Technology and Communication in Japan: Paper People and Digital Memory


A review of Paper People and Digital Memory: Recreating the Public and Private in Japan, by Meghan Sara Fidler.

Meghan Sara Fidler’s Paper People and Digital Memory is a welcome contribution to the long tradition of studies in language and identity performance in Japan, whilst simultaneously addressing the role of a variety of social media platforms in organizing social life and constituting the self. Of particular interest is the attention that she gives to the different anticipated audiences associated with different platforms, leading to differences in language choice (English or Japanese), that align with differences in topic choice (cheery and public, or thoughtful and intimate). Drawing on the history of literacy in Japan and long practice of compositions that incorporate parallel public and private interpretations, such as Heian diaries and Sengoku aristocratic correspondence, Fidler situates the myriad choices of platform, language, and topic that define contemporary digital literacies firmly within long-standing Japanese cultural norms such as verbal and written aisatsu, and uchi and soto divisions of both the social and physical world. Adding a contact to mixi, Facebook, or Twitter can be viewed in much the same terms as exchanging business cards, in terms of a practice that helps new acquaintances to situate each other in the social world and relate to each other appropriately. Likewise, composing a photo for Facebook or a diary entry for mixi can intermingle public and private meanings, much as Sei Shonagon’s famous pillow book illustrates parallel processes of public and private meaning-making in Empress Teishi’s court.

The first chapter does much of the heavy lifting for the dissertation as a whole, painstakingly tracing the author’s way through the numerous theoretical and historical domains that her dissertation draws together. Her major lens for understanding university students’ use of social media in Japan is that of literacy studies, though she connects literacy early on with literature on computer-mediated communication and science and technology studies. While it is not a new move within linguistic anthropology to connect literacy to new modes of subjectivity, or technological skills acquisition with new possibilities for “presentation of self in everyday life” (Erving Goffman, 1959), Fidler’s innovation is in connecting the idea of technologically mediated self-presentation with history, contingency, and materiality. The acquisition of digital literacies creates an archive of self-presentations across multiple platforms, potentially in multiple languages and across multiple media modalities (text, photographs, video, links, and commentary). And, the implementation of computer-mediated communication requires learning to use and manipulate devices that have the potential to either intrude into or exist harmoniously within a variety of social settings and other interactions as “paper people” move through time and space.

The second chapter takes up the question of literacy historically, drawing parallels from the history of mass literacy in Japan. The Taika Reforms to Japanese bureaucracy in the Nara period instituted record-keeping requirements that created a need for widespread literacy for the first time in Japan’s history, if not strictly “mass” literacy. However, as printing developed, books became more widely available and were scandalously published without commentary, allowing a wider public to read classic texts themselves without formal instruction. Still later, as schooling became even more widespread in the Meiji period, the genbun itchi movement encouraged new writing practices that paralleled spoken styles. In overviewing all of these historical moments, Fidler draws out a common thread of public and private readings of text being made simultaneously available. Speech creeps into our writing practices, and writing practices like aisatsu spread as new technologies for literacy develop. The chapter concludes by noting that historical attitudes about writing as a technology and its meanings and appropriate uses influence new developments in literacy as surely as technological innovation does. Likewise, as one of the earliest uses to which texts were put in Japan—organizing history—our current, machine-based “cyborg literacy” is having new effects on history and memory by functioning as portable memory aids.

From discussing the history of reading and writing in Japan, Fidler turns in Chapter 3 to a discussion of how writing as currently practiced contributes to the construction of identity, particularly ethnic identity, for the digital subjects of her ethnography. From her field site at Sophia University, Fidler had a particularly good vantage point for observing negotiations of gradients of Japanese identity, from fully foreign, to half or kikoku shijo, to jun-japa, or “Pure Japanese.” Given that all of her informants were connected through attendance at an international university with a substantial English-language curriculum, and many had spent some time abroad, negotiating a balance between the “Japanese” and “foreign” components of their experiences and their selves was common even among students who asserted and worked to perform a jun-japa identity. Here Fidler delves particularly into how her informants made choices about when to use Facebook or mixi—what language to post in, what topics to choose, what content to share or post. She characterizes mixi as defined by an ethic of “me with them,” in contrast to Facebook-ish, Western-influenced modes of self-construction that might be characterized as “me with you.” Finally, she maps the choices between Facebook and mixi onto the quintessentially Japanese divisions of space and society of uchi and soto (inside and outside), and omote and ura (front and back). Mixi is ura communication, with its lack of facial pictures, while Facebook, and the emphasis on the real name and face, is omote.

Chapter 4 of the dissertation takes up the physicality of digital communication. Here, Fidler addresses issues of the physical environments surrounding social network use. Mobile phones vibrate and chime. They create physical sensations, and provoke responses in their owners—answering the phone, responding to texts, checking for updates. She characterizes the mobile phone as a kind of communicative prosthetic, without which we are liable to feel incomplete. She also addresses the mobility of the mobile phone, which moves with its owner through different environments, and at different times may be subject to different kinds of norms and concerns about its use. Here she usefully extends well-worn tropes about privacy online and uses it to discuss physical privacy. If a mobile phone is a prosthetic, a screen may in some ways be a private body part that should not be seen by others. She also extends the questions of platform choice discussed earlier into the physical realm, discussing why one might choose analog as opposed to digital communications, or attempt to incorporate one into the other, as in the story of one informant who wrote letters to a pen pal, then photographed and emailed them.

In the fifth chapter, Fidler addresses issues of memory at length, drawing out several related themes. One is that of recognition versus recall. As technology permits us to have extensive knowledge stored in a portable form, it is less critical to memorize the information itself, and more critical to remember how and where to find it. In perhaps its most notable and lamented form, this has turned into an ability to write digitally with an impressive array of Chinese characters, coupled with an inability to produce them in handwriting. Recognition also extends to selves. How can we recognize someone as a good person, or a trustworthy person? Here, Fidler takes up one informant’s analysis of profiles on Couchsurfing, a social network for budget travelers. While mixi profiles, aimed at an inner circle of friends, are often elliptical and difficult to parse for outsiders, Couchsurfing profiles must be voluminous and explicit in order to provide hosts enough information to decide whether it is safe to let someone into their homes, or for travelers to decide that a particular host is indeed offering a safe haven. Finally, the privileging of recognition allows for recognizable gestures or phrases to travel, meme-like, through shared photographs and posts. Like in-jokes, these allow pictures to communicate multiple meanings at the same time to different audiences. In accounting for these kinds of memetic undercurrents to social network content production, Fidler clarifies one of the specific methods by which “public” and “private” can coexist on the Japanese internet.

Finally, Fidler concludes her dissertation by outlining a number of “pivot points” where she predicts conflicts around new technologies that are likely to arise in the future. One of these is where self-presentation (what Fidler calls the “I-for-the-other”) “implicates gender with national and religious identity” (p. 249). Additional pivot points include generational divides in the use of technology, and our own increasingly cyborg-like nature. As we increasingly acknowledge the prosthetic functions of mobile devices, we will be forced to confront and rethink our anxieties around communications technologies, and reformulate our concepts of “knowledge” and “human.” We are already cyborgs, posits Fidler, dreaming cyborg dreams, but confronting cyborg ordeals as we learn to manage our new limbs.

This dissertation should be broadly of interest to anyone studying the linguistic anthropology of Japan, particularly those with an interest in literacies or computer-mediated communication. However, given its theoretical innovations in describing a self that accumulates over of the course of postings that do not vanish (but which may be edited), this dissertations serves to move Goffmanian concepts of the presentation or performance of self into a future where texting or commenting on a “friend’s” post is infinitely more common than face-to-face interaction, and where we are developing interaction rituals. As such, it merits the attention of students of the interaction between language, technology, and society across anthropology, linguistics, sociology, education, and information studies.

Erika Alpert
Department of Sociology and Anthropology
School of Humanities and Social Sciences
Nazarbayev University

Primary Sources

Fieldwork conducted during the summer of 2010 and the 2011-2012 school year. Research was centered on Japanese and foreign students attending Sophia University in Tokyo. Students were initially approached through voluntary surveys, and subsequently contacted, with permission, for interviews and participant observation.

Blog posts, photographs, and other social media writing shared by informants during the course of fieldwork.

Dissertation Information

Southern Illinois University Carbondale. 2014. 324 pp. Primary Advisor: David E. Sutton.

Image: Two unidentified young ladies taking a selfie (photograph by the author, 2012).

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