Happoshu Culture

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In 2000, I asked a senior employee at the publishing giant Kodansha whether he had ever tried the $200-a-bottle, top-of-the-line Johnny Walker Blue Label scotch. He laughed and said, “During the Bubble, that’s all we drank.”

In the days of the Japanese miracle, the middle-class standard for whiskey consumption rose directly with the rising income level. In the early ’60s, Suntory created “Suntory Old” as its expensive upper-end model, but in a very short time, everyone became wealth enough to easily afford it. So Suntory Old became the standard for the middle-class salarymen, which forced Suntory to release “Suntory Reserve” as its newest upper-end whiskey. Soon, even that became the standard. They then moved onto imported blends like Johnny Walker Black.

This unprecedented rise of Japanese consumer culture meant that products considered to be “upper-class” or “high-end” in the West often became standard items for the average citizen in Japan. And as Japan’s incomes rose across the board up until the Bubble burst in the early ’90s, middle-class tastes rose as well. In America, very wealthy artists and those with overflowing pocketbooks were the bulk of Comme des Garçons’ patrons, but in early 90s Japan, the shoppers were all middle-class kids who had taken the subway to the store. During the Bubble, things got so out-of-hand that Blue Label scotch was the nonchalant standard for nightly imbibing.

Knowing this, I have been extremely worried about the rise of happōshu in the last couple of years. Happōshu is essentially near-beer — a “malt liquor” resembling beer that is half the price due to a weird hops-related tax loophole. It’s possibly the worst-tasting beverage ever. I hate American mass-marketed beer, but I have to say that even a bland Miller Light would defeat the best of the happōshu. I’d rather drink swamp water.

Regardless, happōshu has almost become the standard for beer-type beverages. If a friend shows up to your house, he’s going to be holding a six-pack of this near-beer. If you go to a convenience store, there’s so much of it in the beverage area that it’s hard to find the real beer.

I asked my professor what he thought of all of this, to which he replied, “I don’t really think happōshu is a good thing, because everyone should always be working to make things better. And clearly, happōshu is a step backwards.”

I tend to get a lot of slack for believing in a “Decline of Japan,” but the new lowering of cultural standards seems to be a market correction in middle-class tastes. In the ’90s, everyone went on shopping as if the Bubble never burst, but finally after a long recession and the current short-term growth with no consequences for consumers, everyone’s tastes are following their skinny pocketbooks. Given a choice, no one would choose happōshu over beer – it’s an “inferior good” in economics lingo. But more and more, the Japanese are choosing these inferior goods – happōshu, Uniqlo, etc – over their more-expensive counterparts.

The new “happōshu culture” is certainly a more realistic set of tastes for this current economic environment, but what we all liked about 90s Japan was its choice of high-taste goods over economic rationalist concerns – ie, quality over price. Are these currently popular subcultures with inexpensive fashion codes – punk and hip hop – more examples of this embrace of inferior goods? Will we still be drinking happōshu five years from now?

W. David MARX (Marxy)
November 28, 2004

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

55 Responses

  1. Momus Says:

    This entry is almost a compendium of all that’s ludicrous about your arguments! I’m just going to rattle off a few courtly objections here and see if m’lud agrees:

    1. Comparing beer and whiskey!
    2. Implying that all those high-end whiskey drinkers have switched to low-end non-beer drinkers!
    3. Running together two different markets and using it as a metaphor for Japan’s decline (again)!
    4. The ludicrous hyperbole of saying that during the bubble time ‘everyone in Japan’ was drinking $200-a-bottle whiskey and now ‘everyone in Japan’ is drinking happoushu!
    5. The assertion that happoushu is (despite the fact that ‘everyone’ is drinking it) undrinkable!
    6. Personally, I find happoushu perfectly drinkable, and a quick google found only positive comments about it.
    7. A quick google finds Digi-Joho’s comment on happoushu to be pretty representative: ‘There is not much difference in taste between ordinary Japanese beer and Happoushu, but the ingredients (the ratio of hops, and other ingredient) are different. Therefore, Happoushu is not legally classified as a beer and the taxation is lower than that of a reqular beer.’

    http://www.digi-affiliate.com/japan/archives/000027.html

    8. Apocalyptic Spenglerian analysis guiding your facts as usual! Why does it have to be ‘either/or’? You’re studying marketing, for heaven’s sake, surely you can accept that mass market products and exclusive high end products co-exist, just like globalism and an increasing emphasis on the local co-exist?

    9. Your contention that happouchu has crowded real beer off the shelves of Japanese stores is just silly.

    10. Another analysis might see happoushu as a cunning ‘Japanization’ of beer. Hops are not a Japanese crop, rice is. Why not evolve a Japanese beer that relies of rice rather than hops? And if one gaijin describes the result as ‘swamp water’, just put it down to ethnocentric taste buds.

    (I will say, though, that here in Germany we’re totally spoiled. A big bottle of excellent white beer costs 60 cents. A clear sign that Germany is on the rise and will soon take over the entire world, according to the tried and tested methods of Marxy-think!)

  2. marxy Says:

    Oh, Momus. You are so predictable. It’s like I write these essays just to annoy you personally.

    Let’s begin:

    1. Comparing beer and whiskey!

    They are obviously not the same product or same market, but the changes in both show how a standards rise and fall according to changes in income. There is no real “high-end” of draft beer, where there is with whiskey, so whiskey was the better example of the idea of rising taste standards. In the growth period, it was all about getting to the next high-end. Now in the decline period, it’s all abour dropping from beer to near-beer.

    For the record, I am a fan of both whiskey and (Japanese) beer.

    2. Implying that all those high-end whiskey drinkers have switched to low-end non-beer drinkers!

    Probably wrong on my part, but Japan can’t seem to admit it has different markets and socioeconomic classes so the joushiki or Zeitgeist certainly suggests that everyone has gone from expensive liquor to happoushu.

    3. Running together two different markets and using it as a metaphor for Japan’s decline (again)!

    I was just on a train with a Japanese friend and I asked her, is it just me or has Japan kind of “lost it”? Oh yeah, it’s really boring, she answered.

    There’s only so long you can fight me on the “decline” issue until you realize that everyone here is pretty much in agreement that there is some level of decline. How much or whether it matters is a better topic.

    4. The ludicrous hyperbole of saying that during the bubble time ‘everyone in Japan’ was drinking $200-a-bottle whiskey and now ‘everyone in Japan’ is drinking happoushu!

    When all culture is supposed to be “mass market” and “middle class,” the behavior of the Tokyo upper middle classes becomes “culture.” And the upper-middle classes have indeed gone from Blue Label to happoushu.

    5. The assertion that happoushu is (despite the fact that ‘everyone’ is drinking it) undrinkable!

    Whether or not I like it, it’s clearly an “inferior good” – or a “bad” (opposed to a “good”). If consumers had a choice, a vast majority would prefer real beer. Therefore, happoushu’s rise in sales signals a time of depressed income and lower consumer spending.

    6. Personally, I find happoushu perfectly drinkable, and a quick google found only positive comments about it.

    According to anecdotal evidence, it’s better than beer! And cures gangrene! Why not get rid of all beer?

    Honestly, if it were a better product than beer, why don’t they serve happoushu at bars on draft instead of beer?

    7. A quick google finds Digi-Joho’s comment on happoushu to be pretty representative: ‘There is not much difference in taste between ordinary Japanese beer and Happoushu, but the ingredients (the ratio of hops, and other ingredient) are different. Therefore, Happoushu is not legally classified as a beer and the taxation is lower than that of a reqular beer.’

    Yes, I mentioned that tax loophole. But hops is what makes beer taste like beer. Otherwise it’s malt liquor. I don’t know anyone anywhere who’s ever thought that Colt .45 is BETTER tasting than beer.

    8. Apocalyptic Spenglerian analysis guiding your facts as usual! Why does it have to be ‘either/or’? You’re studying marketing, for heaven’s sake, surely you can accept that mass market products and exclusive high end products co-exist, just like globalism and an increasing emphasis on the local co-exist?

    Yes, they can exist, but Japan’s entire premise for the last fifty years has been: we are all middle-class and the same. And now they are not. Happoushu proves that. The rich buy rich stuff, and the poor buy inferior goods. If you thought about this, you’d realize how this is a MASSIVE change for Japan and how it signals the death of the Japanese culture that we have grown to love. Japan will not sink into the sea, but the overconsumptive culture is evaporating.

    9. Your contention that happouchu has crowded real beer off the shelves of Japanese stores is just silly.

    Maybe an exaggeration, but I find it harder to locate the real beer these days. Five years ago, there was no near-beer clogging up the shelves.

    10. Another analysis might see happoushu as a cunning ‘Japanization’ of beer. Hops are not a Japanese crop, rice is. Why not evolve a Japanese beer that relies of rice rather than hops? And if one gaijin describes the result as ‘swamp water’, just put it down to ethnocentric taste buds.

    This is just pure over-PC nonsense. Go get a dictionary of economics terms and look up “inferior good.” And if happoushu doesn’t fit that perfectly, we’ll take up this discussion again.

    —-

    I respect your policing of my writings for ethnocentricity etc, Momus, but your disbelief that Japan could possibly be in economic decline is verging on the fantastical.

  3. Chris_B Says:

    I’m not a beer buyer, but I have noticed that all the combini around me are now devoting LOTS of fridge space to happoushu and that TV ads for it almost outnumber beer ads lately (I dont keep count or watch lots of TV, purely anecdotal observation). As was pointed out, this malt beverage avoids certain tax laws and thus can be sold cheaper. Breweries naturally want to sell more product. Seems to me that there is some connection?

    As far as the middle class brand purchasing thing, I’ve always thought it was hilarious to see so many women carrying designer handbags. Its like a mass denial that once everyone has something its not an elite thing any more.

  4. les Says:

    Is the marketing of happoushu targeted towards any specific economic strata? As you know, here in the US, malt liquor is marketed specifically to the downtrodden of the inner city. It is indeed a “poor man’s drink” here.

  5. marxy Says:

    Is the marketing of happoushu targeted towards any specific economic strata? As you know, here in the US, malt liquor is marketed specifically to the downtrodden of the inner city. It is indeed a “poor man’s drink” here.

    No, it’s mass marketed to everyone – maybe with specific targeting towards middle-aged men who usually drink beer at home. In Japan, there are no “poor men” as far as the media and government are concerned, so you can’t market to them.

  6. sparkligbeatnic Says:

    First of all, on this post I have to agree with Marxy in that the rise of the popularity of cheap, lower quality goods is probably the most significant cultural changes I’ve witnessed since relocating to Japan just over 8 years ago.

    I don’t drink so I can’t judge whether or not Happoshu is a good drink or a bad one, though I will say that it not only is cheaper than the other beer it actually looks cheaper. Perhaps this increases the grungy pleasure of a beer binge for some – I wouldn’t know. But I also recall that when I lived in the USA there were loads of beers that looked even cheaper than Happoshu. I vaguely recall seeing people carting away cases of beers with names like “Lucky” at the local Ralph’s grocery store. So, and no insult intended, Marxy, but Japan hasn’t fallen as far as the USA – not to mention the physical condition of the people drinking it, but that’s another story.

    But I have been disturbed at the extremely wide-spread popularity of the 100-yen shop. Yes most of the stuff in there is functional and there’s an amazing variety of things to be found in the 100 yen shop – there’s convenience and utility.
    But the stuff just doesn’t feel nice to use. I got angry at my girlfriend for buying a nabe ladel at the 100 yen shop. O-nabe is one of the great pleasures of winter in Japan and that pleasure is lessened by a small but noticeable amount if one uses a ladel which feels like is made to be disposable. Discount goods culture happened a long time ago in North America, so if this is an indication of the fall of Japan, North America started to fall long ago.

    Convenience stores and “faster-than-food” restaurants are another odd phenomena of “rich” industrialized nations. But again, if this the presence of these can be taken as indication of a “fall”, the USA has fallen further than Japan.

  7. sparkligbeatnic Says:

    Marxy – no one denies that the economy in Japan is not as good as it was 15 years ago. The USA may be richer overall, but that is benefitting only a sector of the population. Things have gotten much worse for the poor in the last four years. And things are going to get even worse as the new administration dismantles the already disfunctional social ‘security’ system.

  8. marxy Says:

    Sparkligbeatnic: Good comment.

    Although I don’t know if my goal is to prove that Japan as fallen farther than the US – all my evidence in this essay is internal. What has always been interesting to me about Japanese consumer culture is the general avoidance of cheap, discount goods. In the US, discount stores have always been a huge part of the landscape, but in Japan, they never were a cultural phenomena until the Bubble burst. My big fear is that this “inferior good culture” is now starting to chip away at youth consumption.

    I’m not really concerned with which country has a better economy as much as a more robust and interesting consumer culture. Japan is still the clear leader, but I’ve been shocked on how much the US and Japan are starting to even out after a decade of Japan destroying the US in that category.

  9. sparkligbeatnic Says:

    My big fear is that this “inferior good culture” is now starting to chip away at youth consumption.

    I think the popularity of 100 yen shops extends across all age groups. If you are doing research into Japanese economic culture surely this phenomenon would be an excellent topic.

  10. shane Says:

    It’s interesting to see your alignment of the rise of Happoshu with the economic decline of Japan. I don’t know if I can say anything definitive either way, but this struck me because the agency I work at recently completed a campaign for Sapporo’s Namashibori, and I didn’t think anything of it.

    I will say however (and you can basically see for yourself at Namashibori.com) that in terms of the campaign’s direction, the entire focus is on portraying the product itself as something natural. The TV spots show farmers on Hop fields in Hokkaido. On the website, you have your choice of viewing dated photos, or animation to literally watch the Hops grow.

    Anyhow, there is no sense of marketing toward a niche in age, lifestyle, or anything else (farm enthusiast perhaps excluded?). I guess if I was to take Marxy’s viewpoint, to this I would say, yes, it’s simply targeting a general (and therefore largest possible) market. It would have been interesting to see the brief on this project but I have nothing to do with the account. Now I am interested to know the direction Kirin, Suntory, et al took.

  11. Momus Says:

    In the US, discount stores have always been a huge part of the landscape, but in Japan, they never were a cultural phenomena until the Bubble burst.

    Simply not true. I watched Ozu’s ‘Floating Weeds’ recently and there you see the world of post-war Japan — a place of desperate poverty, cut-price black market goods, street hawkers… (it’s also the world of the ‘hiropon’ or heroin factories alluded to by Takashi Murakami’s art factory).

    To take a little time trip to this world, you just have to hang out in a place like Osaka’s Shin-Sekai, around Osaka Tower. There all the stores are discount, and they have been for decades. Happoushu is probably considered a luxury drink in this place of ancient pachinko parlours, porno cinemas, pop kabuki theatres, dirt-cheap restaurants, where homeless people live next to the zoo and all sorts of dubious characters hang around the flop houses.

  12. shane Says:

    Another general observation:

    I’m not really concerned with which country has a better economy as much as a more robust and interesting consumer culture.

    This made me think a bit. First of all, I completely agree with the sentiment. But second of all, I don’t think you can really confuse the obscenely robust consumer culture here with economic success. Obviously one will effect the other, but the profusion of consumer goods and the degree to which aesthetic culture is valued here I think is something intrinsic to Japan, not in an economic sense, but more spiritually.

    If we assume the US as the world’s foremost economic powerhouse (impending doom notwithstanding), having wealth, and a level of pop-culture comparable to that of Japan, then how do you explain the following scenario: Here we are at Tower Records Hollywood (in the company’s home country, mind you), I show up on the release date for some album on, let’s say Warp records. I know it’s coming out that day, and that it will ship to Tower, but I search profusely through every genre and find no sign of it. Finally I give up and ask the staff, who scratch their head, and do the same inane search I just did, finally retreating to the back to dig it out only twenty minutes later, having had no prior idea of its existence. Now we repeat the scenario in Tower Records Shibuya, Shinjuku, or wherever, and there’s a four-foot tall display that some employee cut meticulously out of foam-core for Richard Devine’s Asectdscet, like fifty copies of the album stocked, complete with listening station, and conveniently located full back-catalog and side projects.

    I’m sure anyone reading this site has their own comparable experiences, because you can apply the same care, appreciation, and attention to detail across any and all facets of culture, independent of economic success. I guess the point is, even if things are in decline here, no manner of currently plausible decline is going to take experiences like this out of Japan.

  13. shane Says:

    Oh, and I forgot to mention, at least one exclusive track on almost any album, simply by virtue of the fact that it came out in Japan.

  14. marxy Says:

    the profusion of consumer goods and the degree to which aesthetic culture is valued here I think is something intrinsic to Japan, not in an economic sense, but more spiritually.

    Oh boy.

    I don’t think there is anything “spiritual” about obsessive consumer culture, just a set of sociocultural and economic forces coming together:

    1) The media and government work to create an idea of a classless Japanese homogenity, while using the urban upper middle-class lifestyle as the base middle-class lifestyle standard. As incomes rise (especially in the richer quarters of Tokyo), this standard increases for all of Japan. This breeds the top-to-bottom flow of elevated culture down to the masses. Furthermore, authority figures are allowed to innovate or suggest interesting product choices because they completely shielded from criticism.

    2) The education system is telelogically oriented towards placing the most talented students in the bureaucracy. This examination system emphasizes detail orientation and the memorization of facts and not “the big picture.” This breeds consumer’s culture maniacal throughness and obsessiveness.

    3) Pre-workforce or part-time employees make up the vast majority of music and fashion consumption in Japan. They have few expenses, get money from parents, and work part-time jobs. They have no cars. The richer Japan got, the richer these kids got. The breakdown of the goal-oriented education system gave more free time for part-time work to those students not planning on a college-education. This breeds the price-insensitive consumers needed for the mass consumption of expensive magazine-curated goods.

    Pre-war Japan was all about “consumption is not a virtue.” There is nothing “spirtual” or traditional at all about the diversity of Japanese consumer culture, other than it may be post-Industrial Japan’s closet analog to religion.

    My worry, again, is that the preconditions for this consumer culture are beginning to crumble – magazines are losing their readership and authority, the myth of the mass middle-class is no longer believable, those in their 30s refuse to get real jobs and leech off their parents, kids have $200 cell phone bills to pay which cannabalizes other product purchasing, parents no longer make enough to give their kids excess money. What’s “in” at the moment here are cheap, prefab “authentic” lifestyles like punk rock and hip hop. You can essentially outfit yourself out in these looks for a month with how much it takes to buy one Issey Miyake jacket. In light of these conditions, I’m not convinced that consumers are taking the chances with interesting products that they were say, five years ago. If they’re going to spend $1000 on something, it better be a teiban-type Louis Vuitton that is guaranteed to not go out of style.

    I could go on forever on this topic, but I just wanted to make the point that the only reason I bring up economic instability is that I believe that finances are a key part to Japan’s consumer culture. And if Japan keeps on this path towards an American-like class-based society, the consumer culture will also become more Western.

  15. marxy Says:

    Oh, and I forgot to mention, at least one exclusive track on almost any album, simply by virtue of the fact that it came out in Japan.

    This stems only from the fact that the Japanese official release priced at $25-$30 must compete with the import priced at $15-$20. I feel sorry for the kid who thinks the extra bonus track is worth giving the extra $10 to the Japanese music industry. The bonus track system is windowdressing and apologizing for terrible price gouging.

  16. sparkligbeatnic Says:

    To take a little time trip to this world, you just have to hang out in a place like Osaka’s Shin-Sekai, around Osaka Tower.

    This turns out to be a place loved by Alex Kerr, for some reason, if you read his first book “Utsukushi Nihon no Zanzou”. In a part of this book devoted to Shin-sekai, he laments that the Bubble era has changed everything but the flophouse part of Osaka and he begs for that part of Japan to remain untouched by the racing economy.

    Funny how some things change so quickly. When I first came to Japan, my Green friends were all despondent about the rapid growth of the conbini sector and the devastating effects it was having on the environment. It also turned out to have long term effects on youth employment patterns and lifestyles. I couldn’t have guessed that only a few years later, life in Japan would be changed again by a flood of impossibly cheap goods from the continent. We are not necessarily in a long term decline, but things are definitely changing rapidly.

  17. Momus Says:

    Peeking out from between the specifics of your points on consumer trends, many of which I don’t disagree with, are signs of the fundamental underpinnings of your argument, which I find deeply disturbing. It’s not just the ‘decline’ meme, it’s the way you pass off an attack on many of the basic features of Japanese society itself as an attack merely on ‘authority figures’ you portray as operating by some sort of sinister conspiracy:

    The media and government work to create an idea of a classless Japanese homogenity…

    I think you’ve left out an important element here: the Japanese people themselves. So, if I may, I’d like to amend your statement to:

    The media and government and the Japanese people work to create an idea of a classless Japanese homogenity…

    But that still feels wrong to me. Japan is a massively horizontal, homogenous and classless society already. So we have to call this state of affairs more than just an ‘idea’. Let’s replace ‘idea’ with ‘fact’, and let’s add the word ‘together’, because Japan is highly harmonious and highly consensual:

    The media, the government and the Japanese people work together to create the fact of a classless Japanese homogenity…

    Do you see how that’s beginning to look? Later, you say

    authority figures are… completely shielded from criticism

    Another example of your attempt to show Japan, quite wrongly, as deeply split and full of suppressed contention. The image of a shield suggests a hail of spears and arrows raining down on a few celebs and taste leaders protected by a sort of fascist praetorian guard. Well, where are these arrows and spears? What if it was closer to the truth to say that there is actually very little criticism, and that that (the desire for harmony, and its successful achievement) is in fact is a core Japanese trait and a major Japanese achievement? What if famous people and other ‘authority figures’ in Japan were, in fact, famous and powerful because they express uncontroversial opinions which everyone else already holds? And what if harmony and conviviality were rated far, far above the need to criticize? You would then be deploring some of the most basic traits of the nation. You would be deploring quite a big part of every Japanese person you know, every Japanese person you’ve ever met.

    The education system… breeds consumer’s culture maniacal throughness and obsessiveness.

    This is ethnocentrism posing as conspiracy theory. It suits your arguments and your self-image to separate the Japanese people from their government; that way your arguments seem less nasty. After all, you’re on the side of the average Japanese against their tyrants! But what if, just what if, Japanese people are maniacal and thorough and obsessive by nature? What if it’s deep in their culture and deep in their souls? Almost, as Shane says, something ‘spiritual’? What if their institutions merely reflect this deep historical, cultural and personal tendency in Japan?

    I just asked Hisae, my Japanese flatmate, whether she thought Japanese people were maniacal, thorough and obsessive. She said, very emphatically, yes. Then she said that in some situations Japanese aren’t thorough. What situations? ‘If it leads to social disharmony.’ Harmony is a higher Japanese virtue than thoroughness, but they’re both pretty high up there. So if you attack them, what are you attacking? Who are you liberating?

  18. marxy Says:

    Momus,

    This is when your complete ignorance about Japanese history and social science starts to hinder your arguments. You have bought hook, line, and sinker the Japanese government’s tatemae about Japan being a classless society. While government reports always boast a rate of “90% middle-class,” when you break that down into sub-classes, there is a huge difference between lower middle-class and upper middle-class. Japan does not have ultra rich or ultra poor, but there is much more heterogenity than anyone wants to admit. More than widespread socioeconomic harmony, there is an image of widespread socioeconomic harmony. Where did this image come from? All media images and government statements (which are never deeply investigated or criticized) just nail this point into people’s heads. When you take a look at the real statistics, there is way more income difference than expected. For example, the restaurants of Roppongi Hills are surely targeted towards very wealthy patrons, but housewife shows like Oosama no Buranchi say to the middle-class consumer: you too should be eating here.

    This explains why consumer debt is on the rise and more women work out of the home. To afford the “middle class lifestyle” (which is a Tokyo upper middle-class lifestyle), both husband and wife of lower middle-class families have to work or borrow money to afford the luxuries they are supposed to be consuming. And of course, society also gets angry at the mother for not staying at home.

    So, there may be social harmony, but it’s artificial, and lately, as incomes diversify even more, this is starting to cause social problems.

    Next – the Education System. You’ve never read anything ever about where it comes from or why it was created or how it works. If there is one institution that socializes Japanese people and makes them “Japanese,” it’s the education system. If you changed this education system, you would essentially change the “spirtuality” of Japanese people. Do yourself a favor any read something like Thomas Rohlen’s Japan’s High Schools or even Merry White’s very pro-Japan The Japanese Educational Challenge. Or the chapter on Japan in Ronald Dore’s The Diploma Disease. Late-developing, authoritarian countries develop bureaucracy-oriented education systems, but Japan still retains this system even though it is no longer a developing country, nor has a populace that still wants to be part of the bureaucracy (which was exposed as inept and corrupt in the 90s).

    But with you just mouthing off government propaganda for Japan in your weird Neo-Orientalist/Post-Modern hybrid, I can’t really answer your attacks. Find me some evidence besides an outsider looking at things without knowing the inner workings and anecdotal evidence culled from friends.

  19. Chris_B Says:

    shane: marxy already got the gist of what I wanted to say, but let me point out that a band typically records far more material than gets released on an album. The cost for the publisher to release a “bonus” track is essentially zero. When an omake is expected, its not really something extra any more.

    momus: regarding your comment on discount stores: first of all to compare the post war black markets and the lower priced shotengai mise to chain discount stores like the Daizo Hyaku Yen Shop or Que Que (99 yen chain) is a complete red herring. There is also a big difference between seeing something in a movie and seeing things in real life. Just out of curiosity, do you actually know anyone who lived through that time here? If so talk to them for yourself and ask what life was like then.

    I agree with you that it is not right to split the people from the government. Even tyrants govern with a certain degree of concent. But, the authorities in various form do actively work towards leveling the playing field to a large degree. One of my “uncles” here told me that the most dangerous thing in Japan is how strongly men envy each other and how they are constantly watching to make sure no one has it too much better than themselves. By taking active steps towards equalizing material gain, social order can be preserved.

    I think you are basically right with comments like What if famous people and other ‘authority figures’ in Japan were, in fact, famous and powerful because they express uncontroversial opinions which everyone else already holds? In a way that supporst my previous point about a primary function of authority being smoothing the social order. People do want harmony, but it must be actively maintained.

  20. sparkligbeatnic Says:

    Japan doesn’t have classes in the way we think of them, but neither is it ‘superflat’ other than in the perceived middle-classness of most of the citizens. Rather it is super-vertical. In any Japanese group there is a well defined chain of command and privilege. Everyone has a sempai and kohai. It’s mainly determined by seniority so the idea is that everyone will move up the ladder as they age. In effect rate of progress up the ladder depends on which school
    you managed to get into.

  21. sparkligbeatnic Says:

    Marxy wrote: there may be social harmony, but it’s artificial, and lately, as incomes diversify even more, this is starting to cause social problems.

    You are ignoring Japan’s cultural history, by saying that the social harmony in Japan is artificial. Emphasis on social harmony is a characteristic of East Asian societies – it seems plainly incorrect to say that this is something imposed by an oppressive government. Social harmony is valued by most of the people in the country. I’m sure it is considered more valuable than personal wealth, for example.

    And largely, emphasis on social harmony does seem to help people to be happier. Even at the bottom of the vertical dimension in Japanese society, the people who clean the streets, trains, and buildings look to be just as happy (if not more so) than the ‘higher ups’ and certainly better off than their counterparts in other industrialized nations. It’s not really my way of looking at things but it does seem to be the case that acceptance of one’s lot may increase one’s happiness.

    But I agree that some of the egalitarian aspects of post-war Japan are disappearing. It seems that, increasingly, the elite national universities are populated with children of financially privileged families, who could afford to attend top-notch juku.

    There has been much talk from the government in the last few years of Japan becoming a competitive society (kyosou shakai), like those in the west, which might make things fairer for the underprivileged. It’s hard to see how this can work in Japanese society. As a friend cynically put it “you can’t compete with the cronies.” But I don’t think we should underestimate Japan or ignore the possibility of an unconventional but effective solution to the present challenging circumstances.

  22. les Says:

    “So, and no insult intended, Marxy, but Japan hasn’t fallen as far as the USA…”

    “Discount goods culture happened a long time ago in North America, so if this is an indication of the fall of Japan, North America started to fall long ago.”

    “But again, if this the presence of these can be taken as indication of a “fall”, the USA has fallen further than Japan.”

    I think statements like above are really inane and childish, especially in regards to the topic at hand. What are they really in response to? Does everything have to be treated as said from an American pulpit? My suggestion to you is to espouse your political biases/beliefs where appropriate.

    On a different note, how in a “flat” society like Japan does a caste like the Burakumin get created? Can someone illuminate? I find this rather strange and fascinating…

  23. sparkligbeatnic Says:

    Sorry for being inane and childish, Les, but please first answer me, how in an equal opportunity society than constitutionally bars racism do you end up with places like East Palo Alto or South-Central LA? How is it that the vast majority of those incarcerated in the US prison system are blacks?

    If you can give me good answers, just to please you, I promise I’ll stop being inane and childish.

    Japanese society is virtually flat. It’s an optical illusion.

  24. les Says:

    I am in complete agreement, in regards to the charges against the American society you have just made. But, when you qualify every response to Marxy’s cultural and economic dissections with a political jab, going beyond the boundaries of the writer’s original intent I believe, it get’s tiring pretty quickly. I guess what’s at the center of all this contention is whether Marxy is making a comparitive statement in his essays. I personally don’t read it as such.

    Anyway, can’t a rose simply be a rose? Happoushu just a happoushu?

  25. Chris_B Says:

    sparkligbeatnic: allow me to respond to your comment to marxy. I’d venture that without strong government, very little social harmony is possible. Consider the hundreds of years of civil war which only ended when the Tokugawas took control. The regulatory beurocratic tradtion of social control established during the Edo period has maintained order pretty darn well for the last 400 years barring minor civil unrest now and then. Yes there is some hyperbole in that statement, but I hope you get my drift; I support the theory of enforced harmony.

  26. sparkligbeatnic Says:

    Chris_B: There has to be a top to such a vertically organized society. But the verticality is nearly homogeneously and isotropically distributed (maybe this is why it looks ‘flat’) – the gradations of power are minute and widely distributed. These gradations are so pervasive that they are coded in the language and social customs, as is ‘groupism’. You’ve been here a while, so I don’t have to explain to you about ijimeru, which I would say is the major downpoint of the system, but probably also necessary in some form to keep it running (hence the B-people, Les). In other words Japan, like other Asian societies has a high structured society. The fibre is cultural and the government is part of that of that society, a reflection of it, and a, naturally enough, governing element. If we can let Happoushu be Happoushu, surely it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine Social Harmony as Social Harmony?

    (I think I managed to avoid USA-bashing in this post).

  27. sparkligbeatnic Says:

    And I promise to include other countries in my comparisons in future posts, as I agree that the USA-bashing is getting tired. How about Singapore for example? There’s my idea of Social Harmony implemented in a nightmarishly stultifying way. The worst of the East and the worst of the West.

  28. marxy Says:

    Enforced Harmony

    Japan’s value of harmony predates its democracy. Who wanted harmony? The ruling elite. Why was it made into a “virtue” and education priority for the masses after the Meiji Restortation? So that the elite could more easily control the lower classes.

    Burakumin

    The idea of Japan “never having social classes” is absurd, seeing that the Tokugawa period was all about the four explicitly-divided Confucican social classes: samurai, farmer, artisan, and merchant. The burakumin were those left to do jobs dirty in the eyes of Buddhism – the butcher and leatherworker etc.

    The elite who controlled Japan after the Meiji Restoration were primarily of samurai stock, but destroyed the social class order. Besides this elite and some urban capitalists, however, everyone was pretty much poor until the post-War.

    I just got a recent book called Class Structure of Contemporary Japan by Hashimoto Kenji which debunks the idea of a New Middle Mass, classless Japan. I will do a writeup on it when I finish.

    Japan obviously has class divisions, but the question is: does Japan have class consciousness? There is not much evidence that it does, but I find it no stretch of the imagination to assume that the upper classes and government would try to limit the amount of class identification. As Hashimoto points out, when magazines started complaining about rising income inequality in the 90s, there were only concerned with the diversification of of white-collar incomes – not working class or old-middle class. There is no public acknowledgement of underclasses.

  29. marxy Says:

    Also, there is a lot of talk here about Asian societies valuing “social harmony.” Yes, this is a very Confucian concept. Confucianism, however, also values “enlightened authoritarianism.” I think the two go hand-in-hand. Japan is probably the closet to an exception, although I think you know how I feel about Japanese democracy.

  30. r. Says:

    Nick said that Hisae said this…

    “I just asked Hisae, my Japanese flatmate, whether she thought Japanese people were maniacal, thorough and obsessive. She said, very emphatically, yes. Then she said that in some situations Japanese aren’t thorough. What situations? ‘If it leads to social disharmony.’ Harmony is a higher Japanese virtue than thoroughness, but they’re both pretty high up there. So if you attack them, what are you attacking? Who are you liberating?”

    …and she is right, but again only partly so. See, here’s the pinch. In Japan, if someone (either a Japanese person or someone else) is actually BEING ‘socially disharmonious’ (from a Japanese point of view, more later) – believe it or not, this happens at times – Japanese people in public settings will go out of their way to IGNORE them or endure them, but not actually DO ANYTHING about a situation that is causing EVERYONE social disharmony.

    There are a variety of ‘normal’ examples.

    1. Spend enough time on the trains during the rush hours, and you’ll see someone ‘blow’ the social harmony. Perhaps they start screaming, or they hit something, or take up the whole seat all by themselves, or sit in the seats designated for ‘physically challenged’ folks. Well the Japanese, out of their ‘maniacal, thorough and obsessive’ to preserve social harmony actually wind up trying to totally ignore such perturbations. (They always remind me of kids who, when playing hide-and-seek, just shut their eyes and think they are suddenly well-hidden.)

    2. Have you heard the one about the dog? Of course you haven’t. I spent the better part of last week hearing a dog howling at the top of his lungs in utter misery on and off, day and night. (And seeing as how my studio is a ‘mansion type’ with thick concrete walls, this is saying a lot.) Well I thought surely someone in the neighborhood would do SOMETHING about it. No one did anything. I finally went over and checked it out myself. The dog was two houses down from mine, and was in a miserable state. He was ancient, had the mange, looked to be blind, and was out in the cold with no doghouse. No wonder he was howling. I could see that the lights were on in the home, so I rung the bell. I rang and rang, but no one came out. I tried it again the next day (car was in the driveway, TV on inside), but to no avail. All the time dog keeps howling. I couldn’t imagine that this was only bothering me, and not everyone in the entire neighborhood. I eventually took down the name of the house and the address, and tried to find the number of the Animal Right Hotline in Tokyo (couldn’t find one). Call the cops instead. They told me there was nothing they could do. Such issues were handled between neighbors in Japan, he said. Right. I think the dog died out in the cold. It should have been put to sleep and out of its misery somewhere warm. Harmony!

    3. This one is kind of strange, because it brings into question the notion of just what it is that Japanese people consider socially disharmonious…

    The fact that Japanese don’t use the word ‘survivor’ in Japanese do describe survivors/victims of the atomic-bombing at Hiroshima. They DO use the phrase 被爆者, but this just means ‘the person who was bombed’. Why? Well, at the time (and this is according to Kenzaburo Oe’s writings) folks who survived didn’t want to ‘stand out’ and cause folks who had lost loved ones in the bombing any undue stress by their ‘label’ reminding them that others HADN’T survived…Nice idea of harmony.

    Kiss,
    R.

  31. Chris_B Says:

    marxy: yeah, “democracy” sure does cover a wide range dont it? As far as enlightened authoritarianism, ask around a range of Japanese people how they would describe the people who go to Todai then on to the beurocracies. Betcha a can of happoshu that the #1 answer is going to be “arai”

    r: good comments all

    momus: about Hisae, what language did you use and how was the question phrased? I’ve found that if you ask a Japanese person “dont you think so and so” you will usually get an affirmative answer. Goes back to the maintaining harmony thing, its not nice to disagree, etc. Not criticizing your reporting of your friend’s opinion, just asking how you asked

  32. Momus Says:

    I asked in English, but I ‘translated’ maniacal into the Japanese version of the word, maniac and pronounced it in Japanese fashion. I just said ‘Do you think Japanese people are ‘maniac’, thorough and obsessive?’ Hisae didn’t know ‘thorough’ so I explained it as ‘taking care with details and seeing something through to the end’.

    I test a lot of Marxy’s questions on Hisae, and I never tell her in advance what my position is and what Marxy’s is. I make sure I’m not phrasing the question in a leading way. She absolutely wouldn’t just say what she thought would please me, even if she could guess my position. She knows that harmony in this case is achieved by her saying what she thinks is really the case.

    Do you think it’s odd that a Japanese person would characterize Japanese as ‘maniacal, obsessive, thorough’? I don’t think it’s very odd. And I liked her point that harmony trumps thoroughness if they come into conflict. It might be interesting to make a hierarchy of Japanese values one day, and try hypothetical conflicts between them all to see which trumps which. I think Marxy would find a lot of things he disses as ‘artificial’ and tries to pass off as authoritarian conspiracies right at the top of the league table of ordinary people’s values.

  33. marxy Says:

    ask around a range of Japanese people how they would describe the people who go to Todai then on to the beurocracies. Betcha a can of happoshu that the #1 answer is going to be “arai”

    I think you mean “erai,” right? Which can mean both “elite/above in status” but also “hard-working.” The meaning is similar, but if you asked someone to describe people who go to Todai, they’d say “erai” because those students study hard, not because they are already elite.

  34. r. Says:

    whoops…here is another quick example of Japanese people in public settings going out of their way to IGNORE them or endure people BEING ‘socially disharmonious’

    1. 痴漢- what happens here is that everybody knows (esp. japanese women) that being groped in public is one of the risks of public transportation (or working in an eatery like an izakaya for that matter). there are so many horrible stories about this happening. but the most horrid part of it all is that there is a kind of ‘grin and bear it’ attitude among women in general here. (again, i:m reminded of my analogy of naive children playing hide and seek and closing their eyes and imagining they are now well hidden.)

    instead of risking ‘disturbing’ the ‘social harmony’ of the rush-hour train packed with other japanese, many women report just PRAYING that their assailant will get off (no pun intended) at the next stop. thus many incidents go unreported. the women choose to internalize the psychological damage and not deal with the victimization in a public format. all of this can lead to a lot of inner stress and worry. (i personally know someone who has endured such problems – including on-campus stalking – but was unable, due in part to the social mechanics of that joyous japanese ‘harmony gone wrong’ to do anything about it. the poor girl became a nervous wreck as a result.)

    of course, we know that in america, if such a thing were to happen (chikan on the trains…say in NYC) the assailant would not only be maced (by one or more persons), but they would also probably be beaten up by some hot-headed ‘good Samaritan’ type, then turned over to the cops, processed, AND then SUED for every penny! after this, he would probaby have a good time being someone’s pony-boy in the big house. i:ve never heard of anything like this happening in japan. why is that?

    well again, because of nick’s much touted ‘social harmony’ the japanese are a non-litigious society (granted that america is too much of one), and they don:t use the LAW to uphold personal infringements of their personal liberties. traditionally in older manifestations of japanese society, things like a very strong social hierarchy (縦社会) and a very, very close-knit community (thriving 商店街, and other little perks, for example, has anyone ever seen an actual 回覧板 in say, the past 50 years?)forced a kind of hyper-awareness of who the person next door is and what they are doing (does anyone actually KNOW their お隣さん anymore?). this in turn led to an enforcement of the legal code of the day THRU the mechanism of SOCIAL shame.

    in other words, if someone does something illegal, everybody in the neighborhood will know soon, and that person will be ostracized. their ability to function in a tightly-knit pre-modern japanese society will short circut. this served as very effective kind of social deterrent, and it worked well for a long time.

    modernization and its attendant social atomization has led to a more ‘liquid’ even polyvalent (as compared to previous standards)socail milieu. potential ‘evildoers’ can zip around on trains, commit crimes well away from their homes, mask their identities with cell phones, rely on the camouflage/saftey in numbers of the 寿司詰め trains, etc. as a way to increase the effectivness of their M.O.

    all the while, they can depend (with fair confidence) that the anachronistic japanese sense of ‘social’ harmony will be their shield should they ever actually get caught on a train (or some other public place) ‘in the act’.

    and the bet that they are making is unfortunately all-to-well considered. indeed the gap between the pervious ‘social harmony’ and its effective enforcement thru shame and the nascent ‘modernizing’ society and with its ‘faux-harmony’ and its inability to enforce the legal code thru penal measures is wide. since actual charges will never be brought upon the perpetrators they ‘take advantage’ of the antiquated ‘morals’ of their victims. it is a vicious cycle.

    of course, the japanese try some stopgap solutions, like a ‘women only’ train. but we all know, this is just treating the symptoms, and is not anywhere close to an actuall solution. of course, i:m sure the girls feel better…as long as they are on the train. naturally the american in me can:t stand the idea of a women only train. or if i allow it, i want to be more pluralistic in my discrimination. i want a men only train, a ‘chikan-only’ train (who says the only chikan are male, anyway), and heck, why stop there? why not have a ‘handicapped-chikan train’ or we could have…even better, a single-serving train-car for each and every passanger in tokyo…as long as they didn:t touch THEMSELVES while they were riding…and so and ad absurdum.

    women not bending under the immense weight of ‘social harmony’ and aggressively litigating their assailants would be a first step.

    a second step would be for some fellow passengers (who again are looking the other way and trying to pretend they and everything around them doesn:t exist) to step in and lend a hand.

    but of course, i:m sure this is already asking too much. i:m sure now i:ll have to defend myself against accusations of not loving japan’s ‘social harmony’ enough. sorry.

    2. physically challenged people. although i don:t have time to explain. i just want to ask a quick question to all the folks out there who are living in tokyo (like i am). before you moved here, where were you living? do you remember seeing – on occasion – physically challenged people wheeling (or crutching or whatever) around the town? now would you be so kind as to compare that with the relative number you have seen out and about in tokyo (a town which i:m willing to bet has a much bigger population than wherever it is you came from)? my guess is that you will find that there seem to be relatively FEW physically challenged out and about in tokyo…but this doesn:t mean that they are few in number. GUESS WHAT? they are in hiding AND ARE BEING HIDDEN. if you don:t believe me, make friends with one of them and get their side of the story. (not to mention how much is sucks to take public transportation in japan if you are physically challenged.)

    enough for tonight.

    kiss,
    r.

    three cheers for social harmony.

    just asked Hisae, my Japanese flatmate, whether she thought Japanese people were maniacal, thorough and obsessive.

  35. Momus Says:

    I just read Hisae the Shane / Marxy debate about record stores and the ‘spirituality’ of consumer culture. She very much disagrees with this Marxy statement:

    I don’t think there is anything “spiritual” about obsessive consumer culture, just a set of sociocultural and economic forces coming together

    ‘The staffs are proud of working there, even though Tower Record is not their own company, or they’re not the boss,’ she says. This sounds like my idea about Japanese ‘superlegimacy’ and how this sense of the validity of work and the sense that one should embrace, not deny and escape, one’s social role is something money just can’t buy: you could increase the wages of British train drivers by any amount and they still wouldn’t have a Japanese train driver’s sense of ‘superlegitimacy’, his glowing and obvious pride in the work. This is not an economic issue, but a spiritual one. Even the freeter phenomenon, which seems at first glance like a withdrawal from ‘superlegitimacy’ and from the social collectivity, is in fact a way to re-invest money and time in a superlegitimate hobby which is equally social and equally spiritual.

  36. r. Says:

    nick,
    is it really wise for you base what you are saying on testing things out on hisae? are you using her as a normative example of japanese socitey? didn:t you tell me one day that she is of korean parentage (or descendancy or something) and that on top of it, her parents (or was it her mom, i can:t remember) was a super-fundamentalist christian (or something strange like that?). on top of that hasn:t she been out and about in london or wherever for a while? i dunno…sounds like a pretty ‘weighted’ slide-ruler for you to measure a whole society with…just by a word from your flatmate. even if you DO, as you say…take such care in your phrasing of the questions. i:d like to hear from other japanese.

  37. Momus Says:

    And this is where I come in with my big argument about western sickness (which as a western person I’m allowed to advance): that we in the west are ascetics who mistrust society, mistrust our own bodies, and know the price of everything and the value of nothing. We understand text but not texture. Thanks to Platonism and Judeo-Christianity we see the real as always ‘elsewhere’. Thanks to individualism we have a poorly-developed public life, and thanks to our colonial past we have cities full of strangers we believe — often correctly — to be dangerous and resentful of us.

  38. r. Says:

    nick,
    i:ll post an essay up on my blog
    http://glitchslaptko.blogspot.com/
    in a day or two that will pose some serious challenges to your ‘superlegit’ idea. i:ll be using actual example from japanese culture (gasp!) in most of what i say. looking forward to engaging in a lively discussion!
    kiss,
    r.

  39. r. Says:

    nick,
    sorry, but i haven:t met any hardcore platonists recently. anyway, aren:t things are a little mushier and greyer than that by now? i mean, everybody has read at least one book on eastern religion by know, right?
    kiss,
    r.

  40. Momus Says:

    Lively discussion is impossible on your blog, Robert, since you’ve disabled comments. And I hope you’re not implying my Superlegitimacy idea is not based on ‘actual examples’. It’s based on close observation of train drivers:

    http://www.livejournal.com/users/imomus/36990.html

  41. r. Says:

    nick,
    i see what you are saying, but the social model that i:m going for makes a little more use of the platonist and judeo-christian ways of thinking. i:m not into totally rejecting them. i think what hegel said about christianity being a kind of ‘gain’ in the historical sweep of humanity does make sense. but i don:t have my hegel in front of me so i won:t risk a quotation. will do that later tonight.
    hugs,
    r.

  42. r. Says:

    nick,

    aren:t we having a lively discussion right now? who says it has to be on MY blog. my place or yours? why not this place, or yours…ARE you having fun yet?

    >Robert, since you’ve disabled comments.

    actually, i:ve simply chosen not to ENABLE them…but whatever!

    >And I hope you’re not implying my >Superlegitimacy idea is not based on ‘actual >examples’. It’s based on close observation of >train drivers:

    of course your examples are as vividly one-dimensional as any blind gaijin might hope to envision! and i:ll follow suit with some near-sighted ones of my own! tit for tat. quid pro quo. yada, yada!

    high-five (up high, down low…too slow!),
    r.

  43. Momus Says:

    R, I challenge you to enable comments on your blog, because otherwise it’s just a huge and somewhat bizarre monologue with all sorts of cliquey personal refs and digs and gallery-playing asides in kanji.

    http://glitchslaptko.blogspot.com/

    I’m not going to comment on your latest posting on Marxy’s blog, it’s just not polite. There are some interesting things in your analysis, but also a lot of rambling. Sometimes I think Jean and I have a different take on Japan because we’re not Americans, it’s as simple as that. Americans in Japan are like bulls in a chinashop. Your very way of thinking and being is challenged by Japanese ways of thinking and being. Even when you’re trying to turn around gently, you break something. Mastering the language is not enough to master your rebellion against what you insist on seeing as a ‘content-free’ culture rife with conformity and compliance.

  44. Momus Says:

    I can’t leave this thread (heading for a record number of comments on a Marxy blog entry) without directing your attention to an interesting entry on Roddy Schrock’s blog:

    http://www.thing.net/~roddys/blog/

    He’s gone back through old diaries of Tokyo. I’ve selected some highlights:

    2. as an american i cannot understand the japanese concept of group harmony as being more important than individuality.
    3. i work with people who do not reflect on their lives.
    5. the confusion i feel in and about this country is comfortable for me.

    January 23, 2000
    tokyo
    I like Tokyo but I don’t love it. I don’t love the country or feel any deep connection with the people. I’m not interested in ancient Japanese traditions, and I while I would like to learn the language, it’s not a huge priority for me.

    June 23, 2001
    tokyo
    1. Domestic harmony creates aesthetic self-satisfaction.
    2. Robert duckworth will settle for nothing less than world domination, regardless of the cost
    3. I have to escape from this country before it’s too late.
    4. Tokyo is a claustraphobic city physically and socially.

  45. Momus Says:

    I do feel a deep connection with Japanese people. For instance, this man

    http://www.mtve.com/common/mediaplayer/playMedia.php?TrackId=651&StreamTypeId=4

    is extremely winning. I feel that although I share a common language with Americans, I share something much deeper with someone like Tori Kudo.

  46. marxy Says:

    45 comments??? Man, even when I try to stick to “field reports,” the philosophical battling comes out in short time.

    Momus: I don’t agree with everything Robert says, but I find it hard to spar with you intellectually when your entire argument is based on anecdotal and observational evidence. If I would be laughed out of a cultural studies department (which is fine, since I am a social scientist), your ideas about Japan are like 2nd-rate apologist dogma from the 70s. I have borrowed most of my ideas from academic work about Japan, not journalism like Alex Kerr. I am adapting to fit a kind of political blog-type banter, but I wouldn’t argue these positions unless I had a wide breadth of published works backing my reasoning. The entire academic output of the post-Bubble has been about the decline or crisis in Japan or at best, “Is Japan still Number One?” when we all know that it is not.

    For some reason, you assume that a kneejerk reaction to fight supression of free will is some sort of jingoistic American conceit. Wasn’t Rousseau a Frog? Locke doesn’t strike me as Yankee Doodle Dandee either.

    My main problem with the Momus School of Orientalology is that there would never be a Japanese Momus, unless that Japanese Momus worked outside of the Japanese system. Sure, there are Nosaka Akiyuki-type anti-heroes, but they only became respected after extended court battles for obscenity etc. So, if there could be no Japanese Momus, then for Momus to enjoy Japan, he must be enjoying it on the backs of Japanese people. That is to say: you (and I) are taking advantage of the current state of Japan because it’s an easy place for freewheeling international types to live. Our Western upbringing allows us to live confidently and freely in a very closeted and oppressive society. We are privy to Japan’s good sides, but excused from the social responsibilties and pressures. I agree this is a nice way to live, but I do not think that the Japanese in the system feel the same.

    Should we all continue this discussion in another comment window? This one is getting heavy.

  47. Chris_B Says:

    marxy: yes, I did mean “erai” impropper romanization == my bad.

    tower records/store clerks in general: I’ve had good experiences and bad ones, but the bad far outweighs the good. They may be super attentive/polite/genki, but on the average they are just as ignorant of the products they sell as the nose picking teens I found in the US, UK and Germany. form != function

    momus:
    you said Do you think it’s odd that a Japanese person would characterize Japanese as ‘maniacal, obsessive, thorough’? I don’t think it’s very odd.
    I dont think its odd either, I’ve heard the same from a number of Japanese. But, as someone else pointed out, a survey of one person who seems to be far outside the norm is not normative. Additionally, the katakana “maniaku” (maniac) does not mean “maniacal”. Its a perjorative to describe someone who has too much interest of/knowledge about a certain subject of personal interest.

    you also said: Even the freeter phenomenon, which seems at first glance like a withdrawal from ‘superlegitimacy’ and from the social collectivity, is in fact a way to re-invest money and time in a superlegitimate hobby which is equally social and equally spiritual.
    Where did you get that idea? What possible support for this theory can you produce? You seem to contradict all reported evidence and all of my personal experience in dealing with “freeters” who to an individual are either conciously rejecting or believe themselves disqualifed to participate in the standard employment systems.

    furthermore you blathered: Americans in Japan are like bulls in a chinashop. Your very way of thinking and being is challenged by Japanese ways of thinking and being. Even when you’re trying to turn around gently, you break something. Mastering the language is not enough to master your rebellion against what you insist on seeing as a ‘content-free’ culture rife with conformity and compliance.
    Blatant generalizations are great. Fortunately, I already dont really take you seriously since your opinions are that of a tourist and not a resident. If I took you seriously, I might have to be offended. Go back to playing super hero.

    r: concerning social harmony, etc: I know my neighbors, but that has alot to do with the neighborhood I chose to live in. I deliberately picked a place that was sorta shita-machi. Its like living in a Tora-san movie sometimes except that I’m right in the heart of Shinjuku-ku.

    As far as people not using the law as a tool to protect themselves, my perception is that average people dont believe they have access to the law, that the law is not there to protect them, the law is only for companies and the upper echelons of society. To a large degree I see why they believe that when the police are a buncha do-nothings who cant even solve the crimes they chose to investigate. The system has its advantages of course, I just wonder if the gaps can ever be filled.

  48. sparkligbeatnic Says:

    This discussion seems to be getting quite knotted.

    While I admit that Momus is sometimes naive in his statements about Japan, I like his overall positive interpretation. Marxy and R. are better versed in specific academic studies of Japan, but a viewpoint is still a viewpoint. No amount of scholarship is going to allow anyone to “explain” Japan, right? If someone asked you, Marxy or R., to “explain” the USA do you think you could do it? Would you be as confident about your understanding of American society as you seem to be about Japanese society? Do we actually have a closed explanation and complete understanding of any society?

    Perhaps we’ve reached a stage in this discussion where a constructive approach might be helpful. Before the discussion gets even more knotted, I would like to ask Marxy and R. if they would be willing to:

    (a) summarize in a few points what they see are the essential problems in Japanese society, the source of the trouble as it were

    (b) to suggest how they would change things, what do they think will make Japan a better place to live?

    Cheers,

    -S

  49. sparkligbeatnic Says:

    P.S. I found myself chuckling at Chris_B’s typo ‘arai’. My oldest Japanese friend and many of the people I have worked with are Todai grads and one reading of 荒い, rough or rude, would be quite accurately describe some of their behaviour.

    Another reading of ‘erai’ (偉い) is ‘conceited’, and this would fit for a large percentage of the Todai grads I’ve known. (Not all of them, though).

  50. Chris_B Says:

    sparkligbeatnic: heh. good one.

  51. r. Says:

    r. here.
    sparkligbeatnic said this…

    Before the discussion gets even more knotted, I would like to ask Marxy and R. if they would be willing to:

    (a) summarize in a few points what they see are the essential problems in Japanese society, the source of the trouble as it were

    (b) to suggest how they would change things, what do they think will make Japan a better place to live?

    and i PROMISE to do the following on my blog as soon as possible.

    FURTHERMORE, just to make jolly st. nick happy, i:ll enable comments on my blog!

    and FURTHERFURTHERMORE, i:ll publish part 2. of that silly wild ride this weekend. part three will show why momus’ ‘superlegit’ is ‘superillegit’

    happy blogging!

    lo-five,
    r.

  52. shane Says:

    Wow, this discussion has clearly gotten way out of hand since I last checked, and I’m not going to add to it for now. Anyhow, nice effort by sparklig to tie things up. I await those responses.

  53. r. Says:

    st. nick,

    >I’m not going to comment on your latest posting on Marxy’s blog, it’s just not polite.

    you are already doing it. anyway, heaven forbid we be not polite! to that end, i’ve opened up commments. come on over, baby.

    >There are some interesting things in your analysis, but also a lot of rambling.

    glad you took an interest. naturally there is a lot of rambling…sombody has to ramble!

    >Sometimes I think Jean and I have a different take on Japan because we’re not Americans, it’s as simple as that. Americans in Japan are like bulls in a chinashop.

    watch your mouth, young man. i think that jean is way more north american that i am (i’m more of a SOUTHERN AMERICAN as it were). naturally, you, mr. momus, are a bit of a puzzle, with your continental upbringing, but i do fancy you. i imagine you in a previous incarnation somewhere around the time that the 万葉集 was written. but then again, i imagine myself in a previous incarcation around then as well. so perhaps we were trading one liners more than 1500 years in the past???

    anyway as far as all that with the american thing goes, of course everyone who knows me knows that i am just a run-of-the-mill american. it IS just as simple as that, right. now you can rest easy, having labled me.

    furthermore, i’ll have you know that the “bullish” american that i once was was skewered deep in the heart with little sharp lances and other such prickly barbs by the picadors of love who gallop flittingly about in my heart a long, long time ago (but the ghost-bull comes out from time to time in a kind of play…a multi-cultural running of the bulls if you will…i call forth his spirit when i feel he needs to manifest). have you never played this card, my matadorish friend? nay, though i am but gentle when the price is right.

    also, the china shop analogy (funny you of all people should compare JAPAN to a CHINA shop…apples and orange juice!) that WAS japan has closed down a long, long time ago…its delicate wares already broken and scattered to the four corners of the earth by people (some of them from my country, some of them from yours)…and yet you still stand at the door, hoping for the long dead shopkeep to return to sell you that no longer extant item you wanted so much to still be on the shelf. japan is no longer a 割れ物esque china shop, nick ol boy. it has turned into more of a http://www.donki.com kind of store, in case you weren’t looking.

    and of course, i’ll be the first to admit, naturally the worst of the americans out there perhaps are still raging bulls. most have been branded and are therefore somewhat less harmful. a few of the americans out there (myself included) are no longer the bulls you would make us out to be. we have devolved (evolved?) into a kind of bovine-like ruminatory passive-agressor, and the most harm we can do is to ourselves, as the kind Roddy Schrock (peace be upon him) has stated recently on his glorious page…

    moo. [we don’t wanna change the world]

    >Mastering the language is not enough to master your rebellion >against what you insist on seeing as a ‘content-free’ culture >rife with conformity and compliance.

    look nick, all i’m saying is that if you can’t speak japanese, all your info about japan is coming in second hand (and from the usual sources), and also in a secondary language (english). marxy (and others) have got the info rolling in in both. don’t you might think that this could SOMEHOW be limiting what you are seeing? no? ok…

    propers (hi brad!),
    robert

  54. les Says:

    Right in line with what Marxy has been espousing, I heard this on NPR today…

    http://www.wnyc.org/shows/lopate/episodes/12012004

    Adam Gamble and Takesato Watanabe with an inside look at Japanese media, and their warnings to the West: A Public Betrayed.

  55. marxy Says:

    Les: Thanks for the amazing lead.

    Everybody: I am closing comments on this thread, since no one is talking about the original essay at this point. If you want to continue discussing the topics of the last 20 or so posts, please do it under “Mr. Duckworth’s Wild Ride.”

    Thank you.