Back to the '90s

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I recently saw a Japanese kid walking down the street wearing a shirt that said “Fuck to the Future” — written in the same font as the Back to the Future logo. Oh, how I miss the carefree days of logo parody masquerading as fashion! Had that T-shirt said “Aperican Express” instead of “American Express” and had it been 1998, that shirt would have been worth several gilder in the resale markets of Harajuku.

Something’s amiss in Tokyo at the moment for the whole generation of thirty year-old cultural intermediaries working at magazines, defining cool, getting paid by denim companies to represent “creativity.” Nobody cares a lick what they have to say about anything anymore. There is a complete cultural rift between the incoming freshmen and the cool seniors.

The whole economy used to be based on the idea that the young generation — needing a shepherd to guide them through the crazy, mixed-up world of overabundant culture — would hang on to every syllable uttered by these older “charismatic” opinion leaders. The times, however, have changed. Kids of today don’t care about limited-edition products or obscure knowledge, crate-diggin’. That’s all rich kid, nerd stuff. The new buzzwords for Japan’s Generation Y are “nurui” (luke-warm) and “iyashi” (relax) — i.e., let’s all chill out and not expend too much energy trying to outdo each other.

Well, the big kids who grew up in the cultural bubble of the 1990s have now found themselves at peak earning age, and they’re feeling nostalgic for the past when people automatically bought all the things they made. And Casio looks back fondly upon the decade in which they sold thousands upon thousands of G-Shock watches. Business idea: A Back to the ’90s campaign!

I picked up the corresponding “Back to the ’90s” free-paper with semi-Shibuya-kei rapper/Organ Bar homeboy You the Rock on the cover. There are interviews inside with two captains of the sinking ’90s cultural steamboat: Tanaka from FPM and Sunaga Tatsuo. But nevermind the marketing of this matter, I totally understand what they’re trying to say: Everybody agrees that the ’90s was Japan’s pop cultural peak — even the Japanese!

We all understand that Japan has been cool in the abstract for a very long time — the way that Mario and Luigi are “cool” but not exactly fashion leaders. (I doubt that there are many foreign websites exclaiming how awesome The Alfee, Kome Kome Club, and The Checkers were.) The ’90s is when it all came together, when each and every Japanese person — from Hokkaido down to Kyushu — was cooler than every other single person on earth. Name another country where mainstream bands were gleefully referencing Haircut 100 and The Pastels and making albums based on The Monkees’ Head, etc, etc, etc.

But let’s hear what the promotional pamphlet has to say about things (my translation since the English provided was unintelligible):

At the beginning of the ’90s, there was a large-scale economic retreat — a turn from the Bubble economy to the heavy fall of stock and land prices — and for the next ten years, Japan’s economy was called “the Lost Decade.” Under these circumstances, society became chaotic, but within the cultural scene, these conditions constructed the “The Perfect Decade” in seemingly inverse-proportion to the economy. Talented young people with firm identities started their own independent fashion labels and permeated into the the street scene. It was a fashion scene where kids went to the shops of the so-called “charisma brands” totally obsessed. R&B, techno, house, and hip hop culture each beamed out from the clubs, and higher sales weren’t just for major label artists — the number of well-earning self-produced musicians also rose. As a result, the diversity of music grew, and the music scene gave birth to high-quality genre-less music. And from the middle of the ’90s, design for commercials, CD package, and editorial surfaced on the top stage while maintaining a certain lightness.

Thus, as the movement of each cultural scene became lively, genre divisions gradually became meaningless, and “crossover” became the keyword. As a result, we were able to move to an era that demanded creativity and added-value formed from compound-objects made of different genres in fashion, music, and art. As the ’90s came to a close, there was a deeper diffusion of the Internet into the general public, and Japan’s culture scene propelled the commercialization of network computing as a media, which made all types of information available.

This is very early nostalgia for a freshly buried era, mind you, but you can’t imagine the frustration of this ’90s generation: Their brands are failing, their fans are bailing, their records don’t chart. There’s still logo parody and pakuri and consumer culture, but kids just don’t have the heart, the skills, and the knowledge to make it interesting. Bad rap-rock act Orange Range rips off old songs just like Flipper’s Guitar, but they do it with the lamest possible execution. Sure, there are still fascinating underground artists and unknown talents, but the whole nostalgia comes from idealizing a time when these underground gods were also the gods of the commercial overworld — that shining, sparkling moment, which comes once in a lifetime, when the businessmen turn over the keys to the freaks to do whatever they want. An era when a major label lets Oyamada Keigo — age 25 — run a record label that releases ridiculously un-commercial Bill Wyman albums and all sorts of dangerous sounds from Citrus, Salon Music, and Violent Onsen Geisha.

It’s sad to say, but true: Everything cool about Japan at the moment is residual from the ’90s. Great cafés, the remaining good record stores, the complete works of Godard at Tsutaya — these never existed in the ’80s, and they now stand like classical Roman ruins in the coming Dark Ages.

I get it now: “Fuck to the Future” — if the future means all this hollow punk and hip-hop and declining tastes. But sadly, the creative minds of the ’90s are an isolated, floating island with no roots in today’s young generation. It’s not that we need a band that sounds like Flipper’s Guitar or god forbid, Pizzicato Five but we sure as hell need one that thinks like them.

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

18 Responses

  1. Momus Says:

    You know, as someone very very old who’s now lived through several successive decades and their accompanying “cool waves”, I’d say it’s not worth getting too invested in any given style wave or defining it as the only thing of any value. I agree with you that Shibuya-kei was a wonderful time, of course I do, I was there! But I also think that it would be sad if 20somethings stuck to the same idea of what constitutes cool. The indifference to 90s style you describe is necessary. It must be “abjured”, as Roland Barthes put it.

    The new buzzwords for Generation Y are “nurui” (luke-warm) and “iyashi” (relax) – let’s all chill out together and not expend too much energy trying to outdo each other.

    You forgot “Slow Life”, which is the positive side of those exact attitudes, and a tremendously important movement for the whole world to investigate. Being pioneered in Japan as we speak. Don’t miss the big story of the 00s by weeping over the spilt milk of the 90s, Marxy!

  2. Gaijin-Shock! Says:

    At the beginning of the 90s, there was a large-scale economic retreat – a turn from the Bubble economy to the heavy fall of stock and land prices – and for the next ten years, Japan’s economy was called “the Lost Decade.” Under these circumstances, society became chaotic, but within the cultural scene, these conditions constructed the “the Perfect Decade”

    Is this analogous to economic recessions in the UK and the emergence of punk? How about post-stock market crash of 1987 and the rise of brit pop and grunge in america? (sorry if these are over-simplications.) I’ve often believed that good economic times calls for happy music, and vice-versa. What kind of economic times exist in Japan today?

  3. marxy Says:

    Is this analogous to economic recessions in the UK and the emergence of punk?

    No, this is a much more difficult economic situation to explain. The 90s were the end of the high growth, but not necessarily an end to wealth. The plane stopped climbing, but it stayed at the same altitude, only dropping a bit each year. (It’s finally fallen below the clouds.)

    I want to follow this up with another essay, but essentially, the 90s were a follow-through on the consumer culture of the late 1980s.

  4. marxy Says:

    You forgot “Slow Life”, which is the positive side of those exact attitudes, and a tremendously important movement for the whole world to investigate. Being pioneered in Japan as we speak.

    If you didn’t mention it so much, I honestly would never think of the word in the context to Japan. If it was ever a media buzz-word here, that’s kind of passed, and I’m not really sure how the concept relates to Japanese realities. The kids are just bored and unproductive, they’re not rebelling about consumption/production itself. Am I just blind to some huge Slow Life campaign in Japan shortening work hours, calling for the dismantling of consumer culture, moving out to the suburbs? Where are these Slow Life R&D labs?

  5. Momus Says:

    You don’t dispute the nonbiri bonyari attitude, you don’t dispute the economic slowdown, and you don’t dispute the furita phenomenon, so why dispute Slow Life as a phenomenon? Is it that you can’t bear to see the things you document being given any sort of positive spin?

  6. nate Says:

    as far as I’ve seen, “slow life” as a katakana buzz word does indeed exist in japan. The only place I’ve ever seen it though is the women’s magazine rack.
    Slow life= wearing lots of frilly girly stuff (pink and white), buying organic foods, and preparing them such that they have no flavor at all (don’t know how many of these recipes I’ve tried and they are without exception awful), and maybe sewing a little bit.
    These magazines makes clear that the “slow life” they are talking about is for married, childless women not working. Being a freeta would be absolute anathema to the aesthetic, unless of course you were to work with flowers or tea… ideally in daikanyama.

    While I’m sure the whole world would benefit from an investigation of the lifestyles of kept women in japan, I doubt it’s going to change anything.

  7. M. Says:

    Momus, how do you reconcile your obvious endorsement of the Slow Life movement with your optimistic adulation of super-legitimacy in Japan? They seem antipathetic to me; belonging to conflicting ideologies. And you recently accused Marxy of self-contradiction? Besides the most indicative statements reflecting Japanese realities in the article you linked to is rather about the shallow commodification and assimilation of movements and cultures. A truly ubiquitous national obsession. Canned Slow Life spaghetti in supermarkets? Christmas in Japan anyone? And Slow Life was introduced to the Japanese by a gaijin, I’m not sure it’s accurate to claim that it was ‘pioneered’ here. I’ve experienced it in other places (and the article refers to more than 60 cities around the world that have adopted the philosophy?).

  8. Patrick Says:

    Did you pick this up at HMV? Gotta try to get my hands on it.
    (The site says “available at HMV or G-Shock shop”, but the G-Shock site only lists one shop, in Odaiba.)

  9. marxy Says:

    Did you pick this up at HMV?

    I think so.

    You don’t dispute the nonbiri bonyari attitude, you don’t dispute the economic slowdown, and you don’t dispute the furita phenomenon, so why dispute Slow Life as a phenomenon? Is it that you can’t bear to see the things you document being given any sort of positive spin.

    No, these three factors don’t automatically add up to “Slow Life” — which Nate smartly suggests is just a women’s consumer boom, not a social movement.

    I’ve talked about this before, but the kids who are friitaa get polled and a large percent of them (70%) want real, full-time jobs. And everyone I know who has a job, in whatever industry, continues to work dehumanizing hours – and they’ll need to maintain long work hours, according to the OECD, in order to keep Japan’s growth rates up to the standard of the rest of the world. The Japanese response to the economic meltdown has been work harder – not a rearrangement of goals or dismantling of the development-state economic structures.

    I’d love you to be right on this one, but I’m just not seeing it. Hasn’t Europe adopted the principles of Slow Life way more fully and naturally than Japan? From reading that article, it just seems like SL is another superficial trend in Japan that has already started to fade out. At least the organic vegetable trend has moved on.

  10. Jesse Says:

    The Slow Life thing reminds me of how in South Korea the work week was just recently shortened to 5 days. So many Koreans are freaking out about how much more free time they have and floundering around looking for stuff to do.

    Also marxy, you should know that CD’s compiling the “Best of the 90’s” are already being sold in North America, and I know of at least one radio station that advertises its content as being “the best of the 80’s, 90’s, and today”.

  11. guest Says:

    “Slow Life” is most definitely a fad targeted at (does this sound too instrumental?) the idle rich, which in Japan means upper-middle class women and retirees. My local bookstore is overflowing with a million flash-in-the-pan “Slow Life” rags, all printed on decidedly non-environmentally friendly high-gloss, non-recycled/non-recyclable paper (much like the Aichi Expo guides). There’s even a Fuji TV drama, “Slow Dance,” complete with the ridiculous tagline “Slow Life, Slow Foods, Slow Love.”

    http://wwwc.fujitv.co.jp/sd/

    Jeez, gag me with a spoon (slowly)!

    To the extent that this “movement” inspires consumers to make more ecologically sound and emotionally/physically healthy choices, I say more power to them, but I’m still pretty skeptical.

    I have to agree that “Slow Life” has not been embraced in Japan to anywhere near the degree it has in Europe. Really, is there anywhere but Europe that people are offering a peep of resistance to the steady acceleration of work culture and erosion of leisure time? If it were possible to measure such a thing, I suspect one might find a correlation between the depth a of country’s acceptance of “Slow Life” principles and its rate of union membership (I mean real unions, not the wa-preserving “company unions” that blot Japan). After all, organized labor has a long history of slowing and stopping work! Labor in Japan hasn’t been the same since they broke the miners’ backs at Miike. If my Japanese co-workers (unionized, no less) are any indication, people here will continue to work themselves to death for no good reason.

    One point in Japan’s favor: there does seem to be an awfully high percentage of the population (at least outside of the major cities) engaged in small-scale agriculture, though I suppose we have protectionist economic policies to thank for that more than any kind of inherent love of “living off the land.”

  12. Momus Says:

    Protectionist agricultural policies is right. And the stuff about Europe being in the vanguard on the Slow Life movement is right too: France and Britain recently squabbled about European Agricultural subsidies sending British money to French farmers so they can keep on making smelly cheese in barns. (And very wonderful it is, too!) What’s wrong, though, is this comment:

    “Slow Life” – which Nate smartly suggests is just a women’s consumer boom, not a social movement.

    First, to say that anything in Japan is “just a women’s consumer boom” is stupid and misogynistic and patronising. Women are, as I’m sure we’ve established by now, Japan’s exemplary consumers. And Japan is an exemplary consumer culture. People stand on Japanese streets clutching clipboards, trying to find out what women want. If you want to know which way the wind is blowing in Japan, ask women. Are you terribly surprised that nobody contributing to the comments here is a woman, or Japanese, when this is the sort of thing you say?

    Secondly, to call Slow Life “just a consumer trend” (although guest’s post does stress just how much is sold under the tag) is rather historically inaccurate when the origins of the phrase come from prefectural advertising campaigns. In other words, the idea was drummed up in mayor’s offices in towns all over Japan. It may have become a consumer trend as it got popular, but it started as a government initiative.

    Anyway, continue ignoring it and the Japanese—and women—can happily continue ignoring you!

  13. Chris_B Says:

    marxy sezeth: The Japanese response to the economic meltdown has been work harder

    Not to be argumentative or anything, but I aint seein that amongst the salarymen. I see working the same 10-12 hrs to accomplish 5-6 hrs worth of work, lots of smoke/tea/coffee breaks, etc etc etc.

    Slow life? Compared to how I worked in NYC, Tokyo moves at an underwater pace to begin with. How much slower could things get? Then again, daily life in my shitamachi seems not to have noticed the last 50 years. If there is a slow life here its just how things are. AFAIAC if there is a slow life fad, its just another buzz word for how people waste time in the same old ways.

    90s? Wont mean anything to me. Most of my music happened long before that anyways. If I had a time machine, I’d like to see the London reggae scene of the 80s.

  14. guest Says:

    Chris said: “Not to be argumentative or anything, but I aint seein that amongst the salarymen. I see working the same 10-12 hrs to accomplish 5-6 hrs worth of work, lots of smoke/tea/coffee breaks, etc etc etc.”

    Yes, it is true that a lot of Japanese white-collar workers sit around the office all day doing next to nothing, and some shitamachi blue-collar types seem to spend a lot of time crouching and stretching and whatnot. Both kinds of (non-)worker have their counterpart in the West, the difference is that in the West these workers feel more comfortable leaving before midnight.

    Some workers in Japan work hard when at work, and some just twiddle thumbs, but all of them feel compelled to be on-site for 10-12 hour days of saabisu zangyo. The only workers who don’t seem eager to provide hours of their time for free (whether they’re actually working or not doesn’t matter) are the 30% of freeters who are working part-time by choice, who have better things to do. The self-employed (small restaurant proprietors, farmers) certainly seem less stressed out, but I don’t doubt that they’re putting in long hours.

    Momus does have a point here about not writing off the socially transformative potential of “women’s consumer booms.” See for example the co-ops detailed in LeBlanc “Bicycle Citizens: The Political World of the Japanese Housewife.” The jury is still out on “Slow Life” in Japan, but I can’t say I’m terribly optimistic…

  15. nate Says:

    Granted, marxy used the words “just a women’s consumer boom”, which invites the reaction momus gave it, but he’s tacking too objection onto the word “just”.

    The slow life “movement” in japan is not something that can be equated with the one underway in other affulent, educated populations. This one is, as momus himself shrewdly points out, a bunch of sloganeering from corporations and local government offices directing the idle rich toward a certain type of consumerism.
    Momus praises the japanese “movement” as though it were the european one, while ignoring european “slow life” as loudly as he can. He selects one small imported trend among many, and declares it the wave of the future, born in japan.

    I suggest that the world should pay close attention to the flailing japanese b-boy scene, because we could all learn a lot from it. (Cuz it’s every damned bit as meaningful as slow life in japan.)

  16. marxy Says:

    First, to say that anything in Japan is “just a women’s consumer boom” is stupid and misogynistic and patronising.

    I concede my glibness, but surely the male-dominated, stupid and utterly misogynistic central government feels the way I originally wrote it. In other words, SL is not a grass-roots, anti-establishment “movement” but a short-lived, shallow consumer boom that will probably have little lasting effect on the social structures of Japan.

    And seeing that SL is a foreign idea that essentially wants Japanese individuals to stop asserting their self-value and identity through employment, I could not imagine a more “un-Japanese” imperialist idea to force on a country “naturally” possessed with maintaining high economic growth rates – with “group-orientation” meaning essentially total-mobilization for nation-state capitalism.

    Are you terribly surprised that nobody contributing to the comments here is a woman, or Japanese, when this is the sort of thing you say?

    Oh, come now. I think the number of female Japanese posters on both our sites is relatively equal (near zero). Remember what you said: all these big ideas are “boys stuff.” Girls are out collecting wild-flowers or something.

    In other words, the idea was drummed up in mayor’s offices in towns all over Japan. It may have become a consumer trend as it got popular, but it started as a government initiative.

    You are aware that local governments in Japan are essentially powerless, and that the tenets of SL are anathema to the central government, right?

    Some workers in Japan work hard when at work, and some just twiddle thumbs, but all of them feel compelled to be on-site for 10-12 hour days of saabisu zangyo

    This is the rational behavioral response when judged on “effort” and “dedication” and not talent and results.

    Momus does have a point here about not writing off the socially transformative potential of “women’s consumer booms.

    I would say that the Japanese consumer rights movement and pollution movements have been successful women’s grassroots movements, but not mere consumer trends.

    I suggest that the world should pay close attention to the flailing japanese b-boy scene, because we could all learn a lot from it.

    Japan is the future of Hip Hop! If Jam Master Jay were alive today, he would move to Japan! and other sloganeering to follow…

  17. Chris_B Says:

    nate sayeth: I suggest that the world should pay close attention to the flailing japanese b-boy scene, because we could all learn a lot from it. (Cuz it’s every damned bit as meaningful as slow life in japan.)

    If that aint just the best thing I’ve seen all week! That there is some darn good humor cuz we all know its true.

  18. r. Says:

    this might have been the best post ever on neomarxisyou, and i can’t understand why it didn’t generate more comments…depressing!