The Soft Appeal

archive2

I usually can’t bring myself to actually sit down and watch Japanese television, even for academic purposes. I’ve been happy to spend the last several weeks coding the guest lists for the show “Music Station” (1991-2004), but I could hardly stomach ten seconds of the inimitably-mediocre Arashi (45 guest appearances in 6 years!) when I found myself accidentally watching the real show last Friday. Japanese television is great only if you are a Japanese middle-school girl or a forty year-old housewife. Everyone else in the archipelago apparently has better things to do.

So, my general strategy is to flip through the three music channels — MTV, MoTV, and Space Shower TV — and watch enough video fragments to fill my dinnertime viewing. What I glean from this brief video watching is that the music industry is pathetically desperate to sell records, but for a long time, I could not put my finger on what it is about the videos that seems so cloying.

Last night, however, I watched the new video for Asia Engineer — a recent feel-good, hip-pop band from Avex — that told the story of a young woman’s rough time finding a job in the shuushoku katsudou (institutional job-hunting) process. Let me spell this out for you in plain terms: This is a hip-hop video consoling young consumers on the pain of failing to get a corporate job.

Another work in this vein is the recent video from piano balladeer Salyu where she portrays a comet-obsessed office-lady (OL) and brightens up a stodgy, old corporate office with technicolor effects and Broadway musical choreography. Again, the sell is — hey, young OLs in boring black-and-white offices, I feel your pain.

Ever since rock’n’roll showed up on the scene, pop music’s selling point has been either escapism (don’t you want to live this outrageous lifestyle?) or hierarchical coolness (if you want to get to a higher plane of social existence, you must buy into this artist.) Both strategies are based on the natural pull of aspiration.

These current iyashi-kei (buzz word for “healing culture”) Japanese videos have absolutely zero of that traditional appeal and tend to basically tell possible consumers, “There, there. Life is hard!” with a motherly pat on the head. In essence, they are affirming these kids’ institutionally-proscribed values instead of launching an assault against them.

To a certain extent, Eminem and Kid Rock do something similar with American kids in that they legitimize and celebrate “white trash” values instead of offering a “cooler” alternative. But the difference is that kids are embracing what society perceives to be moral and ethical faults precisely because that places them in a rebellious position against authority. “Hell yeah, I got my girlfriend pregnant and then I did that drunken chicken car stunt like at the beginning of Footloose!”

Meanwhile in Japan, the values being reaffirmed are those from essentially mainstream, “good boy/good girl” behavior. I’m sure that these videos were made on top of a mountain of market research suggesting that younger Japanese kids want to hear pop songs validate their mediocre, non-rebellious lifestyles, but I’m not convinced this is an effective strategy. While Japan certainly has a cultural inclination towards chastising rebellious behavior, the general rock’n’roll attitude of fantastical cooler-than-thou has almost always worked when marketing towards Japanese teens. The success of A Bathing Ape is that the brand went out of its way to not directly appeal to its core consumers. Most people use pop culture as a diversion from their mundane reality, and I’m not going to get excited about a music video that shows some lanky guy sitting at his laptop, writing a blog essay about Japanese marketing.

We should beware of kneejerk reactions that rock’n’roll must have a rebel edge to be “authentic,” and I’ll leave my “I-hate-when-supporting-musicians-at-rock-concerts-use-sheet-music” rant for another day. But perhaps this new cultural-marketing strategy gives us a clue about the nature of the unemployed freeter/NEET. If you believe the messages marketed to them, this new social class doesn’t want to celebrate its dropout status as much as lament its societal failing.

W. David MARX (Marxy)
August 16, 2005

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

38 Responses

  1. Jrim Says:

    Interesting stuff, though I’d be wary of jumping to conclusions based on two videos alone. Personally, I thought the dominant trend at the moment was to make young starlets look as much like Beyonce as possible, though maybe it’s just me. Anyway, even if they do get dressed up as dreary old OLs, I’m sure the acts you mention will never lose their prettier-than-thou, too-perfect video sheen. And that’s something to aspire towards, right?

    On a separate note, is that Salyu as in the one who did the soundtrack for All About Lily Chou-Chou?

  2. nate Says:

    do you suggest that all or even a fair amount of american music is rebellious at least in some sense? Or that hip hop really has a squeaky clean legacy of rebellion until recently?

    What’s so different about reenforcing these behavior compared to reenforcing monogamous heterosexual relationships?

  3. marxy Says:

    I’d be wary of jumping to conclusions based on two videos alone.

    Oh, there’s a whole wave of stuff like this… but I thought about it more today: The companies who used to succeed on selling “cool” shit to rich teenagers now are facing a whole generation of aimless, non-consuming, bored, boring kids who like to do nothing other than hang out with friends and “rap” about life. The older kids used to rebel within consumerism, but these new kids don’t even care about rebelling or anything. And perhaps, this soft sell marketing strategy is just an attempt to see if anything can get through to these kids and make them go back to the old tradition of buying stuff.

    do you suggest that all or even a fair amount of american music is rebellious at least in some sense

    My point is not whether something is or is not rebellious, but whether they are trying to sell it on that image. I think the Backstreet Boys or Britney Spears or Lindsey Lohan etc. are being sold with a very controlled bad-boy/bad-girl image, and their whole existence still screams “celebrity escapism.” The Japanese artists I mention seem like the dudes who work at the conbini with you.

  4. alin Says:

    The Japanese artists I mention seem like the dudes who work at the conbini with you.

    so did the wonderful Fishmens who, had the world been a fairer place, should have been as well-known as say radiohead.
    and one could easily imagine keigo oyamada or, hell, yon-sama or kitano takeshi working in a conbini as well.

    all’s cool here until the deadly parallel is drawn to the US. (homesickness, implied superiority etc). then as a rule the discussion following goes on to prove:

    1. that the same things do actually happen elswhere as well – so there’s no need for the binary thinking.
    2. the premise for comparison is too shallow and narrow, the comparison pointless unless a much larger scheme of things is taken into account.
    3. it tends to prove what i’ve suspected for some time. marxy has never actually left america and his references to the empire of signs are just a literary device used to discuss issues in his own country.

    again and again

  5. marxy Says:

    and one could easily imagine keigo oyamada

    i dunno. with the flipper’s era beret? or the cornelius era bape gear? he’s always seemed regal to me.

    3. it tends to prove what i’ve suspected for some time. marxy has never actually left america and his references to the empire of signs are just a literary device used to discuss issues in his own country.

    What’s Rumanian Pop like? Do the singers console the listeners on a tough Eastern European life?

  6. marxy Says:

    that the same things do actually happen elswhere as well – so there’s no need for the binary thinking.

    Look, my frequently belligerent house guest, I don’t know what you are talking about, because I did not particularly set up a US vs. Japan binary in this piece.

    Japan has a long history of selling rock’n’roll rebellion, which it may have imported directly with the cultural products themselves, but nevertheless, used as the central mode of marketing. I’m describing a somewhat new Japanese consumer-appeal that is trying to match the tastes of a very new generation unlike the previous post-war cohorts.

    I forgot to talk about this in the piece, but another part of this new marketing push is selling “Japan” to kids. Now, Japanese companies of course have been selling Japan to the Japanese for a long time, but not usually to teenagers. At least for the last fifty years, teenagers have been the primary receivers of images/trends of foreign origin and their domestic adaptations. I do honestly doubt that there are lots of other countries that have as many top-charting songs about seasonal flowers as Japan, but I think there is a particulary strong pull right now for young people to feel natsukashii about Japan much earlier than their parents got the nostalgic pangs. Konishi, Cornelius, and that generation all had a chip on their shoulder about being inferior to the West, which gave them something to prove later in life. Young kids don’t care either way. Japan is nifty in its own right.

    But this is all a trojan horse for me fawning over America, right?

  7. me_vs_gutenberg Says:

    >What’s Rumanian Pop like?
    Have you heard of O-Zone?
    These people pretty much established Romanian as Hell’s Own Dialect last year.

  8. guest Says:

    Kids are definitely getting sold the “Japan is great” BS earlier and earlier, strangely this goes hand in hand with “feeling their pain” about not being able to find a job, etc. So, Japan is great because… it’s a tough place to live? Because you can’t find a decent job? Because it has- count them- four seasons? Maybe because it’s where kids can fully realize the totally over-valued spirit of mindless gaman/ganbaru, rightly excoriated by this editorialist:

    http://www.asahi.com/english/Herald-asahi/TKY200508160142.html

    “this is a hip-hop video consoling young consumers on the pain of failing to get a corporate job.”

    Reminds me of Tokyoites who gathered outside the Imperial Palace after Japan’s surrender to apologize for failing their dear leader. Rather than question the system that has failed them, they blame themselves for not being able to live up to the expectations of their betters. As the Asahi editorialist said, these are people “obsessing blindly over assigned duties.”

    This is both a leap and a tanget, but I’m more and more convinced that a lot of what we might consider to be problems in Japanese society stem directly from the culture created to facilitate a state of near-permanent war from the Meiji to 1945. That mindset will have to be transcended if one hopes to see anything different.

    “a whole generation of … non-consuming … kids who like to do nothing other than hang out with friends and “rap” about life.”

    But what’s so bad about valuing friendships and devaluing consumption? Personally, I think this is trend is great, my only beef is what they are or aren’t talking about with their friends. I wish they’d be a lot more radical in their assessment of the situation of their generation…

  9. marxy Says:

    But what’s so bad about valuing friendships and devaluing consumption? Personally, I think this is trend is great

    In theory, I definitely agree. These kids have kind of dropped out of the normal capitalist/consumerist rat-race, but the flip side is that they also don’t make much of anything. The kids who manage to plug in their guitars tend to make a lot of sappy, sentimental fluff that fails to impress anyone other than their cohorts. I’d love it if they were dropping out and making something new. But it’s a very, very passive movement so far.

  10. alin Says:

    I did not particularly set up a US vs. Japan binary in this piece

    but you do. not alwas but often. and evrytime you do it the whole 20th century mythology of pop/rock authenticity also drops down like a ton of bricks and sort of nullifies even the faintest possibility of constructive, insightful discussion.

    research? guesswork? either way nice to see u get personal. i don’t know actually know much about romanian pop (an american aquaintance recently saw a truck covered in pictures of ganguro and blasting o-zone at max vol somewhere in one of the deeper states of the United – must’ve been quite a sight). also myself heard o-zone pouring out of pachinko in shinjuku which was surprising since you don’t hear much other than j-pop in those places. may i say that a paralell discussion between romanian pop and j-pop both aura-free might actually lead somewhere. If you insist in dragging along those mid-late-20C notions of authentic pop/rock values how about first considerind what say black sabbath meant to Keigo Oyamada, to some ex-eastern block kid or to the average american kid at the time.

    from your writing only I don’t actually get what you’re standpoint is. (possibly you’re confused about it too) Correct me if i’m wrong , you basically would like to see the authentic, rebelious, true stuff prevail yet not having that basically anything that sells , the fake and the lame as well, will do [ because that will move the market and that will supposedly feed back and foster true creativity ?] . ok but you’re only brushing the surface. i don’t doubt your relative knowledge of economic theory and so forth but your aesthetic judgements are rather limited/biased for you to speak as an authority. As it’s been said before on this site the only japanese pop culture you seem to have appreciated is the stuff that fed you back stuff you already knew. (ah, and the trad stuff onsen etc) why don’t you go lyrical over 山崎まさよし sometimes, for a break.

    established Romanian as Hell’s Own Dialect last year.

    the song actually came out some 5 years ago, even longer, and was a hit in romania then by someone’s amazing marketing stunt got huge in western europe some 2-3 years ago and last year the US. quite a lifespan. next stop is the moon.

    the guest above is not afraid of sounding politically incorect and has basically more freedom to move on both sides than marxy.
    if you talk about state of near-permanent war from the Meiji to 1945 though, what about before that when war was actually the normal state of affairs for hunderts of years. guess the tom cruise movie explains that. Have you read Ango Sakaguchi guest?

  11. marxy Says:

    an american aquaintance recently saw a truck covered in pictures of ganguro and blasting o-zone at max vol somewhere in one of the deeper states of the United – must’ve been quite a sight

    I’ve seen this truck all over Shibuya. It is promoting some sort of gyaru trance event, possibly related to Avex and Velfarre.

    from your writing only I don’t actually get what you’re standpoint is.

    I agree I’m being vague, mainly because I know there’s no “right” answer. My point in this piece is not that rock should be authentic, but that rock usually appeals to people in its wild authenticity. If you’re going to sell rock or hip hop, the audience will generally expect the artist to use many various tactics to prove a greater hierarchial position. For many years, I’ve railed against this aspect of celebrity, but now I realize how boring it is when the stars try to shift the attention to my problems. I think Fiona Apple and the “this is all bullshit” approach feels at least confrontational. This iyashi-kei cultural scene is legions less interesting than knitting.

    I’m not such a Yamazaki Masayoshi (YZMY – Office Orgaster) fan, nor a Fukuyama Masuharu (FYMH – Amuse) fan. There was a time when I liked about 40% of everyone on Sony Music (Puffy, Denki Groove, Judy and Mary, Chara, Sunahara Yoshinori, etc.) but the Jpop scene of today has very little to do with the Jpop scene of even five years ago. All of the indie-esque content is gone, and as much as I’d like to like something, almost none of my friends who liked Jpop in the 90s can find anything worth getting into.

  12. alin Says:

    all over Shibuya.

    no, according to the report this was supposed to have been in the US.

  13. marxy Says:

    Well, they do have it in Shibuya as well. I’m suprised that it would be in the central U.S. That must have quite a backstory.

  14. Nick Says:

    Ok, so maybe I can deflect the bashing off of marxy and onto me…

    In response to the original post: I was floored when I came here and figured out that the hip-hoppers and even the rockers here play music so tame that a Christian rock label would be embarrassed to sign them. Where was the rebellion? Where was the rock?

    I think this is a difficult topic to address. Is it fair to judge the Japanese by our standards when they’re playing music they got from us? If not, then by whose standards do you judge the merit of japanese pop, rock, hip-hop, etc?

    This reminds me of this review of “Lost in Translation”
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,3604,1130137,00.html
    Where the reviewer (A Japanese) says:
    “The viewer is sledgehammered into laughing at these small, yellow people and their funny ways, desperately aping the western lifestyle without knowledge of its real meaning.”

    Of course she’s horribly offended, but to me, that’s a perfect description of what really happens (minus the shock-value racism). They don’t get it, but how could they? How could a Japanese rapper listen to NaS and (language barrier aside) understand what a ghetto is? Is there such a thing here? (rather, is there a ghetto which is populated by Japanese?)

    Also, the notion of rebellion isn’t popular. Has it ever been? Has there ever been a political rebellion in Japan for them to base it off of? (You could argue that there’s one going on now, but rather, have they ever overthrown the ruling class?) How often do you hear dissent of any kind when interacting with Japanese people? I just figured they sold kids on behaviour, because selling them on rebellion was like giving a refrigerator to an eskimo.

    So , I don’t think that Bathing Ape really sold on this line, i think they sold to the kids think that exclusivity (and therefore coolness) can be bought. But being different while wearing the same thing !=rebellion, it kinda reinforces the status quo, like this music.

  15. guest Says:

    Marxy said: “These kids have kind of dropped out of the normal capitalist/consumerist rat-race, but the flip side is that they also don’t make much of anything.”

    But shouldn’t we consider the rejection of both consumption AND production an even more transgressive stance, giving up both sides of the equation for a kind of base existence? Not that I necessarily agree, mind you, just a thought…

  16. alin Says:

    in the 90s can find anything worth getting into.

    but isn’t that the state of things everywhere. didn’t u mention that everyone in NY was listening to the Smiths or something like that? as far as popular pop goes. there’s interesting, more-or-less breaking into more-or-less new ground, obscure stuf going on everywhere – including japan.

    what i implied before was that, globalism aside, while there’s no common scale where masayoshi (regardless who controls him or how he runs his business) can sit near say jeff buckley (below or above or next to) on a sort of lyrical scale it’s ridiculous to make universal-sounding aesthetic value judgements. same goes for Orange Range. let people who are closer and actually relate directly to the stuff do that. -//yes but they don’t do it because japanese people don’t know how to be critical and just take whatever shit comes their way …. i can hear the answer. pleaassee

    also an apology. i think a number of times my response here was amplified by the presence of number of characters who while sharing a common ground with marxy thus strenghtening the dominant voice of this site are often also taking the one-sidedness to über- levels.

  17. alin Says:

    Is it fair to judge the Japanese by our standards when they’re playing music they got from us?

    this is offensive, crass man. would you accredit all north american culture to europeans. think a bit ot the interrelatedness, trans-migration and transformation of cultural forms anywhere, anytime. (there might be some chinese academics there judging the japanese for lame-ing out their kanjis; i don’t know)

    Also, the notion of rebellion isn’t popular. Has it ever been? Has there ever been a political rebellion in Japan for them to base it off of?

    yes there have actually been. read your history. also while the concept of a ‘japanese strike’ might seem laughable and impotent; consider the fact that it is a valid way to implement change, and it often works, in fact the term has become universal . There are other ways of moving and changing than butting in and shouting out.

    Also for all this rock and roll. Has rock and roll really changed the world (or has it been a symptom of the world changing.) Does revolutionary rock actually change the world or does it act more as a sort of release mechanism for the people involved. not unlike a karaoke box

  18. Chris_B Says:

    Marxy,

    I came a bit late to this thread but its an interesting one. I have a slightly different angle on this one though.

    I’m not convinced this is an effective strategy
    strategy towards what end? why is it not effective?

    this new social class doesn’t want to celebrate its dropout status as much as lament its societal failing.

    I’m gonna venture a very different take on this. I think you were on the right track with the “selling Japan” idea but you didnt take it far enough. Both of these express gaman suru/giri/ninjo entirely while at the same time being able to pander to a generation which is fundamentaly childish by domestic standards in comparison to previous generations. Children want comfort, the indistry sells it to em. Note that I’m not taking a McArthur stand here, I’m talking purely in local terms.

    Also as far as rebellion goes, I think it requires some powerfull status quo or something to rebel against. As we both believe, this is a time of malaise, how can one rebel against chuto-hampa? There is no money to be made there, thus nothing to push.

    If you’re going to sell rock or hip hop, the audience will generally expect the artist to use many various tactics to prove a greater hierarchial position

    I’m not entirely sure that is the assumption here. I admit I’m sorely lacking in my knowledge of pop marketing here, but from relatively casual observation, it seems that the process of selling jpop is more one of selling entertainment than attitude.

    alin: its good to know that you are taking Momus’s place as resident red herringist. Its a dirty job but someone has to do it. What is interesting about this is not JP vs US, but what it says about JP in the context of JP.

    BTW if its not immediately obvious, the big difference between the wars of the Sengoku jidai and the Meiji/Showa Jidai are that of internal wars with a goal of consolidation or wars of agression against external entities with a goal of expantion. Guest seems to me to be making a different point. I wont make any assumptions about his/her level of historical knowledge however.

    guest: don’t underestimate gaman suru/gambaru. It is one of the few avenues to possible success in this system. Even barring success, its at least a way to stay within the bounds of society. If nothing else it seems to me that GS/G are the subject of an unspoken understanding of the social contract, that without these things there might be “confusion”. Its interesting for me to watch the other wetbacks where I work, those who learn GS/G and those who dont. The follks who learn it still work there, those who dont tend to change jobs every year or so.

  19. marxy Says:

    Also, the notion of rebellion isn’t popular. Has it ever been?

    I think sugarcoated, safe versions of “exclusitivity” and “rebellion” have been very successful in Japan (and elsewhere). Again, I’m not trying to pick at these artists for not being “hard’ enough as much as I’m surprised that these videos rarely try to place the artists on a higher plane than the listener. Old-style idols also tried to win hearts through mediocrity, but they were “stars” in a very classic sense.

    But shouldn’t we consider the rejection of both consumption AND production an even more transgressive stance, giving up both sides of the equation for a kind of base existence

    As a social phenomenon, very interesting. As something to write home about, not very interesting. And it’s not just me who thinks this. When I talk to people in their 30s, all they do is criticize how boring and uninspired young people are.

    but isn’t that the state of things everywhere. didn’t u mention that everyone in NY was listening to the Smiths or something like that?

    Sure, I think that “mid-level” success for indie bands is mostly over, but I have to suggest that there is not an example of a *relatively* progressive artist – like the White Stripes, Franz Ferdinand, Timbaland, Kayne West – who is currently succeeding in the Japanese market. I think a lot of the problem with straight comparison between Japan and anywhere else is that the core Japanese culture markets are all for kids with very limited intellectual capacity (this does not mean they are “dumb”).

    But the problem is that the Japanese market has had very interesting “overground” musicians, so we should not just write the whole thing off like you would write off a second-rate music scene (like Cantopop). Cornelius sold hundreds of thousands of records in the 90s.

    same goes for Orange Range. let people who are closer and actually relate directly to the stuff do that.

    I don’t know if you saw my posts about Cyzo calling out Orange Range for pakuri. Everybody Japanese over 20 hates OR with a passion. I’m not being particularly chauvinistic by suggesting that they “suck.”

  20. marxy Says:

    As we both believe, this is a time of malaise, how can one rebel against chuto-hampa?

    I think “rebel” maybe the wrong word, but for a long time, kids were consuming under the idea that there is always something even cooler over the rainbow. This engine pushed culture for a long time, but now if kids essentially don’t care what’s o-share, that throws a huge wrench in the locomotive. I don’t think that this soft sell has been particularly successful so far because it’s trying to sell consumerism to non-consumerists. So far, none of these “soft” artists have really become superstars on the par of Orange Range or 175R.

    Ketsumeishi may be the best example. They used to be a Japanese hip hop act, but now they’re just straight-up Jpop about “sakura” picnics etc.

  21. Chris_B Says:

    perhaps someone somewhere remembered that instead of selling a million of one thing you can sell 100,000 of 10 things, thus a lot of small selling bands can still produce a revenue stream somehow.

  22. Chris_B Says:

    just occurred to me, “kids these days” have grown up with chuto-hampa their whole lives, makes me wonder how many of em have known anything else…

  23. Nick Says:

    this is offensive, crass man. would you accredit all north american culture to europeans.
    Well, is it really offensive? I mean in the normal western-liberal sense where you’re not allowed to compare cultures, I suppose it is. In the case of Rock and Hip-Hop, you can tie their origins to a single place, so i think you can attribute them to being American. Therefore we have a certain ownership over the idea (though maybe not as much as a black person) Try telling a Japanese chef that you like California Rolls. They feel the same about that as I do about Japanese rock: they don’t get it. And yes, certainly most North American ideas are purely European. That’s like saying that since you and your father have different political opinions that he didn’t teach you everything you know.

    yes there have actually been. read your history.
    Well, feudal japan doesn’t really count, since that was essentially states fighting eachother. Then there was the Boshin war, which wasn’t an overthrow since the Shogun essentially resigned. And that resulted in the Satsuma Rebellion, which was soundly crushed. The emperor is essentially still in power. So what are you speaking of? And what are you referring to when you say a “Japanese Strike” I’ve never heard of it and neither has google or wikipedia.

    But i’ll admit that rock and roll mostly makes people think that they’re rebelling, when actually it’s just a pacifying matrix-like pipe dream. But it did convince me to be vegan for 8 years and help get me interested in politics. So, that’s something at least.

    But one of the bigger questions:
    Are all people of the world essentially the same, and therefore comparable as suggested by alin here:
    ” that the same things do actually happen elswhere as well – so there’s no need for the binary thinking”

    or are they different and therefore beyond comparison, as suggested here:
    “it’s ridiculous to make universal-sounding aesthetic value judgements”

    I personally think that cultural relativism is usually misguided, putting the other culture on a pedestal, preventing them from being analysed fairly. I think you can compare Japanese music and american music. Like the boredoms is good compared to american music, but orange range just sucks.

  24. guest Says:

    Alin said: “the guest above is not afraid of sounding politically incorect”

    I’ll take that as a compliment, though I don’t think that it’s a concern of Marxy’s either, from what I’ve read of this blog.

    “what about before that when war was actually the normal state of affairs for hunderts of years.”

    I think those earlier conflicts were qualitatively different, as Chris concisely pointed out, and so were their respectives cultures, which is the point I was getting at. For one, it’s my understanding that prior to Meiji, bushido was basically only the concern of samurai. After the samurai class was abolished, bushido was pushed by the modernizing nationalists as a moral code that everyone was supposed to live up to. Unfortunately, they were quite successful in getting people to take this on.

    “guess the tom cruise movie explains that.”

    Can’t comment as I haven’t seen it, but I have been interested to notice its popularity in Japan. The “situatedness” Momus brought up earlier comes to mind.

    “Have you read Ango Sakaguchi guest?”

    Nope, but I have seen “Dr. Akagi,” a Shohei Imamura movie based on a novel of his. The magical realism in the movie kind of threw me for a loop, but Sakaguchi’s essays look quite promising. Thanks for the tip, I’ll check them out.

    Chris B said: “don’t underestimate gaman suru/gambaru. It is one of the few avenues to possible success in this system.”

    Then perhaps that indicates that the system is deeply flawed. But maybe I’m just I’m just too rooted in pragmatism, which amittedly has some skeletons in its closet as well (e.g. Fordism, Taylorism, Stakhanovism).

    “If nothing else it seems to me that GS/G are the subject of an unspoken understanding of the social contract”

    But the social contract in Japan is, increasely, baloney, and because it’s unspoken there’s simply no recourse for, say, restructured salarymen who were counting on lifetime employment.

    “without these things there might be ‘confusion'”

    And perhaps the irony is that exposing the lines of conflict in the workplace is not “confusion” at all, but in fact its opposite:

    “When social arrangements operate to the systemic profit of some groups of people and to the systemic detriment of others, there are prima facia reasons for thinking that the postulation of a common good shared by exploiters and exploited may well be a mystification.”

    (Nancy Fraser, “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy”)

  25. marxy Says:

    Japan has had rebellions, but has never had a successful revolution from the bottom-up. MacArthur took over because he beat the Emperor. Always a more legitimate force coming in from the top.

    Rock’n’roll may have not changed society, but the general countercultural swing in the 60s certainly did. Even the conservatives will admit that. Things have swung back the other way, but there is a lot of residue – Bobos, for example.

    just occurred to me, “kids these days” have grown up with chuto-hampa their whole lives

    I often make the point that Oyamada Keigo and his generation all grew up in the peak of the Bubble and started producing their own works in the early 90s when things didn’t seem so bleak. Halcali’s generation were born at the end of the economic rise, so they don’t see things quite the same way.

  26. guest Says:

    Marxy said: “a second-rate music scene (like Cantopop)”

    But, but, what about Faye Wong? Swoon…

    Then again, she was an exceptional product of the 90s too.

  27. marxy Says:

    But the social contract in Japan is, increasely, baloney,

    This brings us back to the freeter – who have gone through twelve years of an education system with the single goal of securing top employment, only to find themselves cut out of the system. There are total failures from the perspective of Japanese social values.

    Kojima Akira from the Keizai Shimbun seems to think that the population crisis will essentially elimate the freeter class in the next decade. This could be, but adding a bit more flexibility and decentralization to social order in Japan would probably solve a lot of problems in the meantime.

  28. alin Says:

    successful revolution from the bottom-up …

    the nature and exercise of power itself is quite different as well, not that easily localizable and power itself is more mutable. think of shogi vs. chess. in the japanese psyche (excuse me if i’m again bordering on essentialism here) the oedipal factor , that’s the cause for so much ‘revolution’ is not a major one, – in terms of basic human-ness do try to see something good in this (go to Gilles deLuze or someone like that for confirmation).

    To go on a barely (yet) related tangent i’ve seen many american people dissapointed by the lack of interesting, revolutionary and so forth grafitti in Tokyo. Aside from the fact that it’s ok to NOT consider vandalizing someone else’s stuff as a noble act there’s more subtle stuff like , in a city so intensely packed with rather good and often ambiguous visual information why would anyone bother to add to that. the so called status quo is a much more flexible and volatile beast. the local unagi shop might have more poignant graphic/semantic visual puns in their logo than adbusters magazine.

    Try telling a Japanese chef that you like California Rolls

    the difference here would be if the japanese chef would start a global campaign against california rolls .

    Therefore we have a certain ownership over the idea (though maybe not as much as a black person)

    well…, leave that to the internal affairs dept. evidently seen in this way the US would indeed have plenty of ‘ownership’..

  29. marxy Says:

    the nature and exercise of power itself is quite different as well, not that easily localizable and power itself is more mutable

    Well, there are surely no indigenous ideas of “democracy” or making decisions based on the “will of the people.” I think Japan – like China and Korea – operates on Confucian ideals where the top sets the moral example and the masses “bend like grass in the wind” towards the correct behavior. The lack of political and economic transparency in Japan is related to this idea – basically, it’s none of your business unless you are in the top eschelon of decision-makers. Chalmers Johnson sees the Japanese system as being State-Run Capitalism, and there’s a clear argument that it worked wonders until the 1980s. (Although Michael Porter is now leading the charge that Japan’s most dynamic and innovative industries had little gov’t help or interference).

    There are good points to the Japanese political system, but I would not try to read some mystical, culture meaning behind it. These are cold, mechanical systems which can be compared to other cold, mechanical systems and dismantled to make into other cold mechanical systems. At the end of the day, support or defense becomes a matter of “belief” not objective analysis. I personally think democracy and free information benefit the populace more than overcentralized, non-transparent governing. But of course, anybody is free to believe that “enlightened dictatorship” is the answer.

  30. mcg Says:

    What’s wrong with Arashi? Sakurai Sho is as cute as a button.

  31. alin Says:

    Well, there are surely no indigenous ideas of “democracy” or making decisions based on the “will of the people.” I think Japan – like China and Korea – operates on Confucian ideals where the top sets the moral example and the masses “bend like grass in the wind” towards the correct behavior

    i can see what you’re seeing but i always get the feeling you’re leaving a big chunk out of the picture. confucianism itself, like hip-hop is only a sort of half-imported thing and i wouldn’t lump the 3 countries together. Anything I might say from here on will probably appear like try to read some mystical, culture meaning behind it …

    These are cold, mechanical systems which can be compared to other cold, mechanical systems and dismantled to make into other cold mechanical systems.

    does anthing remain once you’re done?

  32. guest Says:

    Marxy said: “I think Japan – like China and Korea – operates on Confucian ideals where the top sets the moral example and the masses ‘bend like grass in the wind’ towards the correct behavior.”

    I tend to agree, but, in the case of China, isn’t the “mandate of heaven” at least proto-democratic? And wasn’t Chinese Communism at least ostensibly a break with Confucianism?

    Today the ruling class in China know they’re playing a game of brinksmanship with the “social ignition point,” so Confucious (and anti-Japanese nationalism) are being brought back in a big way to fill the “ideological vacuum.”

  33. marxy Says:

    i wouldn’t lump the 3 countries together

    I think this is a good point of caution. Japan used Confucianism as a justification for authoritarian military rule rather than adopting the whole system as its ethical base. However, both the indigenious bushido and Confucianism tend to support top-down power structures. When the Meiji era leaders made Shinto into a State Cult, they did indeed borrow many parts of Confucianism explicitly to provide the moral core to what was otherwise a folk religion, so the influence is direct at some level.

    does anthing remain once you’re done?

    Nothing special existed in the first place. All social structures are just arbitrary sets of rules implemented by those with power. There is nothing sacred about anything anywhere – just different arrangements of legal, economic, and social guidelines than can be and will be eventually altered.

    And wasn’t Chinese Communism at least ostensibly a break with Confucianism?

    I’m not a China expert by any means, but to me, Mao has always seemed like a new type of Emperor and not some kind of new Socialist paradigm.

  34. guest Says:

    Marxy said: “Mao has always seemed like a new type of Emperor”

    Well, Mao blasted Confucianism for promoting religiosity (worship of Confucius) and nepotism, but yes, neither went away. The cult of personality around Mao was totally Confucian.

    When considering ideologies that “tend to support top-down power structures,” we should add Buddhism to the list, at least in the Japanese context (see Brian Victoria on “Zen and War” and “Corporate Zen”).

  35. Chris_B Says:

    guest: careful not to confuse zen buddhism with other forms and even within zen there are distinctly opposing schools of thought.

    regarding the social contract: I hardly think its balony at all. It continues to function although it is currently stretched. I think the mistake most people make is to compare recent economic statistics to those of the fast growth and bubble periods. I’m not entirely sure that any statistics for the 20th century can be used to set baselines or establish normative trends for Japan.

  36. guest Says:

    Chris: Point taken about Zen and other forms of Buddhism. However, as Victoria details in his work, there were very few Buddhist sects of any kind in Japan that didn’t support imperialist aggression. They were trying to save their jobs basically, as Shinto was threatening to crowd them out of the scene by virtue of being indigenous. There’s quite a bit of damning stuff out there, just google “Zen at War.”

    About the Japanese social contract, it seems to me that the rewards are pretty small compared to the amount of time and loyalty (but not necessarily productive work) demanded by the workplace. Everyone’s got the TV, refrigerator, and washing machine, what’s in it for them now? Even the salarymen (who are not the majority of workers, although the media portrays them as the average Yamada Taro) have little to look forward to. If the Japanese can’t expect the rewards of the development state, why should they have to continue to live up its demands?

  37. Chris_B Says:

    guest: you do it because its the right thing to do, because its what everyone else does and expects you to do and that in and of itself can make it right. Thats the most consise explanation I can give you. This aint based on protestant work ethic or pie in the sky when I die, it aint me first, it is about being an “average joe”. The longer I work here the more I believe this.

  38. guest Says:

    Chris: Nothing wrong with people wanting to be average, I just wish the average was a little more pleasant. I genuinely respect and even envy the Japanese attitude that life is by nature not going to be all fun and games. I think this is quite healthy, and I find the irrepressible “optimism” of the West more than a little psychotic by comparison. The Buddhist tradition likely has something to do with this acceptance of the world as a flawed place. But I do wish that didn’t include a slippery slide into acceptance of karoshi and junior high school kids with ulcers.