Covid-19 and Social Isolation in Japan

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Author: Laura Haapio-Kirk,  PhD researcher, UCL Anthropology. Laura is also a member of the Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing (ASSA) team.

Fieldsite: Laura conducted fieldwork in Kyoto, where she lived while conducting the research, as well as a small town of 4,000 people in the rural Kochi prefecture of South West Japan.

Talking with people in my fieldsites in Kyoto and Kōchi, Japan, it has become clear that one of the main issues facing older people during the covid-19 pandemic is social isolation, exacerbated by inability to use new communication technology. While some are confident with using a smartphone and a webcam on their PC, many others are not. Many older people still use flip-phones and have yet to make the transition to smartphones. For those who have switched, they can struggle to use features that go beyond basic calling. Especially for families living apart, there has been a rush to try to teach grandparents how to do video calling, often by talking them through the steps on the phone. However, teaching skills like how to use a touch screen are hard to do remotely.

In rural Kōchi, I am part of a LINE messaging group with several women over the age of 75. The LINE group was initially set up for a nutritional intervention I was collaborating on with doctors from Osaka and Kyoto Universities, but during the virus, the group has become a space for sharing virus-related information. For example, a member of the local social welfare office posted a message asking for people to make fabric face masks, and the women replied with photos of the masks they had made. These women all want to become more confident with using their smartphone, hence why they joined a local ‘smartphone’ club for elderly people. Whether training comes from such official sources, or from friends and family, covid-19 has shown just how critical such educational interventions are when dealing with social isolation.