Research, Return, Revival

Well, a lot has certainly happened in the world since my last post! I’ve been delaying writing this while waiting for my own situation to settle down, although I’ve decided I might as well briefly record what I’ve been up to, since it’s been long enough. I’ll be focusing on what I’ve specifically been up to, rather than an outline of the oftentimes horrid social and political circumstances we’ve all been through.

2020 started off much as I expected it to: after a brief visit back home to see my family, I went back to Japan, observed the beginning of the New Year, and continued attending seminars at Waseda University and other kinds of events, including fun ones like the Death Note musical, of all things (and the best thing is doing these with friends, like Kimberlee Sanders, who was also organizing an incredible series of media studies events at Waseda).

I was also continuing my research, diving more and more into specialized archives and focusing primarily on newspaper articles throughout the 20th century. I spent much of my time meticulously reading through the whole catalogue of the Japan News for the Deaf (日本聴覚障害新聞). I ended up finding amazing sources on everything from hearing aid history to pedagogical practices at deaf schools to historically situated philosophical ruminations on the connections between music, sound, and language. Around this time I also was generously allowed access to the offices of Rion, Japan’s largest hearing aid manufacturer, and was able to meet with some representatives and check out what they had around – including historical hearing aids that still worked! Although it’ll be a while before I can reach the caliber of Dr. Jaipreet Virdi’s historical hearing aid collection…

Research activities weren’t all with a focus on the past, though! I was also invited to the offices of Pixie Dust Technologies to check out the SoundHug, a glowing sphere that uses vibrations to communicate sound information. As my work with the archives showed, there is a clear history of devices that try to mediate sound in different ways made under different circumstances and for different purposes, and it especially fun to see what was happening with vibrating devices in this day and age. By this time, I was also starting to track down audio-visual representations of deafness, like the movie Happiness of Us Alone.

Nonetheless, in Japan, news about COVID-19 hit earlier than some other places in the world, so by late February some stores were beginning to run out of masks and other supplies.

While I continued doing research and meeting with friends and contacts, I gradually began tapering down my journeys out – by this point I had gathered plenty of sources, anyway! Nonetheless, the Fulbright program that was sponsoring me ending up being suspended, and I ultimately had to return back to the United States. At the very least, I was able to be in Japan long enough to see the much-heralded return of spring with my spouse Riana Shah, albeit under rapidly changing global circumstances.

Once in the US, it took some time to get settled again, although luckily I was able to end up together with Riana to quarantine, which was a major silver lining to not being in Japan. I continued working on the English translation for the movie Emu, and took some time to precisely map out how I would be able to continue working on my dissertation under archival restrictions and other limitations. I think I’ve figured out a way, but under a world where unpredictability has become the one thing easy to predict, I’m letting myself be alright that plans in general may rapidly shift. For the time being, I decided to write a piece on COVID-19 and assistive technology for the Society of Cinema and Media Studies, and I’m working on a longer academic journal article based on my archival research to submit within the next month. After that, I’ll return back to the dissertation work, and we’ll just have to see where things go!

In other news, a panel I spearheaded on hearing aid histories was accepted to the Annual Meeting Society for the History of Technology (SHOT) 2020, which I’m excited about, and hopefully its virtual meeting will be a good way to get back to the conference presenting scene, which I was looking forward to over the spring for multiple conferences which all ended up being cancelled. I’ve also got some online guest lectures lined up, although after writing this post I should go continuing actually writing the class…

On a lighter note, I’m enjoying frequently interacting with waterfowl – birds! – that I don’t see as much in Japan: geese, swans, and turkeys! And being in Cambridge, MA, has been exceptionally nice in terms of the welcoming culture and clear emphasis on LGBTQ+ rights and Black Lives Matter. I’m looking forward to doing what I can to contribute to this new community I’ve found myself in.

2019, Otsukaresama Deshita (Wrapping Up a Year)

Well, it’s been a month since my last update, and here we are at the end of the year. My first three months in Japan are coming to an end, as hard as it is to believe. But before I get too sentimental, let’s dive into the update!

Me standing outside in front of a giant Christmas tree at Rikkyo University.

Writing and Research: I have continued my focus on the history of hearing aids and sonic hardware in the 20th century, and I think I’ve finally got a pretty good grasp on the overall contours and flow of the history of hearing aid production and distribution. I’ve gotten this grasp by carefully browsing numerous newspaper archives, medical journals, education journals, corporate documents, and similar sources. Some of the stories I’ve found have been more or less what I expected (like the development of digital hearing aids in the late 80s/early 90s) but others came out of nowhere for me, like how certain police forces apparently contacted the largest hearing aid manufacturer in Japan to supply them with what were essentially wiretapping devices to monitor dissenting forces like the Communist Party – although police representatives would eventually deny that was the nature of what they were doing (instead of 盗聴器 touchouki, or “stealing hearing device,” the term we would usually translate as wiretapping device, they used the fairly uncommon term 秘聴器 hichouki, or “secret hearing device”).

This is an example of one of those really “fun” stories from the data that I haven’t made any decision yet as to how it would feature in my dissertation. There is a lot I could do in terms of theory with this, like maybe bring in Erkki Huhtamo and Jussi Parikka to talk about nonlinear cross-historical connections between different kinds of material objects and their unforeseen relations to sociopolitical phenomena. But, before I get too excited about something like this, I’m stopping to ask myself: what does this actually do for the larger academic story I’m telling – a story I intend to be both an intellectual contribution to the fields I’m working in as well as a broader, actionable call for a more equitable and diversity-friendly society? I suppose this is all to say that much like media archaeology might say about material culture, dissertation research is anything but linear, as I’m experiencing firsthand already.

Part of the reason the wiretapping story is both interesting to me but uncertain as to its final place is emblematic of a larger aspect of my current sources: I’ve yet to uncover significant amounts of firsthand accounts of hearing aid and other assistive tech user experiences. This is both because 1) the sources I’ve focused on – like medical journals and so on – usually prioritize the points of views of those making the technologies as well as attempting to shape the way they are used, which is an important part of my story to be sure, but one I would like to complemented by firsthand accounts; and 2) the reality is that in terms of the deaf population, the early history of hearing aids is characterized by their relative inaccessibility, and the rate and circumstances of hearing use is always already complicated by cultural, personal, and technological factors.

My response to this reality is that while user numbers (especially in the early days) may have been small, the existence of hearing aids themselves did a number of things that more broadly intersect with the deaf population and Japan infrastructure/culture as a whole: they helped further particular cultural institutions like oralism in deaf education, they served to become a cultural sign of hearing disabilities before Japanese sign language became more openly discussed in broader media outlets, and they were vital in being “technological training grounds” for the development of transistor production in Japan, which would go on to have massive ramifications for electronics development more generally. Still, even with all of this, I feel the need to uncover more sources that highlight the specter of “experience” of assistive technologies (of course I’ll need to qualify this statement methodologically and theoretically down the line).

The good news is I’ve begun to find such stories in unlikely places. In the newspaper archives I mentioned earlier, I’ve found people writing into self-help columns seeking advice because being hearing impaired has destroyed their marriage/career prospects. One high school student in the 90s wrote how both their parents and teachers all but effectively barred them from going to college because being hearing impaired was considered to be an instant deal-breaker. An elderly mother from the 70s wrote that they desperately wanted to see their hearing impaired child get married, but nothing was working out. Another woman wrote in saying being hearing impaired “angered” her husband. In most of these cases, the person working the advice columns would respond that wearing hearing aids – the latest and the greatest – would help alleviate these problems. As someone who is unilaterally deaf and who has experienced educational discrimination and so on, I felt impacted by these stories in a deep way. It’s a strange experience finding kinship in these old words, not knowing who these people are or what has become of them.

All this is still just dealing with what I’m conceiving of as Chapter 1, although in the process of this work I’ve gathered tons of sources I’ve put off to the side for the other parts of my dissertation. Starting late January I’ll be shifting gears a bit to broader cultural representation and assistive technologies integrated in what we more traditionally conceive of as “media,” such as television and film, and of course I’m looking forward to dive into actual deaf literature.

Professional Events: As I mentioned in my last blog post, I was able to present at the Anthropology of Japan in Japan (AJJ) fall meeting in a panel with Mark Bookman and Patrick Galbraith. It was great to get some of the ideas on hearing aids and transistors out in the open, and it served as the first time I’ve explicitly presented fresh dissertation research! More importantly, it opened questions for me on the precise nature of my “narrative,” which of course I’m still thinking about.

I also taught two guest classes at Rikkyo University for a diverse range of students in sociology, political science, media studies, gender studies, and so on. I say “classes” but they were really more like “workshops,” where I combined aspects of my new dissertation research with the theoretical questions I grappled with in my oral exams earlier this year, asking things like what the difference is between media and technology and what counts as assistive technology, which leads wonderfully into questions on what disability/diversity are and how they are represented in literature, film, and so on. I’m grateful for the opportunity and grateful for the students who went along with a workshop containing such difficult questions!

I was also very privileged to watch an early edit of a film that’ll be released next summer called 咲む (Emu, which could mean both “smiling” as well as “budding” like a fruit or plant), which is sponsored by the Japan Federation of the Deaf and is a fictional narrative about a young Deaf woman’s journey to the countryside for both personal and professional reasons. I not only had fun, since I’m a major film nerd and I’d never been to an early edit event before, I was also deeply moved, and I can’t wait for other people to see it. It’s certainly going to have a place in my dissertation where I talk about Deaf-sponsored and Deaf-produced media, and I’m going to have a lot of fun doing a deep reading of it when the time comes.

Finally, on a more public-facing side, I’ve gotten an article published on Accessible Japan with some tips for traveling to Japan with hearing disabilities (although I tried to make many of my suggestions more broadly applicable). Do check it out and hopefully it can help if you’re going to Japan for the first time.

Misc: Still with me? Well, I haven’t been up to a whole lot aside from work, but my spouse did visit me during some of this time, and we found some time to do some more “tourist” things like check out some zany performances in Tokyo or go down to Kamakura (where the literature nerd in me gushed about being on the beach where “the student” and Sensei in Natsume Soseki’s Kokoro were). It was of course wonderful to be together for a bit – personal time is very important in a profession where it’s possible to just be working all hours of the day.

Finally, I’ve been continuing work on both the piano and the keytar…

So that’s it for 2019! I may post a more general year reflection at some point, but this post has gone on long enough. Suffice to say I’m so grateful to be able to do my work and I’m thrilled about continuing throughout 2020 and beyond. Now bring on the photo collage!

Opening Chapter One: Libraries, Archives, and Conferences

Wow, time sure flies when you’re having fun – I’m long overdue for a blog post, so let’s just get right to it!

Writing and Research: I’ve been spending much of my time, unsurprisingly, on gathering my source materials together for my research. I’ve been particularly focusing on what I’m conceptualizing as Chapter 1 at the moment, which deals with the history and culture of hearing-related assistive technology in the 20th century, particularly on post-war electronics and medical/cultural practices related to those technologies. I’m coming across some surprising findings, such as various cultural and technical connections between the hearing aid electronics industry and music production in the 1960s, which would go on to change the sonic landscape and cultural practices of music worldwide to this day.

Doing research on the ground allows so many questions to come to the forefront. What kinds of regimes of sound are linked to technological, industry, and consumer practices of deaf-related assistive technologies? How do the broader repercussions of these practices link back to the experiences of the people for whom these technologies were ostensibly meant for? How do people portray their own experiences, and who gets to tell what kinds of stories? (One of my favorite stories is that of a hearing impaired man who more or less complains he’d rather listen to music rather talk with people, but his hearing aids prioritize human voices at the expense the music he loves, and he writes about a thought-experiment of using old tape recorders to build a “music-appreciation hearing aid,” but ultimately can’t actually make it himself.) There’s much to be done on this front.

I’ve been doing much of this work using the good old National Diet Library, long-time stomping grounds of researchers both domestic and international (I’ve run into colleagues without intending to several times). At the Diet, I’m looking at everything from 1880s children’s storybooks to 1980s medical journals, and much of what I’m uncovering I’m setting aside for future chapters, particularly for the second half of my dissertation where I’ll move to more explicit cultural representations. (Want to know how in the Jōmon period the rabbit got its long ears, thus granting it some of the best hearing in the animal kingdom, apparently? Stayed tuned!) I’ve also turned to newspaper archives to get some contemporary, mass-broadcasted commentary, which is helping me with better understanding cultural and social attitudes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

I’ve also started a personal goal to write just a little bit every day, even if I’ll end up not using much of it. It’s been helpful in situating my thoughts, and also helpful in writing about some juicy anecdotes from the archives that I know I’ll want somewhere in the dissertation – I just don’t know where yet. As a final note here – research is never just about being by oneself staring at books or a computer screen, and I’ve been fortunate to have a number of meetings with colleagues and mentors talking about our projects and more generally our roles as academics in a changing world.

As a preview of things to come, a few days ago I had the chance to introduce myself to people at the Japanese Federation of the Deaf, and aside from being a fantastic meeting all around, it looks like I’ll be able to check out a number of materials that one can’t see anywhere else. Ah, the joys of being on the ground!

An image of me standing in front of a classroom leaning over and speaking.

Professional Events: I’ve also had some chances to more formally present my work or do some general public speaking. Last month I gave a guest lecture for a class at Hosei University, and it was great fun to be teaching again, even if only for an hour and a half. I also presented the general outline of my research to a number of media studies scholars, many of whom belong to the Mono-Media Research Network, a coalition of researchers who work in science and technology studies (STS), media studies, and other related fields, with a focus on examining how material objects relate to cultural practices.

I’ve also attended a number of other events related to literary studies, cultural studies, media theory, and assistive technology. Some highlights include touring the latest corporate offerings of assistive tech at the 46th International Home Care & Rehabilitation Exhibition, spending time with colleagues at the autumn conference of the Japan Society for Studies in Journalism and Mass Communication, and catching Marc Steinberg’s keynote at the Theorizing Anime: Invention of Concepts and Conditions of Their Possibility conference at Waseda University.

Finally, I learned that a panel I’m co-chairing has been accepted at next year’s Society for Cinema and Media Studies annual conference, and I have a presentation coming up next week at the fall meeting of the Anthropology of Japan in Japan (AJJ) research group. Lots to prepare for!

Misc: As my academic work has me thinking about the electronic manipulation of sound, so too am I working on sound in a more creative context. While continuing my jazz piano lessons, I’ve begun thinking more about sound and music recording, designing my own sounds on software that attempts to mimic analog synthesizer hardware from decades ago so I can play it on my keytar MIDI controller when I want to avoid actual piano practice. I think I’ve got a pretty gnarly rock organ sound cooking up…

And that’s all for this post! I’ll work to get these up more frequently – but for now, back to the grind!

New Beginnings: Embarking on Dissertation Research in Japan

Hello all! Welcome to my blog, where I’ll be keeping a record of my life in Japan and PhD dissertation research throughout the next year. For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Frank Mondelli, and I’m a PhD Candidate at Stanford University in the East Asian Languages and Cultures department. My dissertation, “Deaf Media: A Genealogy of Assistive Technology and Communications in Japan” explores how the cultural and technical dimensions of Deaf assistive technologies, from hearing aids to subtitles to algorithmic sign language, have impacted communications infrastructures, popular culture, language use, and the lives of minority populations in an increasingly diversifying Japan. My research is generously supported by a Fulbright Graduate Research Fellowship from the Fulbright Association and the Japan-U.S. Educational Commission.

Fellow Stanford Fulbrighters! Pictured: Me on the left, crossing my arms, and Stanford PhD Candidate Kevin Niehaus on the right, leaning on the wall. We're both smiling and in front of a sign that says "Fulbright Japan" - we're right outside their offices.
Fellow Stanford Fulbrighters! Pictured: Me on the left, crossing my arms, and Stanford PhD Candidate Kevin Niehaus on the right, leaning on the wall. We’re both smiling and in front of a sign that says “Fulbright Japan” – we’re right outside their offices.

I intend this blog to document my work and progress on my dissertation, although it will have two additional functions. The first is demonstrate how research may be applicable to a variety of not only academic inquiries but also to pragmatic pursuits in social equity in Japan, the United States, and elsewhere. As corny as it may sound, I firmly believe in the power of an engaged academics to play an active role in making our world a better place! The second role of this blog is to document my life as a PhD researcher with a disability, in my case hearing impairment. I’m not used to opening up about my personal experiences in this regard, but I hope I can serve as a resource for future researchers, both Japan-related and elsewhere, on navigating this kind of lifestyle where accessibility can be a frequent concern.

So, let’s get on with it! Below are some bullet point-style recaps of what I’ve been up to since I landed in Japan three weeks ago:

Settling In: The first few weeks of moving into any new location to research are usually taken up by logistical and bureaucratic processes, and this time was no different. I settled into my housing, reopened my Japanese bank account, obtained various documents needed to prove my residency and conduct daily life here, and so on. It’s always a challenge to do these kind of things in large government buildings since you usually walk up to a teller and are then told to sit back down and wait until a number is called, which is primarily an audio cue. This means instead of sitting and passively waiting I always have to be very alert in case I’m called, which can be a bit tiring.

To alleviate things like this I tried to obtain something called a shogaisha techo, which is like a disability card. In my case I was told by the ward office that I had to get a hearing exam by a local doctor who would then advocate for my acceptability. So off I went, although skeptical I would actually qualify, because the kind of hearing impairment I have is unilateral, which means I can hear in one ear but not the other. This kind of impairment is rarer, and is often left out of definitions of disability (once, I did not qualify for a Rochester Institute of Technology disability scholarship because they had no formal way of recognizing my kind of hearing impairment at the time).

Sure enough, I was told by the Japanese audiologist that unilateral hearing impairment does not fit into the Japanese legal definition of disability, because they consider me to “have no problems leading a normal life.” There was no use trying to fight it, so I let it be, and then to my surprise one of the assistants came back to me as I was leaving and asked me out of curiosity what kind of hearing aids I use. I showed her and she was surprised that I had two devices – one that transmits sound from the deaf ear to the hearing ear (it’s a Phonak CROS II). She remarked that in Japan, they don’t believe in that solution for single-sided deafness, and that only by amplifying sound on the “good ear” will anything work – “that way of doing it is much easier for the user.” My own experience contradicts this, funnily enough, and it was another reminder of a guiding theme of my research: technologies do not exist in a vacuum, as they are always already embedded in complex political, social, and cultural networks.

Professional Events: My first weekend after arriving I attended the 16th Annual Disability Studies conference in Kyoto. It was great for meeting some people and getting reacquainted with the status of the field in Japan as I begin my work. I especially appreciated the serious effort put into making the conference as accessible as possible – both in terms of mobility and availability of information. I have to say, anytime I attend an event and there’s a text-to-speech service, I get that much more excited, because it means my ability to more effortlessly understand what’s going on around me has dramatically shot up.

Speaking of text-to-speech services, the weekend after that I attended what’s called a gasshuku, or professional getaway trip, with oioi, a prolific sign language entertainment troupe. We were split into two groups and were given two days to come up with a skit using gestures and sign language, and the most important part was NOT using our voices to communicate with any language at all (laughing and such was fine though!). This koe-nashi seikatsu (voiceless living) enabled incredible conversations about what language and communication mean in the first place, and I was touched by the solidarity and warmth that emerged from the group as a whole. Since I’m not a native signer, the presence of text-to-speech for many of the activities was very helpful, although of course I’m endeavoring to get my signing further up to speed. The best part, though? I got to play an evil wizard with a giant cape!

Finally, I attended the 2019 Fulbright Welcome Reception, where I was able to reconnect with some old friends and meet some new ones. It’s always tremendously exciting to get to know peers, researchers, and professionals doing incredible things in Japan and the US. It also brought back nice memories from the 2014 Fulbright Reception, which I believe took place in the same hall. I can’t believe it’s already been five years…

Meetings and Research: I also had a number of meetings since I’ve arrived. One was a routine visit to the Fulbright offices where I caught up with all of the incredible people who work so hard to support research and culture exchange year after year. I also met up with Dr. Ito Mamoru, sociologist and media theorist, who has generously agreed to serve as my primary advisor at Waseda University, and Dr. Toeda Hirokazu, professor of literature and visual culture at Waseda as well (Toeda-sensei has come to Stanford in the past and I was lucky enough to take a literature seminar with him and get to know him better!). Both of these meetings helped me to think about my research workflow, source hunting, and general know-how in doing dissertation research in Japan.

Finally, this week I got properly started on original research by heading to the National Diet Library, one of the largest libraries in the world and a great starting point for casting a wide net and seeing what one finds. I went with my dear friend Mark Bookman (also a former Fulbrighter in our 2014 cohort), since I had met with him a few days prior and decided we’d go, do our own research side-by-side and see how we can help each other out. It was a great experience – not only because I’m just naturally (very) excited at being inside giant libraries, but also because it was great to see Mark’s process in action, given that he’s been doing his own dissertation research since last year. I started off simple enough by just searching for “hearing aids” as a key word and seeing what popped up from oldest to newest, and left with some great materials and useful leads.

Misc: I was delighted to see that for Aca-Media‘s 50th episode, the rest of the Podcast Production Team decided to use an interview I conducted with Dr. Usha Iyer the day before my qualifying exam in June (!) on a variety of topics centered on the “area studies” question in film and media studies and what a more globally engaged theory looks like. Check it out – Dr. Iyer is a remarkable researcher and teacher and offers some serious food for thought.

I also learned that a panel I’m in with Kaitlyn Ugoretz of UC Santa Barbara has been accepted to Association for Asian Studies 2020 Annual Conference in Boston next year! We’ve designed an exciting “lightening round” style panel on qualitative (not just quantitative) digital humanities work on Asia, and we’re super excited about it.

Finally, life can’t be ALL research and work, so I’ve found a local jazz piano teacher and have been practicing every day. (Maybe that’s also a kind of work, but it’s so much fun!) And maybe, just maybe, I’ll upload some pieces sometime…

So that’s been my time in Japan so far! I’ll be posting weekly – at least that’s my aim – so expect shorter posts in the future, and feel free to reach out to learn more about anything I’ve mentioned or to start a conversation. See you next time!