- Season 2, Episode 5 | Vyjayanthi Selinger
- Season 2, Episode 4 | Gabriella Lukács
- Season 2, Episode 3 | Jolyon Baraka Thomas
- Season 2, Episode 2 | Suma Ikeuchi
- Season 2, Episode 1 | Charlotte Eubanks
- Season 2 Trailer
- Season 1, Episode 5 | Morgan Pitelka
- Season 1, Episode 4 | Meghen Jones
- Season 1, Episode 3 | Michael Strausz
- Season 1, Episode 2 | Marié Abe
- Season 1, Episode 1 | Levi McLaughlin
- Japanese Studies Radio Hour
June 2, 2021
Dr. Allison Alexy: Hello and welcome to Michigan Talks Japan, a podcast from the Center for Japanese Studies at the University of Michigan. I'm Allison Alexy. In each episode I’ll talk with a scholar working in Japanese Studies – across academic disciplines, across time periods.
Today it's my pleasure to talk with Dr. Gabriella Lukacs, Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh. She is a media anthropologist whose research focuses on Japan and Hungary to explore creative and digital labor. Her earlier book, Scripted Affects, Branded Selves analyzes the development of a new primetime serial, a so-called “trendy drama,” as the Japanese television industry’s response to developments in digital media technologies and market fragmentation. Our conversation today centers on her second book, Invisibility by Design: Women and Labor in Japan’s Digital Economy, published in 2019 by Duke University Press.
Allison: Today it is my extreme pleasure to be talking with Dr. Gabriela Lukacs. Thank you so much for being willing to be on the podcast and talking with me today.
Dr. Gabriella Lukacs: Thank you very much for having me.
Allison: I so enjoyed reading your book and it feels really relevant in ways that I was surprised by. Would you mind giving us an overview of what the book's about?
Gabriella: I argue in the book that the development of digital economies depends on locally specific systems of inequalities that these economies harness for their growth. And in Japan, gender is a key structuring principle of inequality. And as such, it's served as an important source to supply unpaid and underpaid labor, which was instrumental to the development of Japan's digital economy. So in the late 90s and early 2000s women turned to the digital economy because in the midst of a long recession, they found themselves marginalized from career-stream employment and the traditional labor market. And what I mean by career-stream employment is employment that came with career structure, possibilities for promotion, job protection, and benefits. And these women, the women who found themselves marginalized from career-stream employment, turn to a digital economy in search of opportunities to develop DIY careers that they saw as more meaningful. Internet entrepreneurs who were overwhelmingly men exploited these initiatives by building online platforms around entrepreneurial women's activities that ended up integrating these women into new regimes of unpaid and feminized affective labor.
And maybe a little bit more about what I was trying to theoretically achieve. Essentially I pursued three goals. The first one was that I tried to disentangle the relationship between affective and emotional labor, just as their analytical value to theorize digital labor. This is something that I will continue doing because it feels like a theoretical task that that will take a longer time to develop. My second goal was to expand upon the idea of the social factory, which I found very inspiring. And what I tried to do in the book was to see how the digital economy functions as a social factory, which I understand is a form of production that expands practices of extracting surplus value from unpaid labor.
And the third issue or concept that I found really engaging was Paulo Virno's “Ideology of the Possible.” In the context of my research, I use this concept to examine how owners of online platforms generated profit from what we could describe as hope labor or aspirational labor. And this is actually where my research and entrepreneurial women in Japan overlaps in my own experiences as an academic. Because I find it curious how many academics are willing to maintain unreasonable levels of productivity in the hope of getting a better job that comes with better labor conditions and salaries.
Allison: I think you might've just made a hundred thousand new friends saying that on this podcast. I think a lot of people's ears probably just perked right up.
Gabriella: I don't know if you read Lauren Berlant's Cruel Optimism.
Allison: I have, yeah.
Gabriella: I think this is what it is like. It's kind of cruel optimism. But in the context of my research on Japan's digital economy, the ideology of the possible means that every entrepreneur is a potential Mark Zuckerberg. That if you work hard enough, you can achieve something. And that's not quite the case. That's one of the things I tried to show in the book.
Allison: Could you give us an example of what you mean by digital labor?
Gabriella: For instance, the labor of a blogger or the labor a net idol. So the type of labor to produce online content or to maintain relationships with fans over the internet.
Allison: I can imagine that that kind of labor is hard to recognize as labor for a lot of people.
Gabriella: Yes, absolutely. One issue is that some someone extracts surplus value of the content we produce. The other issue is that maintaining social media pages takes a lot of work. And often this is work that some of which we enjoy and we can understand, or we could think of as not labor, as something as an activity that belongs in the realm of play. But often what we have to do is not entirely within our control. And I think that's another aspect from which you could think of digital labor as labor, because you're totally right. And this is a very astute observation that some people say that, well, this is not labor. And if you don't want to do it, just don't do it. But many of us are under enormous pressure to maintain Facebook pages for instance. We do that those activities, not necessarily within parameters that we entirely control, because there are some conventions of presentation, for instance, that we need to follow.
One issue is the profit that is derived from it that we produce content, which means that, in relation to the net idols, for instance, that they had to have fans in order to develop their careers. But then they needed to invest a lot of work into maintaining relationships with those fans. And I mentioned, in the book for instance, that one of them I interviewed told me that she had a full-time job. She went home and she had 40 emails waiting for her to respond to. And if she didn't respond, the fans she didn't respond to moved on to another net idol who had the time to respond. And that's where this began to feel, not so much as play, but more something that was closer to work.
Allison: Before we go forward, would you mind describing what a net idol is, just in case our listeners don't already know?
Gabriella: Absolutely. Net idols are micro celebrities. These were young women, who in the late 90s, around 98, 99, created their own webpages that were very similar to, or that were connected to, so called nikki saito or diary sites. And what they did was that they uploaded their photos, usually portraits, also their poetry or their diaries, most commonly their diaries. And they maintained relationships with fans. They were so-called proto-bloggers. The very first ones actually learned to do some HTML coding because at that point, social media sites were not developed to the point that they would have been able to use them. So they created their own websites. And then internet entrepreneurs created the so-called diary sites around their activities.
Allison: I don't know if you use this word in the book, but I found myself thinking a lot about what we call influencers these days in the US, right? So, I mean, it's not exactly the same, but a kind of parallel, do you think?
Gabriella: Not for them yet, but bloggers are closer to influencers. The infrastructure of the internet in the late 90s just had not developed to the point or by the late 90s had just not developed to the point that that would have allowed net idols to become influencers. Like that was just the market wasn't big enough. But then some of these net idols became bloggers. And it was in the early 2000s, when blogging platforms were developed in Japan. Like Amoeba, Jugem and a few others, some of those then became influencers. But it simply just because the market wasn't big enough, I think they were not yet influencers. But how would you define an influencer? It just someone who really does advertising, right?
Allison: Yeah. I mean, I think of them as someone that tend to be young women, but I guess in the US right now, there are lots of younger men too. The phrase I'm thinking of is "famous for being famous" or "internet famous" or something like that. And the reason I found myself thinking about them while reading your book is that they seem to be pretty carefully curating a public persona that they're potentially monetizing. So they’re, you know, a beauty blogger or a vlogger, or have a YouTube channel, or they're a gamer or something like that. It's hard for me, as someone who's outside of all that, to understand exactly where the profit comes from.
I was talking with a former student a couple of days ago, who is now kind of betwixt and between. The job that she had been offered and had accepted is maybe not going to happen because of the pandemic. She's setting up a gaming computer for herself because she likes to play video games. And then was thinking about maybe starting a gaming channel on YouTube or something like Twitch or whatever. Then a friend of hers said, well, you know, maybe you should be careful because you might get a lot of harassment as a woman gamer. And she was like, Oh yeah, that's a good point. So she was just telling me that she might, she might do this. We'll see. I don't think she's trying to be an influencer, but that kind of process of putting your life online. You're trying to share something like your authentic life. But necessarily you're going to be editing it and making choices about what to wear or what to buy or how to talk, things like that.
Gabriella: In important ways, yes, absolutely. I see your point. And in some ways it's not just my work as an academic and hope labor that inspired this book, but also own kids. And especially the older one, that is his idea of a career.
Gabriella: That school is dumb. It's not worth investing into it because Markiplier, and I could list number of gamers who became famous and have 90 million followers, are making this much and that much and whatever amount of money a month. And I struggle with him a lot. I try to explain to him that the market is saturated and how is this different from wanting to become a world famous singer or a soccer player or whatever that is. Andrew Ross calls this the “jackpot economy.” That there's one Mark Zuckerberg, right? That's what I call the Ideology of the Possible. Somehow these careers become models of success, alternative models of success, for people who struggled with school or who somehow understand it better than people of my generation. Because to me what's important is job security.
And it's not even just my own children, but also my students. I teach courses about work and they look at me like “what?” They actually called it the Boomer Talk. [Allison laughs.] I don't know if you heard that. What is this Boomer Talk and where is this coming from? There are no secure jobs anymore. A job of an influencer is kind of a model of how a job looks like these days. That you create it from scratch. And it's not that you seek out opportunities, but that you create the opportunities. I think they're called influencers because they're able to convince some of their followers to buy the commodities they advertise.
There's a lot of embedded advertising in all this. For the net idols, they made money from showing up at anime conventions and at marketing events. They made money in different ways, but for them it was not just online. So the plan was to build a net idol career, to translate that into something from which they could make money. And whether they wanted to be, become photographers or whether they wanted to become mainstream celebrities. You asked me about the influencers and why I didn't use the term to describe net idols. I think simply just the market wasn't big enough for them to really function as influencers. But some of the bloggers I describe in chapter three actually are influencers. So one of them, Suzuki Junko, came up with very creative ways to describe what she did. It's not just up-titling, but when you read the job title, you wonder what is that? Like in Japan, we have food coordinators, right? Or fashion coordinators. And then you'd wonder what, what do they do? They give fashion advice. So they're essentially influencers, but as far as I know to call them influencers, is something recent.
Allison: And just to be clear, I wasn't trying to suggest that you should have used that word or even that it was correct or accurate for what they are and what they're doing. Is it fair to imagine that some of these characteristics that you're describing in Japan might also relate to characters like influencers in the US?
Gabriella: You're absolutely right. Because even for instance, the online traders, like one of the arguments I make there is that some of these women published books about online trading. And in fact, much of the money they earned were from royalties, not from trading online. That is a category of influencer, right? Because the sources of profit for the women is not actually online trading. It's rather the promotion of online trading, or writing books about online trading, holding seminars about online trading. So it's promoting online trading, which is a type of influencer too.
Allison: Yeah. So it would be like if I wasn't a professor, but I spent all my time giving advice about how to be a professor and what to wear and how to teach, but not really make my money actually being a professor. Is that a fair parallel?
Gabriella: I wonder if that's an influencer because we have someone like that in the Japan field, right.
Allison: I was actually just thinking that myself, yes.
Gabriella: Because both the bloggers, the Japanese bloggers I interviewed and the online traders, made a lot of money from writing tutorials about how to blog or how to become a successful blogger or how to become a successful trader. The whole industry of self-help books is also part of it.
Allison: I found this moment where Suzuki Junko, she described herself in English as quote pro-selfer, i.e. professional at taking selfies, creative director, photographer, model, hair-make, which is hair makeup in the Japanese version, promoter of Kawaii Labo Tokyo, Cute Laboratory Tokyo. Google Plus introduced her as fashion blogger, artist, good at adding chic and luxury. And then it goes on, it's basically a paragraph of these different, what could we call these, sort of job titles that she's using?
Gabriella: I started this project around 2010 and it was interesting for me to see how the titles change, because these are kind of invented professions. And depending on what there's demand for, these women develop new skills. The other blogger I interviewed for that particular chapter, for instance, became interested in beauty technologies. She lost a lot of weight. And then she became an expert in that. So maybe another thing, and I don't know if anyone has ever done research on this in Japan, is expert culture. Which I think might be new or more specific to the internet age, that this person whose name escapes me now, who wrote this book is a famous media personality, wrote this book, “How to Become an Expert in Three Hours,” the idea that you develop some expertise that you can package and sell. That's probably also part of what an influencer is.
Allison: it's also reminding me of this movie, called “Eighth Grade.” Part of the premise is this young woman is in eighth grade, so what's that like 13 or 14. She's American. And in the film, part of what she's doing is basically being bullied at school and having all these difficult social problems that are not really her fault and then going home and she wants to become an influencer. So online on YouTube, she's recording all these advice videos. And I found that to be so compelling as an idea that the people who most want to give advice are the people who actually have the problems, right? It's not the person who's necessarily figured it out, but the process of giving advice is actually a way to work out a solution for yourself. Someone who wants to give advice, that's actually a clue that they haven't got it all figured out.
Gabriella: Absolutely. that's a great observation because that's what I saw in Japan too. Especially among the net idols. So those women were searching for something. When you ask them, “why did you become a net idol?” they told me it was not that, “Oh, I wanted to develop it into a career.” They had no idea. They just thought things were not quite working out in their real lives. So the internet was emerging and they thought this would be a new space in which they could experiment with things. Some of them even use iyashi, the terminology of healing, that for them to be able to experiment with things, to have the experience of being admired, being supported, had healing properties.
And in the context of bloggers, I also find it really strange or funny that many of these bloggers really made money from writing books about how to become a famous blogger. So there's something ironic in there that that is the career that they promote.
Allison: So the career is advice about something else.
Allison: I don't know how much you want to talk about your older son's thoughts, but as you were saying earlier, that he's currently convinced that the labor market is not really viable and the kind of secure employment that you and I, frankly, are interested in. He's not interested in because he sounds like he doesn't believe it's possible. I was thinking, well, first of all, it sounds like you all must have incredible conversations, given your research. He's probably talking to the most well-informed person he could possibly be talking to. But also he might be right, the accuracy or the realism of being aware, feeling affectively that the labor market is changing and that these other opportunities aren't there. So I might as well try to become a net idol, or I might as well write a cell phone novel or something like that. I was just thinking about whether or not these bloggers and net idols and day traders are really picking up on the reality of a changing, changing labor market.
Gabriella: Absolutely. In Japan, what was interesting to me is how it was gendered. Some might argue that a lot of young people turn to the internet too, and I didn't do that research. So I can't, I can't speak to it. But it seemed to me that in Japan women became very important or instrumental to the development of the digital economy, because they were the ones who were marginalized in the labor market. And because of that, they turned to the digital economy. Here in the US, it's the same. Gender, of course, it played out somewhat differently. So I wouldn't say that gender wasn't important in the development of digital economy, but it was not important as much as it was in Japan. And I keep having this conversation with my children. To me, it's a political question. Whether you accept the reality of the job market as it is or whether you fight it. But what they're telling me is that the competition is crazy. I think a lot of the kids simply find the competition daunting, and there are fewer jobs that come with seeking job security and that's what drives them to the internet. My problem is that when that's all they think of, and they kind of don't do well in school because they really convinced themselves that these are viable careers. What I'm trying to tell them, and this is what I learned in the context of my own research about entrepreneurial women in Japan’s digital economy, is that there's people who succeed work just as hard as the people who make it to Stanford, because it's incredibly hard to succeed in these jobs too.
Allison: Thank you for saying that so clearly. What you just said helps us get to one of the key terms in your book, which is visibility and invisibility. Part of what you're saying is that digital laborers are working just as hard as the person who got into Stanford or someone else in the labor market later in life, but that their labor and their work is much less visible. Especially if they're women in Japan. Is that a fair way to say it?
Gabriella: Absolutely. What I found ironic was that many of these women fought for visibility, right? Like, for instance, the net idols who would put themselves out there, even though they were criticized as being exhibitionists or doing something that is distasteful, but they would take the risk, put themselves out there in order to try to do something new. So in some ways they were fighting to obtain visibility. And what I found interesting or ironic was that entrepreneurs would develop platforms around women's activities, that then mobilizes women to forms of labor that were invisible. Just taking care of fans and remembering fans’ birthdays and emailing with fans.
Allison: Much of the labor, the dirtiest work, of these jobs becomes vitally necessary, but largely invisible.
Gabriella: Absolutely. And it kind of comes back a little bit to the question you asked about digital labor, because that's a brilliant question. That's what people work on digital labor get asked all the time. Why is this labor? Like, are you sure this is labor? And the same was true for net idols that they felt like, you know, they would work all day and then go home, spend hours updating content on their websites and answering emails. But then they had to work also for getting their labor recognized as labor because it wasn't. The discourse was that they were having fun and they someone to boost their own egos while they were boosting fans’ egos. And the argument I make there is that the very context of this is very important, which is the recession. In which there's this deficit in care. So these net idols take care of precarious workers, precarious workers take care of net idols, but this is all invisible labor in the sense that it's not recognized as labor and it's not paid, not compensated.
Allison: One of the reasons that all of these practices are so deeply gendered in Japan is because of the way the Japanese labor market was structured before the recession. I think it might be helpful to just hear you describe that pre-recessionary Japanese labor market and the way that gender impacted that.
Gabriella: In the post-war period, gender served as a key criterion to supply flexible labor, Japan had this so-called lifetime employment system, which meant that people would apply for jobs when they graduated and they would get jobs for life. But as Bill Kelly, your advisor, argued only 30% of the population had access to it. So there was this fabulous system of employment in Japan in place, but it was gendered because women were largely excluded from it. It was only accessible to 30% of the population, mainly to men. But what happened in Japan in the past 30 years is that the bubble burst and then Japan sank into a prolonged recession. The gender discrimination and discriminatory employment practices just became further exacerbated in the 90s and early 2000s. At the same time during this period, Japan’s internet economy started emerging. And that is why women turned to the economy.
Allison: These young women were trying to make viable careers for themselves in an earnest way. And weren't necessarily able to to create the career they intended. As we said earlier, they're making money off giving advice about the career as opposed to the career itself. But they were really trying to make a good job for themselves or make a career for themselves, right?
Gabriella: Right. That's right. The transition from the net idols to the bloggers is interesting because the net idols became net idols to use it as a jumping board to something else. So one of the net idols I interviewed wanted to become a photographer. She was very influenced by the so-called girly photographers, and she wanted to become a famous photographer. For bloggers, that was the job itself, to be a blogger because by then, by the early 2000s, the digital economy had evolved to the point that it was able to sustain these careers with the book contracts, with cosmetics contracts, advertising.
Allison: One of the things that I found absolutely fascinating in your book is the point you're making that these new capitalist structures have figured out ways to extract labor from people who aren't even employees. If the previous model was you hire an employee and then extracting the excess labor from them. You say, I just want to quote you because I thought this was so beautifully said, that these systems now extract surplus value from labor without actually employing the workers. They don't even have to be employees to get the labor extracted. Would you mind talking a little bit more about that? I feel like it's such a helpful insight in so many different cultural contexts.
Gabriella: Absolutely. A good example would be the blogging platforms. But I found interesting in relation to blogging platforms in Japan is that their owners emphasize that the bloggers are not workers. They are content producers. And this is for hobby. They are consumers and they're content producers, but they are not workers. So however they define the goals of the platform, they really very clearly steer away from defining bloggers as workers. So we have this structure within which bloggers build a career and try to develop a following and produce content, which means that every day they spend hours maintaining a blog, creating new content, researching trends about what's interesting and what kind of topics would attract readers to their blogs. They do all this work hoping to gain traction and to gain fame. Some of them succeed, but most of them don't. And I mention this in the particular chapter to understand a little bit more how Amoeba, which is the main blogging platform in Japan, works. I signed up for a blog and I was automatically enrolled in ranking that you can of course calibrate in a way that it works better for you. But I was included in the general ranking. The interface itself looks a little bit as if I was a commodity on the stock market. Like my value, there are the little arrows that my value goes up and down, but I literally was the nineteenth millionth, or I can't even say what that is, right. Like my number, the number that was assigned to me in terms of my popularity ranking really was around the 20 millionth. And I was thinking to myself, wow, that's, there's a long way from there to the top.
So bloggers are not called workers, but at the same time, there's a lot of advertising going on. Profit is extracted from labor that is not recognized as labor. And that works in more and more contexts. And I'm not saying that that came with the digital economy. But what I do suggest is that with the emergence and mainstreaming of the digital economy, these practices also get more normalized, Think about your work or my work. How much of it is work that we don't really need to do. Or what I mean that we don't get compensated for, but think of what we have in our contracts, right? That we have to do X, Y, and Z. And we do like a bunch more other things. Employers increasingly expect those things from us. Like how many committees do we have to work on, but I don't want to get into ours, because that's a totally different topic.
Allison: Just to say, this is one of the things that I love so much about your book is that I read it because I'm interested in Japan and gender and labor. And because I love your first book.
Gabriella: That’s nice of you to say.
Allison: It's true. But as I was reading it, I was really identifying with these people that I did not expect to identify with for exactly this reason that you're describing a system that is remarkably parallel, to those systems in which I find myself as well. You know, my marginalia in my copy of your book is about things like email, the kinds of work that I think I need to do in the position I'm in, but it's, it's at least fuzzy, right?
Gabriella: That's right.
Allison: If not actually just extra bonus added labor. I can say that the worst part of my job is email without a doubt.
Gabriella: I know. And I've been thinking too what to do with emails or how to manage it because there really are literally days when I feel like I'm a glorified customer service representative. Like I sit in front of my email and just, okay, and one. And I tell myself, do not open the email if you cannot answer it because it's going to be buried under emails and you will forget. Like we have to come up with these new strategies and it's a time suck.
Allison: It's a time suck.
Gabriella: So you asked me about how employers increasingly extract value from labor that is not recognized as labor. And somehow we ended up coming back to our own jobs
Allison: My personal problems [laughs]
Gabriella: and seeing the parallels. But you know, you really highlighted the gist of what I was struggling with in this book, which is this very idea that whether digital labor is labor and women did not fight more to get that labor recognized as labor. When I argue about how cuteness was key to their success, not only in the context of the net idols, but also the bloggers, because it was all about promoting services and commodities or their own books, they always have to make themselves pretty. Women did not fight more to get that labor recognized as labor. So often they accepted this kind of fuzziness around the definition of what they were doing as something that is clearly not play, but it's not labor. Like for instance, where I closed the book is in the context of Western Europe or in the United States. There's more resistance against exploitation in the digital economy. There are more discussions about how exploitation happens within the digital economy, which in Japan, before I finished the research for this book, I did not see.
Allison: That's fascinating. I was going to ask you to talk a little bit about the example that you bring up in the conclusion, which is a campaign called “Wages for Facebook,” because I think it crystallizes so much of what you were talking about. Would you mind talking a little bit about what was going on there?
Gabriella: I came across this website and I thought it was very interesting that it was modeled after the Wages for Housework manifesto, right? From the 70s. And the whole thing, when I show it to the students in class, they think like this is kind of a spoof or like a joke or this is not serious. And then we start talking about it. And always we get into this conversation about digital labor. Facebook is not even not even work. I mean, if you read that manifesto, you think, are you kidding, really? Wages for Facebook? But it highlights some of the ironies of how, you know, value is produced from work that is not compensated. And I'm not saying it should be compensated because I don't think it will be viable.
Allison: I should clarify that, as I understand it, the Wages for Facebook manifesto or campaign, what they're asking for is people should be paid for the connections that they are maintaining via Facebook. So to say happy birthday to people, or, comment on their posts, something like that kind of interpersonal connection building and sustaining should be paid as well.
Gabriella: And it often falls on women. Like I often hear this from family members, too. My sister has to keep in touch with her in-laws. It's like that shouldn't be your job.
Gabriella: But Facebook, when there's some kind of social movements or in unionization efforts. Like I often get emails that “could you help us, if you are a social media savvy, could you help us with social media to spread the word and to recruit people.” And like then that is work, right?
Gabriella: So they use social media to do some form of volunteer work that is work. This is something that is, it's difficult. You know, you finish a book, you publish it and it's not that you are done thinking about that. At least with this book, I had that feeling that these are issues that I need to continue working on and developing as the economy itself is evolving.
Allison: That completely makes sense to me because frankly, to me, it makes sense because I think the book is so relevant. The topics in the book and the book itself are so relevant that it's not something that you could, or any one of us could stop thinking about. It feels like it's only going to become more and more relevant. So you're talking really about some perceptions of a gap between digital labor and, you know, real labor in-person labor. And I was thinking too, that there seems to be a parallel gap between harassment online and harassment or violence in what we might call real life. Things like, how could or should universities take seriously misogynistic or racist or anti-Semitic things that are posted online versus in real life? There was an incident, probably about four years ago where I teach, at the University of Michigan where terrible anti-Black racist posters were put up on campus in different places, in a dorm mostly. And so I, you know, bring it up in class and invite students to talk about it if they want. And there's one student who was a white man who was very thoughtful and he just said, this is trolling. The way you handle a troll is you ignore them. If we give them any attention, they will win. And I want to be clear and say, I think this man believed himself to be anti-racist. He was not supporting the posters at all, but he was saying, basically, I know what this is, and this is trolling. And if this were happening online, what you do is ignore them. And I've been thinking about that for four years. I don't think you can do that in real life. Like, I don't know if it works online, but I think sometimes using the kinds of strategies and tools that are viable or realistic or accurate or good online don't translate to in-person face-to-face in-real-life kinds of interactions. And so I think one of the things I find so incredibly stimulating about your book is that you're helping us or me at least think about those divides. And in what ways are things that are happening digitally different from things that are happening in real life. And in what ways are they not? In what ways are these actually connected in really significant ways?
Gabriella: Thank you so much for your kind words. Lisa Nakamura is at Michigan, right?
Allison: Yeah, she is. Yeah.
Gabriella: Her work is fantastic. She has an article about content moderators who are sometimes called social justice warriors, like women, African-American women who would call out racist internet users. And then they will be derided for doing that, scorned for not having a sense of humor and so on and so forth. It's interesting what your students says. And actually Nakamura has another article about cruel optimism and video games, which kind of reminded me a lot of your student’s arguments. We are digressing. This doesn't pertain to my book, but it's about digital labor. It's about the digital labor of content moderators and social media users. So call out others for behaviors that are not acceptable, that compromise environments in ways that make them not inclusive to certain social media users. And in the other article Nakamura also talks about this idea of female gamers. Often female gamers find it difficult to succeed in that world because there's a perception that they're not good players. And often male players don't want them on their teams because allegedly they are not as good as other male players. And what these young women would say is that, you know, I just have to improve. I have to get better because if I'm better, they will not think that. But that's not the way to deal with this, with the discriminatory mechanisms.
Allison: If you wouldn't mind talking a little bit about the methods, the research methods you use to do this work. Was it hard to get interviews with some of these net idols or bloggers? They seem like in some ways they're celebrities. I imagine it might've been hard to get them to talk to you in a research context.
Gabriella: Yes. I had the same problem in my first book too, my television book that I interviewed famous people who were famous for that book, right? Television, producers, script writers, and somehow I end up having the same problem, always. Like it's the same for my second book. And it's the same for the book I'm currently working on. That I end up interviewing famous people and that is the most difficult thing to convince them that it would be worth their time to meet with me and talk with me about their work. In the context of my second book, it was a little bit easier because a lot of these women thought of meeting me as just another channel to promote themselves. But some of them did not know anything about the realities of publishing in the United States. Some of them I met in the early 2010s, that's like 2012. And they had no idea that my book would come out eight years later. I didn't know either. I was hoping that I would finish it earlier. I was hoping that Duke University Press did not take as long as it did. But in my research, that's usually a tricky thing, to get people to talk to me. What I find is that it's doable. You either need introductions, which usually doesn't work out, or you need to write a very convincing email to them in which you demonstrate that you're intimately familiar with their work and that it makes perfect sense for them to talk to you. That actually they will get something out of it.
Allison: It reminds me of like writing a cover letter for a job. You're trying to convince them, I know what you need and I can give it to you.
Gabriella: That is exactly what it is. For the kind of research I somehow always end up doing it's very important to not think of an interview as a source of information. Of course it's the source of information, but it's something that I have to do a lot of research for. Probably more research than I would normally do to interview someone about her habits of watching television dramas, let's say. I read whatever I find, printed interviews with people, and I write a letter asking them to talk to me in which I demonstrate that I know their work and it will make sense for them to talk to me.
Like for instance, I made a mistake with Ninagawa Mika, who was probably the most famous of the people I interviewed for the second book. I told her that I would write a chapter about girly photographers, but I did not know that they were very sensitive about the concept itself, that they hated to be called "girly." She wrote me back saying, I'm not interested in that. I'm not available. And then I had to write her another email. I had to read a little more. And I write another email that I know I get it. And then she, she told me that, sure, come over. I think this is specific to the type of work I do, but that was one of the most difficult things. So essentially the book is, in terms of methods, it's based on structured interviews with women and because many of them were famous, there were articles published with them and popular magazines, weeklies, monthly kind of popular publications like Aera, Fujin Kôron, Kokuhikyo, Bijitsu techo. So I read all those articles and then I met them. And I also attended seminars that day traders held, gave to other inspiring young women to become day traders or, josei no mirai con or something similar, that hosted talks for women who wanted to start some kind of entrepreneurial activity. I find the information about them online and I just showed up and sometimes I had to pay some admission fee. And because I was the only foreigner, I usually was asked what I was doing there and I had the chance to talk to the presenter. That was a plus.
Allison: Like me, you do not look Japanese and, and you're not Japanese. And I was wondering how that impacted your research process. Were people more inclined to talk to you or, or less inclined, or what do you think?
Gabriella: In the context of my research, yes. Like when I did my work for the television industry, I remember Japanese media scholars telling me that it's easier for you to get interviews with these people, with television professionals, because you come from the US and they kind of look up to Hollywood. We would have a harder time getting interviews with them. The people I wanted to interview, I was able to interview. For the television book of course there were a few people, I was not able to interview but they were super busy. So I did not think it had anything to do with me not being Japanese. So I think it's actually easier because in some ways there might be less at stake for interlocutors. And partly, they're curious. Often I find that they asked me as many questions as I asked them.
The other thing that is easier for me is that the people I interview are used to being interviewed, most of them. And even the net idols, one of them that chapter, the net idol chapter features, the first time I met her, she showed me a thick binder of interviews with her that she collected. Most of these people were used to being interviewed and that made also things easier. And they might have even been interviewed by people who are not Japanese. But I think it really depends on the context. I easily imagine that there are contexts in which the fact that I'm not Japanese would work against me.
Allison: Was there some detail or footnote or idea that in the book that was especially hard to figure out? I think academics work really, really hard to get something figured out and then it just looks, it just looks like nothing. So I was wondering if you might, if it's not too personal, and narrate something that was really hard to find or get access to or figure out, so that we might appreciate the labor in the book a little bit more.
Gabriella: You're so, you’re so right. Because it really is when we read the book it’s like, why that makes perfect sense, but I can tell you that the book didn't make any sense for a decade.
Allison: Yeah, exactly.
Gabriella: I'm not even sure I have one concrete example because the first research proposal for this project was based on an assumption that proved to be entirely wrong, which was something like the digital economy empowers women in the realm of work, which ended up being the total opposite. The initial argument was something that was informed by a technological utopianism. I kind of embraced women's attraction to digital technologies and their intimate relationships with them. And the hopes they projected onto these technologies that they will help them gain leverage in the realm of labor or on the labor market. But that really wasn't the case. And it took me a long time to figure out, to theoretically engage the idea of technological utopianism. That I don't accept women's technological utopianism, but I problematize it. That was something that I struggled with. There's a contradiction in the book, which is that I make an argument that women turned to the digital economy to create meaningful DIY careers, careers that they perceived as meaningful to them, or that becomes sources of self-growth for them. But most of them did not succeed. But I tell this story through stories of success, because the people I interviewed were successful people, were the ones who were visible and who I could reach out to and interview them as successful bloggers. And I tried to tell their stories in ways that I also tried to argue that well, in fact, they were not typical. They had an advantage. Many of them came from wealthier families, many of them went to top schools. They were front runners, they were pioneers. And then the market became saturated for what they were doing. So I kind of struggled with that aspect of the book. That I tell stories of successful female entrepreneurs to argue that it's nearly impossible to make a viable and lucrative career in Japan’s digital economy for women.
Allison: I see the contradiction. At the same time that, as a reader, what it felt like was you were telling me that it's incredibly hard to become successful, but even when these women do become successful, success is not that great. Like it, as I said earlier, I have frustrations in my job like anyone else, but by the end of reading your book, I did not want to do any of the jobs that you described. Right? Like even the success stories are pretty depressing.
Gabriella: I am so happy that you say that. This is a very, very nice understanding. I struggled so hard not to portray women as victims because in many ways I admired them. I admire their tenacity. I admire their willingness to put so much work into doing something that they believed in. So I had a hard time not to discuss my own anxieties about them driving changes in the domain of work that I thought would not be good for the generations that follow them. By which I mean generalizing forms of labor, forms of employment that don't come with job protections, benefits, don't come with a career structure. And I worried about this throughout the book. That was something I struggled with, like how to present that and how to not let that anxiety overwhelm the stories of these women. That they're driving changes in the realm of work that, that are not going to be good for us, that this kind of emphasis on the meaningfulness of work, as opposed to job security is tricky because this is kind of a pendulum. It's always we have to somewhat balance this too.
Allison: I've been very struck in the last five years by how many undergraduate students and graduate students use the word "passion" when they're talking about what they do or why they do it, or even sometimes what their major is. So I was at an event one time and we were going around to introduce ourselves. And rather than saying, "hi, I'm Allison and my major is anthropology." The students said, "hi, my name is Allison. And I have a passion for anthropology." And I was like, what, what, what does that mean? Like do I, I have a passion for anthropology. Like I kinda like it. And I'm actually literally a professional anthropologist, but what is, what does that mean? All my red flags went off, to be honest, because I thought, geez, if you're, if you're wanting your job to match up perfectly with your passion, that is hard and it's hard to get, and it's hard to keep because your passions will change, hopefully. And I wonder if there's something similar in that.
Gabriella: Absolutely, Allison. Absolutely. Because another problem with this type of internet-based jobs is this idea that they are fun. Life is not always fun. It's a lot of hard work and you have to understand that. And this passion too, I taught my first class and I asked students about why they decided to take this class, whether they had any special interest in this topic. I do remember hearing the word passion. And I wonder if it's not this kind of instant gratification, what we discussed in relation to the internet that, these younger generations have a hard time reading and they find it tedious. So they're on the web all the time. And because it releases endorphin and whatever that is, but they need instant gratification. And there's also something about this pleasure principle that they expect things to be, you know what I call meaningful, because that's another thing that people ask me about them, both. What does that mean? And what, why did people use that particular adjective to describe the type of work that they thought they would enjoy? It worries me, this idea that what we do for work has to align with our passion.
Allison: Yeah. It worries me too. And it made me worried for the student the first time I heard it and really heard it. I thought, Oh, no, no, no, no, run away. That's not right. I don't know why I had that reaction. Because it felt like it felt like they were internalizing a kind of corporate model. We've all been in situations where we have to go to, say, a work party. And, it is with your colleagues, your work colleagues, it is work. You are going not because these are your real actual friends, but because this is a work event. And at that party or that event, you can't say, Oh, here we are at work, right? You have to pretend that you're having a good time and you very well might be having a good time, but that kind of line is tricky. And it seems to me to mess with your head if you have to constantly pretend that you're doing your paid work, or unpaid work for that matter, as a pure pleasure, right. As pure fun, that feels even worse to me.
Gabriella: I absolutely agree with you. I don't know if this happened to you, but in like teaching evaluations or in, in peer evaluations of teaching, I would get things like more enthusiasm. I try my best, believe me, but sometimes it's not that my colleagues announced when they would come to my lectures and some lectures, you know, some, some go better than others.
Allison: Sure, sure.
Gabriella: But also last week I had to do TA orientation and together with a mentor TA. And it was interesting that she kept emphasizing that that is the key to good teaching, enthusiasm. That you put your soul into what you do. But it's a job. Like I understand the deal with people and if you don't enjoy, they don't enjoy it either. I understand it. But this is the classic problem of emotional labor, right? That the one that Arlie Hochschild wrote about, that flight attendants are paid, what they're really paid for is not really what they are valued for. Essentially, they do things that others will do in a restaurant, but then they're also safety specialists. But what really produces profit to the airline companies is that them smiling and making people feel more comfortable and easier about flying that involves, you know, dangers, right? But they're not, they're not paid for smiling. It goes back to this idea that what is it that we are paid for and how much of our own inner self we are expected to put in that? And when do we burnout, if we don't protect ourselves.
Allison: Yeah. I have to say, I really found myself wanting to ask you if you have any advice, especially in the conclusion you talk about the need for boundaries between work and life, so that one's work doesn't become their whole life. And I thought oh my God, you have discovered my central problem. Especially in these pandemic times. I realized a couple months into the stay-at-home order here in Michigan, that I did have boundaries between my home and work, but they were very spatial. So I would do my work outside the house. And when I came home, I might look at my email, but I wouldn't really work on it. And then I would leave again in the morning and go to a cafe or go to my office or my department. And now my boundaries are obliterated because I go from one room to the next room. I don't want to put you on the spot, but I found myself thinking, I'm sure you have great insights. And I don't know if you feel comfortable converting those into advice or suggestions or even questions, but I would love to hear what you're thinking about in terms of labor as it's being done now in the pandemic.
Gabriella: I actually wish I had. I'm awful. My colleagues describe me as a workaholic. I have a really hard time setting boundaries. And that is one of the reasons why I wrote the book because I knew I had a problem that I needed to deal with. So that was part of it. I hear you perfectly about the difficulties of compartmentalizing in these conditions. I find myself being angry for having to teach Zoom classes from my own study and having to clean it up and having to explain why I do what I do in my own room. We are not able to compartmentalize work. This is something I've been working on. Like a few weeks ago, my partner and I started doing jigsaw puzzles. You know, just whatever drives me away from work. Because what I find is that at some point, the problem is not only that you burn yourself out, but also that at some point your productivity starts decreasing, but you still work, right? I wish I could give you tips. It's something I'm working on. And I haven't yet succeeded.
Allison: As a last question, are there any books or articles or films or anything that you would recommend our listeners check out?
Gabriella: Oh my goodness. There's so many good books. In relation to my work, but we mentioned earlier, Akiko Takeyama’s “Staged Seduction.”
Allison: I love it. Yeah. It's a great book.
Gabriella: Manabe Noriko’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” which is about protest music. I don't know if you saw Paul Roquet’s book “Ambient Media”.
Allison: I did, yeah. It’s wonderful.
Gabriella: I really liked that. Or Lorraine Plourde’s “Tokyo Listening.” Mark Steinberg's, “Platform Economy” is a wonderful book too. Patrick Galbraith's “Otaku.”
Allison: These are wonderful suggestions. This has been honestly, such a joyful conversation. I feel like I could talk to you forever, but you've given up so much time. So I just want to say thank you for your time and for talking with me today. I really appreciate it.
Gabriella: Kochira koso. Thank you so much for the opportunity.
Allison: Thanks for listening to this episode of Michigan Talks Japan. If you're interested, please check out other episodes, which are available where you found this one and through all podcasting platforms. We're always interested in your reactions or comments, so please reach out on facebook or twitter @umcjs. I want to thank the Center for Japanese Studies, Reggie Jackson for our theme song, David Merchant for IT support, and Jordan Cleland for production work. This podcast was co-produced by Robin Griffin, Justin Schell, and myself, and edited by Robin Griffin. I’m Allison Alexy and I hope you’ll join us for the next episode, a conversation with Dr. Jayanti Selinger.