TOKION's Creativity Now Tokyo

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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.

W. David MARX (Marxy)
November 7, 2004

Marxy wrote a lot of essays back on his old site Néomarxisme. This is one of them.

5 Responses

  1. antonin tha subliminal digital k+d Says:

    My goal in life is to be Fujiwara Hiroshi. Nice post !
    we have to thing about doing things TOGETHER.

  2. Momus Says:

    Now this is more like it! Crucial posting, Marxy!

  3. shane Says:

    Sorry, this is a rather late response, but I caught the panel you missed (the only one i caught), “Commodification of Art,” and I must say it was about anything but that. OK, I will admit I didn’t understand 50% of what was being said, but I was with a Japanese friend, who simply said, “Art of Commodification” upon its conclusion.

    I don’t like to judge something based on its differing from my expectations, but given this group of highly interesting visual artists, there to represent “creativity now,” I guess I’d have to say my impression is that there is either not much thinking going on behind the work (which I can’t imagine is true, and frankly I’m not sure I’d care even if it was) or that the format of the panel had no real intention of talking too seriously about the work, but was instead about putting the designers up there as “rockstars,” as you so aptly described Ukawa Naohiro.

    So for further evidence of this, look only to the conspicuous entrance of Nagi Noda, who shows up to take her seat a minute after all the other panelists sat down in synch, in a wedding dress, after purposeful commentary from Ukawa Naohiro pondering aloud if she’s really going to show up, and immediately followed by teasing and asking if she took a shower before deciding to show up (she said no).

    The remainder of the panel felt very much like a talk show from Japanese network TV, the two moments of which I really remember being this amazingly narcissistic comment from Nagi, asked about the difference between working on her own, versus within an ad agency (Hakuhodo in this case), she said she missed being in an agency because the account people would constantly tell her how smart she was (no hint of sarcasm). There actually was a CD or AD or something from Hakuhodo on the panel, and the second memorable moment came, after it was mentioned about how the agency was becoming less corporate, and more creative, Ukawa, as moderator (who earlier recounted having an interview there some 10 years ago), suddenly starts trying to recruit the whole panel into joining with him.

    So anyways, definietely not the kind of fare I am used to as a westerner recently emerged form an illustrious design school, and used to seeing lectures of meticulously prepared slides and meticulously thought out design philosophy.

    Designers do become popstars in the rest of the world, but they still have to talk about their work–articulately–or they’ll most likely get brushed aside, looked over as stylists. Clearly not the case in Japan. I think I could happily go on at length from here, but I’ve got to catch my last train home.

  4. marxy Says:

    Shane – you have hit the nail on the head. What’s crazy is that this conference was like a HUGE leap forward for the normal Japanese discourse. Now you see what i’m always railing against. I think the head of Hakuhodo was in the audience which could explain a bit of the pandering, but welcome to a world of creativity where no one can say anything that could be possibly construed as offensive or comparative.

  5. Jesper Says:

    by the way… I mentioned this post for Shing02. He though it was “hella funny” and assured me that “most of the audience was young and probably was more familiar with my [his] work than theirs [Uchida Yuya & Haino Keiji]”.

    I guess you are not young anymore :)