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Vending Machine Couture as Nation

Vending Machine Couture as Nation

Just now I went to buy a can of royal milk tea to cure the Monday morning blues, and the oddly-matte vending machine kept running away from me.

Oh wait, it was just someone wearing the experimental-yet-society-defining fashion of Tsukioka Aya — a person whom the entire Japanese nation only now realized existed. Neat: the skirt turns into a “vending machine” disguise. Three cheers for art.

The one-joke-ness1 of most post-modernist art fits very well with the meme morsels of blog culture, and I understand fully well why Tsukioka’s work made the RSS rounds last week. More puzzling, however, is the New York Times article, which takes up the fool’s errand of trying to turn this one-off link into a full-fledged trend story. Among author Martin Fackler’s points:

“These elaborate defenses are coming at a time when crime rates are actually declining in Japan.”

We start off with the fundamental flaw: Fackler believes that Tsukioka’s work is “elaborate defense” against crime rather than an art project.

“Instead of pepper spray, though, they are devising a variety of novel solutions, some high-tech, others quirky, but all reflecting a peculiarly Japanese sensibility.”

Tsukioka’s work is apparently more indicative of “Japanese” responses to heightened sensitivity towards crime than of post-modernist art projects.

“The devices’ creators admit that some of their ideas may seem far-fetched, especially to crime-hardened Americans. And even some Japanese find some of them a tad naïve”

Some Japanese people would find Tsukioka’s work a “naïve” solution to crime-fighting, probably because it is simply an art project.

“[Tsukioka] said her vending machine disguise was inspired by a trick used by the ancient ninja, who cloaked themselves in black blankets at night.”

Historical linkage back to an “ancient” culture. Ninjas are an easy way to get history to function as you’d like since they are at least 50% mythical to start with.

“To be sure, some of these ideas have yet to become commercially viable. However, the fact that they were greeted here with straight faces, or even appeared at all, underscores another, less appreciated facet of Japanese society: its fondness for oddball ideas and inventions.”

Here the piece eats itself: is Tsukioka’s work an actual sign of serious “crime worries” in Japan or is it part of a larger, more innocent field of intentionally-unserious “useless inventions”?

“‘These ideas might strike foreigners as far-fetched,’ she added, ‘but in Japan, they can become reality.'”

Nice to wrap everything off with an idea about “unique Japan” being fundamentally different in its approach to wacky products and fighting crime. Just ignore the fact that no one has ever used the main piece of evidence as a crime-prevention device, nor will they ever.

I had assumed that the Internet would improve mainstream media coverage on Japan by offering more sources of citizen journalism and information translated out of Japanese. Instead, blog culture has only made foreign correspondents lazier, since they can just scour RSS for the lead and then make some phone calls to fill out the text. The remaining difference between BoingBoing and the New York Times is that the Grey Lady tries to justify its goofy Japan reporting as trend stories with social import, complete with quotes from “experts,” rather than just isolated cultural events intended to be consumed in five-to-ten seconds and passed around to friends on Del.icio.us.

Thank god Marcel Duchamp wasn’t Japanese or we’d still be hearing about how “the Japanese have unique opinions about the fundamental artistry in plumbing that dates back to ancient ninja times.”

1 If you think this is a bad noun, I offer the word “to-be-looked-at-ness” from Laura Mulvey’s 1975 landmark essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative in the Cinema.”

W. David MARX
October 22, 2007

W. David Marx (Marxy) — Tokyo-based writer and musician — is the founder and chief editor of Néojaponisme.

38 Responses

  1. bry Says:

    Orientalism? (the definition proposed by Edward Said)

    1) The ‘other’ used to define ‘crime-hardened Americans.’

    2) The Japanese are cited as having inherent and historically evident (‘the ninja’s did it too’) differences from Westerners.

    I find it hard to believe that the author of this article is unaware that Tsukioka is an artist and not an anti-crime activist. Her website does state that she graduated from a 美術大学 …

  2. Jun Okumura Says:

    Excuse me, but didn’t Bugs Bunny used to do something like this all the time to Elmer Fudd?

  3. Jun Okumura Says:

    Which means, I guess, it actually works?

  4. W. David MARX Says:

    Which is why Nikkei always did those “crazy Americans” stories, using evidence from Warner Brothers cartoons.

  5. tomojiro Says:

    Honestly said, I am not surprised. It is the NYT. Their coverage about Japan sucks for a long time. I remember in the middle 90ies, when the correspondent of the NYT wrote about Japanese women that they all have (in their unconsciousness) a deep desire to get raped by male.

    Originally, I believe it was an article intended to describe feminist movements in Japan but he acrobatically managed to end the article with supposed desire of Japanese females about rape.

    Business as usual from the NYT.

  6. W. David MARX Says:

    I know everyone (especially on the Net) loathes Norimitsu Onishi, but at least his articles focused on the “real issues” in contemporary Japan.

  7. Aceface Says:

    Honestly said,I’m not suprised either.
    But then again I too dream of doing a story on the lives of lonely white dudes at GasPanic sometimes.

    NYT should stick with the usual”real issues” like”The revival of Japanese militarism™”.

    “Instead, blog culture has only made foreign correspondents lazier”
    You’ve said it.

  8. neogeisha Says:

    the NYT has been for some time on a steady trajectory toward absolute shlock journalism. their “coverage” of new york city, for example, consists nearly entirely of foaming-at-the-mouth uncritically adoring pieces on luxury condo conversions, gentfrication of rat-infested neighborhoods, and glamorous writers living in renovated brownstones. they continually publish on “the gilded age” without using quotation marks, simply revelling in how fabulously wealthy the city has become.

  9. calligraphykid Says:

    Fackler also omits to mention the most obvious flaw in the vending machine skirt: presumably it will be deployed at night when its failure to bathe the opposite side of the street in an electric glare that could bring a 747 in to land will immediately flag it as suspicious. Women of Japan, you might as well just hold a knife over your own heart and say “How deep?”

    My impression – and I’m probably giving the designer way too much credit – is that the vending machine skirt might serve a useful purpose – to satirise the trend of individuals and companies coming up with unilateral solutions to problems that are really society’s. I wonder how you would compare media treatment of this with the new-but-this-time-it’s-alright slavery of the emerging household robot industry?

    It seems to me that they both operate off the same principle – that public consultation is unnecessary in Japan. When serving up the latest robot fads, it’s enough for the media in Japan and overseas to trot out the line that all Japanese are fond of robots. This hardly seems believable as the elderly of today had their formative experiences in the air raids not the pages of Astroboy and may not be the technophiles we are led to believe. Presumably the robot industry is just waiting for the last of these to die off and the baby boomers to reach the diaper stage of old age before selling their kids a two million yen fibreglass hunk of nurse/surrogate friend. Just as the NYT doesn’t think it necessary to ask Japanese women if they would ever actually wear the vending machine, there’s no reason to consult people to find out if they actually want to be nursed by robots, or even raise wider questions about the commodification of companionship.

    Besides, the fact that now and probably for a long time to come it will be cheaper to be nursed by a Filippino than a robot in Japan suggests that racism and immigration is the real cause celebre driving the development of household robots in this country.

  10. W. David MARX Says:

    it will be deployed at night when its failure to bathe the opposite side of the street in an electric glare that could bring a 747 in to land will immediately flag it as suspicious.

    This is a very strong point.

    satirise the trend of individuals and companies coming up with unilateral solutions to problems that are really society’s.

    Sounds like art rather than functional product design…

  11. Rory P. Wavekrest Says:

    Something a bit similar here:

    Luckily the author had the sense to ask “Do you see the items of clothing related to your Nomadic Mosque project as garments that could be really used and worn or more as a mean to trigger discussion?”

  12. Chompsky Says:

    While Tsukioka’s explanation for why she came up with the vending machine dress is no doubt tongue-in-cheek, there’s also a tongue-in-cheek quality to the NYT article: the author isn’t saying that vending machine dress is the ONLY example of how Japanese people are protecting themselves against crime, but he is instead saying that it is an extreme, humorous example of a general tendency.

    He makes good points that NYT readers might not otherwise be aware of, such as: the Japanese are worried about crime, in spite of falling crime rates, and that the Japanese think of themselves as having a different mind-set than other people.

    That last point the author makes by quoting Tsukioka herself. The ‘Japanese prefer to hide’ and ‘the dress was inspired by Ninja’s’ bits aren’t something that Fackler dreamed up, but are what Tsukioka said herself (though, again, maybe not entirely seriously).

    Fackler is well aware that this is art, and that Tsukioka is an artist–he says so in the 2nd paragraph. But at the same time, awareness of crime is an element of this art (see below her description of the project), and that makes it a fair peg to base a light crime/wacky Japan story on, in my opinion.



  13. W. David MARX Says:

    The NY Times has plenty of sections for light, tongue-in-cheek pieces. I don’t think “International” is one of them. Related search topics:

    # Japan
    # Crime and Criminals
    # Apparel
    # Inventions and Patents

    I think Fackler wanted this to be a light-hearted piece, but he works for the wrong people. He should have pitched this to some Conde Nast publication or something instead. Or the NYT Magazine.

    Here is the photo caption: “Though street crime is relatively low in Japan, quirky camouflage designs like this vending-machine dress are being offered to an increasingly anxious public to hide from would-be assailants.”

    Who is “offering” these dresses? They may be for sale, but are they being marketed to an “anxious public”? Whether she is an artist or aware of crime that doesn’t mean that her work has been seriously “offered to the public as a crime prevention device” which is the crux of the piece.

  14. Chompsky Says:

    You seem to have a misconception of what sort of articles newspapers should, and do, carry. They do both serious and light-hearted stories, in the front page, international page, editorial page and any other page. Whatever readers enjoy and sell copies is what editors like.

    The photo caption, again, isn’t expected to be taken 100% literally, I think. Tongue in cheek?

  15. W. David MARX Says:

    Look, I am not a kisha club member like yourself, but I don’t think I am alone here in thinking that:

    1) The context is not clear for this story. We are not given prior warning that it’s “tongue-in-cheek” and not an actual social trend piece.
    2) Fackler wants it both ways – light-hearted “quirk” and trend story on crime in Japan, because clearly, his desk is in charge of the latter not the former, and the only way he could get away with this story is to justify it as a larger trend.

    “Whatever readers enjoy and sell copies is what editors like.”

    Which is why the NY Times has all those pictures of naked girls on Page 2… There are also journalistic standards etc.

  16. Chompsky Says:

    1. If you read the 1st paragraphs of the story and don’t think it’s a light-hearted piece rather than a Serious Expose on Crime in Japan, maybe you need to lighten up a bit.

    2. You can have a story that is both light-hearted/funny/quirky AND explores a serious issue. Done all the time–look in any newspaper on any day.

    The problem I guess I have with this post is that you seem to be doing the same thing that you accuse Martin of doing–coming up with a sweeping conclusion (FACKLER: wacky Japanese are worried about crime/ YOU: foreign correspondents in Japan are lazy) based on flimsy evidence (YOU: Fackler is misinterpreting what the vending machine dress MEANS).

    Kisha Club Member

  17. W. David MARX Says:

    Martin and I are not on first name terms, but again, the NY Times International Section is not where I traditionally turn for “light-hearted” pieces that are executed identically to serious trend pieces in methodology.

    “maybe you need to lighten up a bit.”

    Check out the other billion blogs on the internet that criticize this piece.

    Also shouldn’t it be “Chompsky” rather than Chompsky?

  18. "Chompsky" Says:

    Well, this ABC News reporter’s blog appears to have figured out it’s a light piece: http://blogs.abcnews.com/politicsasusual/2007/10/thwarting-off-a.html

    Can I just say that when you get a Japanese fashion designer that designs a dress that turns into a vending machine, and when she says it’s meant to avoid crime, the natural reporter/editor instinct is to somehow make it into a news story? It’s too colorful not to. And, yes, stories like those sometimes do appear on the international page, and the editors are equipped to edit them.

  19. W. David MARX Says:

    Can I just say that when you get a Japanese fashion designer that designs a dress that turns into a vending machine

    A completely marginal, unknown designer whose ideas, while interesting, probably say very little about the state of Japanese “culture” in general terms.

    If the experts at ABC News are all in raptures over the NYT Japan Desk’s journalistic prowess, I am not sure why you are wasting all your time trying to convince us people who post on the internet using real names that Fackler’s reporting has expertly captured Japanese social psychology on crime with a light-hearted touch proper for a review of the latest new Pinkberry location.

  20. "Chompsky" Says:

    Well, I don’t think that trying to introduce a different view on the story is ‘wasting all [my] time’, but I’m getting the sense that these comments aren’t very welcome, so I’m off.

    What’s the big deal with using a pseudonym, by the way? I’m far from the only commenter to do so on your blog.

  21. W. David MARX Says:

    I dislike the idea of professionals in a field, which you have clearly made yourself out to be, having to hide behind a pseudonym to snipe at people lower on the media totem pole. If you want to defend the MSM as a member of the MSM, I am not sure why this requires distance from a real career.

    Your comments are “welcome,” but my feeling is that your position is that the article is perfect, it’s the readers who “didn’t get it,” which I would argue is not coming from the most objective mouth. I have nothing against the NY Times or Mr. Fackler’s other articles usually. I just thought this particular article is poor, and I am surprised by the wholesale defense of it.

  22. calligraphykid Says:

    All you two are really arguing about but have so far failed to determine is the credulity of the NYT’s readership. The general impression one gets of Japan from Westerners who have never been there suggests that credulity is something they have in spades, especially when it comes to Japan.

    From my earlier post today:
    >for a long time to come it will be cheaper to be nursed by a Filippino than a robot in Japan

    Not only was my spelling poor but the comment was in bad taste. “Filipino” should obviously have been spelled “unemployable ex-NOVA teacher”.

  23. alin Says:

    boy, as soon as i saw 20+ comments i knew something was going on here.

    Marxy’s critique of that kind of journalism is great as long as it remains that: a critique of western views of japan. taken further to its logical conclusion the results can be equally problematic or avoiding the real issues.

    vaguely recalling some neo(marx/japon)isme , contrary to what marxy tells us, panties-vending machines do exist, sushi is occasionally eaten of women’s bodies, not sure about their sex-life but certain exotic animals (penguins, sharks etc ) do cohabit the same restaurants as humans in certain parts of tokyo etc etc. so as an antidote to the homogenizing , implied view that japanese culture is after all the same as ‘our’ culture I’m wondering whether there might not be some relative value to the ‘crazy japan’ kind of journalism. however idiotic and possibly damaging it may be it has the minor merit of leaving the door open to difference.

  24. W. David MARX Says:

    Difference is fine (and I think it’s unfair to characterize my writing as trying to blur differences since I write a lot of about the fundamentally different system of industrial organization in the Japanese entertainment business, for example). There, however, is a problem with “one marginal piece of culture = general society” type stories. Have their been panty machines in Japan? Yes. Were they ever ubiquitous? I seriously doubt it. Is there a restaurant in Japan where people fuck pigs and then eat them? Probably not, and even if so, it is not a “national trend” as much as beastiality clubs in the U.S. are not an indicator of American “national character”.

    If we want to celebrate mutants, deviants, exceptions, and margins, that’s fine, but let’s not blow it up as another piece of exotic, bewildering “Japan,” which is especially how it will be embraced.

    Everyone agrees that Tsukioka’s work is pretty fun, but does it say anything about the state of social psychology towards crime in Japan and/or the product market based on heightened fears? Absolutely not. The critic can draw those themes out of the work or the artist can declare those themes as central to the work, but can the journalist take art as its core evidence for a non-trend/social trend + misguided functional product/intentionally unfunctional product?

  25. M-Bone Says:

    I think that Marxy is completely correct here. We have an “international” article that leaves Japanese fluent commentators scratching their heads over the bizarre essentialism of it all and…. I can’t see average readers with no Japan background getting the article if it is really supposed to be tongue in cheek. It SAYS that this is all about crime, so that is how many readers are going to take it.

    Where was that line about smart Japanese fringe culture poking fun at said social trends?

    How does reproducing the uglier side of American Japan reportage – blatantly Orientalist appeals to ninja and other premodern nonsense (or eating them up when Japanese throw the terms out there for a joke), a focus on the wacky, taking one silly thing and turning it into a social trend, etc. – make for a layered tongue in cheek fluff piece? If this article was a big joke where the author was trying to see what kind of absolute ^%$# that he could get the NYT to publish about Japan, I’ll gladly accept the whole thing as brilliant.

    Should also keep in mind that Japan-connected people are already edgy about the NYT already because of their Japanese “militarism” hysteria which is built on the same pattern of reporting – “Japan had a racist comic! Is that Tojo I see over there!?”

  26. Aceface Says:

    Like this video from NYT online “Rearming Japan”?

    When someone does a report on defense policy of one nation,you would usually expect them go interviewing defense community of that country.Here in this video of NYT(of which showed up on the net along with Norimitsu Onishi’s piece”Bomb by bomb,Japan sheds military restraint”)It seems that they interviewed almost anybody-but.

    There are no defense official,no SDF uniform officers,no defense analyst from think tank shows up.

    The only government official shows up in the video is the vice-spokesperson of Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

    Instead you have three controversial politicians,none of whom have experience in any post relating national security issues.

    They are Tokyo Governor Ishihara Shintaro(who else),ex-Okinawa Governor and anti-U.S base activist,Ota Masahide and ex LDP secretary-general Kato Kouichi,reknowned for abid pro-Beijing stance of which was the primary reason of his house was being burnt down by a 65 years old right-wing fanatic in 2006.

    Only one academic showed up and that’s neither political scientist nor regional security specialist,but left-wing historian from Hiroshima city Univ,Tanaka Yuki.Known better abroad for he wrote book on comfort women in English.

    The jaw-dropping moment was some unknown extreme right-wing dude suddenly showed up and talking the need of revising the constitution and Ota Masahide talks about “Some American scholoars think Japan may need nuclear weapons in the future”and somehow this was used as a testimony after a line saying”Japanese politicians are now openly debating about acquiring nuclear weapons”.

    The military balance in the region and the challenge to the national security of Japan are both explained as minimum and that gives you the impression that it is a minor element in the Japanese defense policy.Insteadly NYT focus rising patriotic jingoism and historical revisonism.

    Basically the content of this report is nothing new or should I say watching this video gave me a dejavu of the “peace education” class that we’ve breath fed pacifism and left-wing political ideas at junior high school some 20 years ago.

    We see this kind of J-reporting from Xinhua often and we accept that as a fact of life,partly because we know well that they are propaganda organ of the communist state and the Chinese are biggest victim of Japanese agressions naturally hold grudge against Japanese.But seeing media coverage coming from a country that is one and the only ally in the world is pretty depressing.

    There are lots of infos within the comments that producers chose not to conduct fact checking.Like there are NO text-book that writes Japanese invasion of Asia was actually a liberation or no politicians openly debating of acquiring nuclear weapons exists (one mentioned of debate about the issue,had cost him resignation)and Japan had already rearmed irself in the form of self defense force 50 years ago but fail to admit as so,due to the article 9 which prohibit Japan of having Army,Navy and Air Force.

    Somehow I’ve got a feeling everybody but Tanaka Yuki whose interview was used longer than all of the others’ combined,regrets of having showed up in this video and seeing their interviews being totally cuts into pieces and edited as a soundbites that are completely out of context make them furious.
    But then again we professionals do this all the time….

  27. Aceface Says:

    My bad.Kato Kouichi WAS the director of defense agency in the past.Shouldn’t type a post while you are drinking….

  28. M-Bone Says:

    That video was pretty infuriating. When those German soldiers were photographed posing with a skull there was still nothing like the regular Japan militarist hysteria that we find popping up at the oddest times. I find it amazing that the American mainstream media has consistently managed to be on guard against the phantom of Japanese militarism while totally screwing the pooch on any number of American excesses.

    It is my understanding that the recent Japanese debate about nukes was not a debate about getting them or not but rather a debate about having a debate about maybe thinking about debating perhaps getting them… or not.

    I think that the confusion over the “liberation” issue is legitimate, however, as the Tsukurukai people argue that in their private writing all the time….

    In the end, I think that the militarist phantom stuff serves a real purpose in Japan – the maintenance of a wishy-washy mainstream pacifism that I think is both effective and deep rooted. When it pops up in the USA, however, it seems like a hypocritical revival of yellow peril rhetoric.

  29. Kikuchiyo`s Journal » The NY Times really nailed that one Says:

    […] was an apt response to the astonishing New York Times article about “Japanese wearing their hiding […]

  30. Aceface Says:

    2channelers are enjoying the articles.


  31. W. David MARX Says:

    I am sure they are saying, “Finally, the NY Times has understood the real Japan – even in a lighthearted, tongue-in-cheek piece!”

  32. M-Bone Says:

    Is it just me or is the “vending machine disguises to avoid crime” version of Japan more realistic than the “five years away from launching a nuke at Hong Kong xenophobic fascist militarist hell” version?

  33. Captain Says:

    My first reaction was to the appearance of yet more unnecessary historical context. In this case, the ninja nonsense. Here are some others from the NYT past…

    James Brook of the NYT was told by Alberto Fujimori’s bimbo, Satomi Kataoka, just after he fled Japan in 2005:

    “I have to be samurai,” she concluded. “The samurai code says once you decide to look after someone, you do it to the end.”

    Howard French explains the background of the hostess club, after the disappearance of Lucie Blackman in 2000, as:

    With lords separated from their spouses for long stretches, a culture of geisha and concubines flourished, and along with it, so did the idea that paying for sex and the company of women was normal. In modern Tokyo, with tiny houses and long commutes being the norm, receiving guests at home is impractical, and men instead stay out on the town, typically with their co-workers.

  34. Aceface Says:

    I think both pieces are justifiable to my eyes.
    Afterall,what Brooks quotes are Ms.Kataoka’s words who happened to be a Japanese.

    And Fujimori did exploit the image of the Samurai projected upon himself,when he was running for the presidency in Peru.

    French is using geisha as the metaphor and I think it is pretty acculate in the description of relationship between sex industry and male dominant Japanese society.

    Telling historical background is often necessary to explain things happening in Japan to foreign audience who has little or no Japan knowledge.What I am criticizing is when that misleads the whole issues.

  35. nate Says:

    late to the party, but I was forwarded the NYT article by my credulous employer, who has lived in Japan for 5 years, and is not a drooling rube.

    I don’t like the idea that the media gets to assume that people know when they’re being facetious, or when they’re overstressing unimportant ideas, or when they’re out and out lying. But I probably won’t ever have as much money and influence as judith miller.

  36. laotree Says:

    Finally this place gets heated up!
    When I saw this article on the FRONT PAGE of the IHT (published by NYT) I couldn’t help but laugh. $800 a pop! I thought this would be the kind of thing Marxy would want to bring to the debate table. It’s silly the way the work is presented but I think reporters usually do a lousy (lazy) job writing about art unless that’s their specialty. A few years back I had a painting show and invited reporters from Chunichi and Kyoto Shimbun to write articles for it (in the local section for Shiga, mind you.) Because there was an anti-war slant to some of the work, and I didn’t have the 専門用語 to articulate the more complicated themes at play when interviewed, the resultant articles became: “Local resident foreigner opens gallery show of anti-war paintings.” It’s possible that the artist here got burned in a similar way, since “wacky Japan” stories are such a crowd-pleaser. This article did give me a good warm-up conversation piece for my classes though, so three cheers for sloppy reporting.

  37. Captain Says:

    I agree about the need to add historical context. But I think in the case of Fujimori, Satomi knew who her audience was, providing what she thought would be nice color to the story. I seriously doubt she would have said the same thing to a Japanese reporter. And further, to think that somehow a salaryman staying out late in Kabukicho on the company dime is somehow linked to the days of lords and daimyo is a little silly.

    When I was in the States two weeks ago this article was on the front page of the NY Times.

  38. Fury Says:

    I’m majoring in East Asian Studies at school, and nearly all of my friends emailed me the nytimes article. I was so frustrated, the major premise, as laotree said, seems to be “wacky Japan.” I thought “kooky Japan” at the time. and any single piece on this entire site would be better published in the nytimes. rock on Marx!