Co-Design and Conferences

Hey all!

It’s been a very hectic week, but I’ve really enjoyed myself! There are lots of developments that I’d like to share on both the personal and professional fronts, so allow me to dive right in:

On Monday, I stayed in and finished reading/summarizing the last of Akira Sugimoto’s book on disability movements in pre/postwar Japan. I was thoroughly impressed by Sugimoto’s meticulous attention to detail in chronicling law and policy shifts related to disability in Japan over the last one-hundred-and-fifty years. Having said that, I found that his book was lacking much in terms of documenting and describing the influence of contemporaneous historical developments. Nowhere to be found in Sugimoto’s text were explorations of convergent discourses about art, culture, science, and technology that held equal if not greater sway over the structuring of Japan’s disability movements since the Meiji period. Indeed, Sugimoto’s incredible focus on social welfare policy seems to have distracted him from observing the implications of such broader discourses on the lives and activities of persons with disabilities in Japan. This is not to say that I found his study to be without merit: on the contrary, I found it to be incredibly valuable in terms of its general periodization of disability justice in Japan. In my dissertation, I hope to build upon the framework it provides by speaking to the influence of some of the convergent discourses described above and also extending its temporal scope into the present.

On Tuesday, I spent most of my morning cleaning the apartment before heading off to class at the University of Tokyo. This week’s lecture focused on the psychological underpinnings of trauma and stigma as related to various theories of mind. Dr. Kumagaya explained that experiences of stigma and/or trauma represent breaks in one’s life narrative that create conflict and demand suturing via introspection and communal exploration. His explanation included a model of the mind which saw experiences of stigma and/or trauma as liable to spread and infect other parts of a person’s psyche. This model, I told him, reminded me of some theories of mind that I had encountered some time ago during my time as a self-identified Buddhist Studies scholar. More specifically, theories of mind related to the origins, spread, and dissolution of defilements like those explained by Kukai in his Himitsu Mandala Jujushinron. Intrigued, Dr. Kumagaya asked me to elaborate on my explanation, and the rest of the class turned into a discussion of Buddhist attitudes toward stigma and trauma. I had a blast.

On Wednesday, I got together with two friends and walked over to the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, which is just outside of my apartment complex. I really enjoyed rolling around and seeing exhibit after exhibit dedicated to robots, cyborgs, environmental sustainability, and data conservation/management. While I was hoping to see a bit more about classically defined assistive technologies, I did see a few things that caught my eye. First, a robot called Asimo that was able to walk, talk, sing, dance, and, importantly, communicate via Japanese Sign Language. I was really impressed by Asimo, but my heart was stolen by an extremely cute therapy robot called Paro. Paro is a robot seal that was originally designed to comfort and assist persons with Alzheimer’s, dementia, and related conditions. It’s since been used by disabled children and adults around the world as well as their ‘able-bodied’ counterparts. I found myself petting Paro for a solid ten minutes before heading upstairs to watch a video in the planetarium. After finishing up, I headed back downstairs and grabbed dinner with a new friend, Lucas, who lives in my complex.

On Thursday and Friday, I participated in a two-day workshop dedicated to Tojisha research and co-design at the University of Tokyo. The workshop featured multiple speakers including but not limited to Dr. Scott Kupferman (Colorado University, Director of the National Collaborative for Disability and Technology), Dr. Shin’ichiro Kumagaya (University of Tokyo, Tojisha Research Lab), Dr. Satsuki Ayaya (University of Tokyo, Tojisha Research Lab), Ms. Harue Kamioka (Darc Women’s Halfway House), Dr. Yukie Nagai (Osaka University, Cognitive Developmental Robotics), and Mr. Ikuyoshi Mukaiyachi (Health Sciences University of Hokkaido, Social Work Division). Now, I’ve written about fifteen pages of notes related to the workshop that I dare not include here. Suffice it to say that each speaker addressed a central theme from their own perspective. Namely, how do we establish a system where persons with disabilities can co-design products and services with experts in various fields and what are the merits of doing so. Their answers were all really interesting, and I’d be happy to share sometime if anyone is interested.

On Saturday, I gave two conference presentations about tangentially related topics. The first was about the status of disability justice in Japan over the last twenty years. Speaking to a crowd of about fifty or so people at the Japan Student Services Organization (JASSO), I explained that Japan’s progress towards becoming a ‘barrier-free’ society has not helped all people equally. As life gets easier for some people, it gets harder for others who face increasing stigma and discrimination due to their inability to use the newly developed measures and assistive technologies. Such stigma, I argued, has resulted in a wave of violence and abuse toward persons with disabilities that has largely gone undocumented by scholars, researchers, and members of the general public. Instead, such actors have taken instances of violence toward persons with disabilities in isolation, developing solutions that treat the symptom but not the cause.

The second presentation I gave on Saturday examined one such incident in detail (the Sagamihara Stabbings of 2016) and explained how the countermeasures developed in its wake promise to do more harm than good for persons with disabilities. Speaking to an audience of ten or so people via Skype at the Mid-Atlantic Region Association for Asian Studies Conference, I argued that this reality has allowed for the (re)formation of disability movements in Japan and the identification of new goals and objectives: namely, the establishment of co-development systems like that briefly described above.

Today, I had the opportunity to meet once again with Alisa Shimizu and discuss her undergraduate thesis project about foreigners with disabilities living in Japan. Through our conversation, we decided that we would collectively try and build a digital community for such individuals, as there’s no formal space for collaboration and sharing information at the moment. I’ve just set up a Facebook page toward that end here, so if you or anyone you know is a foreigner with a disability in Japan or an ally thereof, please feel free to join!

Now, before I close, folks, I wanted to let you all know that the Japan Times article I mentioned a few weeks ago has finally come out. You can view it here!

I look forward to catching up with you all again next week! Until then, stay tuned 🙂


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