I was flipping channels today and happened upon a variety show where the short week in review segments had been placed into a chart according to rank. This is a common practice, but I was reminded how much the Japanese media is always ranking everything. Vertical hierarchy bleeds into every part of life. “Top Ten Street Brands according to Readers in Osaka”! Tower Records’ “Top Five Dance Singles” — Sendai Branch! Apparently everything needs to be ranked and placed into a proper visual order.
Yet here is where this idea of Japanese ranking start getting weird: You almost never see rankings like “Best Albums of the Year” or “Best Albums of the ’70s” or “What’s Hot/What’s Not.” If the judgment criteria become subjective, everyone in Japan must cease ranking. The Oricon music sales chart is ranking heaven, but the magazine’s weekly hierarchies are (basically) based on album sales — a cold quantitative guide. A readers poll is also fine, because the magazine is only tabulating votes, not picking favorites.
So subjective criticism is verboten for the mainstream Japanese media, and this leaves editors and writers no choice but to fill the beloved ranking charts in relatively objective ways. However, I feel there may be something deeper going on. Read how famed sociologist Nakane Chie explains the criteria related to education used for hiring systems in her classic work Japanese Society:
Educational qualifications are obvious and perceivable, and can be used as a clear measurement and open indication, while it is difficult for everyone to agree on generally accepted and acknowledged standards to judge individual experience and achievements outside of school. As has been indicated already, Japanese methods of measurement are directed towards neat institutionalization; clearly perceptible criteria are given more weight than individual merit. (116).
Based on Chie’s framework, the Japanese would believe there is something fuzzy and chaotic about subjective media review systems. I tend to believe that writers fear to engage in subjectivity because they may offend advertisers or other partners, but Nakane’s example seems to suggest that the review system itself has become victim to the mechanization of Japan’s strive towards modernity. Mechanization requires rational order, and order requires breaking down all unquantifiable parts of culture and re-contextualizing them in a way they can be measured scientifically.
This mathematical approach to industry, and ultimately culture, is what makes Japan sometimes feel like a “content-less” society. Starting in the ’50s, the Japanese imported popular music directly from America, and since they had no pre-existing examples of these new melodic forms and rhythms, they had to copy songs as best as they could to recreate their own versions. Imitation is a dirty word in English, but if anybody anywhere were handed some new weird form of art and told to make something in that style with no indications of context, they too would most likely be forced to imitate the originals until getting comfortable with the conventions. In this process of mechanical imitation, the song must be dismantled into smaller, quantifiable chunks: chord progression, tempo, instrumentation, rhythm, and melodic form. Everything becomes structure and process.
Content is the fuzzy, subjective part of the art work. What is a song about? This is different for each person. What does the song feel like? Same answer. Compare to: What kind of melodic range does the song have? This can be mapped out and directly imitated. The melodic and lyrical content — which in the West are considered to make up a song’s soul — thus can be mechanically analyzed and recreated once fully understood in quantitative terms. Content must be changed into form in order to make content. The question is, can you go from analog waves to digital coding to back again? No, the original information approximated in the encoding process is gone forever.
Subjectivity, for the reasons listed above, is avoided, and therefore, the process of cultural endeavor often falls into content-erasing objective analysis. Imitation certainly has less stigma here in Japan, but I find it unfair to expect one nation to completely understand the intentions and cultural contexts of the music/art of another. Why would a sixteen year-old kid born and raised in rich Setagaya-ku understand the social conditions and cultural codes that direct and shape American hip hop? The Japanese kids interested in hip hop had no choice but to take it all apart and rebuilt it from a cold, mechanical analysis of its workings.
The Beatles loved American rock’n’roll, but they didn’t really get it either. Yet their poor imitation gave birth to Merseybeat. A culture with so much anxiety about subjectivity like Japan, however, knows a little too well how to break things down perfectly and rebuild them perfectly — to the extent that new forms are rarely born. Rhymester sounds and looks like an American hip hop MC, but is it as good? Aren’t Halcali better precisely because they don’t sound like hip hop?
Of course, not everyone has to go through this mechanical imitation process when creating music, especially with forms like rock or pop, which are now deeply rooted in the culture. Happy End surely “got it” and were not stealing melodies to get by. Shugo Tokumaru doesn’t have a single imitating bone in his body, and if Kiiiiiii are imitating something, it’s not from this planet.
So what happens to all the talented Japanese artists who create real content for their works? They are subjected to the same cold aversion to subjectivity that started this mess. No one can say Shugo is better than anyone else until Shugo sells more than someone. Content cannot be recognized as content, so critical parties pass judgment by quantifiable criteria: sound quality and level of technical ability. Originality and overall quality are too fuzzy too deal with.
Without directly passing judgment on this system, I would suggest that a media and culture avoiding subjectivity create a rather different set of priorities and ways of rewarding excellence in culture. Does this explain why a non-innovating band like B’z can become national heroes?