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Rich Kids


Although you never hear much about it, Murakami Haruki clearly comes from money. Grandson of a Buddhist priest on one side and an Osaka merchant on the other, he was raised in the upscale Ashiya-shi region of Kobe, took seven years to finish private university Waseda, and while still a student, married and started his own jazz bar in West Tokyo’s Kokubunji. Sometime in the ’70s, Murakami decided he wanted to be a writer, and eventually debuted with the short novel Hear the Wind Sing from Kodansha — Japan’s most prestigious publishing house. His 1987 Norwegian Wood made him into a superstar — accompanied by (possibly) apocryphal stories of college girls coordinating their daily outfits to match the red and green covers of the novel’s first and second volumes.

Although now accepted as “literature,” it’s important realize that Murakami was first and foremost a pop writer. Old-style intellectuals like Oe Kenzaburo never cared for him. Even Jay Rubin — English translator of Murakami’s most important works — took a long time to consider him a serious writer: “In 1989, I read Haruki Murakami. I had only been vaguely aware of his existence — as some kind of pop writer, mounds of whose stuff were to be seen filling up the front counters in the bookstores, but I hadn’t deigned to read what was sure to be silly fluff about teenagers getting drunk and hopping into bed.” After a while, scholars on both sides of the Pacific finally broke through the Beatles references and unaffected language to find a deep philosophical core to Murakami’s work, but for all intents and purposes, the writer started off as a greater influence to Japanese pop culture than to the “high-art” world of Japanese literature.

We should find no coincidence, however, in Murakami’s high-standing social background and his success in “low” pop culture. He fits a very specific archetype in the history of Japanese popular culture: the young wealthy son freely and effortlessly producing debut works that become a leading trend within the youth culture.

Another example of this archetype would be Tanaka Yasuo — writer and reformist ex-governor of Nagano Prefecture. While a student at prestigious Hitotsubashi University, he casually wrote out his first novel Nantonaku, Kurisutaru, which not only enjoyed explosive sales in its 1980 first pressing, but was rewarded with the prestigious Bungei Award. Tanaka’s first novel, however, does not approach anywhere near literature. The book — about a wealthy female Aoyama Gakuin university student and part-time model — sold as a trendy pop piece, but moreover, as a consumer guide. Each time a store, brand, product, food, club, piece of clothing, university, or other proper noun is used in the narrative, Tanaka (as the narrator, not as the protagonist) supplies a footnote on the left-hand page to introduce/explain the item to the uninitiated. Here was a well-to-do, stylish young man giving away all the secrets to the Tokyo culture game in footnote form, and readers snapped it up as a practical trend guide.

Then in the early ’90s, Oyamada Keigo and Ozawa Kenji from Flipper’s Guitar pulled the same game: Wealthy young men from private high schools instantly winning record contracts and fame right out of high school. Just as Nantonaku, Kurisutaru had a decade before, the two KOs from FG supplied young fans with references to the latest trend — this time in musical form, rather than in fiction.

In all three of these cases, privilege does more than provide idle time and an escape from the compromising chains of fiduciary worries. Wealth and education in post-war Japan meant access to information — especially news beaming out from the West. Both Murakami and Ozawa Kenji mastered English at a young age, which no doubt allowed them to master their command of Western music. Moreover, these four all came from “old money” and not flashy wealth, and in a Bourdieuian sense of cultural capital, they used cultural reference as a way to distinguish themselves from the madding crowds. Whether wealth allowed greater access to information or not, wealth situated these young men in a certain social ranking that motivated them to protect their position through artistic achievement in fashionably new modes of craft. In the cases of Murakami and Flipper’s Guitar, they wrote in intentionally Western styles to differentiate themselves from the baser “Japanese” standards, and the world interpreted this as being more trendy than their common competitors.

In turn, the work of these men was consumed first as fashion and second as art. Their existence lead to “booms” (a consumer phenomenon) rather than “movements” (an artistic one). This basically freaked them out — at least in the long-term. Murakami did not like being a “trendy writer” so much and fled to Europe, then to American universities. Ozawa disappeared to NY after cashing-out as a Jpop idol. Cornelius went meta, then “guitar artiste.” Tanaka went into anti-establishment politics.

What is frustrating to many Japanese about their stories is the total ease and grace in which they made a huge splash upon the common culture. No struggling, half-compromises of hack jobs, years of toil at candle-lit typewriters.

Sure, there are artists who fit this archetype in other countries and cultures, but US/UK pop culture has a strong obsession with the underdog/underclass achiever — the Working Class Hero. Elvis, the Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson. What may be the difference between Japan and the U.S. is the sources of cultural creation: In the U.S., low status African—Americans were responsible for the jazz, rock, and hip-hop that formed the foundations of the pop culture cycle in the 20th century. This was clearly a bottom-up process — even if the media at the top eventually disseminated/cleaned-up the message. Authenticity originated in the street or in the swamp or in the Delta.

In post-war Japan, meanwhile, style and fashion originated so strongly from overseas (mainly American) sources that authenticity — in the case of orthopraxic Japan, something more like high-speed adoption or knowledge of new information rather than an abstract faith-based “being real” — lay squarely with those at the top, since they had either the best education with which to find/translate the American pop culture message or access to the message/materials from trips abroad/connections.

As a defeated culture with a sense of inferiority to the American cultural overlords, pop culture in Japan could not be “bottom-up,” and therefore, the wealthy in Japan became the most obvious messengers/idols in a shadowy way. Once Japan regained its cultural confidence, “bottom-up” became more widespread. The Murakami-Tanaka-Oyamada-Ozawa Rich Kid model may no longer be as important today, when someone like DJ Ozma or Koda Kumi appears more authentically bound to their respective subcultures.

To tie this into bigger streams we often deal with here, the capitalization of the whole gyaru/yankii working-class stream — which in the past was seen as deviation from the mediated “cool” consumer stream — has totally outmoded our former archetypes. Cool is no longer monolithic nor solely imported — which no longer gives the wealthy an automatic advantage. Sticking to a deep sense of orthopraxy, culture in Japan generally remains an empty vessel to plaster “fashion” upon — rather than individual works of artistic meaning — but it is used now for a class-based subcultural affiliation rather than for placement in a top-down trend hierarchy. The bottom is proud to be at the bottom — or at least, having fun with the para para.

From an American perspective, the end of elitism should sound like a great development, but practically speaking, most of the bottom-up culture is less than interesting. We may dislike elitism in principle, but the elitist stream in Japan is responsible for most of the country’s greatest cultural hits (I want to say this is a Western-bias, but Murakami is huge in Japan). Old money was silent in the past, but now it’s dead. The growing nouveau riche is more interested in amassing stuff than showing off the giant logos than flashing the subtle use of expensive silk in their sleeves. (As I write this, the exclusive import sports car shop across the street is loading in a red Ferrari that plays the theme to the Godfather as its horn. No joke.)

My lament about the breakdown of Japanese culture may be a specific eulogy to the elitist causes for cultural creation, but face the facts: The names that light up the concise histories of Japanese pop culture not only enjoyed the beautiful bliss of old money, but prospered specifically because of it. Sure, Nosaka Akiyuki may have had a crazy life of pain and suffering (see Grave of the Fireflies), but he was still the son of the sub-governor of Niigata.

1 Quote from this really interesting correspondence series.

W. David MARX (Marxy)
December 12, 2006

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

66 Responses

  1. Carl Says:

    Do the Japanese perceive Cornelius and Murakami as “upper class” or do they see them through the lense of “everyone is middle class”? Obviously, “everyone is middle class” is false, but I’m not sure the Japanese as a whole see it that way…

  2. Carl Says:

    Hey, off topic, but I just saw this about Wikipedia as anarchic consensus: . Question, if it’s true that “the Japanese are collectivists,” why didn’t they invent hyper-collaborationist Wikipedia, and why is their version of Wikipedia (in my experience) mostly a list of raw data?

    (This question is more aimed at the Momus crowd, but I think Marxy could make a good entry of it.)

  3. Mulboyne Says:

    I wouldn’t deny that that the creative world has rich kids but what period are you really talking about? Hibari Misora certainly wasn’t a rich kid – her brother was a gang member. Director Kenji Mizoguchi’s father lost all the family money while he was still a child and Yasujiro Ozu’s family wasn’t wealthy. Beat Takeshi was briefly at Meiji University but he had no fortune to fall back on when he dropped out. Nobuyoshi Araki, who has an international profile in photography to match Murakami’s in literature was born in downtown Minowa. I don’t think bottom-up is success stories have been insignificant in pop culture.

  4. marxy Says:

    Good counterexamples that help refine the argument, Mulboyne.

    I think in “art” (Ozu and Mizoguchi), class probably does not matter as much. My point was all my four examples were consumed as fashion more than art, and class does matter there. Were Ozu and Mizoguchi ever “media sensations” the way Tanaka and Murakami were?

    Misora is more folk music in a sense. Legitimacy there would be based on all sorts of old institutional belonging. Modern Jpop’s mob connections all stem from this era – traveling women singers needed protection and logistical support. She is clearly an icon, but was never part of “youth culture,” correct? Even in her youth, she must have performed for an older, drunker audience.

  5. marxy Says:

    “if it’s true that “the Japanese are collectivists,” why didn’t they invent hyper-collaborationist Wikipedia, and why is their version of Wikipedia (in my experience) mostly a list of raw data?”

    Basic answer, although I’d rather not debate it here: Japanese society is collectivism based on strict hierarchies and duty, not “grass roots” social gathering. Nothing gets accomplished without central leadership.

  6. Mulboyne Says:

    What about someone like Tadanori Yokoo? He may have hung around with rich kids like Mishima and Yoko Ono but he was a Hyogo boy from the local high school and a fashionable media sensation at the beginning of his career. Against Keigo Oyamada, perhaps you could put Tamio Okuda. I’m not absolutely certain he wasn’t born with a silver spoon but there’s nothing in his biographies to suggest that.

  7. dotdash Says:

    You could perhaps add Osamu Dazai as another one of your rich kids there, although his backstory seems a bit more troubled than Murakami’s.

    Surely the easier access kids nowadays have to Western culture has a lot to do with the downgrading of its status as a defining factor in what’s cool in Japan. These artists who became fashion phenomena through expoitation of their privileged access to Western pop culture would have a harder time now it’s available instantly to pretty much everyone.

    I know I’m saying nothing new here, but as access to pop cultural information becomes wider and more instant, it becomes much harder for elites to survive. You either absorb yourself in the mainstream or you slip to the side. The leading edge becomes defined purely by market forces rather than the subjective values of cultural elites.

  8. marxy Says:

    “These artists who became fashion phenomena through expoitation of their privileged access to Western pop culture would have a harder time now it’s available instantly to pretty much everyone.”

    No, that was worth saying specifically. The same thing is happening in the U.S. and elsewhere of course. People probably talked of Elvis’ delinquency in the same way as hip hop’s celebration of criminal activity, etc. Maybe the long dependence upon elites for cultural “progress” in Japan has made the transition seem much more difficult.

    “What about someone like Tadanori Yokoo?”

    I am sure there are exceptions, but you mentioned two rich kids Ono and Mishima in your attempt to place him within history.

    Don’t know about Okuda, but maybe it’s worth noting that he was a “band boom” guy which was more “back to the roots” than “up with fashion.” Parallel to Shibu-kaji rather than Shibu-kei – although Shibu-kaji was a rich kid thing too.

  9. alin Says:

    I think the only difference that might really stand here is between those easily accepted in the west STRAIGHT (for being educated in and practicing a certain ‘western’ style) Murakami, Cornelius, Ozawa (Seiji that is) etc and those acepted exactly because of their, more or less freaky, EXOTICism : araki, ankoku butoh, mozoguchi, ozu, yoko and yokoo .

  10. alin Says:

    wikipedia: i think japanese collectivism being quite ‘molecular’ has a rather narrow span it can arch over so instead of spreading and spreading it tends to fractrally multiply (see design festa, see certain dynmics in WW2 when past a certain stage of growth things get out of touch and different branches start duplicating rather than communicating with each other. i thing this is a more important factor than the fictional central hierarchy.

  11. marxy Says:

    “i thing this is a more important factor than the fictional central hierarchy.”

    What about competing hierarchies? The Army and Navy weren’t talking, but clearly the Navy had a central hierarchy within itself that was probably centralized.

    Overall, I wouldn’t knock Japanese Wikipedia too much because it’s a really good venue to publish taboo information – like the Kano sisters’ true identities and histories etc.

  12. marxy Says:


    I don’t think Yoko Ono’s work is “Japanese” as much as “classically” avant-garde in the Western model. Ozu may be a better symbol for Western love of Japanese exotic freshness.

    I do think that the former group was much more easily subsumed into Japanese domestic consumer culture than the second group. I think this is important to distinguish. Murakami and Cornelius straddle the line between underground/art/literature and pop/consumerism, but they started out in the second group aiming for the first, and finally moved over after a while.

  13. Aceface Says:

    Writer Kenji Nakagami?
    Burakumin from Wakayama.

    Singer actress Momoe Yamaguchi?actionstar Yusaku Matsuda?film director and current chairman of the Japanese Film Directors Union Youichi Sai?All raised by single parent and half koreans.

    Pop musician Tei Towa?and M-Flo’s Verbal?
    Both 100% Korean.

    Wrestler and ex-parliamentarian Antonio Inoki?
    Japanese-Brazilian emigre.

    All those film directors in 70’s and 80’s who had
    shot there first commercial film from “lowclass”Nikkatsu roman-porno?

    I could go on and on Marxy.

  14. alin Says:

    //What about competing hierarchies? //

    i take that but it would take some long painful sesions to come to some vague agreement as to what both ‘competing’ and ‘hierarchies’ might mean.

  15. alin Says:

    yoko ono. her and all the others’ exotic japaneseness and nam jun paik-ness has might have been the ‘it’ factor that made fluxus & co move. (a double, or rather a validated, enstrangement). wasn’t the avantguarde influenced by, if not made of, exotic japaneseness from day one , be it hokusai or daisetsu suzuki .

  16. marxy Says:

    Writer Kenji Nakagami

    More “trendy” than Murakami or Tanaka? The guy’s work can’t tell you the hottest cafe in town or the coolest jazz record from 1940.

    Pop musician Tei Towa?and M-Flo’s Verbal?

    Towa Tei got his cred from being in New York and doing Dee-Lite, not from being a Korean in Japan. M-Flo used his English abilities (he is most fluent in English, no?) to establish legitimacy with hip hop. Both of these are still about the access to “importing culture” — just by the late 80s, it was no longer the rich who could get ahead. Also, subcultural cool kind of changed the monolith by that point.

    I think actors and actresses also are not “artists” in the model I set forth because they are not selling reference and information in the same way. They appeal in much more straight-forward ways.

    “Wrestler and ex-parliamentarian Antonio Inoki?”

    I think you are missing my point. I am not saying only rich people are famous in Japan. I am saying that there was a very specific system of cultural influence in Japan lead by sons of wealth.

    “I could go on and on Marxy.”

    Do it. These are helpful.

  17. marxy Says:

    Another exception would be Fujiwara Hiroshi and NIGO, who are essentially (middle-class or lower middle-class, I am not sure) country kids who came into the big city. I think they got a boost from being into a subculture and then bringing that into the Popeye/HDP mainstream. But think about it: Nigo worshipped Cornelius for a while and never the other way around.

  18. marxy Says:

    Also, not all Koreans are poor, especially those going to private American schools. They are just not part of the Old Money elite whom I describe as being pop culture leaders in this essay.

    Also for music fans, Konishi (p5) and Hosono (Happy End, YMO) fit this model well.

  19. Aceface Says:

    About Kenji Nakagami
    “The guy’s work can’t tell you the hottest cafe in town or the coolest jazz record from 1940.”
    Actually the dude was working in the hottest cafe
    in town in late 60’s.”The Village Vanguard”.
    (Beat Takeshi and serial killer and then novelist
    Nagayama Norio had also worked there around same time)
    and was a great fan of jazz(Charlie Parker,Albert
    Ayler and Miles) Even wrote an essay called
    “trendy”may not the word I will use to describe
    his status,but “class” would fits alright.

    You are right about two korean boys.

    “I am saying that there was a very specific system of cultural influence in Japan lead by sons of wealth.”
    So Keigo Oyamada’s daddy Mihara Satoshi of Mahinastars is considered as a richman?.
    I disagree with that.

    The duos from Pizzicato five are Hokkaido born
    and if my memory serves,they were from middleclass of Hokkaido.

    Ken Yokoyama of Crazy Ken Band is a homeboy
    of Naka-ward ,Yokohama.Kinda yankii+working class
    a la yokohamaine is their style aren’t they?

    Writer Banana Yoshimoto?
    Surely much the rank of Murakami and Tanaka but
    being the daughter of new left theorist Takaaki Yoshimoto,Not a rich man,can’t be considered
    as a kin of wealthy.

  20. marxy Says:

    Two others to mention in the Rich category:

    Ishihara Shintaro – dad was VP of Tokyo shipbuilding company, went to Hitotsubashi
    Kuwata from Southern All Stars – Aoyama Daigakuin

    Although these two may be more of a “rich delinquent” kind of stream, rather than as rich leaders of consumer culture. Again, more Shibu-kaji/Chiimaa than Shibuya-kei snobbism.

    “So Keigo Oyamada’s daddy Mihara Satoshi of Mahinastars is considered as a richman?.”

    The family probably comes from some level of money judging on his high school. Maybe inherited wealth rather than professional wealth.

    “The duos from Pizzicato five are Hokkaido born
    and if my memory serves,they were from middleclass of Hokkaido.”

    Konishi talks about having his parents support him in Tokyo until he was 30. Maybe he was new wealth rather than old wealth though.

    “Ken Yokoyama of Crazy Ken Band”

    He’s interesting, but not really a huge cultural leader. Nagisa Yoko is probably not from wealth either, but where are we going with these two?

    “being the daughter of new left theorist Takaaki Yoshimoto,Not a rich man,can’t be considered
    as a kin of wealthy.”

    Old money/educated upper middle classes? You could at least claim that she came from an intellectual elite – although this biographical detail from the Wikiped “Yoshimoto began her writing career while working as a waitress at a golf-club restaurant in 1987” sounds a little different than owning your own jazz bar and going to college for 7 years.

    What about Murakami Ryu?

  21. marxy Says:

    Ishihara’s dad was a vice-bureau chief for the Tokyo branch of a Kobe shipbuilding company. Not old money though, although correct me if I am wrong.

  22. Duffy Says:

    From this circa 2002 blurb from Joi Ito’s blog, it doesn’t sound like Oyamada was the richest kid on the block. But who knows.

    “Keigo “Cornelius” Oyamada is my cousin. Actually, he is my second cousin. But I think we are closer than our relative cousins. When my mother was going through a financially tough period, his family was as well and we ended up living next door to each other in a dumpy Love Hotel in Shibuya that was turned into an apartment building. At the time, he was always getting into trouble at his Jr. High and I was hanging around in Shibuya catching rats at the train station with my friends…”

    Here’s the supra-long link:

  23. alin Says:

    this is all interesting, except that every example turns out to be an exception of some sort to the original thesis. two things i want to say here. why does this (almost) always have to start with a negative thesis and why does this thesis have to be so obvious , (it’s something of a platitude in the japanese media) while implicitly claiming to have that extra insight.

    keigo oyamada was bullied at school.

  24. Aceface Says:

    Banana Yoshimoto:
    Daddy Yoshimoto was born in Tsukishima,industrial
    sitamachi worker area.Became poet-radical thinker
    after graduating Tokyo Industrial old rich nor upper middleclass.but you could say Banana is a member of intellectul elite family.

    You did see wiki for Ryu ,right?
    Born Sasebo,Nagasaki,an old shipbuilding town
    wouldn’t say much, but Musabi is in Tokyo and he
    was spending his college life in basetown of Fussa ,smoking dope and living on parent’s money,so could be counted as “wealth”as you included Konishi.

    Lily Franky.the author of post train-man
    media craze “Tokyo tower,me,ma,and sometimes pa”?
    Born in the deserted mining town in Fukuoka,Ex-yakuza dad and divorced single mom.
    He used to write in your favorite RELAX and STUDIO VOICE magazine.Sounds good to me for
    the candidate for the working class hero.

    You know this is getting interesting.

    What about single-mom-raised-divas,Namie Amuro and Ayumi Hamasaki?
    or are they also the symbol of the decline of our

  25. Aceface Says:

    Hosono of YMO:
    His grandpa got drowned when he was passenger on
    THE TITANIC,the one that sunk by hitting on the
    iceberg in the atlantic.

    not only he was bullied in school but he too bullied someone else in high school.

  26. Mulboyne Says:

    Veering off-topic but:

    Aceface wrote: “Hosono of YMO:
    His grandpa got drowned when he was passenger on
    THE TITANIC,the one that sunk by hitting on the
    iceberg in the atlantic.”

    I think Hosono survived by jumping into one of the lifeboats

  27. Aceface Says:

    You are right Mulboyne.
    Thanks for the correction.

  28. lacadutadegiganti Says:

    Ah, Banana Yoshimoto. She was so exquisitely sexy on the cover of the hardback version of “Kitchen.” I confess to being generally quite ignorant of Japanese culture except for classical music performers, and they almost invariably come from the elite – eg, Uchida Mitsuko. As far as the writers mentioned in marxy’s original essay, to me they seem comparable to the rich-kid American writers of the 80s and early 90s: Jay Mcinerney, Bret Easton Ellis, Elizabeth Wurzel, et al. In the US, as in Japan, it seems writers like these with their narratives of privilege occupy a particular genre only.

  29. Yago Says:

    What’s the identity of the Kano sisters?

  30. Carl Says:

    What about the dudes that really wrote “Densha Otoko”?

  31. P.L. Says:

    Where’s Momus?

  32. marxy Says:


  33. marxy Says:

    I wrote a mean reply to the “sassy” Alin comment, but my browser crashed. Keep speaking truth to power, brother.

    But seriously.

    I retract the Oyamada, although I still think he is Upper Middle Class – not really the best example for this though. Ozawa and Hosono are super rich families though, no? Murakami and Tanaka’s wealth are both worth noticing.

    “What about the dudes that really wrote “Densha Otoko”?”

    I swear to God I know at guy at Fuji who swears to have met them… I mean HIM. One guy. He’s real. I swear.

    “as in Japan, it seems writers like these with their narratives of privilege occupy a particular genre only.”

    I don’t think Murakami’s books are “narrative of privilege” at all, but I think the intention of the craft comes indirectly from it.

  34. Aceface Says:

    So this guy at Fuji,Is he from rich family or whay?

  35. Aceface Says:

    So this guy at Fuji ,is he from rich family or what?

  36. marxy Says:

    Could be!

    Could be!

  37. Yago Says:

    hey I really wanna know.

  38. marxy Says:

    “What’s the identity of the Kano sisters?”

    Failed female talents (with whispers of some sexual-related work, although this probably could never be proved). There originally was supposed to be a 3rd sister, but she got married and dropped out. Any talk of having the same mother is all fiction, but no one is going to call them liars, right?

  39. alin Says:

    we spiked your browser (sinister) haha.

    the majority of arty (let’s not speak political and econo) types anywhere have some sort of ‘priviledged’ background – finance and/or education ; with just enough exceptions to prove the rule.

    You have a point but it might have come across better using president ishihara and his son as exmples. there is something terribly rigid about the system in the arts, literature etc but i think it has less to do with blood-money and more with making the right 縁 at the right time, winning the right award at the right time etc ..

  40. Mulboyne Says:

    I don’t really agree with your thesis because I think either there are just too many exceptions or else you need to define your terms so narrowly that they end up explaining very little. However, I couldn’t really come up with too many struggling writers as counterexamples which did make me wonder. Perhaps, though, the counterexample is manga. This field has a huge cultural impact and I don’t think you’ll find too many rich kids who have tried to make a career there.

  41. lauren Says:

    Never mind all of this… but “intents and purposes”?? I’ve been saying “intensive purposes” all these years…

  42. Momus Says:

    Time to put on your dress-and-gown, Lauren.

  43. Yago Says:

    “Failed female talents”
    heh, that’s funny.
    I’ve read quite a lot of Murakami, but I didn’t find it especially interesting. I guess I was taking him too seriously.
    I usually don’t expect irony when reading japanese. Shame on me.

    I honestly think Umibe no Kafka was bullshit, but maybe there are some obscure references to some societal crisis there which I couldn’t see.

  44. marxy Says:

    In hindsight, this may be “intellectual/academic families” + “upper middle-class to upper class backrgrounds” rather than just wealth. Tanaka strikes me as a bit more nouveau riche than Murakami, but he’s got the professor dad.

  45. nate Says:

    about that thesis, I think you’ve got a fine observation, about the first pop, then art set, but in your set of western counter examples, you’ve only got two who ever became “art”. And only the beatles reached that level while still being popular. The difference between ayumi hamasaki (who does seem to be from a less privileged background) and elvis is distribution networks.

    As has been observed, arty-art-art being produced by the fancy-born is standard no matter where you are. The more interesting observation might be that Japan even has this pathway from low to high.

  46. marxy Says:

    Actually my point was about these men becoming pop cultural leaders – not respected artists. I used the word “artistic” as a descriptor of their actions, but I was not really talking about the high art market.

    I think Murakami stradles the line in a Beatles kind of way, but Tanaka Yasuo is in no way a literary writer. Anyone who has actually read Nantonaku, Kurisutaru can back me up. Cornelius may want to be a Sakamoto Ryuichi now, but he’s clearly aimed to be a pop performer for the first 10 years of the career.

    “The difference between ayumi hamasaki (who does seem to be from a less privileged background) and elvis is distribution networks.”

    How so? 50 million Elvis fans can’t be wrong, right? Hamasaki Ayumi was a young talent and wannabe bikini model (check out old issues of Young Magazine) who ended up filling the conditions of Avex’s next jpop needs. I am not going to make any statements about her being worse than Elvis, but in hindsight, I think she’s a relatively uninfluential singer in the long run – especially compared to Amuro. Hamasaki had so few cross-cultural hits. She just had an enormous army of young women who bought her cds automatically – and yeah, that was probably mostly about distro. When the market tanked, she had her subculture, and as Jpop as a phenomenon faded, she looked more and more important.

  47. marxy Says:

    Maybe this deserves its own post, but it’s worth mentioning as it relates to the constant meta-battles of talking about Japan: “Japan’s most famous living writer” Murakami Haruki does not really live in Japan most of the time, nor seems to really buy into what most people would consider traditional/hegemonic “collectivist” traits of the society.

    Can the dissent of artists against their homeland be used to bolster the value of their homelands? An extreme example, but would Alexander Solzhenitsyn ever be given as example of how great Soviet writers were?

    Not to say that all Japanese artists are anti-Japan, but they are invested in criticism and reform either explicitly or implicitly.

  48. Mutantfrog Says:

    I agree with Mulboyne. The cultural impact of manga in Japan is way bigger than pop music or film, or even novels, but plenty of very successful manga artists come from relatively humble backgrounds.

    One rich kid worth noting in the field is the creator god of Japanese comics himself, Osamu Tezuka, who was a trained physician, whose great grandfather was a founder of the Tokyo University medical school, and whose grandfather was a judge that helped start a law school. But even his case doesn’t fit your thesis, because he had already made it as a doctor before he became a successful manga artist. (Fun fact from japanese wikipedia, his doctoral thesis was on “the study of membrane structures in irregularly shaped sperm cells”).

    However, looking up on wikipedia manga artists whose names I can think of, whenever there is any family history at all it almost always shows a more humble background.

    Miyazaki Hayao’s father worked at a factory that made airplane and weapon parts during WW2.

    Toriyama Akira went to Aichi Prefectural Technical High School.

    Kobayashi Yoshinori went to Fukuoka City Commercial High School and worked hard to get into Todai. (He even wrote a manga about it.)

    Umezu Kazuo’s father was an elementary school teacher.

    Mizuki Shigeru’s father did go to Waseda, but after graduation drifted from job to job and was generally short on money. Shigeru grew up in rural Tottori.

    Marxy, I think that disregarding manga/anime is a big flaw, not just in this particular essay, but in many of your writings on Japanese pop culture. I understand that you aren’t a big fan of the stuff, but you did write a good piece about Gundam some time ago, and I think that your theorizing would probably benefit in general from paying more attention to what is probably the most significant area in Japan’s post-war pop culture.

  49. Mike Says:

    Too many comments to read thoroughly and join the discussion. But, in regards to the post, I have this to say:

    I’ve apprantely read so much neomarxisme that I am able to anticipate subjects. I was talking about nearly the same things as your post, with much the same conclusions, just a week ago while on the T in Boston.

    The beginning of predictive (emergent?) memetics?

  50. marxy Says:

    “I think that your theorizing would probably benefit in general from paying more attention to what is probably the most significant area in Japan’s post-war pop culture.”

    Yeah, I totally buy that on a broad level. My main reason for not writing about it is the same reason you don’t want to hear your mom talking to you about rap music. I just don’t know enough about it to be interesting.

    But the one area I think manga is relatively irrelevant is fashion culture for the domestic market. Daft Punk can use Leiji Matsumoto because they are outside of the system, but I am not sure a Cornelius could use manga in a hipster ironic way. And no I am not saying they are forever separated, nor are there not hipster indie manga, but I don’t think normal manga and Tanaka’s “what is the right store to shop in” kind of high-end consumer talk are in the same category. If Murakami books are worn proudly as exterior fashion, which manga are also used in that way? I am sure cool kids read manga, but do they use it in their exterior presentation to the world?

    But in general, I think that’s a fair criticism of my writings so far.

    Also, there are a lot of people who write ONLY about manga, so I try to add some diversity to the jpopcult discussion.

  51. Rory P. Wavekrest Says:

    My mother has a rap-album about manga.

  52. Aceface Says:

    Adding just one thing about manga.
    There are as many female manga artist in Japan
    as the opposite sex.A very rare cultural phoenomenon for the country of male domination.

  53. yuka Says:

    About writers/artists coming from well-to-do families, there may not be much material difficulties but they might have had more psychosocial difficulties… artist/liberals committing suicide often occur in Japanese culture.

  54. Aceface Says:

    Continuing the rich kid rules J-culture scene discussions.Aren’t we talking about Saison cultureセゾン文化and it’s legacy here,instead of whole Japanese culture?

    All the youth culture in Japan including Shibuya-kei were definitly the spawn of extensive investment in Shibuya by Saison group(and by rivaling Tokyu group) started in late 70’s .That changed everything about the consumer trends and subculture of Tokyo.

    Since Saison’s motto おいしい生活 (featured Woody Allen in TVCM in mid 80’s)demanded not only cash but also a good taste.and that could only be practiced among educated upper middle class,which is not an equation of mass public.

    The shrines of Saison culture :Parco,WAVE(especially Roppongi),Roppongi Cine Vivant,Libro(especially Ikebukuro)and Saison Museum of Modern Arts are either gone or drastically changed after the bubble burst in the 90’s

    All the culture of the period including Saison culture were more or less based on consumerism and in that kind of situation, it was logical for the rich kids to rule for they have more money to spend.Simbolic fact is the man created the zeit geist,Saison founder and ex-communist Seiji Tsutsumi was born with silver spoon ,although his mother was a mistress,in the family of Seibu.

    Perhaps the fall of Parco and the rise of Don Quixote may be synchronizing with the shift from Kahimi Karie to Koda Kumi.

  55. marxy Says:

    Aceface – you just answered so many questions I had. Thanks.

    I saw Miura Atsushi and a Seibu guy talk a while back, and they said something like “Things have gotten much less interesting after the fall of Saison.”

    I think even if this group was not “mass,” it was not niche either. It was also important for raising the image of Japan to the outside world – at least to the cultural elite abroad which then filtered down and caught up with the video game/anime wave at the bottom.

  56. Your Humble Janitor Says:

    This is really interesting and the proceeedings are so much more enjoyable without the M/A/D squabbling.


    Your contributions to this discussion are quite enlightening.


    A minor quibble with “Towa Tei got his cred from being in New York and doing Dee-Lite”. Towa may have gotten his fame from Dee Lite, but he got his cred from producing The Jungle Brothers. Its a shame that someone who could produce other peoples work so well and contribute to a good group sound which became the mascot of the East Village club scene in the early 90s couldnt make a good solo album to save his live. Why he had to hop on that stupid Girl From Impanima bandwagon is beyond me. Nowadays hes reduced to publishing crappy snapshot books and giving what looked like a very forced talk at the Apple Store Ginza.

    What a shame because he obviously was the talent behind the Dee Lite sound. Their stuff after he left was bland, DJ Dmitro had gotten lost in an Extacy techno haze and Lady Miss Keir never really did get over being beaten by the ugly stick.

    Sorry not to add any topical value to todays excelent proceedings, please carry on as before.

  57. Aceface Says:

    continued from previous post:

    Saison culture had it’s precedence.and it was Hankyu Railway Company of Osaka-Kobe area run by Kobayashi Ichizou小林一三 in 1930’s

    Buckminster Fuller once said “we build the system,and the system build us”,But Kobayashi’s motto was”the passengers are made by the train they ride”.

    He developed real estates for new riches and emerging educated middle class along the Hankyu lines that assorted with multi-cultural-complex-railway station in the end.

    To attract inhabitant with class,Kobayashi made classy Hankyu Department Store and cultural industry-facility(transvestite burlesque TAKARAZUKA宝塚歌劇団,home of Godzilla TOFO FILMS東宝,pro-base ball team Hankyu Braves which is now Oryx Buffalos)and by doing so Hankyu solely built urban modern bourgeois culture in pre-war Osaka-Kobe area.,(I just discovered the word Hanshin kan modernism 阪神間モダニズムin wiki,interesting.)

    This strategy was inplanted in Tokyo by Keita”the burgler” Goshima 五島慶太of The Tokyu Combine where they were developing areas like Dennen-chofu in Shibuya-Yokohama area,and achieved big success that put “the burgler” on the top of the pyramid.

    Meanwhile In Ikebukuro-Hannou area,Goshima’s archenemy, Yasujirou Tsutsumi,aka”The Pistol”was imitating the rival with his own Seibu railways , but with little success.Mainly because Bukuro was(is)no Shibuya and Hannou could never be Hama in any sense,so Seibu line was considered to be kinda third rate suburbia.
    (For living in Tokorozawa for 11years, I realize this)

    But when the prodigal son Seiji came back to his daddy by being expeled from the party,
    The Pistol gave his son the chair of CEO of the SeibuDepartment Store and things started to change.

    Seiji somehow thought Ikebukuro may not be the ground zero of cool,he decided to invade family nemesis Goto’s Shibuya.
    Rumour hazard he simply didn’t want see the face of his blood brother Yoshiaki,the new CEO of Seibu Railways and whom he despise more than anybody on the planet.
    In invasion of Shibuya ,Seiji had to get rid of the scent of organic fertilizers that cling to the name Seibu.He decided to have humongous ad campaign and even change the name to Saison group
    which eventually got independent from Yoshiaki’s Seibu Railways aka.Kokudo.

    Because Seiji had to compete with the fierce rival in their hometown Shibuya,because he felt the kin’s evileye in his back,and because he was an ex-commie with complexed emotion for things capitalism.His vision of consumerism was very much different from other’s.He had very strong ambition to change the country through his corporate empire.

    Thus started the Saison culture saga in the 80’s.

  58. marxy Says:

    I often am told that to understand Japanese culture you have to understand the railways.

    Is there a book you recommend that tells that story?

  59. Aceface Says:

    I would choose「ミカドの肖像」猪瀬直樹著 小学館
    and now they have paperback shortage version
    that came out after Kokudo scandal and Yoshiaki Tsutsumi got busted.
    And I think latter would do you the job.

    Although many critics(including myself)are pretty skeptic with Inose for he over generalize complicated things.But it is an easy read and interesting in a sense “Tokyo Underground” was.
    I used to read it when Inose was writing it on Syukan Bunsyu.

    You can learn “Pistol”Tsutsumi was making lots of phonecalls from basement of his house during B29 airraids and urging aristocrats to sell their estate before what they knew was coming.Out from
    those estate “pistol” made the The Prince Hotel frannchise after’45.And there are also detailed description of fierce battle with “the burgler” Goshima of Tokyu called 箱根東西戦争.
    There is a book written by British writer Leslie someone about Tsutsumi brothers in English that I have’nt read ,but My friend didn’t like it,so I can say nothing about it.

    Seiji Tsutsumi did write about his dad under his pen name.辻井喬,although I have’nt read.

    For Ichizou Kobayashi and his railway-department store empire,try 東京人98年5月号 ,it has special coverage on the man with nice photo of the golden age of pre-war Kansai,and it would be a good introduction.I used to own a copy but a colleague took it,and never gave it back.
    Kobayashi did wrote a memoir(in fact he wrote more than one)with his days in Hankyu .It is one of the series of biography of man and woman who built 20th century Japan,I think and I know you can buy a copy in BOOKFIRST in Shibuya(2nd Floor)but I forgot the name of the publisher,since mine
    is the original version I got in Jimbocho.

    There are a lots of books about Chuo-line culture
    but that’s another story.            

  60. Chuckles Says:

    Good people of the world: A humble request. Can we stop talking about Haruki Murakami, please? I cant believe the WSJ thinks the guy is worthy taking seriously – oh, I can! One of this protagonists owns the entire set of a la recherche du temps perdu – only it says perdus in the English translation! I dont understand what the appeal of Murakamis brand of surrealism is – yes, it is deeply infantile – but is that all it has going for it? Peppering aleatoric narrative with Hegel references and fish dropping from the sky does not a good book make. Oe did surrealism of a different sort in Sora no kaibutsu Aguii. The difference is abundantly clear. I must confess; this guys rise is perhaps the most puzzling thing I have seen in the Lit world for some time.

  61. Aceface Says:

    “guys rise is perhaps the most puzzling thing I have seen in the Lit world for some time.”
    Chuckles, Ever heard about Harry Potter?

  62. marxy Says:

    Aceface – Thank you for the book recommendations. I will probably read the English one first just so that I have the context set for digging into the Japanese books.

    Chuckles – I don’t hate Murakami, but I haven’t been excited about him in five or six years. Reading Wind-UP Bird Chronicle was as close to being stuck in a well as I’d like to ever get. I think overall his prose transfers well to English – opposed to Oe. I read Hear the Wind Sing in Japanese after reading it about three times in English and couldn’t really find much difference, although I suspect his later works are bit less intentionally “translator style.”

    What he sells though is the promise of depth without sacrificing an ease of reading. Enough Orientalist mysticism mixed with Western references and simple language. Oe fails on these levels, but is clearly the more “literary.” That’s not going to get him big sales at Border’s though.

  63. Mulboyne Says:

    That English book Aceface referred to is “The Brothers” by Lesley Downer.

    I didn’t like it much but it does cover some of the territory.

    I got the same advice about understanding the railways and was given a book called 西武VS東急 which I never got around to reading. Looking on Amazon, it appears that there are a few titles with this name although they have been overtaken by all the books written subsequently on the Kokudo scandal.

    This is probably the one I was given (published in 1984) Apologies for all the long Amazon links:

    This one is from the same year:

    And here’s one from 1989:

  64. lecky Says:

    regarding Ono and Fluxus: Fluxus was heavily (and acnowledged as such according to a recent lecture by Robert Storr) indebted to Gutai the activities of which predated any such activity in the US, Gutai (along with Kyushu-ha, and Hi-Red-Center) was itself influenced by French Art Informel of the 40s and early 50s. I suspect that Ono’s involvement in Fluxus was a complex of awareness of the Japanese avant garde tradition, and influences more to do with her rejection in New York of her very formal aristocratic upbringing.

  65. Chuckles Says:


    Very good call. However, I never counted Potter as really being part of the Lit World in the sense that I mean; any more than I would place Enid Blyton and her hordes of Famous Fives, Secret Sevens, Wishing Chairs and Faraway Trees as part of the world of Kipling, Lewis or Tolkien – or speak of the Hardy Boys and Sherlock Holmes in the same breath. Enid Blyton is useful as commentary on certain peculiarities of a certain segment of British culture. But Murakami hasnt achieved his international status for doing anything particularly original – or for *saying* anything that a Japanese writer failed to say before him. My fear is that he is being rewarded *precisely* like Marxy said, for his rich kid status and for his probably affected occidental literateness. When I read the reviews for Sekai no owari to hadoboirudo wandarando – they went something like: Oh, Lauren Bacall makes an appearance! Oh, Theres Whiskey! Looky! Theres Bob Dylan! Jesus God, This Makes No effing sense! By Jove, its splendid! Needless to say, I find serious Western critics salivating over imi nashi to be a bit unnerving. Not even Pynchon is this obtuse – at least, when Tesla or differential calculus graces the page of a Pynchon book, layers of meaning can be deduced.


    […What he sells though is the promise of depth without sacrificing an ease of reading. Enough Orientalist mysticism mixed with Western references and simple language. Oe fails on these levels, but is clearly the more literary. Thats not going to get him big sales at Borders though…]

    Precisely! Which is why I am suprised that supposedly sophisticated Western critics cant see through his hokum. You are correct; Murakami has played this to the hilt and has clearly won. He has distinguished himself from Traditional Japanese literature and has been rewarded solely for his prodigality. Well done, sir. Well done.

  66. Aceface Says:

    I’m sort of glad nobody points out it’s Gotoh,not Goshima for 五島慶太.I discovered that I’ve failed to read his name correctly for the past two decades….What a shame.
    Gotoh’s nick name Goto,強盗,meaning burgler in Japanese exactly came from this not just only from his business practice .

    Although Murakami never interest me as a literary man,I’ve attended the symposium called WILD HARUKI CHASE,held at Komaba campus of Tokyo Univ.and it was interesting.
    I was invited by two of the organizer whom I know in person,one a Chinese other a Russian

    I’ve been hearing about their enthusiasm in helding the symposium for a while.And they were particulary interested with the Chinese and the Russian perception since the readers of both countries have very strong taste for high literary distinctive from pop one,unlike that of the Japanese.
    Hence may not “get it right”with the two essences of Murakami world,the consumerism based”rich kid status “in post industrial society and “affection to occidental literateness”also meaning penetration of cultures both high and low which leads to deconstructionism.

    Or perhaps these are simply an overguessing of the academic and Chinese and Russians are simply reading them because they are the equivalent of i-Pod and Harry Potter,a global chic icon,amd that was what I thought before attending the Symposium.

    The report at the symposium from the translators of both Russia and China were somewhere in between the two I said above.Unlike “western” readers,these”eastern”readers were not particulary amused by”Enough Orientalist mysticism mixed with Western references and simple language”But they felt Murakami is the voice of their generation.Hard to believe, but that what they said.

    You can purchase the proceeding into one book
    世界は村上春樹をどう読むか,from Bungeisyunjyun Co.