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Full Programme: 3rd EMTECH Conference "Narrating Emotional Closeness between Humans and Machines in Japanese (Popular) Culture and Literature"

Oct 14, 2022 - Oct 15, 2022

Full Programme (with abstracts):

Narrating Emotional Closeness between Humans and Machines in Japanese (Popular) Culture and Literature

Conference Organized by the ERC-Funded Research Project
“Emotional Machines: The Technological Transformation of Intimacy in Japan” (EMTECH)

Event Date: 14–15 October, 2022
: Elena Giannoulis and Berthold Frommann

Link for joining the video conference: https://fu-berlin.webex.com/meet/berthold.frommann

Day 1: 09:45–14:00 CEST | 14 October, 2022 (Fr)

  • 09:45–10:00 | Welcome

PANEL 1: Intimacy and Emotion in Human-Machine Interaction
(Chair: Carman Ng)

  • 10:00–10:45 | Narratives of Human–Machine Interaction in Japanese Popular Culture
    Elena Giannoulis (Freie Universität Berlin)
    Berthold Frommann (Freie Universität Berlin)

In recent years, narratives in Japanese (popular) culture and literature have made it clear that people envision machines based on new expectations of them. Now, machines are expected to meet the emotional needs of humans. The intimacy between humans and emotionally intelligent machines or robots already plays an important role in everyday life in present-day Japan. Also, close relationships between humans and machines, in various forms, have become a common trope in fiction. Human–machine relationships in fictional forms provide a way of imagining the future coexistence of humans and machines. The major focus in such narratives is on issues surrounding emotions: the capacity to form attachments, opportunities for relationships, and obstacles to forming relationships between humans and machines.

To humans, machines are alien, the ‘other’. Machines are artificially created instead of naturally evolved. This otherness alone is cause for instinctive mistrust. However, the more highly-developed machines resemble humans in appearance and behaviour, the easier it is to look past the differences and build trust, which is the basis for the development of relationships. If a machine serves as a partner, the following questions arise: To what extent are the actions and feelings of machines ‘authentic’? Is the mere illusion of intimacy enough to meet emotional needs, from a human perspective? What do machines actually feel, and why do they enter into relationships with humans?

Short Bios

Elena Giannoulis is Professor in Japanese Studies at the Department of History and Cultural Studies at Freie Universität Berlin, where she also worked as a research assistant from 2008-2013. Further, she is Principal Investigator of the European Research Council research group “Emotional Machines: The Technological Transformation of Intimacy in Japan” (EMTECH). In 2011, she received a post-doctoral fellowship in the Humanities in the U.S., awarded by Volkswagen Foundation. Moreover, she obtained a three-year postdoctoral fellowship at the Interdisciplinary Graduate School “Languages of Emotion“. In September 2009, she received her PhD in Japanese Studies.
Her recent publications include: Giannoulis, Elena (2023). Die Kodierung von Emotionen in Ogawa Yōkos Werken: Sensorisches Schreiben und Stimmungstableaus (The Encoding of Emotions in Ogawa Yōko’s Works: Sensory narration and mood tableaux) (working title) (forthcoming). Giannoulis, Elena; Wilde, Lukas R.A. (Eds.) (2019). Emoticons, Emoji and Kaomoji: The Transformation of Communication in the Digital Age. Routledge Research in Language and Communication. New York, London: Routledge. Blut als Tinte: Wirkungs-und Funktionsmechanismen zeitgenössischer shishōsetsu (Blood as Ink: Mechanisms of Effects and Functions of Contemporary I-Novels). München: Iudicium. Vol. 22.
Focus areas: Modern and contemporary Japanese literature and culture, emotions and emotional technologies, self-narratives, literary translation, the literary market in Japan.

Berthold Frommann is a Research Associate in the European Research Council research group “Emotional Machines: The Technological Transformation of Intimacy in Japan” (EMTECH) at the Department of History and Cultural Studies at Freie Universität Berlin. In addition to science fiction literature, his research interests include linguistic typology, language universals, East Asian languages, and the role of language in cultural identity.

  • 10:45–11:30 | Representations and Experiences of Emotion, Intimacy, and Autonomy in Human–Robot Interaction
    Keiko Nishimura (Sophia University)

Keiko Nishimura, Ph.D
Lecturer, Sophia University, Tokyo, Japan

This paper examines the relationship between the popular cultural imagination of capacity for intimacy, emotion, and autonomy in Japanese manga/anime and the design, use, and experience of actual human-robot interaction. Following anthropologist Lucy Suchman’s observation (2006, 235–237) that the “humanness” of sociable robots is often “represented through an extensive corpus of media renderings,” I argue that scripted narratives are equally, if not more, important for the human-robot interaction in the Japanese popular cultural context than the robot’s technical capacity. Focusing on what Doyle (1997) calls the “vitality effect” of an artificial being, i.e., an assemblage of humans, machines, and narratives, such narrative scripts prove crucial to producing Pepper as an emotional character that enables affective interaction, potential intimacy, and an illusion of autonomy. This paper will give a close reading of the Japanese animated film by Yoshiura Yasuhiro, Time of Eve (2010) and Nishi Uko’s manga Tonari No Robotto (My Neighbor Robot) (2014), contrasting with the emotional character design and the actual lived experience of human-robot interaction between the commercially-available humanoid robot Pepper and its app developers, who were in charge of developing interactive sociable robot apps, based on my 13-month fieldwork in Tokyo between 2017-2018. By comparing and contrasting how emotion plays a role in the human-robot relationship and interaction, I explore how the popular cultural imagination of human-robot interaction and the practices of human-robot social interaction may inform and influence one another. Specifically, I examine how the popular cultural imagination of capacity for intimacy, emotion, and autonomy may inform and influence the design of real-life human-robot social interaction with the communication robot Pepper and how may the real-life interactive experiences inform the discourse of emotion, intimacy, and autonomy in popular culture. (284 words)

Short Bio

Keiko Nishimura received her Ph.D. in Communication (Cultural Studies) from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is a recipient of the Japan Foundation Doctoral Fellowship for 2017-2018. Her research and teaching focus on media and technology with a particular interest in the socio-cultural history of postwar and contemporary Japan. Her dissertation investigates how culture, society, and technology intersect in the figure of communication robots in both practices and discourses. Nishimura’s recent publications include “Semi-autonomous Fan Fiction: Japanese Character Bots and Nonhuman Affect,” published in the edited volume Socialbots and Their Friends: Digital Media and the Automation of Sociality (2016), and “Surechigai Sociality: Location-Aware Technology on the Yamanote Line” published in Japan Forum (2018).)

  • 11:30–11:45 | - Break -

PANEL 2: Posthuman and Transhuman Imaginaries
(Chair: Elena Giannoulis)

  • 11:45–12:30 | Toward Transversal Analyses of Posthuman Imaginaries
    Carman Ng

This presentation examines how posthuman imaginaries form in Japanese popular culture. Posthuman imaginaries describe particular visions and worldviews of our entanglement with emerging technologies and nonhuman entities, while their discursive formations build on and into technologies, media, discourses, and narratives. This analysis adopts a tripartite approach to clarify causalities and effects that underly Japanese espousal of human-robot flourishing. Focused on habituation, I discuss key parameters that primethis imaginary. For instance, artificial intelligence converges significant motifs in audiovisual media, say, subjectivities and desiring (dis)embodiment (Brown 2010), which complement encounters with robots constructed to invite affinity and culturally specific responses (Sone 2017). And as technologies like virtual and augmented reality become familiar, ubiquitous platforms and transmedial affective relations in the anime ecology (Steinberg 2019; Lamarre 2018) plausibly ease cultural inclusion of robots. With selected anime, digital games, and cultural practices, I illustrate a critique of posthuman imaginaries as lateral movements across scales. The intent is to elucidate the affective constitution of priming, pivotal to how media normalizehuman-robot coexistence as an achievable frontier. In this analysis, media are framed as designed experiences that, in eliciting various affects, offer approximations of attachment and intimacy that capitalism promises yet undermines. Instead of diagnosing such mediations as affective management that merely perpetrates nonsovereignty, which prompts subjects’ misrecognition of their motives and desires (Berlant & Edelman 2014: 236), I trace a transnational continuity that modulates robotics reception and experimentation. It extends from reading robots as ambiguous bodies complicit in Japan’s imperialism (Nakamura 2015) to the psychological impact and mythologies of robotic engagement today (e.g. Hasse & Søndergaard 2020; Ramirez 2021). Fundamentally, this work aims to reorient the striving for technocratic solutions toward an affective politics, to open up alternative registers of critique and designed experiences that account for the intersectional nuances of Japanese robot culture. (300 words)                                      


Berlant, L., & Edelman, L. (2014). Sex, or the unbearable. Durham: Duke University Press.
Brown, S. T. (2010). Tokyo cyberpunk: Posthumanism in Japanese visual culture. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Hasse, C., & Søndergaard, D. M. (Eds.). (2020). Designing robots, designing humans. Abingdon, Oxon; New York: Routledge.
Lamarre, T. (2018). The anime ecology: A genealogy of television, animation, and game media. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Nakamura, M. (2015). Monstrous bodies: The rise of the uncanny in modern Japan. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Ramirez, J. (2021). Against automation mythologies: Business science fiction and the ruse of the robots. New York: Routledge.
Sone, Y. (2017). Japanese robot culture: Performance, imagination, and modernity. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Steinberg, M. (2019). The platform economy: How Japan transformed the consumer market.
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Short Bio

Dr. Carman Ng researches across game studies, affective sciences, digital media, and posthumanism, with sojourn experiences in Chicago (Fulbright) and Berlin (Erasmus Mundus, DAAD). In her postdoctoral project at the University of Bremen, she studied how integrating affect theory with multimodality research informs game design that foster mental health. Previously, she joined the Hong Kong community theater scene as performer, writer, and production staff.

  • 12:30–13:15 | On Robotic Obsolescence and Human–Machine Bonding: The Case of Three Anime
    Kris Chung Tai Li (Osaka University)

The transhumanist imagination and alternative lifeforms inspired by cyberpunk literature and media offered a technological aspiration of digital immortality (Tatsumi 2006; Rothblatt 2014), in which cyber-consciousness enabled almost unlimited duplications of the same mind over different bodies. As robots with hearts as well as bodily touch were perceived as an alternative solution to ongoing depopulation and social isolation, a growing number of stories on caretaking robots (in a broad sense) correspond to the increasing importance of real-life counterparts in Japan nowadays. Anthropomorphism of robots and techno-intimacy become more integral in Japanese society (Allison 2011), enabling us to imagine a future society with robots in a less speculative and more practical manner.

Despite the different manifestations revolving around the anthropomorphic perspective on the side of producers (offering “reincarnation” by duplicating the mind, Robertson 2017:187-190) and consumers (like organizing funerals for robots as if they were pets, 2017:183-187), robotic obsolescence remains a technological and a social excess when considering the bonding between human and machine. Works in English like Ted Chiang’s The Lifecycle of Software Objects (2010) and the HBO TV drama series Westworld (2016-2020) explored briefly on this issue.This presentation intends to excavate different modalities of obsolescence by analyzing three Japanese anime, namely Time of Eve (2008), Plastic Memories (2015) and Planetarian: The Reverie of a Little Planet (2006, anime adaptation in 2016). Evaluating the modalities of obsolescence reflects on the conflict between the unwanted robotic materiality implied by social innovation and the valuably “old” corporeality as an indicator of the shared time between humans and robots.

Works Cited

Allison, Anne. Precarious Japan. Duke University Press, 2013.
Robertson, Jennifer. Robo Sapiens Japanicus: Robots, Gender, Family and the Japanese Nation. University of California Press. 2017.
Rothblatt, Martine. Virtually Human: The Promise – and the Peril – of Digital Immortality. Picador. 2014.
Tatsumi, Takayuki. Full Metal Apache: Transactions Between Cyberpunk Japan and Avant-Pop America. Duke University, 2006.

Short Bio

LI, Kris Chung Tai is a PhD student in the Graduate School of Humanities, Osaka University. He received his MPhil from Hong Kong Studies, School of Modern Languages and Culture at the University of Hong Kong.

Li’s research focuses on the transnational network of visual culture in East Asia, especially between Chinese-speaking regions and Japan. His PhD project investigates political and civic imaginations in Hong Kong that are derived from the transnational and transcultural resonance with Japanese popular culture, with special emphasis on digital folklore. His previous academic works included “Kyara and Changing Media-form of Idol Variety Shows: Keyakizaka46 as an Example” (2021) and “Art of Conformity, Art of the Weak: Law and Order in the Young and Dangerous Series” (2022). Li is also an active columnist who writes extensively on Japanese literature and media culture in Chinese.

  • 13:15–14:00 | (Post) Human–Machine Intimacy in Kenji Siratori’s Blood Electric
    Juno Hoay-Fern Ooi (University of Malaya)

We may broadly characterize cyberpunk as a genre which challenges or troubles the human-machine distinction – humans are physically or mentally fused with machine (in varying ratios), and what we regard as human emotions may be assigned to non-human actors instead. Even though novelist Kenji Siratori situates his works within the cyberpunk tradition, the universe he depicts and its myriad actors are outside what we typically identify as humanist completely, however, and are arguably more closely aligned to the ‘posthuman’. In Siratori’s novel, Blood Electric, innumerable, indistinguishable organic-technological hybrids – boy-roids, ADAM Dolls, digital vampires – are endlessly spawned only to be sacrificed to a war without reason. These catastrophic events are narrated by an impersonal, seemingly omnipresent (and thus impossible) “I” whose bodily and cognitive boundaries remain unclear. This destructive subsuming of (personal) human into (impersonal) machine in the narrative is mirrored by Siratori’s use of digital cut-up programmes to produce the text – the language so excessively ‘processed’ that it effaces authorial intention and even problematizes reader comprehension, affecting the separation of productivity from humanist value. We often speak of human-machine intimacy in terms of machines developing (human) emotions, and inversely associate the loss of humanity with machinic absence of emotion – this provides us with one (dystopic) reading of Blood Electric, but I suggest an alternative is possible once we expand our conception of ‘intimacy’. The French philosopher Georges Bataille had written of ‘sacredness’ as an impersonal ‘intimacy’, claiming that the destruction wrought through ritual sacrifice transports us beyond the confines of the profane self. More recently, queer theorist McKenzie Wark has similarly spoken of a ‘xeno-euphoria’ in relation to rave culture, pleasure found in bodily alienation and self-dissolution. We can thus say that what Siratori presents and performs through his writing process is a new form of posthuman-machine intimacy – one no longer restrained by human telos, values, or even emotions.

Short Bio

J. Hoay-Fern Ooi is a PhD student in English literature from the University of Malaya, and a research student based at the University of Tokyo. Her thesis looks at Georges Bataille’s anti-philosophical conception of the informe in relation to post-WWII experimental literature in English and French. She is also currently onboard Site and Space in Southeast Asia, a research project funded by the Getty Foundation which looks at the art and architectural history of three cities – Penang, Hue, and Yangon – from a cartographic standpoint.

Day 2: 10:00–13:00 CEST | 15 October, 2022 (Sa)

PANEL 3: Social Factors in Human-Machine Interaction I
Chair: Michelle H. S. Ho

  • 10:00–10:45 | Reframing Socio-Cultural Trauma in the Technocene. A Psychosocial Reading of Abe Kōbō’s Inter Ice Age 4 and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun
    Veronica De Pieri (University of Bologna)

Junior Research Fellow and Adjunct Professor
Alma Mater Studiorum - University of Bologna

This proposal explores the evolution of the speculative fiction genre in Japan through a psychosocial reading of Abe Kōbō’s Inter Ice Age 4 (1959) and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun (2021). The purpose is to highlight how the genre has evolved in Japan, emphasizing the lines of continuity between Abe Kōbō, considered by critics as the founder of the SF genre in Japan, and his legacy in the production of Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro. The authors epitomize the socio-cultural trauma of their contemporary era, revealing an ambivalent individual and social reaction to the development of artificial intelligence. On the one hand, the tension towards progress; on the other hand, the anxiety that comes from feeling replaced by the machines. Both novels deal with the common trope of genetically engineered children although they perform the emotional acknowledgment of technological machines differently. Abe's novel turns the attention to the ability of new computer technologies to predict human behavior and the overpowering of the self-aware machine to some extent leads to the replacement of individual identity. Hence, the subservience of the machines to the psychosocial functioning of the individuals risks forecasting the decline of human hegemony in favor of machine supremacy. Otherwise, Kazuo considers androids as surrogates of childhood friendship, enabling them to meet the emotional needs of humans and, in doing so, the novel overcomes the emotional paradigm that has always distinguished men from machines. The postulation of a future coexistence of humans and machines seems feasible provided everyone stays at one’s post. Both novels denounce the individual alienation and the identity crisis that rage contemporary era, thus evaluating the anthropotechnologic advancement in human-machine interaction as the very symptom of human annihilation.

Short Bio

Veronica De Pieri is currently a Junior Research Fellow at Alma Mater Studiorum University of Bologna on female journalism related to collective trauma and catastrophe on a big scale. She is a former Ph.D in Japanese studies at Ca' Foscari University of Venice. Her interests have been focusing on testimonial narrative, trauma studies and the ethics of memory since 2011, with a comparative literature perspective (Shoah literature, atomic bombing literature, 3.11 literature). Recently, her investigation has included dystopian narratives, (post)apocalyptic discourse and ecocriticism. De Pieri has been collaborating with Kyōto University for the translation of atomic bomb testimonies (NET-GTAS) for the Hiroshima and Peace Museum since 2013. She is currently a translator for atomic bombing and Fukushima literary novels.

  • 10:45–11:30 | Autonomy and Interdependence. Social Structures of Human–Machine Interaction in Shūkō Murase’s Ergo Proxy
    Malte Frey (University of Fine Arts Münster)

The presentation aims to disclose how concepts of selfhood regarding androids, so-called ‘autoreivs’ in the postcyberpunk anime Ergo Proxy (2006) are media-specifically constructed in difference to human characters. Following Stevie Suan (Anime’s Identity, 2021) who leans on Michel Foucault (Technologies of the Self, 1994), certain forms of animation performance provide certain concepts of selfhood. In Ergo Proxy, the Cartesian predomination concept of autonomy is dismissed towards a concept of interdependence. In this sense, mechanisms of control within the anime series are pointed out regarding the given societal structure between humans and machines as well as the ontological status of ‘autoreivs’. The anime questions the apparently established domination of the autonomous human subjects over the seemingly subordinate ‘autoreivs’ offering a more complex structure of interdependence embedded in the societal structure. As ‘autoreivs’ infected by the so-called ‘cogito virus’ gain self-awareness, the series openly refers to the Cartesian concept of autonomy and the according proof of being alive through self-awareness. However, the series shows that preexisting relations supersede an essentialist concept of autonomy, favoring a relational concept of the self. Additionally, shown inner struggle of the female protagonist Re-L’s infected ‘autoreiv’ Iggy regarding the personal relation between the two of them hints at an enslaved autonomy that seeks to break free while simultaneously cannot help but be affected by the relation experienced under control. Coerced emotional dependence then functions as a mechanism of control that, however, does not completely cease to exist once the subordinate gains self-awareness. Not to interact never was a choice. Rather, new forms of interdependence arise. In this sense, Ergo Proxy goes beyond an autonomous-essentialist concept of the self that enables the ontological distinction of human and machine.

Works cited

Descartes, René, Meditationen. Mit Sämtlichen Einwänden Und Erwiderungen, ed. by Christian Wohlers (Hamburg: Felix Meiner Verlag, 2009)
Foucault, Michel, ‘Technologies of the Self’, in Ethics. Subjectivity and Trugh, ed. by Paul Rabinow, The Essential Works of Michel Foucault 1954 – 1984 (New York: The New York Press, 1994), 223–52
Suan, Stevie, Animes Identity. Perfomativity and Form beyond Japan (Minneapolis: Minnesota Press, 2021)

Short Bio

freymalte@gmail.com  maltefrey.de
born 1990, living and working in Düsseldorf, Germany
2011–18 Studies of theology and fine arts at Westfälische Wilhelms-University Münster and University of Fine Arts Münster
2015–16 Studies of fine arts at Fine Arts College of Shanghai University, China
since 2018 Working as a freelance artist with numerous exhibitions e.g. in Düsseldorf, Dortmund and Berlin
since 2020 Dissertation project „Metahumanist Societies in Postcyberpunk Anime. The Social Subject between Public and Privat Space [working title]“ under supervision of Prof. Dr. Nina Gerlach, University of Fine Arts Münster, and Prof. Dr. Jaqueline Berndt, University of Stockholm

  • 11:30–11:45 | - Break -

PANEL 4: Social Factors in Human-Machine Interaction II
Chair: Berthold Frommann

  • 11:45–12:30 | Digital Intimacy in Human–Machine Relationships: Gendered Representations in Fiction and Beyond
    Hiromi Tanaka (Meiji University)
    Michelle H. S. Ho (National University of Singapore)

Intimacy between humans and non-humans, particularly robots or artificial intelligence (AI), has been a prominent theme in Japanese popular culture and science fiction, such as manga, anime, film, and literature. In this paper, we conduct discourse and representational analyses of human beings’ intimate and romantic relationships with AI in the Japanese context by looking at two recent case studies: a) a live-action film titled A.I. Love You (2016) and b) a bishōjo (beautiful girl) hologram or virtual assistant called Azuma Hikari produced by Gatebox in 2019. Examining these two case studies emerging in the context of Japanese media, consumption, and popular culture from a critical feminist media studies lens, we highlight emergent forms of emotional closeness between humans and non-humans in fiction and beyond and how gender plays out in discourses about and representation of such networked intimacies. We argue for the need to incorporate virtual and/or digital processes and practices in conceiving and theorizing humans’ gendered personal and romantic bonds with non-humans. We also interrogate what these phenomena mean for the Japanese gendered society and culture, what implications the application of new technologies has for cultural production and consumption, and whether they might mean change or continuity of gendered representation in traditional Japanese media. Finally, we discuss ethical concerns or risks pertaining to new modes of intimacies in the digital age, thereby offer new theoretical insights into AI fiction and technologies. 

Short Bios

Dr. Hiromi Tanaka is an associate professor at the School of Information and Communication, Meiji University and currently a visiting researcher at Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis (ASCA), University of Amsterdam (UvA). Her research concerns social transformation via digital technology with regards to gender, sexuality, and intimacy. She is currently working on several projects about digital media and technology such as AI (two of them funded by JSPS KAKEN, one by JST-RISTEX).

Dr. Michelle H. S. Ho is an Assistant Professor of Feminist and Queer Cultural Studies in the Department of Communications and New Media (CNM) at the National University of Singapore (NUS). Her research interests lie broadly in issues of gender, sexuality, race and ethnicity, affect and emotion, and media and popular cultures in contemporary Asia. Relevant to this conference, her recent works on gender and media in Japan are published in Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, Communication & Sport, and Television & New Media.

  • 12:30–13:00 | Final Discussion

Language of the conference



Elena Giannoulis and Berthold Frommann





All inquiries should be sent to berthold.frommann@fu-berlin.de