Murakami Haruki's Advertorial Short Stories

Daniel Morales and W. David Marx look at a series of lesser-known short stories from famed Japanese novelist Murakami Haruki, written as part of advertising campaigns from Ivy League clothier J. Press and pen company Parker.

The J. Press Stories

In 1974, Tokyo-based apparel giant Onward Kashiyama licensed the traditional American gentleman’s brand J. Press for the Japanese market. In the U.S., J. Press was well-known as a campus retailer for the Ivy League and its graduates on Madison Avenue, but in Japan, Onward took the brand to the masses, opening J. Press corners in dozens of department stores across the country. Upon its entry to Japan, the brand quickly became a favorite of Baby Boomers who had grown up on Ivy League style in the mid-1960s and still wanted to wear tweeds, oxford-cloth button down shirts, and khaki pants as adults. J. Press did well in Japan, and in 1986, right smack in the Bubble Economy, Onward bought the American company outright.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Onward spent massive sums on advertising J. Press in the print media. The classic ad format, often seen on the back cover of lifestyle magazine Popeye, showed a Japanese or American man telling a colorful story about their favorite trad clothing item. In 1985, as Japanese pop culture went in more avant-garde directions, Onward came up with a new idea — asking up-and-coming novelist Murakami Haruki to write a very short story inside each month’s advertisement for magazines Popeye, Box, and Men’s Club.

At this point, Murakami was working as a full-time writer, having abandoned his Sendagaya jazz bar four years earlier. He enjoyed a respectable readership but had yet to achieve the society-wide fame he would with Norwegian Wood from September 1987. In 1985, he was best known for his unique tendency to include elements of magic realism in his fiction and for his many references to Western pop culture — the Beach Boys, Kant, Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ, Miles Davis, and in many instances, American fashion. As Sam Anderson of the New York Times noted about Murakami’s debut Hear the Wind Sing, “In just 130 pages, the book manages to reference a thorough cross-section of Western culture: ‘Lassie,’ ‘The Mickey Mouse Club,’ ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,’ ‘California Girls,’ Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto, the French director Roger Vadim, Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye, Elvis Presley, the cartoon bird Woodstock, Sam Peckinpah and Peter, Paul and Mary. That’s just a partial list, and the book contains (at least in its English translation) not a single reference to a work of Japanese art in any medium.” Drawing on this vast knowledge of imported consumer products and media, Murakami also wrote movie reviews and essays for magazines such as Men’s Club, Brutus, and marie claire Japon.

Onward approached Murakami about the J. Press ads through writer, editor, and legendary game designer Itoi Shigesato. According to Murakami’s afterword in Yoru no Kumozaru (『夜のくもざる』), the collected edition of the works, he was given license to write whatever he wanted. “Just have fun with it,” Itoi told him. So once a month from April 1985 to February 1987, Murakami wrote a “short short” (短い短編), which was set on its own page with an illustration by famed artist Anzai Mizumaru at the top and a small J. Press logo in the lower left corner.

The J. Press Stories (translations are by Morales unless otherwise noted):

1. Apr 1985 – “Hotel Lobby Oysters” 「ホテルのロビー牡蠣」
2. May 1985 – “The Party” 「”THE PARTY”」
3. Jun 1985 – “Elephant” 「象」
4. Jul 1985 – “Picnic” 「ピクニック」
5. Sep 1985 – “French Horn” 「ホルン」
6. Nov 1985 – “Pencil Sharpener (Or Watanabe Noboru as Fate)”「鉛筆削り (あるいは幸運としての渡辺昇)」(translation Jay Rubin)
7. Dec 1985 – “Julio Iglesias” 「フリオ・イグレシアス」
8. Jan 1986 – “Time Machine (Or Watanabe Noboru as Fate Part 2)” 「タイム・マシーン (あるいは幸運としての渡辺昇 ②)」(translation Jay Rubin)
9. Mar 1986 – “Croquette” 「コロッケ」
10. Apr 1986 – “Cards” 「トランプ」(translation Jay Rubin)
11. May 1986 – “Newspaper” 「新聞」
12. Jun 1986 – “Donut-ization” 「ドーナツ化」
13. Jul 1986 – “Antithesis”「アンチテーゼ」
14. Sep 1986 – “Eel”「うなぎ」
15. Oct 1986 – “Takayama Noriko and My Libido”「高山典子さんと僕の性欲」
16. Nov 1986 – “Octopus”「タコ」
17. Dec 1986 – “Wrench”「スパナ」(translation Jay Rubin)
18. Jan 1987 – “Donuts, Again” 「ドーナツ、再び」
19. Feb 1987 – “Attack of the Mushikubo Old Guy”「虫窪老人の襲撃」

The stories are light, fun, and at times, absurd. In “Eel,” a woman named Kasahara May (a name readers may recognize from The Wind-up Bird Chronicle) calls the narrator in the middle of the night to ask for his help getting rid of ants. Having been woken from a pleasant dream, the narrator is angry to eventually learn that she has dialed the wrong number. Even within such a short work, Murakami is able to address his major themes and images: miscommunication, telephones, unfulfilled desires, and strange young women. For the most part, the stories are very funny: In “Julio Iglesias,” the only thing that will ward off a giant sea turtle is Julio Iglesias’ painful rendition of “Begin the Beguine.”

The stories can also be read as a precursor to the recently popular “flash fiction” or “nano-fiction” genres. As is the case with many stories in this style, Murakami uses striking first lines to provoke reader interest. “Antithesis” begins, “I finally received a postcard from my uncle who we hadn’t heard a word from ever since he went off antithesis hunting in Borneo last September.”

Murakami made no attempt to plug J. Press products in the stories, nor does he talk about “traditional” America. The works read as vignettes he would have likely written anyway. Yet Murakami still fit perfectly within the J. Press milieu: He grew up on Ivy League apparel as a Baby Boomer, wrote the occasional essay for trad bible Men’s Club, and used clothing as an integral way to illustrate modern Tokyo in his fiction. For example, at the end of his 1985 novel Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, the narrator discovers that he has a day left to live and decides to go to a famous American clothier to get spiffed up before a date. Alfred Birnbaum’s English translation of the novel reads:

I took the subway to Ginza and bought a new set of clothes at Paul Stuart, paying the bill with American Express. I looked at myself in the mirror. Not bad. The combination of the navy blazer with burnt orange shirt did smack of yuppie ad exec, but better that than troglodyte. (342)

Birnbaum’s rendering of the passage glosses over the more detailed descriptions Murakami used in the Japanese original. Here is a translation of the full passage:

First, I took the train to Ginza and bought a shirt, a tie, and a blazer at Paul Stuart, paying for it with my American Express. I put it all on and looked at myself in the mirror. Not bad. I was a little worried that the center creases in my olive chinos had started to fade, but I guess not everything had to be perfect. And the combination of the navy blue flannel blazer and burnt orange shirt did make me look a little like a young employee at an advertising firm. But at least I didn’t look like someone who’d just been crawling around in the sewer and only had 21 hours left before he disappeared from the world.

With this discerning eye on Western fashion, Murakami would have likely been very happy to do ads for J. Press. He was already drawing from classic American brands to aestheticize his fiction and provide a curated lifestyle for readers.

Meanwhile Onward chose Murakami as a way to demonstrate the brand’s own taste. Onward’s J. Press was a Japanese version of American classics — just like Murakami, who often sounded like Japan’s answer to Kurt Vonnegut, Raymond Chandler, and Raymond Carver. In the last two decades, Murakami has tried to mature beyond being a “stylish” writer by delving into deeper, darker topics, but he was certainly a seamless fit with the broader consumer culture in the mid-1980s.

The Parker Pen Stories

In 1987, Murakami became a celebrity when Norwegian Wood sold 3.5 million copies in just over a year [1]. He had always been free to write what he wanted — so much so that he took off to Europe for three years where he wrote Norwegian Wood and a few of the J. Press short shorts — but now he could afford to be very choosy with his projects.

Despite this newfound fame, Murakami returned to the “short short” exercise six years after J. Press, wanting a “change of pace” from longer works. He schemed with Anzai to find a new sponsor who would let them do another series. They eventually received support from Parker fountain pens and got on their way. This next batch of short shorts appeared from April 1993 to March 1995 in Parker ads inside glossy magazine Taiyō.

The titles alone make it clear that Murakami was aiming to match the spirit of the original series.

1. Apr 1993 – “The Spider Monkey Comes at Night” 「夜のくもざる」(translation Jay Rubin)
2. May 1993 – “An Ad for a Jazz Cafe That Was in Kokubunji Long Ago” 「ずっと昔に国分寺にあったジャズ喫茶のための広告」
3. Jun 1993 – “The World Where Horses Sell Tickets” 「馬が切符を売っている世界」
4. Jul 1993 – “Bangkok Surprise” 「バンコック・サプライズ」
5. Aug 1993 – “Beer” 「ビール」
6. Sep 1993 – “Proverbs” 「ことわざ」
7. Oct 1993 – “Structuralism” 「構造主義」
8. Nov 1993 – “Answering Machine” 「留守番電話」
9. Dec 1993 – “Stockings” 「ストッキング」
10. Jan 1994 – “Bright Red Poppies” 「真っ赤な芥子」
11. Feb 1994 – “Reading Horse” 「読書馬」
12. Mar 1994 – “Grated Daikon” 「大根おろし」
13. Apr 1994 – “The Zoo” 「動物園」
14. May 1994 – “Mr. India” 「インド屋さん」
15. Jun 1994 – “Under the Roof” 「天井裏」
16. Jul 1994 – “Good News” 「グッド・ニュース」(translation Rubin)
17. Aug 1994 – “Mosho Mosho” 「もしょもしょ」
18. Sep 1994 – “Lying Nicole” 「嘘つきニコル」
19. Oct 1994 – “The Efficient Stilter” 「能率のいい竹馬」
20. Nov 1994 – “Correspondence” 「往復書簡」
21. Dec 1994 – “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” 「激しい雨が降ろうとしている」
22. Jan 1995 – “A World Without Love” 「愛なき世界」
23. Feb 1995 – “Steam Whistle at Night, Or the Utility of Stories” 「夜中の汽笛について、あるいは物語の効用について」
24. Mar 1995 – “Final Message” 「最後の挨拶」

This time, the stories were included in the magazine’s index as integral texts, elevated beyond mere ad copy. They also came with the series title “Murakami Asahidō” (Murakami’s House of the Rising Sun) — a general title translator Jay Rubin has noted that Murakami used for lighter works he wrote alongside major novels [2].

As much as Murakami marks off these advertorial short shorts, a tension between art and commerce remains. We can best understand this odd intersection of literature and advertising in two ways. First, these stories are a literary expression of the more general nationwide obsession with foreign fashion and culture seen in magazines Men’s Club, Popeye, and Brutus. Second, they are a clear example of the accelerating complexity of mid-1980s Japanese pop culture — when shopping malls like Seibu and PARCO used post-modern philosophers, conceptual artists, and oblique copy to sell product to ever more sophisticated masses. Murakami was embraced by the same frenzied mass audience that made Asada Akira’s Structure and Power an improbable best seller.

Murakami played with this zeitgeist in the actual works. In “Structuralism” from the Parker pen series, the narrator writes to an unnamed recipient, “Don’t ask me anything about structuralism either. There is nothing I can tell you about structuralism.” This may be as concise a summary of Murakami’s work as there ever has been: While Murakami offers up pop culture references, he is at the same time distancing himself from the selections of others.

In the midst of endless Nobel speculation, Murakami’s literary legacy continues to be debated and refined. Readers remain sharply divided between seeing Murakami’s work as intelligent pop fiction or important national treasure. His advertorial short stories offer support for both positions: They can be taken as further evidence of his comfort within the marketplace, or as an artist locating a new creative space deep inside the pop culture sphere. What is beyond doubt is that Murakami achieved complete separation from the tortured jun-bungaku “pure literature” writers who preceded him. His career has been very much his own.

FOOTNOTES
[1] Rubin, Jay. Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words. 160
[2] Ibid. 144

Daniel MORALES lives in Chicago and blogs at howtojaponese.com.

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

Misruptions / Disruptions

Misruptions/Disruptions: A Japanese Graphic Design History Timeline.

Ian Lynam introduces one of his latest projects — an interactive timeline of Japanese graphic design magazines.

I recently put together an interactive timeline of Japanese graphic design publications called Misruptions/Disruptions: A Japanese Graphic Design History Timeline.

The timeline is shown in graphic slices of information:

  • World Events: Sociopolitical and socioeconomic events for greater context
  • Graphic Design Events: Historical events that helped shape the continuum of Graphic Design History in Japan
  • Graphic Design Publications: A fairly granular review of graphic design publications in Japan from 1890 to the present day, including more general design-oriented publications as well as printing industry trade journals and hybrid early Avant Garde art and prose journals
  • Graphic Design Eras: My own interpretation-in-progress of historical slices of Japanese graphic design history
  • Recurring figures: Mentions of some key figures who were primary agents in the development of Japanese Graphic Design as a sector of cultural production.

The Backstory

In May of 2014, I was invited to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to weigh in on strategies toward curating a collection of graphic design artifacts (not the denigratory “ephemera”) from both Los Angeles and foreign cultures that fed into the city’s current diverse population. In my case, I was invited because of my intimacy with Japanese graphic design. Among others present were graphic design luminaries Lorraine Wild (LACMA / CalArts), Victor Margolin (University of Illinois / Design Issues), Andrew Blauvelt (Walker Art Center), Paola Antonelli (New York MoMA), Benjamin Weiss (Boston Museum of Fine Art), Marina Garone Gravier (National Hemerotec of Mexico), and many of the best design curators, critics, and historians working today.

It was a truly wonderful convergence, and I am of the belief that the representatives of LACMA as an institution walked away with a thorough understanding of how they might curate collections of work that promotes and reinforces their goals as a major institution dedicated to crafting a more thorough understanding of graphic design as a cultural sector of production.

In response to their request to suggest a methodology toward collecting work that helps chart the development of Japanese graphic design, I offered something different from than the standard. The easy answer would be a poster collection developed by the institution. I imagine that the representatives of the institution’s potential goal was to help quantify and qualify their already-substantial holdings of Japanese poster work, of which I have since been helping pitch in on. However, in my ever-contrarian approach, I suggested an opposing route to the seeming “show pony” approach of collecting only posters — what I proposed was the cultivation and curation of a lineage of graphic design magazines from Japan. Graphic design magazines, at their heart trade publications, communicate the reality of graphic design as a sector of differentiated cultural production in Japan, warts and all.

In his influential book White, Hara Kenya insists on an ur-Modernist approach to foreign perception of Japanese graphic design. The international stereotype of Japanese graphic design is trifold. There is the perception of graphic white space and singular focus — poise — effete minimalism shrouded in atmospheric, hazy mists of Oriental vapor. Then there is its opposite: hyper-kawaii, nearly-out-of-control-yet-somehow-still-in-control dimension of character-driven graphic design work. Yet there is still a third axis: technologically-driven pixelocity — futurist aesthetics coupled with rapid adoption of the latest technologies .

When one departs Japan’s major urban areas and travels the countryside, however, a very different aesthetic emerges. As many have said, Tokyo and Japan are in many ways very different creatures, and this is also true aesthetically. The Japanese visual vernacular outside urban centers is still a mash-up: graphic design and architecture synthesizing old and new in a much more bare-bones, less articulated fashion. On a recent drive with my wife and father-in-law through their hometown of Iizuka in Fukuoka Prefecture, the landscape is dominated more by fairly crude, flat 1950s-style sign painting and cheap vinyl plotted signs, dotted with the occasional Mos Burger sign or gaudy, hyper-neon pachinko parlor signage. Rural areas offer up something quite different than minimalist Modernism, cavity-inducing cutesiness, or super-techno-aesthetics. The suburbs and the country are the metaphoric “off-white”: an everywhere fraught with history, continued historical design practice, and just-in-time visual ephemera.

Curating a collection of Japanese graphic design periodicals would help to tell the story of both urban and rural visual life in Japan. This would show the reality of simultaneously commercial and art practices beholden to economic forces and materials, and a more telling paean to how graphic design in Japan has actually developed — a phenomenon diametrically opposed to how Japanese graphic design is portrayed in most international design, art, graphic design, and cultural media. Japanese graphic design periodicals are exemplars of imposed realities and labor expectations in terms of input, throughput and output, as well as following repercussions/reverberations.

The long and short of it: There’s a ton of ugly work in these magazines, but there’s just as much amazing work. And nearly all of it helps tell the story of reprographic technologies and visual styles from different eras, as well as how they have affected the national aesthetic(s)—all with wildly veering quality control.

Instead of doing the usual Powerpoint-esque presentation in L.A., what I created was an interactive timeline of both key moments from Japanese graphic design History and spans of publication of Japanese graphic design magazines, studded with sociopolitical moments of historical note to give everything context. This timeline is very much a work-in-progress—more of a rendered pencil drawing than a rough sketch at the present moment, but with luck it is a useful guide to navigating the “timelessness versus timeliness” debate regarding Japanese Graphic Design History. It is a highly authored timeline, as well.

That being said, at the very least, folks now have a more-than-holistic guide to what to buy when it’s time to lay those cool, crisp yen bills down for crumbling graphic design mags of yore… and that’s actually the most interesting thing about this timeline as a greater project. With it, you can construct your own physical collection of Japanese graphic design publications if you so desire. All it requires is a bit of patience, a keen eye, a penchant for trawling musty countryside bookshops and the obligatory filter mask.

So, with that, I invite you to check it out.

Ian LYNAM
October 16, 2014

Ian Lynam is a graphic designer living in Tokyo and the art director of Neojaponisme. His website is located at ianlynam.com. His new book, Parallel Strokes, on the intersection of graffiti and typography is available now.

History of the Regent

The “regent” pompadour has been the go-to hairstyle for Japanese delinquents for more than eight decades. W. David Marx looks at how the infamous coiffure got its pseudo-English name and morphed from slick imitation of British royalty to fluffy blond biker parody.

In Japanese, the riizento (リーゼント) — written in English as “regent” — describes a men’s hairstyle where the sides are slicked back and top is left long and put up over the head in a pompadour. The term encompasses anything from the refined look of Ginza cocktail bartenders to the wild do’s of Hamburg-era Beatles and the exaggerated quiff of Kishidan’s Show Ayanocozey. But whatever the particular example, the regent has always been a powerful symbol of social defiance in Japan.

Despite the regent’s long-standing infamy, the hairstyle’s history is mostly undocumented in Japan. Many mysteries remain. First there is the origin of the name. The consonants in the katakana — “riizento” rather than “riijento” — suggest a pre-war coinage. Then there is the process of the regent’s evolution: How exactly did it go from a pomade-heavy gentleman’s look to the favorite of motorcycle gangs festooned with right-wing slogans?

The following essay hopes to explain the regent’s storied history, and in the process, get a glimpse into how delinquent culture developed in Japan during the post-war period.

The Pre-War Regent

During the late 1920s, the streets of Tokyo’s modern Ginza neighborhood swarmed with stylish youth. The mobo (“modern boy”) wore stylized suits with wide-leg pants, and their moga (“modern girl”) companions who mixed Western and Japanese dress. For their coiffure, the mobo slicked hair back with pomade in a look called the “all-back” (ōru bakku).

In 1933, Tokyo’s modern barbers hunted for the next look for modern gentlemen. An enterprising hairstylist in Ginza came up with a style where he slicked back the sides to the back of the head and then pushed the front up like a traditional takashimada bride. Looking for an exciting foreign name, the barber called it “the regent.” (1)

There are multiple theories of why the barber chose the word “regent.” Most believe it referred to “Regent Street” in London — either standing in for the spirit of British commerce or because the curve of the street resembled how the hair curved around the side of the head. The question is whether a Japanese barber in 1933 — a time when only the country’s very elite traveled overseas — would have known that Regent Street is curved.

Another theory is that the hairstyle is modeled after Edward VIII, who was not technically a “prince regent” but often performed the duties of his ill father George V. The Japanese regent did echo Edward’s hair relatively well. Further evidence of this link is an article about the regent in a 1936 issue of the Japanese barber periodical Nihon Riyō Tsūshin that includes a photo of Edward VIII upon his ascendance to King.

Whatever the case, the word “regent” — which pre-war katakana turned into riizento — played with an idealized vision of high-class British style. The hairstyle was the favorite of modern boys at dance halls as well as celebrities such as singer and comedian Kenichi Enomoto. Ginza barber Masuda Ekikichi further perfected the regent by iron-perming hair to better lay flat after being slicked back.

As the war with China amplified in the 1930s and Japan descended into military dictatorship, the Imperialist government prescribed short, battle-ready hairstyles for the nation’s young men. The regent became a target for suppression — not just for its length and wasteful use of pomade but also for its foreign name. Posters went up in barber shops requesting, “Gentlemen, please stop wearing long regents. Let’s appropriately cut out the excessive fuss. The conservation of supplies comes first!” (2). The true deathknell of the regent, however, was not government mandate but wartime scarcity. Once pomade became unavailable in the early 1940s, the look completely disappeared.

Post-war

Japan emerged from the war in 1945 as a devastated, impoverished country occupied by a foreign army. But at least men were free to wear whatever hairstyles they pleased. As imported pomade appeared for sale in black markets like Ameyoko in 1947, the regent came back in style — the favorite of jazz musicians, bartenders, and gangsters.

A few rebellious teenagers sick of short-cropped hair and army buzz cuts also adopted the regent. They wanted to look like the glamorous stars they remembered from their youth. Called pejoratively apure (from the French term for the post-war, après-guerre), these teens dressed in imitations of American soldiers — un-tucked Hawaiian “aloha” shirts, rubber-soled shoes, and General MacArthur-style aviator sunglasses. Parents hated the ideas of teens regent not just due to its associations with the demi-monde but also for the idea that young men would waste money on expensive black market pomade rather than buy food for their families.

The timing of this 1947 revival is most interesting for the fact that the Japanese regent predates both the British “quiff” popularized by the Teddy Boy movement and the American boom for the pompadour accompanying Elvis Presley and James Dean’s stardom.

When Ishihara Shintarō’s hit novel and then film Season of the Sun brought the Sun Tribe (Taiyō-zoku) into vogue in 1955, affluent young men started wearing their hair shorter in imitation of Ishihara and his brother Yūjirō. The greasy regent managed to stay alive, however, in lower class circles — the “mambo” dance scene of 1955, hosts at night clubs, and yakuza. Similar groups in the countryside learned to love the regent when the Rockabilly fad of 1958 put Mickey Curtis, Masaaki Hirao, and Keijiro Yamashita on TV. Their floppy, vertical imitation of Elvis’ pompadour re-established the regent as a more wild look — and broke it out of its origin as a flat, slick hairstyle.

By the early 1960s and the start of middle-class youth consumer culture, the regent died off; it too vividly symbolized post-war delinquency. Yet the look re-emerged around 1966 as the leading hairstyle of the sukaman (“Yokosuka mambo”)— lower-class youth who hung around with American Navy seamen in Yokosuka and Yokota. With most rural white soldiers in buzzcuts, the sukaman found inspiration in their regents from black soldiers and soul musicians like James Brown. This resurgence only tarnished the regent further with a low class reputation: Go-gos and dance clubs in Tokyo proper explicitly called out on posters “No sunglasses, no regents .” The sukaman found this inconvenient but this only reinforced their own preference of the look for its clear power of defiance.

Bikers and rock’n’roll

In 1972, musician Yazawa Eikichi formed the back-to-basics rock band Carol inspired by the Beatles’ days as a workhorse R&B band on Hamburg’s Reeperbahn. Also conscious of the Roxy Music-inspired 1950s revival in the U.K., Carol guitarist Johnny Ōkura dressed the band in menacing black leather jackets and leather pants — as well as hair in greasy long regents. Carol used a similarly-attired biker gang called Cools as security at their concerts, who later formed their own musical group.

Trendy members of the Tokyo creative classes loved Carol and wore their hair in regents in the vein of British Teddy Boy-revival counterparts. Once the brand Cream Soda set up shop in Harajuku to sell Fifties fashion in 1975, teenagers from across classes congregated in the neighborhood dressed like extras straight out of the film American Graffiti. The most extreme were the Rollers — men and women who dressed up in Fifties gear and danced around a boom box to “At the Hop.” Men wore regents — mostly refined into ducktails in imitation of 1950s Americans — and they wore them high and greasy.

In the countryside, Yazawa had an even greater influence on culture. He became the main fashion inspiration for early bōsōzoku teenager biker gangs. These working-class delinquent teens liked perms and did not go for precision combing, so their attempts at regents ended up using very little pomade. The slides were slicked back slightly but the top just went up and flopped around. As bōsōzoku became a national phenomenon, this new evolution of the regent became a useful symbol of illegal youth behavior. (The best visual reference on the web for this early look is the documentary God Speed You, Black Emperor.)

Self-Parody

“When you imagine ‘yankii hairstyle,’ the first thing that floats into your mind is the regent, right?’ asks 2009’s handbook for provincial delinquent style, Yankii Daishūgō. The word “yankii” describes the wider subculture of working-class delinquents — essentially, bōsōzoku without bikes. As rock’n’roll fashion disappeared from Harajuku in the early 1980s, the regent remained in Japan exclusively as a yankii hairstyle — floppy and high, not greasy and flat.

During the early 1980s, yankii fashion had a moment in the spotlight between the popularity of band Yokohama Ginbae (“ツッパリHigh School Rock’n Roll”) and the Nameneko cats. The regent was the signature style. Compared to the pomade look of Fifties revival types, the yankii would use a hairdryer and a skeleton brush to tease up the hair into a V above the head. For further defiance of school rules, teens would bleach their regents into an ochre shade. The regent’s height above the head defined social status among delinquents; No one dared have a regent higher than the banchō head bully. (3)

This hardcore yankii look faded into obscurity by the mid-1980s, but manga such as Be-Bop High School canonized the regent as the yankii’s most definitive symbol. With subsequent revivals of bōsōzoku and Rollers, the regents kept getting higher and higher. At this point, any links to the original regents of 1930s Ginza gentlemen had been completely lost — it was simply an element of teenage rebellion. When the band Kishidan emerged in the early 2000s, leader Show Ayanocozey wore one of the most exaggerated regents ever to both celebrate and parody yankii culture.

Today, the yankii regent casts a long shadow over the hairstyle’s history, but this allows it to retain its status as the clearest marker of youth rebellion. For outside observers, the regent acts as a useful metaphor for how foreign culture enters and evolves in Japan. The original term hoped to imitate upper-class British style, but now the regent has become disembodied from its source. Those who wear regents most often connect it to Japanese style leaders like Yazawa and yankii bosses rather than London businessmen, the Beatles, James Dean, and Elvis Presley. The regent’s roots in the West are now irrelevant — it is perhaps Japan’s most original hairstyle.

ENDNOTES:
(1) Masuda, Eikichi. Rekishi kara Mita Gendai no Heā-Fasshon (Contemporary Hairstyles as Seen From History). Zenkoku Riyō Kankyō EIsei Dōgyō Kumiai Renḡokai, 1972. p.71-72
(2) My translation of a quote from a placard in Tokyo’s Barber Museum.
(3) Yankii Daishūgō (Big Yankii Collection). East Press, 2009. p.55

General sources
• Mabuchi, Kōsuke. “Zoku”-tachi no Sengoshi (The Post-War History of the Tribes). Sanseido, 1989.
• Nanba, Kōji. Yankii shinkaron (The Evolution of Yankii). Kōbunsha, 2009.
Yankii Bunkaron josetsu. (An Introduction to Yankii Studies). Ed. Tarō Igarashi. Kawade Shobo Shinsha, 2009.

W. David MARX
October 9, 2014

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

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.