Yesterday I attended Tokion Magazine‘s Creativity Now Tokyo conference at the Laforêt Museum in Harajuku. I did not get a chance to see all the panels, but I was very impressed with what I did see.
First of all, I want to say that the moderator Ukawa Naohiro is a total rockstar in his own right. He’s one of Japan’s greatest living artists and did a great job moving the dialogue along for all the panels. At the very end, a shaggy-haired, toe-headed white kid with native fluency in Japanese gave him some grief about just sucking up to all the guests, which was true, but I don’t think moderators are necessarily there to criticize the guests’ opinions.
The first panel on Japanese fashion quickly devolved into a DC brand vs. streetwear debate with Harajuku God Fujiwara Hiroshi challenging the hyperactive Hirakawa Takeji for comparing the consumption of the Harajuku street-wear brands to o-miyage (souvenir) culture.
I tend to demonize Fujiwara in my head, because he represents the worst of the Japanese fashion world’s follow-the-leader karisuma (charisma) system, but I have to admit that I was won over by his charm. To say the least, the man is a puzzle wrapped in an enigma. What does he actually do? (His profile just said simply: “music producer.”) How did he get the power to make or break products? How is he Shibuya-ku’s largest taxpayer year after year when you never actually see his brand Goodenough on the backs of anyone? Does he directly make money from Head Porter? Why is Nike flying him around in their private plane? He is usually silent about the entire ballgame, but he talked yesterday about “using the media and being used by it,” which at least starts a dialogue about who exactly he is. By his own words, he has now “dropped-out” of the fashion world, but wasn’t exactly telling about what he is actually up to. Nigo is getting a lot of worldwide attention these days, but Fujiwara Hiroshi is still the Number One to Nigo’s Number Two. He’s still the Godfather of all street fashion culture in Japan. If there wasn’t such a prejudice against “teen culture” in Japan, there would be hundreds of books written about this guy.
I missed the “Commodification of Art” panel, but got a chance to see Shing02, Uchida Yuya, and the cane-brandishing Haino Keiji have a highly unproductive talk about music. Someone told me that this was the most interesting panel, but I was held back by the embarrassing fact that I don’t know who any of these guys are. Uchida told a good story about yelling at Yoko Ono, but the three didn’t have a lot in common — except the two old guys found common ground to unfairly treat the well-meaning and honest hip-hopper Shing02 like a little kid.
I also missed the “Asian Films Explosion” panel, but I can tell you: Kurosawa Kiyoshi is a handsome man.
The “Japanese Art Today” panel was extremely laid back and convinced me further that art is the new rock’n’roll. Bathing Ape and Undercover graphic designer Sk8thing was the full-fledged, drunken rockstar of the afternoon. His new long hair makes him look like Axl Rose (if Axl Rose wore KMFDM shirts), and throughout the whole discussion, he just muttered things with perfect comic timing. Aida Makoto wore a white t-shirt that said “shippai joutou” (Mistakes are great!) in red spray-paint. Ukawa Naohiro and Endo Kiki gabbed throughout, getting drunker and drunker on happoshu.
I am always looking at Japanese culture through music and fashion, and the evidence for my theories of decline comes primarily through the stagnation of those two particular fields. However, art in Japan is really really interesting right now, and I am open to the idea that Japan is just as creative as ever, just in new categories. I am not necessarily going to stop everything to follow the art scene now, but I am impressed these artists’ vibrancy and lack of ego (for the moment). I also like that this art is a culture not based on using magazines to sell trinkets to kids (except maybe Murakami Takashi).
The last panel on “Media Philosophy in Japan” was bit of a snooze, because the guests were from the very mainstream world of Japanese television. As soon as ex-pornstar tarento Iijima Ai and producer/comedian Terry Ito took up their mics, the level of professionalism skyrocketed: These guys know how to sit on a couch and talk about nothing! It’s literally their job! They were, however, stuck in the position of being celebrities who will not and cannot criticize the system that employs them. When somebody from the audience asked if there are things they can’t say on TV, Terry was smart enough to say, no, there is no censorship. (The less conniving Iijima Ai admitted that there was a whole slew of things not allowed on the airwaves, but would not elaborate.)
I have never liked Iijima Ai, and I still don’t think she’s a terribly interesting person. But listening to her speak yesterday gave me a window into the tarento world. She hinted to having relinquished all control over her own daily activities to her jimusho. I also felt a bit sorry for her when the others suggested she make a television commercial warning consumers against going into debt — her financial problems are supposedly what dragged her into the complicated world of adult video.
All in all, the conference allowed the artists to talk about the creative systems themselves, which for some reason has been a relatively taboo topic in Japan. Magazines never allow even the slightest discussion that someone is in the background pulling strings. No one divulged any shocking info, but I thought it was interesting to a least hear them breach the topic. Ukawa always complained at the end of each panel that the time was too short and they hadn’t reached any conclusions, but that’s fine: The Japanese creative community has started a public dialogue about their work and their world and hopefully everyone leaving Laforet will continue that dialogue until they meet up again next year.