Japanese Economic Mythbusting

We interview Noah Smith, finance professor at Stony Brook university and economics blogger, on lingering misperceptions of the Japanese economy and what is going to happen with Abenomics.

Noah Smith is a finance professor at Stony Brook university in New York. He blogs at Noahpinion and writes for several magazines about economics and public policy. Before he went to grad school, Noah lived in Osaka for two and a half years. He now works two months out of the year in Japan, doing research with professors at Keio, Aoyama Gakuin, and Osaka University.

MYTHS OF THE JAPANESE ECONOMY

Can you help debunk us the main myths of the Japanese economy?

Myth #1: “Japan is an export-dependent country.”

Actually, exports are a smaller part of Japan’s economy (16%) than that of most rich nations’ (though bigger than the U.S.). Also, Japan hasn’t had a big trade surplus for a while.

Myth #2: “Japanese households save a lot.”

This used to be true, but isn’t true anymore. The household savings rate nearly hit 0% in 2008 and is only around 2% now (America’s is around 5%).

Myth #3: “Japan is a top-down economy guided by industrial policy.”

This used to be true, but isn’t anymore. The influence of METI (formerly MITI) has been curbed substantially. The Ministry of Finance still has a lot of power over banks, but this is true in other rich countries too and is generally what happens after a big banking crisis.

Myth #4: “Japan is a manufacturing-based economy.”

Manufacturing makes up slightly more than one-fifth of Japan’s economy, which is more than most rich countries (only Germany and Korea beat it), but is a lot less than most developing nations. India, for example, is more manufacturing-intensive than Japan.

Myth #5: “Japan has lifetime employment.”

Sure, for the top half of the workforce. For everyone on the bottom, it’s a constant struggle with little hope of big raises or promotions. And among those with so-called “lifetime employment,” maybe half are in danger of losing their jobs to layoffs.

Myth #6: “Japanese companies aren’t innovative.”

This is just wrong in so many ways, I could write a book about it (and maybe I will).

Myth #7: “The Japanese buy government bonds out of patriotism.”

Unlikely. They probably buy Japanese government bonds out of fear, pessimism, and a lack of knowledge of good alternative investment opportunities.

Another one seems to be high prices.

Not everything is expensive in Japan! Go to a ¥100 shop and see if you can find the same stuff at an American dollar store. I bet it will be impossible. (And I just paid $7 for a shot of Jack Daniels at a grungy punk bar in Oakland, so we’re not in the 1980s anymore.)

Also, remember that Japan lists after-tax prices, while America lists pre-tax prices, so stuff in America feels cheaper relative to stuff in Japan, but it’s partly an illusion.

In addition, there are some quality differences. Milk in Japan tastes as good as organic milk tastes in America. Saran wrap in Japan is much better than in the U.S. And Japanese restaurants,cafes, and stores are much cleaner than most of their American counterparts. Those quality differences add costs, which raise prices, but you get more for your money.

Finally, remember that Japan is just not as rich of a country as the United States. Productivity is significantly lower, and Japan is also not endowed with natural resources. That means prices will tend to be higher relative to incomes — that’s the definition of being poor!

Also high prices don’t lead to profit if they come from higher costs. Many costs in Japan are high. These include land costs, labor costs, regulatory compliance costs, and corporate taxes.

During Japan’s post-war development, retailers increasingly emphasized quality product and high-end experiences over selling volume at low prices. Was there an economic rationale for this?

Possibly. Because Japanese cities are very dense and people walk everywhere, people are willing to pay a premium to shop at local stores. You can’t just drive your SUV to Wal-Mart and load up the trunk like you can in America. So big department stores have to make higher margins to stay in business (I know everywhere in Japan looks crowded, but many department stores are surprisingly empty). Higher margins typically mean higher quality products or branded products.

Why did it take so long for low priced retailers like Uniqlo to emerge?

Japanese regulation traditionally favored small stores. There was a law for a long time called the Large Store Law, which was only revised in 1994 and replaced with a much more lenient law in 2000. Reduced trade barriers also probably had something to do with it. The rise in inequality may have been a factor; the huge emerging Japanese underclass needs low-priced stuff to survive.

Japanese households have long seemed content with putting their money into bank accounts that accrue only the tiniest fraction of interest. Will this continue forever?

No. As I mentioned above, Japan’s households aren’t saving much anymore. So they just won’t have the money to put into savings accounts. (It’s Japanese corporations that do all the saving, by sitting on mountains of cash.)

Second of all, one of the purposes of Abenomics and Kuroda’s monetary policy is to create inflation and make real interest rates go negative. That punishes people for keeping their money in savings accounts, and — hopefully — forces them to invest in things like stocks. That’s the outcome the BoJ is hoping for. The bad outcome would be if households just invest in foreign bonds — the so-called “carry trade.” That won’t help Japan’s economy much.

What are some examples of Japanese business innovation?

Famous examples include the Prius, which started the hybrid craze, and the Canon 5D, which put high-quality movie cameras into the hands of millions. Traditionally, Japanese electronics companies have been very innovative; they were the first to market hand calculators, digital cameras, clamshell laptops, modern console video gaming, and a lot of other things. Car and motorcycle companies are very innovative too. And there is a huge amount of technological innovation in parts and components, which you don’t hear a lot about because it’s not glamorous.

In terms of business processes, Japanese companies have always been very innovative. They invented the “keiretsu” system, which did supply chain management before there was an Internet. Toyota’s management system is also famous and original. There are other examples. Japan has a lot of companies on Forbes’ “Most Innovative” list.

In art and design, Japan is obviously extremely creative. Maybe more than any country out there, though in a different way. A lot of the designs Japanese companies create are popular in Japan but strike foreigners as too “weird.” But “weird” is just another term for “creative.”

Japan gets pegged as an “innovation-poor” society for three reasons, I think. One is that Japanese basic research is not quite as good as in the U.S. Another is that Japanese startup companies have big trouble securing late-stage funding and are kept from growing by the actions of large established players and the government. And third, Japan is usually compared only to the U.S.; try comparing to Germany, France, and the UK instead.

ABENOMICS

What do we know is actually in the plans for Abe’s structural reform?

Abe is pushing the TPP, which would have big effects if passed. He is also pushing targets for women in top management positions, which is something I think could have a bigger effect than people realize if it sparks a cultural change toward more rational and efficient labor markets. Other than that, not much. He was talking about making it easier for companies to lay off workers, but he looks to have backed off of that.

Would these lower costs for consumers in Japan?

More free trade — in other words, the TPP — will lower prices for Japanese consumers. It would be a very important part of structural reform. The biggest impact would be on food prices.

How much Japanese employment can be attributed to Japan’s current system of regulation and high costs? In other words, if you take away the regulations and high costs, does that mean rationalizing employment?

To be honest, I’m not sure. First of all, the data don’t really tell us who is employed and who is unemployed. Japan is famous for having “low unemployment,” but the truth is that about the same percentage of working-age people have jobs in Japan as in the U.S. This is because a lot of women and young people in Japan don’t work. If Japan deregulated, would these people start working? I don’t know, and I don’t think anybody knows. (If anyone knows, it would be my friend Ohtake Fumio, a labor economist at Osaka University.)

One type of deregulation that would “rationalize” employment is the loosening of laws against firing workers, but that now looks unlikely to happen. (See this New York Times piece.)

Japanese firms already employ way more people than are “necessary” for operations. If firing restrictions are loosened, won’t that just mean laying off employees without them being picked up somewhere else in the labor market?

There would be some of that. But getting rid of unproductive workers would mean companies would have more money to hire productive workers. And new businesses will spring up (or old businesses will expand) to hire the workers who get fired — probably for much lower wages.

What would have to happen for firms to raise wages or increase hiring?

Those are two very different things.

For those both to happen at once, you probably need an investment boom. That could be caused by an expansion in trade or a surge in productivity. So the TPP and deregulation could both boost wages and hiring, conceivably, although the wage gains would not be evenly distributed and many individuals would lose out.

Also, getting Japan out of deflation and back to inflation with Abenomics should theoretically cause an investment boom, but so far we’re not seeing that happening. Give it a year and see where we are.

How crucial is international competitiveness for Japan’s total economic growth? Could there be a period of expansion that just relied on domestic spending without an increase in exports?

Well, the problem with international competitiveness is that it requires one of two things: high productivity, or low labor costs. Japan can gain competitiveness by letting wages fall, but that might not be a good thing. Higher productivity would boost competitiveness, but this would probably require the kind of deregulation that produces unemployment.

So Japan’s corporatist social model is maintaining equality but hurting competitiveness.

As for an increase in domestic spending, yes, that would help, and that is exactly what has happened as a result of Abenomics. Japan’s net exports have not risen since Kuroda started his new policies; in fact, Japan now has a trade deficit. But Japanese people are consuming more, and that is boosting the economy.

How big is Japan’s financial sector relative to similarly mature economies?

Somewhere in the middle. Finance is a little less than 6% of Japan’s economy, compared to around 4% in Germany, 5% in France, 8% in America, and 9% in the UK.

Anecdotally, a lot of Western finance firms seem to be moving workers out of Tokyo. What impact does this have on the Japanese economy?

I believe that the only way for Japan to really raise productivity growth in the near future is probably to implement “neoliberal” reforms, which would ideally include allowing financial firms to do more than they currently do — for example, hostile takeovers of companies. If Japan continues to shy away from those reforms, in order to protect its social model of “corporate welfare,” then its productivity will probably continue to stagnate over the coming decade.

But as for Western firms specifically, I think that doesn’t matter on its own; it’s just a bellwether of conditions in the sector.

Who does “corporate welfare” benefit? Is it intended to keep employment high or does it just put hands money in the pockets of executives?

Corporate welfare appeals to people because it keeps employment high, yes. It mainly benefits older workers, who get more job security and much higher pay than under a shareholder-capitalist system. It doesn’t benefit executives, who would be paid more under shareholder capitalism.

It also helps preserve Japan’s “social model,” where pay is based on seniority, meaning no one has to worry about whether they’re a “winner” or a “loser.”

What should we watch for in 2014?

Three things: 1) business investment 2) wages, and 3) the trade balance.

If the Abenomics recovery is going to be sustainable, businesses are going to need to start investing their cash. If deflation is really going to be whipped, wages need to start going up. And if the trade balance swings back to a surplus, that will be very good for Japan.

As for structural reforms, watch the TPP negotiations, but that should go without saying.

W. David MARX
January 15, 2014

W. David Marx (Marxy) — Tokyo-based writer and musician — is the founder and chief editor of Néojaponisme.

The Year 2013 in Japan

2013: A New Hope / W. David MARX
This website shall reward no high fives to Prime Minister Abe Shinzō (especially after his Yasukuni visit), but we will admit that the Abe Regime Redux successfully implanted a hypnotic suggestion, both in Japan and overseas, that the Japanese economy may be heading towards its long-awaited recovery. Looky, looky — the Nikkei cracked 16,000! Of course the skepticism index grows in parallel. Normal Japanese people suspect that the Abenomics momentum will not deliver higher wages, and herein lies a threat of serious sugar crash. At no time was the air more pessimistic about the future than in the mid-2000s when people heard constantly in the media about a “growing economy” and yet saw no changes in their bank accounts.

Putting aside Abenomics, however, there were some exciting hints that Japanese society is under transformation. Between Fukushima and the abominable new secrecy law, there is real potential for a semblance of political debate returning to popular culture — even if the mainstream media refuses to be the host. The rise in smartphones and web literacy means that the Japanese Internet may soon become a true reflection of the national experience rather than an exclusive meeting ground of anonymous, angry, right wing-sympathetic idol-lovers. And Puzzle & Dragons and Line are not just hit apps: the companies behind them are answering Japan’s long call for more entrepreneurs.

Times remain perilous, but fortunately, with less faith in the establishment, the Japanese people are striking out to save themselves.

Economics and Politics / Noah SMITH
Abe has been riding the wave of popularity from Kuroda Haruhiko’s program of monetary easing, but the success of that policy is mainly just a rebound from the deflationary hole which Japan dug itself into after the 2008 crisis. To boost growth in the longer term, Abe is going to need to tackle the thorny issue of structural reform, which he is unlikely to do, given the havoc it will wreak on the Japanese social contract.

Meanwhile the Japanese opposition is splintering once again. This is only natural; the LDP has a nationalist ideological core that keeps it glued together, while Japan’s liberals have no such central idea or group around which to coalesce — especially after a defeat. As long as liberalism has no central organizing principle in Japan, the LDP or something like it will continue to reign with only short interruptions.

The Secrecy Law is a clear product of this new political order. The fragmentation of the Japanese opposition, combined with the brief spurt of economic optimism created by monetary policy, made this terrible law possible. Given the inertia of Japan’s politics, it is doubtful that this loss of freedom can be undone without major political upheaval. The only silver lining will be if the law galvanizes a grassroots liberal movement in Japan.

Kanji of the Year / Matt TREYVAUD
The 2013 Kanji of the Year was , “ring,” as in Olympics (五輪), because of course. Of course. Some voters were all, oh, you see, the much-discussed TPP promises to turn the Pacific rim into a big ring of trade and blah blah blah — come on, man. Even 五, which just means “five” and is the other half of the Japanese translation of “Olympic Games,” made it to 14th place, ahead of 税, “tax”. See you in 2020, 五!

A Shift in the Great Shift / W. David MARX
The central idea of my long 2011 essay “The Great Shift in Japanese Pop Culture” was that otaku and gyaru subcultures’ current dominance was not a cyclical trend but instead the result of structural changes in society. To wit, lower levels of youth culture consumption forced the industry to cater almost exclusively to highly-dedicated subcultural groups and ignore mainstream or sophisticated tastes.

The events of 2013 completely challenged this thesis. At some point in the last few years, the gyaru look essentially disappeared. The front of Shibuya 109 is full of women who look almost… normal. Meanwhile the once influential gyaru-o newsletter men’s egg closed up shop. Working class kids from the countryside who wore outrageous things in the past have significantly mellowed. Meanwhile the shrinking of the total youth market means that the fashion industry needs to further collapse subcultural barriers to make one big “youth culture” with very few hard edges. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is working hard to be both Harajuku and Shibuya — although it’s unclear whether these neighborhoods will continue to signify a clear difference in fashion.

At the same time, mainstream consumers are growing tired of otaku antics, fueled in part by normal people’s looming takeover of the Japanese Internet. From here on, culture will be born on the open web and thus recenter around something other than 2ch. In this scenario, otaku will keeping demanding infantile cartoon females to soothe their psychological pain but the rest of society will no longer have to watch.

Peak AKB48 / Ian MARTIN
For years now, idol music has made a mockery of the Oricon singles charts, but 2013 was a new low, with AKB48 and their sister clones accounting for half of the top 30 singles of the year and boy bands from Johnny Kitagawa’s thousand-year reich accounting for most of the rest (Exile, Southern All Stars, and Linked Horizon were the only intruders in this idol love-in).

An AKB48 single will sell ten times an Oricon number one from other weeks, somewhat from the Dentsu-machine’s cross-marketing media saturation. The primary driver, however, remains encouraging consumption patterns among fans that have nothing to do with music and everything to do with the dutiful purchase of silicon discs as if they are character goods. The AKB48 cult has essentially gamified the groups, allowing fans to “play” through their consumption levels.

This system, however, encourages fans to see idols as their personal property, which naturally leads to terrifying penance rituals like Minegishi Minami’s concentration camp cosplay head-shaving. These rituals help keep fans engaged, but the Minegishi incident — along with Shukan Shunbun catching top AKB48 manager Kubota Yasushi having a sleepover with member Kasai Tomomi and then manager Togasaki Tomonobu merrily deploying “prostitution” as his alibi for being seen taking young girls to a love hotel — provided the weary public with some very concrete examples of AKB48’s once abstract ickiness.

The objective evidence suggests that AKB48 jumped the shark this year. Google Trends shows a very clear decline for AKB48 searches, and with the top members from the group’s glory days going solo, 2014 could be the year that consumers finally force the media-industrial complex to move on to something else. The question is, what in the world will replace them?

Japanese Indie Music / Ian MARTIN
The idols and best-of albums on the yearly charts suggest that the mainstream music market is stuck in an ‘80s-’90s fug of golden era nostalgia, but the indie scene also harked back to the old days in its own way. My Bloody Valentine’s long-awaited follow-up to Loveless gave the Japanese shoegaze scene a shot in the arm, with the lineups of the Yellow Loveless tribute album and the Japan Shoegaze Festival revealing a level of diversity (although not always of quality) that is less the scene that celebrates itself and more the scene that celebrates absolutely bloody everything.

Indiepop of a definitively ‘80s variety was all over the place as well, with groups like Wallflower, Homecomings, Elen Never Sleeps, The Moments, Ykiki Beat, Boyish, and Hearsays putting out new releases, many of whom on Fukuoka label Dead Funny Records. While the shoegaze scene tends to use the past as a springboard towards creating something of their own, indiepop is increasingly unaware of the genre’s ’80s roots and draws more from contemporary overseas acts like Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Veronica Falls, and French Films.

Other music that impressed in 2013 included Buddy Girl and Mechanic’s excellent self-titled debut as well as a magnificent new album by Melt Banana. And notably, there was a new Capsule album Caps Lock that represents some of the most interesting and promising work Nakata Yasutaka has done in years — and a welcome relief from the frequently overbearing nature of his output over the past few years.

RIP Tsutsumi Seiji (1927-2013) / W. David MARX
Why do retailers in such a fundamentally conservative culture like Japan frequently champion the world’s most creative, innovative, and iconoclastic artists? Tsutsumi Seiji, who passed away late this year, embodied the answer to this question. Tsutsumi did not just play a key role in the expansion of Japanese consumer society, but made sure that it developed in interesting directions.

As an inheritance consolation prize from his father, Tsutsumi took control of the family’s second-rate department store Seibu. Importing French designers and holding grand art exhibits, Tsutsumi turned Seibu into a cultural powerhouse and then spun its financial success into the broader Saison retailing group — namely, fashion building Parco, DIY-shop Loft, import record store Wave, avant-garde fashion boutique Seed, and the back-to-basics Mujirushi Ryohin (MUJI). Tsutsumi was an enlightened despot among capitalists; a theoretical thinker and respected poet/writer, he once explained to shareholders his business strategy “as a Baudrillardean exercise in embrace of simulacra and parody.” He made Saison a patron for the world’s great talent: The PARCO theater, for example, opened with a performance from avant-garde dramatist Terayama Shūji.

Tsutsumi personally set the highest levels of taste for Japan’s fast-moving, sophisticated consumer society. Sadly, the Japanese economy over the last decade has not been able to sustain the advances Tsutsumi made, as stores and brands head towards lowest common denominators to sustain sales. The lingering brilliance in retailing, however, can be directly traced back to Tsutsumi.

(To learn more about Tsutsumi, read either Architects of Affluence or the more gossip-y The Brothers: The Hidden World of Japan’s Richest Family.)

RIP Yamazaki Masayuki (1945-2013) / W. David MARX
In the early 1970s, Harajuku was a quiet neighborhood like any other residential area of Tokyo, with a small creative class clustered around a café called Leon. In 1972, bar owner and Elvis aficionado Yamazaki Masayuki of famed grimy Shinjuku bar Kaijin 20 Mensō opened a new watering hole called King Kong down the street from Leon. Its success led to more bars, and in 1975, Yamazaki opened a new shop off Meiji-doori called Cream Soda to sell vintage 1950s clothing he picked up in London. The store struck gold, sparking not just a boom for retro Greaser fashion in the American Graffiti mold but also launched the distinctly Japanese business of scooping up second-hand American garments and selling them at huge markups back in Tokyo. Yamazaki made millions from selling American delinquent style to teens, culminating in the multi-level Pink Dragon store on Cat Street that still stands today. The rockabilly boom faded in the mid-1980s, but as Yamazaki’s great legacy, Harajuku still stands today as Tokyo’s center of youth culture.

RIP Hayashida Teruyoshi (1930-2013) / W. David MARX
The 1965 photo book Take Ivy clearly demonstrates the degree to which Japan has acted as the unofficial archivist of Western popular culture. Americans in the 1960s never thought to photograph, document, and annotate the campus styles of university students any more than they thought to produce books about other everyday things such as traffic lights, Howard Johnsons, or silverware. As part of a team from clothing brand VAN Jacket and magazine Men’s Club, photographer Hayashida Teruyoshi visited six Ivy League campuses in May 1965, and his images became the Take Ivy book. Between web scans and a U.S. reprint in 2010, his snaps from the voyage have been traded around the American cognoscenti as the definitive guide to classic American style. Hayashida was only vaguely aware of his recent fame overseas, but after his death, he should forever represent the beginning of Japan’s importance in reverently chronicling global culture.

RIP men’s egg (1999-2013) / Patrick MACIAS
men’s egg magazine (never capitalized) fought the good fight for bad taste, beginning in 1999 and finishing on a very sad day in November 2013. The gas, it seemed, had finally gone out of a screaming, howling fourteen-year streak that straddled the pre-millennial generation of dark-tanned sidewalk surfer dudes to the post-apocalyptic gutter playboys of the Center Guy tribe.

A magazine designed as spin-off from egg magazine proper — designed for girls and still in print, it should now be noted — men’s egg was rude, funny, and possessed of a clinical myopia that assumed that the Shibuya ward was the only place in the world that really existed and actually mattered. Ostensibly a fashion and lifestyle periodical, the pages were thick with fear of the opposite sex, and plenty of anxiety about sex itself. With that came the constant reassurance that the worst obstacles could always be overcome with the right pickup lines and the correct consumer choices (depending on who the advertisers were that month).

The exact cause of men’s egg death is unknown, but the usual suspects — low circulation, the decline of the print magazine, and a sluggish specialized men’s fashion market — probably didn’t help. Maybe it was time for everyone associated with the scene to just grow up and graduate already (Hot gossip: I know of one guy who spent 2013 experiencing partial hair loss over the stress associated with modeling for men’s egg, running his own brand, working as a host, and who knows what else).

When I got the news that the magazine was going away, two quotes from two friends came immediately to mind. They may seem really simple, or even unrelated, but that’s the way real hard truth sometimes shows up at the end of the year. “Work aimed at young people in Japan is quite difficult,” says one. “I feel sorry for today’s kids. They don’t have money to spend on stupid clothes anymore,” says another. But as long as there is a Tokyo and a Shibuya with trash-strewn streets acting as incubators of sorts, I’d like to think that there will always be eggs.

The Year in Murakami Haruki / Daniel MORALES
2013 was the year that Murakami Haruki became a super-duper star equally in all parts of the world. Not only was his April novel Colorless Tazaki Tsukuru and His Years of Pilgrimage Japan’s best-selling book, even the publication of a single short story in Japanese drew the attention of the international press.

“Drive My Car: Men Without Women,” published in the December Bungei Shunju, concerns a stage actor Kafuku who has to hire a driver after a DUI. The driver turns out to a be a younger woman named Watari Misaki in whom he feels comfortable confiding his solitary life as a widower. Between this and the English translation of the very strange “Samsa in Love,” published in The New Yorker in October, Murakami has had a strong year, returning to his roots and focusing less on writing long, “comprehensive” novels.

Amazon Bestsellers / Matt TREYVAUD
Fully half of Amazon’s top 10 bestselling books this year were by either Hyakuta Naoki or Ikeito Jun. In fact, apart from Murakami Haruki (in at #2 for Colorless Tazaki Tsukuru etc.), they are the only two authors of fiction in the entire top twenty. We also got two Kankore books, some game guides, and various books promising improved communication: better handwriting, better speaking, better interactions with your doctor. Oddly, the best-selling book in the “foreign books” (洋書) category is… the Rider-Waite tarot deck?

Anime Movies / Matthew PENNEY
2013 saw the release of two Ghibli films — Kaze Tachinu (The Wind Rises) and Kaguya Hime no Monogatari (The Tale of Princess Kaguya) — perhaps the final feature-length movies in the respective careers of anime titans Miyazaki Hayao and Takahata Isao. Both films have moments of brilliance, but both also have problems that hold them back from the top tier of the Ghibli canon. In Kaze, Miyazaki may have been true to his vision of Zero fighter designer Horikoshi’s struggles, but the love story felt forced and makes female lead Nahoko into a sort of prop in the engineer’s tale. Miyazaki is renowned for sketching young heroines full of vitality and potential but has never shown how one gets from that state to actual adulthood. Nahoko in particular lacks agency and ends up as simple fodder for the tragic climax. Takahata’s Kaguya carries on his experimentation with animation technique, but at well over two hours it loses some of the concise archetypal force of the folktales on which it is based.

While Kaze and Kaguya may be strong films by great directors, it is Shinkai Makoto’s Koto no Ha no Niwa (Garden of Words) that may stand as the most confident anime film of 2013. Koto is a short film at 46 minutes and does not move much beyond the themes and experiments with style and tone of Shinkai’s earlier films like Byosoku Go Senchimetoru (Five Centimeters Per Second), but it is a fine return to form after the visually brilliant but narratively cluttered attempt to do a Miyazaki-style adventure film in Hoshi wo Ou Kodomo (Children Who Chase Lost Voices).

Anime TV / Matthew PENNEY
2013 is the best year for anime TV of the last five thanks to excellent examples of many anime genres. Action series Shingeki no Kyojin (Attack on Titan) has established a strong presence in Japanese popular culture despite (because of?) an absence of the saccharine and sexploitative elements that keep most recent anime in the otaku ghetto. The reworking of zombie / monster, 99% dystopia vs. 1% utopia, and high-flying hero tropes in Shingeki show that in a crowded international action-thriller market, Japanese manga and anime can still show us something fresh. For “slice of life” Uchoten Kazoku (The Eccentric Family) stands out for the warmth of its storytelling and its incredibly detailed depiction of Kyoto — perhaps the best representation of a real environment in anime history. The robot anime Suisei no Gargantia (Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet) echoes past greats like Mirai Shonen Konan (Future Boy Conan) and Gunbuster but also appears as a breath of fresh air in a genre that still creaks under the weight of the legacy of introspective and not infrequently grim Evangelion. At 13 episodes, it is perfectly paced and effectively weds elements of space opera, futurist thinking about artificial intelligence, and the classic anime eco-fable. The comedy series Watashi ga Motenai no ha do Kangaetemo Omaera ga Warui (No Matter How I Look at It, It’s You Guys’ Fault I’m Not Popular!) is another standout. The hilarious exterior provided by voice actress Kitta Izumi’s brilliant performance is frequently peeled back to reveal a poignant look at adolescent fear of others and the self-defeating fantasies which are a dark side of otaku experience.

My pick for the best anime TV series of 2013 is drama Aku no Hana (The Flowers of Evil). An experiment in rotoscoping by Nagahama Hiroshi, known for his work on Mushishi which stands as one of the great achievements of small screen anime. Aku no Hana improves on the manga with its constricting, decayed representation of a small Japanese town, enhanced sense of realism, and fantastic score. Finally, the deliberately stupidly insane Kill la Kill defies genre pigeonholing (and good taste) but is relentlessly entertaining and yet another memorable series from what was an excellent year in TV anime.

Attack on Titan / Matt TREYVAUD
After four years building steam, Isayama Hajime’s Attack on Titan made the leap from manga to anime this year, immediately becoming a worldwide hit and spawning endless arguments about whether the protagonist’s surname is spelled “Jaeger” or “Yeagar” (not to mention baffled posts on Chiebukuro asking whether “Attack on Titan” is really an appropriate translation of 進撃の巨人). Titan‘s refreshingly non-sexist attitude drew particular praise, and its mysterious setting has inspired endless allegorical interpretations: The titans are China! No, the walled, doomed city is Japan! Me, I prefer to see the titans of the early chapters as stand-ins for colonialism, War of the Worlds style.

Typography on the Web / Ian LYNAM
In June, telecommunications giant SoftBank announced the purchase of Fukuoka-based FontWorks, one of Japan’s leading type foundries. The acquisition neatly mirrored events in American telecommunications over the past few years, notably Adobe’s buy up of the Typekit webfont service in 2011. Softbank and FontWorks were strategic business partners since 2011, having worked together to develop FontPlus, SoftBank’s proprietary webfont service. (The official explanation in the merger document is that “SBT believes that we are able to establish system which enables us to utilize mutual corporate resources rapidly and effectively, and it will make further progress on our service deployment combining ‘creativity’ including the Web-font service and ‘technology.’”) The acquisition reifies Softbank’s aggressive interest in web technologies and an expansion from mere mobile communications to more developed aspects of mobile computing. The ¥1,760 million purchase belies SoftBank’s outlook for the future of web-based typography in Japan.

Kiss me Kappa / Matt ALT
After the short-lived fad for pouty, come-hither “duck mouth” expressions peaked in 2010, domestic and foreign media scrambled to identify other facial trends without much success (an even shorter-lived fad for “sparrow face,” notwithstanding.) We finally have a new contender: “kappa mouth,” which takes its name from the flatulent, frog-skinned, bird-beaked yokai with a penchant for sticking slimy fingers into swimmers’ colons. It involves rolling in the lips and pushing down to create a shallow V. Pundits are suspiciously silent as to whether the naming refers to the yokai’s beak, or rather the expression one assumes after having a slimy finger stuck into their backside.

Team NÉOJAPONISME
December 28, 2013

Team Néojaponisme are a-okay. Thanks for asking.

RIP Yanase Takashi

Néojaponisme Literature Editor Matt Treyvaud steps back to examine the basic themes of beloved Japanese children’s character Anpanman on the death of its original creator.

Yanase Takashi, creator of Anpanman, passed away on October 13 at the age of 94.

Today, Anpanman stands at the center of a vast mandala of characters and stories, crisply drawn and intricately differentiated. The original books published in the 1970s, however — the Pali canon of Anpanman, if you will — bear no resemblance to any of this. The art is shockingly crude, and the villains have little in common with the high-concept rogue’s gallery that Greater Vehicle Anpanman would develop. In the first book, Anpanman fights a giant gorilla. Baikinman shows up relatively early, but he is not the resource-rich techno-fetishist Bond villain of later imagining. He lives on a raincloud and spies on Anpanman through an ordinary TV set.

What is left of Anpanman, then, when the historical accretions are stripped away? Or, rather, what has been at the core of Anpanman through all his adventures and transmigrations? Well… anko. The underlying message of Anpanman is simple: Everyone deserves to eat. Anpanman fights for justice (seigi), but Yanase’s experiences during World War II left him with the belief that food security is justice, objective and absolute.

Yanase in 2011:

「アンパンマン」を創作する際の僕の強い動機が、「正義とはなにか」ということです。正義とは実は簡単なことなのです。困っている人を助けること。ひもじい思いをしている人に、パンの一切れを差し出す行為を「正義」と呼ぶのです。 [...] 飢えている人に食べ物を差し出す行為は、立場が変わっても国が違っても「正しいこと」には変わりません。絶対的な正義なのです。

My strongest motivation in creating Anpanman was the question “What is justice?” Justice is actually a very simple thing. It’s helping people in trouble. Offering a hunk of bread to people who are hungry — that’s what I call justice. [...] No matter what your situation or which country you’re in, offering food to starving people is always the right thing to do. It is absolutely just.

Anpanman, famously, doesn’t just carry food around to distribute — he is food. It’s easy to see him as a Christ parallel — “This is my head which is given for you” — and there are rumors that Yanase himself was a Christian (I don’t recall ever seeing it brought up in an interview or profile). But I have always seen Anpanman as a reflection of the bodhisattva ideal, whether Yanase intended this or not. He does not give of himself to share communion; he does not urge those he gives to to remember him. Anpanman just gives, out of what appears to be the proverbial compassion for all sentient beings.

This is why, despite its messed-up gender politics and ubiquitous merchandising, I cannot bring myself to dislike Anpanman. He could stand to anpunch Baikinman a little less, but still, when I look at Anpanman I see someone whose first reaction to a giant rampaging gorilla in that early story was: “Clearly this gorilla needs something to eat.”

Matt TREYVAUD
October 21, 2013

Matt Treyvaud is a writer and translator living near Kamakura. He is Néojaponisme's Literature/Language editor and the proprietor of No-sword.

Colorless Tazaki Tsukuru and His Years of Pilgrimage

Daniel Morales reviews the new Murakami Haruki novel, still awaiting English translation. Some basic plot spoilers ensue.

Murakami Haruki’s most recent novel might be the best book he’s written since Norwegian Wood made him a household name in 1987. Published in April, Colorless Tazaki Tsukuru and His Years of Pilgrimage (『色彩を持たない多崎つくると、彼の巡礼の年』) was an instant best seller, quickly selling out and moving a million copies in just a week.

Unlike the massive tomes that have come to characterize his writing in the years since Norwegian Wood (1988’s Dance Dance Dance, 1994’s Wind-up Bird Chronicle, 2002’s Kafka on the Shore, and 2009’s 1Q84), Murakami’s latest outing is a mere 370 pages in the Japanese. The story also eschews complex metaphysical adventures for a more realistic setting. The work conveys the intense emotional landscape of protagonist Tazaki Tsukuru, a Nagoya-born Millenial whose given name — homophonous with a word meaning “to build” or “to construct” — corresponds nicely with his work as a train station designer.

The novel mirrors the setup of Norwegian Wood to a certain extent. Norwegian Wood was a coming of age story set in the turbulent student movement of the late 1960s in Tokyo, centered around the narrator Toru and his friend Naoko’s struggle to deal with life after the suicide of Naoko’s boyfriend Kizuki. The three were close high school friends, and Toru and Naoko pair up in Tokyo when they graduate and move away from their hometown.

In Tazaki Tsukuru, Tsukuru has four close high school friends, all of whom have “colorful” Japanese surnames: Akamatsu (“Red Pine”), Omi (“Blue Sea”), Shirane (“White Root”), and Kurono (“Black Field”). They playfully refer to each other as Red, Blue, White, and Black, but Tsukuru is always just Tsukuru; this is one of the reasons he’s always felt separate from the group and worried about his place. Red and Blue are men while White and Black are women, and although Tsukuru is attracted to both White and Black, the stability of the group takes precedence. The five friends make up what he comes to consider a “an inseparable and harmonious collective entity.” They have an unspoken vow to spend as much time together as possible, even after Tsukuru has left Nagoya to study train station engineering with a famous professor at a college in Tokyo.

No one dies at the start of this novel, but death is an important issue from the very first line: “From July of his sophomore year of college to the following January, Tazaki Tsukuru lived his life thinking almost exclusively about death.”

During the summer break of his sophomore year, his friends summarily dismiss him without warning. They don’t even take his phone calls, but when they do, they tell him they don’t want to see him. “Hey,” Tsukuru asks when one of them finally answers, “what happened?” “Ask yourself that question,” Blue responds.

Tsukuru spends the next 18 years living with that question and bearing the scars of the loss, which brings him to the present of the novel. Tsukuru is 36 and living in Tokyo, trying to overcome his past and have a serious relationship with Kimoto Sara, a travel agent two years his senior. The two have been on a handful of dates, slept with each other, and seem to like each other and get along well.

The first half of the book is tantalizing in classical Murakami style. He jumps deftly back and forth between Tsukuru’s interactions with Sara in the present and his past: the way he lost 15 pounds and went through a physical transformation during his death-obsessed depression after losing his friends, how he met a classmate named Haida who swam at the same pool and gave him a quiet friend to turn to, the way Haida also disappeared from his life.

Also included are Murakami’s trademark stories within stories: Haida tells a particularly good one about the time his father met a man who was destined to die in a month. And it wouldn’t be a Murakami novel without a few reality-bending “dreams”: Tsukuru has wet dreams that combine White and Black into a single person, and another that suddenly involves a homosexual relationship with Haida.

So it comes as no surprise when Sara puts a halt to their relationship after hearing about his high school friends. “When we were having sex, I felt like you were somewhere on a different plane,” she tells him. “Somewhere separate from the two of us. You were nice, and it was wonderful sex, but…”

But he has too much baggage. Her response, however, is not to cut and run. Instead, she wants to help him fix it. In what feels like a line directly out of “A ‘Poor Aunt’ Story,” one of the very first stories Murakami ever wrote, Sara says, “Tell me their names. You can decide what happens after that. If, after certain things become clear, you still don’t want to see them, then you don’t have to. Because it’s your problem. But despite that, I just happen to be interested in them. I want to know more about them. About the people that are still, even now, imprinted on your back.”

Using her powers of travel agency for good, she tracks down the four friends, researches their situations a bit, and the second half of the book becomes a Murakami quest novel. Murakami has had a tendency to mediate his main characters in the past, and he’s been particularly obsessed with the telephone as symbol. The Wind-up Bird Chronicle begins with a telephone call. Norwegian Wood ends with one. Phones play a huge part in communication within 1Q84, and Murakami has also used phones in countless short stories, notably “The Year of Spaghetti” and “Nausea 1979.” In every case, the phones represent the strangeness of human interaction as a whole: here we all are, communicating with each other, but is that the best we can do? Are we only ever “talking on the phone”? Are we always separate? When characters aren’t communicating over the phone, their interactions are often mediated by letters, dreams, or stories.

There is some of this in Tazaki Tsukuru, but it’s refreshing to see Murakami run these characters into each other and have them talk it out in person. Tsukuru is forced out of his comfort zone in Tokyo, back to his hometown Nagoya, and even outside Japan to find out what caused the break in college. Confronting his friends face to face, he finds, as you might expect, the unexpected.

After a buildup that derives a lot of narrative drive from shifting gears and cliffhanger chapter endings that aren’t resolved until two chapters later, the second half of the book becomes somewhat linear. We meet the friends, learn how their lives have changed, and Tsukuru returns to Tokyo to see what he can make of things with Sara.

Before Haida disappears from Tsukuru’s life, less painfully but equally mysteriously as the four colorful friends, he makes the following remark: “It’s strange: No matter how calm and consistent everyone’s life appears to be, it seems like there’s always a period of major collapse. You might even call it a time for them to just lose it completely. I think humans probably need milestones like that.”

This seems to be what Murakami is exploring in this book. Can Tsukuru recover from his major collapse and get to a point where he feels comfortable being in a relationship, which necessarily requires one to emerge from the shell of self and trust another person?

The book has its weaknesses. The twists in the latter half of the story aren’t as compelling as some of his great novels, and Murakami is clearly still getting comfortable with third person narration — this is only his second full book told from that point of view.

The narrative balance is also off a little. Murakami adds in flashbacks at the end which would have been far more helpful in the front half of the novel. We learn very little about the four friends, so meeting their new, 36-year-old versions doesn’t feel as weighty to readers as it must to Tsukuru, and the flashbacks make this clear.

And as with many of Murakami’s work, resolution of any sort is uncertain. But after 1Q84, a winding book filled with a strange mythology that didn’t feel completely fleshed out, Tazaki Tsukuru is a book that knows its scope, one that Murakami started as a short story and then let go longer as he followed Tsukuru on his journey. Following Tsukuru is the main point here; structurally the book is bookended by beginning and ending sections that dive deep into his mindset and provide an anatomy of love and loss as experiences.

English readers will have to wait for Phillip Gabriel to finish his translation, which he’s said he’ll be able to do within the year, putting it on shelves in your neighborhood at some point next year. It’s worth the wait this time.

Daniel MORALES
October 4, 2013

Daniel Morales lives in Tokyo and blogs at howtojaponese.com.

What We Did on Summer (and Spring and Winter) Vacation

Néojaponisme puts the “occasionally-published” into “occasionally-published web journal.”

As you may have noticed, Néojaponisme has not been overflowing with content in 2013. I, David W. Marxy, III, take the full brunt of responsibility, but I have an excuse. I am writing a overly-detailed book on the history of American menswear in Japan.

My original idea to look at the development of Ivy League fashion in Japan — a before, after, and behind-the-scenes of photo book Take Ivy — but my prospective publisher made the extremely sensible call of expanding the narrative into the world’s first English-language cultural history of Japan’s import, absorption, and export of traditional American clothing — i.e., VAN Jacket, the Miyuki-zoku, Okayama denim, Heavy Duty, Popeye, Hamatora, Uraharajuku, and the excitement around Japanese Americana back in America. The story starts in 1911 and will end in present times. This may sound boring for non-fashion enthusiasts but about 90% of the book is about the people and stories around the clothing rather than the intricacies of fashion design, like hook vents, Union Specials, and open-end spinning (although these all make an appearance).

The reason for my tackling this specific subject matter is that the people who first brought American fashion in the early 1960s are hitting about 80 years old. Their memories and health are fading — or at risk of doing so soon. (We sadly lost Take Ivy photographer Hayashida Teruyoshi just last month.) If there is a time to write this book, it’s now.

So far I’ve written 50,000 words and counting — probably the most I’ve ever written about anything in my entire life, and already exceeding the total output of my most prolific year of blogging. Books are much harder projects for a whole variety of reasons, but it’s been rewarding and stimulating to sit down and really delve into a single topic — especially one that flows through a very small set of individuals and organizations who are all linked. It’s also been fun to interview lots of people who only remember dates by the Showa year. If you’re interested in the history of Japanese fashion, I post side stories, trivia, and things cut from the book over at ametorajapan.tumblr.com.

The writing requires a lot of organization and discipline, so I have had less time for other pieces (except my satirical, non-hoax “Open Letter to Kanye West from the Association of French Bakers” on Medium.com, which Politico notes, too easily fooled mainstream media outlets such as Time and Fox News).

I, Ian Lynam, have been equally to blame for the lack of content here. It’s been a very busy past number of months for many of the same reasons that David mentioned above. I have been busy working on a book of collected essays, as well as in the initial stages of another book on the emergence of Japanese Modern graphic design.

These efforts have been compounded by a number of editorial and curatorial projects. I wrote, edited, and designed a new 96-page feature on the legacy of the California Institute of the Arts in issue #360 of Idea Magazine recently, the result of a weeklong workshop that Idea Editor-In-Chief Kiyonori Muroga and I held earlier this year at the Valencia, California school (and my alma mater). That workshop sucked up a good chunk of time, as did preparing our lecture — the first on the birth of the Japanese graphic design press ever delivered in English.

Additionally, I just put together Letterfirm, an exhibition of expressive typography in conjunction with North America’s premier typography conference TypeCon. The Portland, Oregon show featured the work of 24 designers from all over the world. Published along with the exhibition was The Letterfirm Reader, a 96-page booklet of recent essays on graphic design, aesthetics, history, and criticism.

Okay so that’s what we weren’t writing on the site. We do have some plans for Néojaponisme pieces in the coming weeks and months. Maybe get Feedly or one of those new Google Reader clones to follow us. Otherwise we will alert you to new things on our Twitter account as well as Google+. We’re always open to pitches but know in advance that we’re always really, really picky.

Team NÉOJAPONISME
September 9, 2013

Team Néojaponisme are a-okay. Thanks for asking.