Staying Connected: Coronavirus in Japan

Laura Haapio-Kirk

Recommended citation: Haapio-Kirk, L. (2020). ‘Staying connected: Coronavirus in Japan’, entanglements, 3(2): 69-78

Bringing anthropology home

In spring 2020 I was supposed to be back in Japan. I had conducted 16 months’ fieldwork there for my PhD between 2018-2019 and now had additional funding to build on my research on ageing and smartphones with a more applied project. In collaboration with Dr Yumi Kimura, a social nutrition researcher at Osaka University and Lise Sasaki, a medical anthropology masters graduate and research assistant on the project, we organised a smartphone intervention among rural elderly people in northern Kōchi Prefecture. While we were able to establish the intervention with two groups of people, we were not able to conduct extended ethnographic research as the outbreak of Covid-19 paused our plans. Much of our interaction with this community has been via the messaging application LINE in the group chats that we established as part of the intervention to promote digital sociality around nutrition. The pandemic and the subsequent decline of social opportunities available to people made our intervention among elderly smartphone users extremely timely. In order to understand how the smartphone fit within people’s experiences of the pandemic, I turned to the relationships I had established during my PhD fieldwork and discovered that the gap between those who had access to this technology and those without was widening as the smartphone became increasingly important for staying connected during social distancing.

While I was confined to my home in the UK, digital communication became integral for continuing my research remotely. When the pandemic began my research participants and I naturally exchanged messages of concern which in some cases evolved into longer conversations and video chats about how the situation was affecting them and their families. The collection of illustrations above draws on illustrated social media posts that I shared during this time, based on these conversations. The people with whom I spoke encouraged me to share their stories. They felt it was important to talk about how the pandemic was affecting people in different ways, not just directly though the virus but due to the associated impacts of isolation on health and wellbeing. For them, these were important angles that were overlooked in much of the media coverage of the pandemic. By illustrating and sharing small snippets from these conversations my intention was to communicate these less-told stories and show what anthropology is by touching upon the social, cultural, and historical factors that shape the way people respond to the pandemic. By sharing the posts on social media my hope was that they would reach people who might not typically come across anthropological research, and would demonstrate the kinds of stories that can be told when one has spent 16 months getting to know people and building relationships of trust and care.

Making anthropological research accessible outside of academia is one of my core ambitions as a Leach Fellow in Public Anthropology at the Royal Anthropological Institute, and illustration has a powerful role to play in this effort. This year, along with my colleague Dr Jennifer Cearns, we curated an exhibition called ‘Illustrating Anthropology’[1] featuring over sixty anthropologists from around the world who use illustration as both a mode of analysis and a way to tell stories within and outside of academia. The diversity of work on display is testament to the innovation and imaginative freedom that illustration affords academic work, and the positive response we have had from the public so far shows that these sorts of visual outputs can be highly effective as a means for attracting people to engage with research. In the two months since launching the online exhibition in September 2020 we had over 4,000 visitors to the site, and 13,500 views. Within one month the associated Instagram account had over 500 followers, and is growing daily as we gradually release all of the works in the exhibition.

My illustration experiment presented here also made me consider how visual dissemination can be used as a digital ethnographic research method. The pandemic forced physical distance between me and my fieldsite but through sharing content online I had the opportunity to bring anthropological research closer to the people the research is about and beyond. An interesting thing happened when I shared the posts – I received replies and messages from friends and strangers in Japan who also wanted to share their experiences with me. In this way, the method of remote ethnography shared via social media prompted a snowball effect – similar to how in face-to-face research meeting someone can often snowball into getting to know their friends and wider networks. Online, the snowball effect revealed further people who wanted to have their stories told and made remote fieldwork feel a little closer to the serendipitous encounters that characterise in-person ethnography. Sharing the posts also attracted positive feedback from my research participants, confirming that I had understood the situation correctly and sometimes prompting further discussion. In this way illustration shared through social media was a tool for extending ethnographic dialogue, and for affirming tentative ideas and analysis. While my hope is to return to Japan as soon as travel restrictions are lifted, this experience of remote dialogue with both research participants and the wider public through illustrated digital communication is one that I plan to continue. As anthropologists are now having to reckon with the challenges and possibilities of remote fieldwork, there is potential in multi-modal ethnography to engage participants more directly in the co-creation of anthropological knowledge, benefitting both the research and its wider appreciation beyond pay-walled journal articles and academic books.

Acknowledgements: Many thanks to the anonymous research participants who contributed their stories to this piece, and to Kendra Boileau for her comments on an earlier version. The Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing’ project (ASSA) has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No. 740472).

Laura Haapio-Kirk is a PhD student in Social Anthropology at University College London. Between 2018-2019 she conducted 16 months’ fieldwork in Kyoto city and rural Kōchi prefecture, Japan, looking at the intersection of smartphones and wellbeing in later life. She is currently writing and illustrating a book to be published by UCL Press next year, titled Ageing with Smartphones in Japan. In 2020 she was appointed Fellow in Public Anthropology at the Royal Anthropological Institute. Prior to starting her PhD she was a research assistant and public engagement officer on the Why We Post project at UCL.