Class and Creativity

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Yesterday I attended Tokion Magazine’s sold-out Creativity Now Conference, again at the La Foret museum in Harajuku. I cannot provide a play-by-play report like last year, but I want to mention a couple points about social class and Japanese culture brought up in the discussion.

* In the panel about “otome” women’s culture, photographer and original Egg publisher Yonehara Yasumasa talked about discovering the gyaru/kogal movement in the early ’90s. These were the days before loose socks and fake tans, when roaming gangs of rich kids called “chiimaa” (“teamer”) ruled the streets of Shibuya, rolling-and-patrolling in their cars, stopping only to pick fights with rival groups infringing on their territory. The first kogyaru were chiimaa girlfriends, and like their beaux, were from elite private schools and wealthy families. These young women would often engage in enjo kosai, which at the time was a method of oyaji ijime (picking on older men.) For example, they would charge salarymen ten to twenty thousand yen to sit at tea together — for exactly one minute.

But when the news weeklies started to pick up on the story in the mid-’90s, the editors changed the content and meaning of enjo kosai to be more titillating and more easily comprehensible. Suddenly, the word denoted a new form of prostitution, instead of the “compensated dating” that was actually happening. As the media message spread out to the countryside, working class girls rushed into Tokyo to take part in this new movement — which some of them understood to involve a fashionable form of sex-for-cash. At the same time, older business men flocked into Shibuya to test out the waters themselves, thus creating the sensational enjo kosai crisis of the late ’90s.

I asked Yonehara later about the class issues at work here, and he said, “At first Egg was about the rich girls that working class yankii girls look up to, but now the magazine is dedicated to the working class girls themselves.” Does the lower socioeconomic background of the subculture’s participants help explain the group’s different code of sexual morality? “The Japanese tend to adopt every part of a trend, so if ‘free sex’ is in, everyone thinks, ‘OK, free sex it is.'” Like many Japanese social commentators in their late 30s/early 40s, Yonehara is somewhat exaggerating the thoughtlessness of Japanese youth consumer behavior, but I think the gyaru story does follow the traditional pattern of “top-down” cultural transmission. What started as an urban upper-class delinquent trend attracted a mass following of rural lower-middle class girls; enjo kosai started as a way to torment pathetic salarymen and ended up as a financial means to pay for an expensive designer-handbag lifestyle.

* In the last panel on “Tokyo System Crash,” MC and visual art genius Ukawa Naohiro discussed Tokyo mayor Ishihara Shintaro’s recent crackdown on dance clubs. Apparently, they no longer issue permits for “discos” in the city, and even with the permit, clubs are supposed to shut down at 1am. So, most venues have been registering as “restaurants,” and when the floor managers get word about plain-clothes cops knocking on the front door, they pull out the required number of tables and turn on the required number of lights. At one party, the plain clothes cops requested Ukawa and Moodman shut it down at 1am — an act which the promoters argued would unleash hundreds of young people out on the streets, unable to get home by train. So, they asked if telling ghost stories was okay. The cops said yes and they spent the next half-hour telling ghost stories to a confused audience, increasing the volume of the dance beats in the background little by little until the party was back on track.

Ukawa blamed the problem on Ishihara’s privileged background: “As a member of the Taiyou-zoku (1950s rich-kid delinquents in Shonan), his idea of fun is going to house parties at friends’ summer homes and yachting. He doesn’t understand our working class ideas of dancing.” Ishihara’s new mission is to open a fancy casino in Odaiba, which is again, a leisure activity primarily targeted for the wealthy. Rumors seem to suggest that the LDP is taking the issue very seriously, as a casino would attract foreign jetsetters and funnel their pocket money into the tax pool. So, in a couple of years when you’re sick of tech house, you can go blow your cash on keno.

W. David MARX (Marxy)
October 24, 2005

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

15 Responses

  1. Chris_B Says:

    neat post, nice stories. truth be told, its people like Ishihara that make me ashamed of being even slightly conservative. BTW have you noticed the trend of events not even starting till 11PM and running all night? I assume that is as you mentioned, to keep the kids inside till first train. Sensible idea, but it aint easy on an old fart like myself who is accustomed to getting up for work about the time I’d be getting home from a night on the town.

  2. marxy Says:

    Velfarre gets around the law by shutting down at 1, and then opening up again at 4 am.

  3. No Idea Says:

    “.. increasing the volume of the dance beats in the background little by little until the party was back on track”

    hahaha that is the funniest story i’ve heard in a while! thanks for posting this sir.

    What’s the current situation on enjo kosai?

  4. marxy Says:

    I don’t keep up with prostitution trends so much, but I’ve gotten the sense that EJKS remains a way for working class girls to prostitute themselves with euphemistic wording. I think the “boom” has been over for quite a while, but perhaps it still exists as a fringe phenomenon.

  5. jed Says:

    Is their a major diffrence in the working class youth subculture in Japan V.S non-working class, or does it all tend to blend?

  6. Michael McCarthy Says:

    I’m no expert on the Japanese working class, but overall it sounds comparable to England’s current look on it’s own working class… Perhaps culturally void, spending their money on shrill fashion trends. The rich look down on the poor when they (often poorly) try to buy into gaudy luxury consumer culture, but often the rich are supposed to be the beacon’s of taste and class to whom the working class should look up to.

    Promoters also tend to classify their brand of ‘clubbing’ however it best suits their needs. If you want to sell glamour, you alingn your club to the ranks of the velvet rope— if you want to give it some sort of underground creedo, you align it firmly with the proletariat— maybe name drop Marshall Jefferson, what’s more underground and urban than house and techno, made primarily by blacks from Chicago, New York & Detroit.

    And what are the class equivalents to tech/micro house? Psytrance/Goa for the hippie wannabes, trance for the overly tan, not shy of being somewhat slightly rediculous Egg-set. Maybe there is a cultural indicator that states if your music contains anthemic crescendos and arpeggiated vocals, you align yourself with a different set than those who listen to music with minimal bass lines and sparse highly crompressed 909 kicks.

    Since Japan’s underground (is that word anathema?), is so polarised from it’s popular culture, I can picture people shuffling through old Traxx and old DJ International tracks, but in deference to cultural-hipness, yet in favour of Japan’s idea of being self-conciously cultrally-hip.

    If… that makes any sense.

  7. Momus Says:

    I’m no expert on the Japanese working class, but overall it sounds comparable to England’s current look on it’s own working class…

    I really have to take issue with this. Two recent stories from the UK: Scotland has been declared in studies by the UN, University of California and WHO to be the most violent developed country, with the risk of violent assault on Scottish streets 30 times higher than it is in Japan. This story is directly related to massive inequality and social marginalization. Story 2: police and Asian youths battled for two days and nights this week in Birmingham, with deaths, serious injury, and cars set on fire. Again, this is all about the way Britain negotiates class and culture.

    Different sections of Japanese society might have different consumption patterns, but it has nothing even remotely comparable to the class divisions seen in Britain.

  8. nate Says:

    enjo kosai is alive and well out here. I had a student year before last who was busted as a chuu-ichi. Or does it not count if they haven’t reached high school yet?

    Enjo Kosai is basically what all the “phone clubs” around kabukichou and everywhere else promise, but I don’t really know if they deliver.

  9. marxy Says:

    Different sections of Japanese society might have different consumption patterns, but it has nothing even remotely comparable to the class divisions seen in Britain.

    This is definitely true in terms of crime. Japan’s underclass is very, very small (mostly Koreans and burakumin), and they channel their malcontent into organized crime gangs that end up contributing to the conservative government hold of power. I’m simplifying a bit, but you don’t have shootouts in ghettos.

    With consumer lifestyles though, the big lie has always been “everyone is middle class,” and Japanese surveys – like those of all the other post-industrial nations – show that 90% of households believe they are “middle class.” This is somewhat true in America, but Americans at least admit there are rich people – with the condition that moving up a social class is possible. For a long time, the idea of a wealthy class in Japan was a taboo topic, and therefore, 30K-a-year consumers would look at a magazine featuring a 200K-a-year “middle class” models and wonder why they didn’t have the same stuff. My professor yesterday mentioned that Japanese consumer satisfaction is the lowest in the world because of this inablility to distinguish between middle-class and upper-class lifestyles.

    I’ve talked about this in the past, but Egg is presented as a magazine “for girls” without admiting that the girls that flock to that subculture are from a certain class.

    Class consciousness does not exist much in Japan now, but that’s only a post-War phenomenon.

  10. Michael McCarthy Says:

    Maybe I over simplified, I’m not comparing class divisions, so much as examples of the ways that the upper class can look down on the lower class when they perceive them to be buying outside of that class. Maybe a big stretch, sorry about that.

    There has to be some class conciousness, by someone? Who’s noting that Egg has a demographic of a specific class to begin with. Do the readers of Egg even cast themselves as a certain class?

    Wondering.

  11. marxy Says:

    Who’s noting that Egg has a demographic of a specific class to begin with.

    I am. Yonehara only specifically put this in class terms once I asked a question with a class framework. Egg readers see themselves as a deviant “subculture” rather than a product of the Japanese class structure.

  12. guest Says:

    “Japan’s underclass is very, very small (mostly Koreans and burakumin), and they channel their malcontent into organized crime gangs that end up contributing to the conservative government hold of power.”

    I know it’s so, but I just can’t figure out how these guys live with themselves. Considering the degree of overlap between yakuza and uyoku, is it even so far-fetched to imagine that some of the Yamato otoko charging around in the black sound trucks are actually zainichi, harassing their own kohai in Korean schools? What’s going on here: self-loathing, denial, “false consciousness,” cynicism, or something else? If there was a way to generate electricity with cognitive disonance, Japan could end its dependence on imported oil by tapping some of this…

    “Class consciousness does not exist much in Japan now, but that’s only a post-War phenomenon.”

    Is it just me, or does class consciousness seem to be undergoing a pretty profound transformation at the moment, with everyone abuzz about Horiemon and get-rich-quick schemes? In its move to American-style capitalism, is Japan starting to exhibit American-style class consciousness (if this is not a total oxymoron)? When was the last time the newly rich shook things up this much, flaunting their wealth and challenging the legitimacy of the nobles- in concert with a significant portion of the established ruling class- Tokugawa?

  13. marxy Says:

    Is it even so far-fetched to imagine that some of the Yamato otoko charging around in the black sound trucks are actually zainichi, harassing their own kohai in Korean schools?

    It’s pretty well documented that some of Japan’s loudest right-wing ultranationalists are secretly Koreans.

    s it just me, or does class consciousness seem to be undergoing a pretty profound transformation at the moment, with everyone abuzz about Horiemon and get-rich-quick schemes?

    I’ve been talking about this for the last year. Nouveau Riche values are back in style, and the central cultural position of Roppongi Hills shows how much things have gone from a happy harmony of “we’re all middle class” to “quick! get over to the rich side!” There has always been a wealthy class in Japan, but they’re out of hiding.

  14. Michael McCarthy Says:

    “As a member of the Taiyou-zoku (50s rich-kid delinquents), his idea of fun is going to house parties at friends’ summer homes and surfing. He doesn’t understand our working class ideas of dancing.”

    I was drawing a bit from this, and the previous statements that there was more of a class recognition even without substance, but I get what you’re saying.

  15. guest Says:

    Wow, this must take the cake for, er, complex yakuza personalities:

    http://www.asahi.com/english/Herald-asahi/TKY200510220177.html

    Reading this, the oddly leftist yakuza in Bounce Kogals seems much more believable. An interesting kind of tenkou indeed!

    Also occurred to me upon reading this that there might be some intra-ethnic social stratification between zainichi who attend Korean schools (and feel some solidarity with their classmates) and those who attend public schools (and get bullied)…