Session Abstract: Tech companies market their products as software solutions to human problems. With the spread of coronavirus, for instance, Japanese firms NEC, Toshiba, and Fujitec touted biometric software for “contactless” building entry, shopping, and medical surveillance. Larger Japanese employers embraced telework as a strategy for minimizing in-person interactions, despite most companies’ continued preference for face-to-face meetings and paper filing systems. The pandemic has invigorated discussion of automation technologies, their benefits, and their social costs. In Japan as elsewhere, the “touchless economy” depends heavily on precarious workers to provide goods and services. With “fifth generation computers” (AI, the dream of the 1980s) still out of reach, human labor remains necessary for the creation, assembly, delivery, installation, and servicing of no-touch tech. For what purposes, then, is technology used to reduce, augment, or replace human interactions?
With these questions in mind, our panel explores the transformative power (and limitations) of automation at different times in Japan’s history, from the high economic growth period to the present day. The successes and failures of automation technologies illuminate enduring concerns about privacy, workers’ rights, interpersonal relationships, family structure, and gender roles. We analyze (1) how scientific management studies and cybernetics influenced postwar worker-management relations; (2) how 1980s telecommuting programs increased women’s employment opportunities while perpetuating stereotypical gender roles; (3) how facial recognition technologies introduce data surveillance/monetization into quotidian commercial settings and everyday life; and (4) how emotional technologies used by social robots in elder care settings are reshaping notions of care and companionship in Japan.