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Are the Kids Alright? Digital Sociality, Youth Culture, and Identity in Contemporary Japan


Kimberly Hassel (East Asian Studies, University of Arizona)

Although smartphones and Social Networking Services (SNS) are perceived to be universal, they are localized differently based on context. In the case of Japan—a pioneer of mobile Internet—the localization of these technologies has reconfigured sociality following the erosion of ibasho (places of belonging) brought about by the economic downturn of the 1990s and more recently by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In this talk, I introduce the intergenerational discourse on SNS and smartphone usage in contemporary Japan, with a focus on perceived danger vis-à-vis opportunities for community-building and intervention. I highlight the (dis)connections between youth narratives, adult concerns, and societal measures for digital safety.

While many adults focused on “addiction” and life rhythms, youths centered cyberbullying and mental health. Youths’ discussions of smartphones and SNS as mediators in sociality were accompanied by deep reflections on what these devices can and cannot do, along with what these devices should and should not do.

While I discuss the obstacles posed by the digital, I also highlight the opportunities of the digital as they pertain to instilling change in Japanese society and amplifying marginalized voices. Through the case study of digital activism among young Black Japanese users of SNS during the Black Lives Matter (BLM) demonstrations of 2020, I argue that the digital can serve as a lens into youth resistance and the (un)doing of ideologies and systems in contemporary Japan.

About the speaker:

Dr. Kimberly Hassel is an Assistant Professor in the Department of East Asian Studies at the University of Arizona. She is a cultural anthropologist and digital ethnographer specializing in digital culture, youth culture, and identity in contemporary Japan. Dr. Hassel also specializes in diaspora studies, critical mixed race studies, and Afro-Japanese encounters. Her current book project examines the relationships between Social Networking Services (SNS), smartphones, and shifting notions of sociality and selfhood among young people in Japan. Her work has appeared in Anthropology NewsMechademia, and “Who Is The Asianist?” The Politics of Representation in Asian Studies. Currently, Dr. Hassel is a research affiliate in the Digital Inquiry, Speculation, Collaboration, Optimism (DISCO) Network. She is also a participant in the Cultivating Early Career Networks Between Global Asias and Japanese Studies Program, offered through a partnership between the Japan Foundation New York and the Global Asias Initiative at Penn State University.

Dr. Hassel received a PhD in East Asian Studies from Princeton University. She was the recipient of the Princeton University Marjorie Chadwick Buchanan Dissertation Prize. Her dissertation fieldwork was funded by a Japan Foundation Japanese Studies Doctoral Fellowship. Dr. Hassel holds an MA in East Asian Studies from Princeton University and a BA in Japanese modified with Anthropology from Dartmouth College. She is an alumna of the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship and the Institute for Recruitment of Teachers.