses on UD and public safety signage. These markers often contain very little text, and rely instead on meaningful colors, symbols indicating things like "fire" or "food," and abstract renderings of actions such as walking briskly to an exit. Audio signs, too, serve as vocal guides for appropriate affective responses from listeners, including cool-headedness and rationality. These ubiquitous cues -- from exit signs to evacuation center markers -- contain vital safety information, yet often function without notice. However, I demonstrate that an ethnographic understanding of the signs themselves display underlying logics about universal comprehensibility, literate consuming subjects, and appropriate behaviors in everyday conditions of risk and danger.

The Discursive Effect of Risk: Communicative Force in Japanese Regional Politics
Toru Yamada, Cornell University, USA

This paper ethnographically examines Japanese politicians' appeal to risk factors as a discursive strategy to manage criticism. In May 2010, officials in Goto City, an island municipality in Nagasaki, announced the cancellation of an international sport event, an Ironman triathlon, less than two weeks prior to the event's scheduled date. The city originally introduced this international event as part of a strategy to ameliorate the population and economic decline of the region. While the World Triathlon Corporation questioned this last-minute decision and the justification given for the broken contract, local politicians explained it in terms of minimizing the risk of the spread of foot-and-mouth disease which had broken out in the neighboring prefecture. During this period, however, the municipality had not put any restrictions on inbound tourists and visitors, nor on livestock trailers, and remained silent about the risk factors of the latter. By contrasting the discourse of risk and the silence over the cancellation of the event, I look into the discursive effect of risk in Japanese regional politics.