2008: Structural Pessimism

Ono Susumu

Doomsayers rejoiced in late 2008: Japan is officially in a recession.

This Time article places part of the blame on the Japanese people’s "structural pessimism" — a catchy phrase from Shirakawa Hiromichi, chief economist at Credit Suisse Japan. As the term suggests, the Japanese suffer from a general lack of confidence about the Japanese economy and the nation’s future, and as a result, are weary of big spending. Global surveys and studies (like this and this) tend to back up this idea of the Japanese people being relatively dour. Forrester Research shows Japan’s "technology optimism" to be one of the lowest in the world — odd for a country that for so long embodied the promise of a plugged-in future.

Now I am sure there are lots of fancy micro- and macro-economic ways to explain the current situation that do not involve sweeping generalizations of the population’s mood, but since Shirakawa brought this up, I feel like we should take a deeper look. It’s easy to blame this mass psychological disposition towards pessimism on some innate and unbending cultural characteristic. All those enka songs are in minor keys, right? And Kabuki is not one for happy endings. Must be something in the water. And listen to the phrase “structural pessimism”: that doesn’t sound like it’s going away anytime soon. Japan would be much better off suffering from something like “faddish pessimism.”

I wonder though: okay, the Japanese public have an aesthetic lean towards the bittersweet and tragic, but maybe, just maybe, the current pessimism is mostly a result of what can be called the national narrative.

Think about Japan’s post-war story. The defeated nation goes from total annihilation and its first-ever foreign Occupation in the 1940s to becoming the second-largest non-Communist economy by the 1968. This was an economic miracle, and things only got better from there. By the 1980s, the forward trajectory of the high-growth years catapulted Japan to almost rival the United States in terms of economic success. Maybe Japan’s total GDP would never surpass the United States, but the average citizen knew a consumer power that made Americans look like peasants.

Turned out, however, that most of the conspicuous prosperity was all built on air, and the long post-Bubble recession of the 1990s sent the Japanese Icarus crashing to the sea. Although the country was technically in "recession" during the Nineties, the “Lost Decade” corresponded with a cultural renaissance: import fashion sales continued to grow until 1996, magazines peaked in 1995, and the music market expanded up until 1999. Like most consumer technology, the emerging mobile market was light years ahead of the United States. Sure, there was a pesky recession, but the vibrant cultural and high-tech atmosphere helped distract from the economic worries. People were still out spending on superfluous lifestyle goods. If recession was this fun, who needed economic progress? Most importantly, the ’80s hubris had helped erode the inferior complex towards the West, meaning that less people were so worried about that former benchmark of "catching up."

Optimism and pessimism are all expectation games. Lifestyle-wise, the ’90s were not so bad for most Japanese despite the newspapers full of doom-and-gloom. The real problem for Japan started in 2003, when the economy was nominally growing. As Roppongi Hills opened and the New Rich became media celebrities, everyone was primed for a return to ’80s economic fun. Most quickly realized, however, that this unprecedented long-term economic expansion did not improve the lifestyle of the average worker. The rich got super rich, but wages were stagnant for most. Young people got jobs, but they were now hired as “non-regular employees” with 40% of the benefits of the Waseda-graduate “regular employee” sitting right next to him and doing the exact same job. And moreover, culture — the ice cream filling to the social infrastructure’s waffle cone — plunged into oblivion as almost all markets for cultural products (magazines, video games, TV, fashion, music, lifestyle vehicles) nosedived and lost relevance. What could be less inspiring than the feel of stagnation and decline in midst of long-term "economic growth"?

So Japan is in recession now, and most rightly feel, if 21st century economic growth was that bad, is there even an light to the end of the current recessionary tunnel? The United States was saved in the 1990s by innovation in the information technology fields, but the Japanese have little optimism here and have no examples of how Japanese leadership on the internet will improve the economy. The best Vegas bet Japan can make is on robots, but I have not seen Asimo doing much new lately. There are dire long-term demographic issues, worries about the need for mass immigration, and a highly-ineffective political system rarely known to kick up dynamic and wide-scale action. Two Prime Minister from the eternally-ruling LDP have stepped down before a year in office, and Aso has lost support. What in the world are the Japanese people supposed to be optimistic about?

W. David MARX
December 16, 2008

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

59 Responses

  1. M-Bone Says:

    “What in the world are the Japanese people supposed to be optimistic about?”

    Ice cream.

    Seriously.

    Or they could buy a bunch of guns, find Jesus, and wait for the end times.

    Or people can try to find something to be optimistic about that does not revolve around economics – Japan as a happy, friendly zero growth society.

    Video games don’t belong with that cultural products narrative, BTW. Tanked around 1998-2000, solid spike after that, and down big this year (along with everything else because people are broke and worried). They bucked the trend for a while and should after that. I also don’t think that a loss of relevance is a good argument to make for manga – overall sales declined, but the number of magazines has actually increased, showing a vitality in niche markets, I think. It is titles running in “alternative” magazines that most Neojaponisme readers are checking out, according to that recent thread.

  2. W. David MARX Says:

    Or people can try to find something to be optimistic about that does not revolve around economics – Japan as a happy, friendly zero growth society.

    Western Europe is basically zero growth but they have accepted a very relaxed, leisurely lifestyle in its place. Japan has worst of both worlds: low potential for massive economic growth with high work hours, low vacation time, and high levels of hierarchical stress. Seems like a lot of over-working is basically conditioned and voluntary at this point. I am not sure that “retooling” Japanese society to be like Western Europe in terms of lifestyle-emphasis is actually possible.

  3. Sho Says:

    I agree with the general tenor of your post, but do think you’re underplaying robotics. ASIMO is nothing but a friendly show-off, and Honda is not doing all that well anyway. But the real action is in industrial robots, and there Japan Inc is indisputable world leader. It is those robots, which maintain production capacity in spite of the decline in working-age population, that will be the real key.

    America’s IT successes are certainly relevant but I don’t know if they have much more life in them. Software is becoming more and more of a commodity and it’s only a matter of time before the only money in it is for custom development and integrated services. India will meet the first need, not the US, and with the exception of Google I don’t see that many US companies that look all that competitive on the second, either. There’s no money in Twitter or, for that matter, Facebook.

    I also think you’re ignoring some major Japanese IT accomplishments. Microsoft might still lead the market in OS sales, but which country has the best integrated payments and ticketing? There’s no Suica or EDY in the US. That’s pretty significant. IT is not just about web sites.

    Japan Inc’s strength has always been in integration and physical production. That means they were left out of the software race, no-one can deny that. But I tend to think that selling software by itself is a dying idea, and we’re back to integration and “devices”. By all logic that should be Japan’s strength.

    Ah well, this isn’t really going anywhere, just some thoughts.

  4. W. David MARX Says:

    Devices like the iPod? I think you raise a good point but a lot of the current devices were developed within internet-forward societies.

    Suica is a good flip of this. It’s an elegant solution to the problem of super-mass transit. The US, for example, does not have the kind of crowding problem that requires such a solution. (Even NYC). So the question is, will Suica be exportable to similar metropolitan areas? Does any other city rely so much on its trains as Tokyo?

    This piece is clearly not the end-all-be-all prediction of Japan’s future. I think it’s about where the Japanese see their own nation, and you could be absolutely right about industrial robotics, but that ain’t as sexy as owning Rockefeller Center and inventing the Walkman.

  5. Adamu Says:

    Heizo Takenaka, former brain of the Koizumi economic program, was on the front page of the Nikkei to talk about his view of the current recession. He focused on a specific program pairing monetary and fiscal policy, but he had a bit to say on the topic of Japan’s long-term strategy as well.

    In recent interviews, you can feel his frustration at having his economic program summarily rejected in favor of effectively nothing. His theory has always been that if only Japan would break free of its huge swaths of skill-free, guaranteed, Soviet-style employment, Japan would actually become a much more dynamic economy and would enjoy serious economic growth that would lift prosperity for all.

    In a recession, he says, rather than whine about people getting laid off, the government should open its purse strings to invest in the future, hiring the unemployed to achieve that goal – he doesn’t seem to know just what should be done since he quickly changes the topic to structural reforms like cutting corporate income taxes, expanding the utility of Haneda Airport, and repealing the financial product, anti-usury and earthquake safety regulations that have slowed down the lending and construction industries.

    But investing in the future and pushing forward with needed structural reforms are at least more forward-thinking than “let’s just hand out cash to everyone” as Aso is suggesting (sure it’s not the ONLY thing he is suggesting but it has become the flagship of his plan and where is the vision?).

    I don’t think that people will really feel secure about the future until they have something to be proud of and can see their futures getting better instead of murkier. The Takenaka vision appears to be to make Japan more like America, where your worth as an employee is (supposedly) determined by your own skills and career plan, not as a cog in a lifetime employment plan. With the current coverage of layoffs, you would wonder if the media is suggesting that workers have a right to keep their jobs even if the factory shuts down for lack of demand.

    As I mentioned in the Roppongi Hills piece, Japan seems to be out of ideas. Even if Takenaka didn’t come up with any in this quickie interview, he is on the right track. Where will Japan lead, and if it is robots and green technology let’s see it happen in a way that doesn’t make people suspect you’re running a shoddy propaganda campaign with no real results. If those are industries that people can get behind why not stand up and shout it from the rooftops?

  6. W. David MARX Says:

    Americans may be equally fucked as Japanese, but at least we have the narrative of change embodied by Obama’s victory. Roosevelt didn’t make the Depression go away, but inspired people for the future. This essay is more about narratives than economics, but regardless Japan needs a new narrative and it would not hurt its economy to do so.

  7. M-Bone Says:

    “Roosevelt didn’t make the Depression go away, but inspired people for the future”

    The war didn’t hurt either. Something tells me that Obama won’t consider that as a solution, however.

  8. W. David MARX Says:

    The war got the US out of the depression, but people have pictures of Roosevelt on their walls long before that.

  9. M-Bone Says:

    On the issue of Western Europe – let’s not forget that some of these areas were the site of the Protestant Work Ethic on the continent. In recent years, their governments have just chosen to narrate what it means to be European differently. National identity changes often.

    What is Japan? Is it Bushido or Haiku? Both? Neither? In terms of the retooling that you mentioned, let’s not forget that the Japanese state and cultural apparatus in general chose to retool everything into military fanaticism in the 1930s and left that behind VERY quickly when the time came. Dynamic change is possible if the cultural will is there. I grant it that it will be difficult, but a little narrative can go a long way.

    Japanese have lots of stuff to exploit to support the narrative of a zero growth, friendly society – reflective Buddhism, nature images, a lot of stock put on family, celebration of frugal living in much of the premodern tradition, tea, exercise and “traditional health”, etc. The cultural raw materials are there, someone just needs to find the will (and I have gotten the sense that in lots of recent publications, more people are turing to this type of stuff to build future narratives).

    Also, Japan is not starting from scratch as there are already some big advantages over Western Europe. More active elderly people (and infrastructure in place to encourage their activity), cheaper books, less crime, etc.

    Adamu – lots of people still trumpeting robots in pop business publications. Just has to be integrated more firmly into more pop narratives.

  10. W. David MARX Says:

    Dynamic change is possible if the cultural will is there.

    You mean, dynamic change is possible when the ruling power loses legitimacy in the process of military defeat by a greater power. That’s really the only precedent for retooling the system in a massive way: 1868, 1945, maybe even the 1930s.

    I think all the “soft Japan” narratives from zen, environmentalism, etc. are great, but I think they have been essentially used as tatemae window-dressing. Society is pretty clearly patterned on a confucian philosophy, not a Buddhist one. People in power have nothing to gain from actually implementing “back to nature”/leisure society type movements, but they are convenient narratives to flog on the world stage. Japan would be a lot better place for everyone here if it was actually an environmentalist’s paradise.

  11. M-Bone Says:

    “dynamic change is possible when the ruling power loses legitimacy in the process of military defeat by a greater power.”

    That’s not the whole story and you know it. Yes, Ameirca introduced change… and then tried to draw Japan into its Cold War militarism. Young people and the intelligentsia resisted a state that wanted to go along. Defeat was a major shock to the system… but isn’t one of the major points of the above essay that the end of economic nationalism has been a shock as well? How about when the population really starts to tank? Or if not this economic crisis, two or three down the way?

    Japan has changed a lot. Who could imagine, for example, the sexual attitudes of youth today in say, the 1950s? That part of “traditional Confucian belief” seems to have gone out the window. That goes for the USA as well – they got from temperance and the puritan revival to the 70s somehow.

    By saying that it is probably impossible for Japan to retool, are you talking about in 2 years? 10? 758? Are people even going to be concerned about GDP when I’m 80? “Not possible” is a long time. If we think about Japan as a political and cultural entity on the long term – maybe until the end of the century – there is probably going to be as much change as we saw in the 20th century. At present, nobody can really see the next paradigm shift. Japan may be right there or it may get left behind. In terms of historical comparisons – Japan was written off for junk in the 1850s and the 1940s….

    “think they have been essentially used as tatemae window-dressing.”

    By the state, yes, much of the time. But as I wrote above, these are things that can be “exploited”. Surely people outside of the current elite can take a crack. Especially if the current lot get sent packing in a few months…

    Anyway, if you don’t have any hope for Japan’s future, why aren’t you learning Chinese? I’m half joking, but the other half is a fair question.

  12. Bobbin Says:

    “What in the world are the Japanese people supposed to be optimistic about?”

    The new Krispy Kreme Donuts outlet in Shinjuku?

    As for the “soft Japan” narratives, yes, but the Japanese are going to need to find the leisure time to actually enjoy those “soft” values — right now it’s karoshi or some perverse ethos of “I’m working harder/sacrificing more than you are”. To celebrate nature again, something must be done to halt all of the pointless construction projects in the countryside that seem aimed to cover every other mountain with acres of ugly concrete.

  13. W. David MARX Says:

    Yes, Ameirca introduced change… and then tried to draw Japan into its Cold War militarism. Young people and the intelligentsia resisted a state that wanted to go along.

    Last time I checked, those young people and intellectuals basically failed to make any substantial changes to the US-Japan Cold War relationship, other than Japan didn’t go as far as re-arm to fight in Korea or Vietnam. If that’s success, the bar was very low. And there should be no debate on whether the ’60s brought “dynamic” change to Japan. It was at best “minor.”

    Who could imagine, for example, the sexual attitudes of youth today in say, the 1950s? That part of “traditional Confucian belief” seems to have gone out the window.

    The sexual dimension is interesting, but basically a result of consumerism permeating society.

    When I say “confucianism,” I don’t mean it as a shorthand for “Asian puritanism and ancestor worship.” I mean individuals believing that legitimacy comes from above, that social orders are permanent, that hierarchy is “natural,” and that they are not allowed to find their own legitimacy to make personal or new interpretations of what is “proper.” These things may be late 19th century indoctrinations, but they have not changed. The idea of, if something is broken, we must band together to fix it, is not exactly common, but is basically necessary for democracy to work.

    I don’t think we should assume that every philosophy allows for dynamic social change from below.

    In the case of Japanese workers, most of them have a lot of leeway to shorten their own work hours and yet they in most circumstances elect to stay. Sure there are implicit pressures to remain, but an actual broad, silent movement to go home early could be easily embraced at this point.

    Anyway, if you don’t have any hope for Japan’s future, why aren’t you learning Chinese? I’m half joking, but the other half is a fair question.

    I never learned Chinese for the same reason I never learned Polish or Russian. I was always interested in the world’s most advanced pop cultures.

  14. Bobbin Says:

    “I was always interested in the world’s most advanced pop cultures.”

    Doesn’t it seem that a certain amount of pessimism w.r.t. the social order and widespread discontent about hierarchy could actually be good for pop culture?

    Look at the U.K., for example, where class consciousness is so deeply entrenched. They’ve even still got a Monarch. I wonder if there isn’t a relationship between this form of social structure, the kinds of frustration it must produce, and the explosion of pop music during the postwar period. I.e., so what if you’re from the lower part of society, your mobility is limited because your accent pegs you as coming from some undesirable place, etc. — you can still have a band and a shot at being famous, right? As a point of comparison, look at France, which had much a greater sense of social equality than England, killed off its kings and took power from its aristocracy centuries back. Both countries were in pretty bad shape after WWII, but pop culture, especially pop music, exploded in the U.K., but not so much in France, where the emphasis was on high culture by a very small set of practitioners.

    The dynamic in Japan is different of course, but maybe some aspects of the Confucian ideology are not totally at cross-purposes with a pop sensibility.

  15. young james Says:

    The war didn’t hurt either. Something tells me that Obama won’t consider that as a solution, however.

    I’ve always found this dodge extremely odd, since it seems to suggest that the problem was that prior to the war, the government wasn’t controlling the economy enough , which is counter to the narrative most of the people who use this dodge are pushing.

    By the 1980s, the forward trajectory of the high-growth years catapulted Japan to almost rival the United States

    I think this is really simplified, the 80’s were booming but some sectors that were hugely important in Japan’s post-war rise (like shipbuilding) were completely gutted in the 80’s.

    On the other hand, the bad taste left from that experience meant that Japanese shipping and shipbuilders tend to be in relatively good shape compared to their competitors (Tsuji being the exception that proves the rule).

    The Takenaka vision appears to be to make Japan more like America, where your worth as an employee is (supposedly) determined by your own skills and career plan, not as a cog in a lifetime employment plan. With the current coverage of layoffs, you would wonder if the media is suggesting that workers have a right to keep their jobs even if the factory shuts down for lack of demand.

    I think a large amount of the pushback has to do with the fact that (as marxy notes), the last time the economy was growing, the rich were basically getting rich by exploiting temp labor, and none of this wealth trickled down (as it never really does). Despite its faults, the lifetime employment system does offer certain benefits. (Didnt Loft just make all its temps full time employees this year?)

  16. W. David MARX Says:

    the social order and widespread discontent about hierarchy could actually be good for pop culture?

    I have been saying this for a while, but the mainstream of pop culture in Japan is basically little more than consumer culture, i.e., people buying products to buy products. And when people stop buying products, the whole bottom falls out.

    This is a gross simplification, but the lack of public critique of pop culture, while a product of the media environment, does make it seem like consumers are buying without absorbing. Manga is probably the biggest exception to this rule, but also the one art form least dependent upon creativity being organized in “management groups” and least dependent upon the consumer’s collection of expensive objects as a way to show fandom. (This is probably a discussion for another time, but it does warm my heart to see people reading manga at Book Off for free, because it means that the “market transaction” is not critical for enjoyment. You can’t say that for toys, idol goods, etc.)

    So anyway, yeah, pop culture would be great if people saw it as a way to express their own condition outside of the controlled market, rather than a way to buy products as a form of assimilation with a wider culture. Too many young bands use their bands as a way to win approval from wider society rather than as a vehicle for self-expression. Or at least, they are happy to change the sound to a “market-friendly” direction at the drop of a dime.

  17. MattAlt Says:

    Video games don’t belong with that cultural products narrative, BTW.

    I am not sure I completely agree with David’s portrayal of gloom and doom, but the video game industry most certainly does fit into his narrative — game sales have nosedived in Japan, and Japanese games have lost a lot of relevance abroad (at least as far as the charts are concerned), whereas the industry is significantly up everywhere else in the world. (For whatever it’s worth I think there is too much talent and experience here for this tailspin to be anything other than temporary, but the facts are the facts.)

  18. Daniel Says:

    What in the world are the Japanese people supposed to be optimistic about?

    Beer. Craft beer has been booming ever since the government reduced the minimum brewing requirements for a license. The last five years have been fairly impressive in terms of import expansion, too.

  19. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    I take issue with your view of Japanese culture as being “in a nosedive”. Maybe some parts are — the parts driven by coolhunting and acceleration, like fashion and magazines. But the slow and/or ephemeral things, like cuisine and literature, these are not in a nosedive at all.

    I also disagree incidentally with your opinion that the “soft Japan” narratives are window dressing. Down here in Shonan, LOHAS is king. I don’t know to what extent this is driven by Shonan being full of residual wealth from the previous generation + close enough to Tokyo to commute but far enough away to be picturesque, but it is true nevertheless. Farmer’s markets, buying local, and taking it easy are real values here.

    So in summary, I am with M-Bone and Daniel. We are the future and it is mellow.

  20. Michael Says:

    Non-spending on the part of Japan isn’t a big deal if they’re interested in creating real wealth. Consumption is simply a pleasant side effect of production and wealth creation, so as long as Japan is making things popular abroad they will be fine. Saving money is a GOOD thing, so kudos to Japan for not doing it even in such a low-interest environment. This is the same mistake being perpetrated in America by Keynesian hacks like Paul Krugman. In times of uncertainty people NEED to save! Too much spending is what got everyone in trouble to begin with.

    We’re seeing a lot more interest in Japanese companies getting out of the flat domestic market, which is even better.

    Pessimism is a good thing in my opinion because it creates a more stable economic environment. We don’t need any more fancy bubbles creating fake confidence.

  21. TheStrawMan Says:

    The pessimism that I see, tends to be related to the worsening conditions for exporting companies (stronger yen, weakening demand abroad for Japanese goods, etc).
    When the dominant narrative is that Japanese prosperity is created by export-driven growth, then any difficulties experienced by exporters will be transmitted to the population at large, through mass media, etc. and which, in my opinion, accounts for a large amount of the current negativity.

    Regarding the need for large-scale government intervention, a la the New Deal, the most striking thing to me is that, while in the United States much debate is currently taking place in regards to what kind of measures the incoming Obama administration should/could take, here in Japan all attention is focused on Aso’s plummeting approval ratings, and maneuvering for the upcoming elections, which we all know won’t change a thing.

  22. Ratiocinational Says:

    I think you guys are pretty off base with the video game analysis. Maybe in terms of sales of Japanese software you could be correct, but as far as hardware goes they’re far an away better of than they were.

    The three most popular systems (Wii, DS, and PSP) are Japanese, and the Wii and DS have shattered all records that were made by the Playstation 2, with the PSP not far behind. The only thing that has really been bad for Japan are the software sales for the systems they sell. Japanese games aren’t selling as well as their western counterparts (although even this is arguable, since Wii Sports is outselling everything still). I’m not sure how video games have nosedived when they’re breaking all current sales records. The only competition japan has is the Xbox 360 and it will be eclipsed by 2:1 for Wii sales after this holiday season. I’m not sure how M-Bone can say videogames tanked after 1998-2000 when 2001 saw the release of Playstation 2 which proceeded to shatter all of the records of its predecessors as well. With Nintendo now posed as the second most valuable company in Japan, only after Toyota, I’m not sure how video games could possible excluded from the cultural or economic narrative.

  23. alexander Says:

    I think Japan will continue to be competitive in the fields it excels at (cars, robotics), the current recession notwithstanding.

    I’m not sure, however, that the current sense of supposed or actual pessimism of today’s Japan is anything new considering that Japan Inc. went bust over 20 years ago.

    Has Japan really been a significant player in the world ever since the bubble? I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing though – Japan can continue to enjoy a comfortable even if less competitive place in the world just fine.

    Look at Italy – are they really considered to be a leader in anything? (other than fashion?) They have low to stagnant economic growth, and yet they enjoy a comfortable style of living just fine.

  24. Connor Says:

    Here is something I have been thinking about- you are making the connection between a low point in the “national narrative” and people actually taking it personally vis-a-vis their outlook. Does this happen anywhere else in the developed world (China does not count)? There are a lot of doom-and-gloom stories about the decline of American Power, but I personally am hard pressed to think of anybody I know who really and truly gives a shit, and I don’t think this is a class-biased observation.

    There’s a big difference, I think, between the various cultural forces which brought about Obama’s election and those which seem to be contributing to the Japanese national malaise. In the former case, we seem to have made a more or less pragmatic decision; Guy A is screwing up, let’s go with Guy B. In the Japanese case, there seems to be a widespread belief that they are part of a STORY (I think the phrase “national narrative” can be taken far more literally than you are using it) and, to be honest, I think that can be a huge motivating factor as well as a giant downer. I don’t think I have been conditioned to really and wholeheartedly believe that I am part of a national narrative, but I think my grandfathers were, and hell, they beat the Nazis.

    I think a strong national narrative can help you get a lot of shit done, when it comes down to it. The Japanese are probably better off with it than without, and if that entails having an occasional Dark Night of the Soul, then that’s probably all right in a general sense.

  25. M-Bone Says:

    Marxy, Marxy, Marxy – above you actually argued “Japan is unique(ly unable to change) because of (insert favorite “tradition” here) – don’t you normally come down hard on people for doing that?

    As you mentioned, current “Confucian” currents in Japanese society are a product of the 19th century. Before that, people worked hard because if they didn’t, they would starve to death or someone with a sword would come and kill them. In the Edo period, there were no housewives, women did productive work and took leadership roles in business, etc. There were thousands upon thousands of “Ikki” in which people banded together to lash out at the order. In the Bakumatsu, there was “smashing” of merchant houses, eejyanaika, and so on. It was only with the advent of universal education that the brand of Confucian thought that is still exerting influence was truly “popularized”. You say that it has not changed since the 19th century but fundamental to the 19th century version was “killing and dying for the state” – I don’t think that young Japanese are that hot on that these days.

    “but an actual broad, silent movement to go home early could be easily embraced at this point.”

    I think that we are actually pretty close on this – I’m saying that it is difficult, but possible to introduce change. You said above that you didn’t think it was possible, but now it seems like you have scaled that back a bit to difficult.

    This discussion is also missing an acknowledgement that “work” can actually be okay. Some people actually like thier jobs. Japanese “work” after all, has a major leisure component built into it – all of the afterhours stuff that people tell their wives is overtime.

    “And there should be no debate on whether the ’60s brought “dynamic” change to Japan. It was at best ‘minor’.”

    No, that’s just off. Japan was arguably the world’s most polluted country in 1965. A broad group of leftists, academics, students, housewives, etc. got together to pressure the government and the result was a dramatic change after 1970 that has resulted in Japan becoming a low emissions country among the major economies. This is one example.

    “The sexual dimension is interesting, but basically a result of consumerism permeating society.”

    Yes, and since more leisure time could result in more consumption….

    “I never learned Chinese for the same reason I never learned Polish or Russian. I was always interested in the world’s most advanced pop cultures.”

    Ditto. When I consider the points of view being put forward by a lot of foreigners who basically make their money with Japan knowledge, I detect a type of doublethink that applies to me as well. We can’t see the silver lining yet, but for some reason, we have a vague idea that we are “safe”, that Japan will continue to have some relevance.

  26. M-Bone Says:

    “warm my heart to see people reading manga at Book Off for free”

    It warms my heart as well. Then I usually wish that they would just get out of my way.

    People burning hundreds of anime DVDs from Animax and the other pay cable networks is a similar thing.

  27. M-Bone Says:

    “I also disagree incidentally with your opinion that the “soft Japan” narratives are window dressing.”

    Something just popped into my mind. Picture two scenarios – high power business types Taro (Japanese, duh) and Bill who hardly ever see their kids sit down with their 15 year old sons to have a talk.

    Taro Jr. tells his pops that he has gotten into shodo (calligraphy) lately.

    Bill Jr. tells his pops that he has gotten into (something artistic – water colors, calligraphy, poetry).

    Taro tells his wife later that he is interested in seeing what the boy can do.

    Bill secretly worries that his son is gay and buys a football.

    Don’t both of these scenarios sound perfectly realistic?

    While “tradition” has been exploited by the elite in Japan in various ways, I do feel that there is a continued respect for immaterial cultural pursuits that can be fulfilling in a zero growth society. This is a “soft” resource.

    I would, without hesitation, tell any Japanese person that I meet that I enjoy reading poetry. I wouldn’t think about doing that back home. People would laugh at me.

  28. M-Bone Says:

    Rationalcritic – give my post another read – you write “tanked after 1998-2000 when 2001 saw the release of Playstation 2 which proceeded to shatter all of the records of its predecessors as well” I wrote “tanked 1998-2000, big spike after that”. We are arguing exactly 100% the same thing.

  29. W. David MARX Says:

    Down here in Shonan, LOHAS is king. I don’t know to what extent this is driven by Shonan being full of residual wealth from the previous generation

    I am all for LOHAS, but the same people who are pro-LOHAS are also the same people who tell me “how dare you push your values on someone else.” Being LOHAS almost perfectly corresponds with being educated, upper middle-class — people from families who spent the last half-century in consumer society and are now “over” it and want working-class girls to stop lusting after the luxury bags they owned twenty years ago. So, LOHAS is a great direction for Japan, but let’s not pretend it’s anything other than the new Saison Culture for the 21st century, where the elite want to direct everyone and hope they come along. I probably sound disparaging here, but maybe, just maybe, I suspect that Japan’s greatest cultural moments are when the cultural elite teach and everyone listens. The Taiyo-zoku started from Kamakura too…

    With Nintendo now posed as the second most valuable company in Japan, only after Toyota, I’m not sure how video games could possible excluded from the cultural or economic narrative.

    Sony just laid off a lot of people, so even if the computer entertainment side is doing fine, Sony can’t be seen as a savior. Nintendo is certainly hot, but they just seem too small and non-central (they are in Kyoto of all places) to form an entire national narrative around.

    Look at Italy – are they really considered to be a leader in anything? (other than fashion?) They have low to stagnant economic growth, and yet they enjoy a comfortable style of living just fine.

    Last time I checked, Italy still had a higher worker productivity than Japan so they are doing something right.

    You are making the connection between a low point in the “national narrative” and people actually taking it personally vis-a-vis their outlook

    In the US, at least, the individual can associate the variety of his own diverse existence with a national identity, which means that you can always say, “this national trend has nothing to do with me.” Japan — thanks to a centralized media, politicians who want to mend over class distinction, and a lack of national discussion about diversity of experience — still tends to have a lot of citizens who define themselves as Japanese and believe there is a monolithic national narrative of which they are a part. This may not be unique to Japan, but certainly, identity by nation-state is still primary.

    above you actually argued “Japan is unique(ly unable to change) because of (insert favorite “tradition” here)

    Looking at the last two centuries, the most radical social changes clearly came from a government losing legitimacy to another force who could claim more legitimacy, either through military might or Imperial linkage. The idea of “successful revolution” has no real historical precedence. So change is not impossible, but there are not a lot of places people can look for inspiration. Ampo 1960 did not do much besides get Kishi out of office, so that his party could continue in power for another 33 years. Individuals need to feel that their actions have precedence, especially in a culture where proving legitimacy for action is so important. This makes change from below very difficult.

    Also, even if Confucianism was more of a 19th century influence on Japan, a lot of the basic tenets are built in to the cultural structure due to importing. And a lack of Confucianism does not mean the presence of a Christian or Platonic view of the world. Where does the “struggle of the individual” have a philosophical basis in any Japanese belief system?

    Japan was arguably the world’s most polluted country in 1965.

    That’s the one example of social change, if I am not mistaken. For better or worse, conservatives have now re-invented the narrative to make themselves the “good guys” on the global stage vis-a-vis environmentalism.

    Some people actually like thier jobs. Japanese “work” after all, has a major leisure component built into it – all of the afterhours stuff that people tell their wives is overtime.

    Fun vs. “mandatory fun.” Coworkers can still go out and have drinks when they are allowed to punch the clock at 6 pm. Some people like their jobs? Some people like their wives and children!

  30. W. David MARX Says:

    I would, without hesitation, tell any Japanese person that I meet that I enjoy reading poetry. I wouldn’t think about doing that back home.

    Man, you need to be more cultural relativist about North America.

    But seriously, I think you are making a political point about “Japan is better because they are more sensitive” which I am not sure can be proved by the adoption of a very rigid hobby like Shodo. The dad would be much happier if the kid was doing Kendo, surely. You get to hit people on the head with swords.

  31. M-Bone Says:

    “Man, you need to be more cultural relativist about North America.”

    Ha. Anyway, there are lots of people that I would talk about poetry with in NAmerica. But lots more that I wouldn’t… I think that this is a fair point to make – there are whole messes of people who think that poetry is suspicious by nature.

    Not really saying that Japan is better at all. You made a similar point about Europe, and that is also a comparison that is frequently made with North America – there exist different cultural ideas that can be used to support different lifestyles. Not even saying that Japan WILL do better because it has this cultural stock, just saying that it COULD do better. The potential is something that we should keep active in this discussion.

    On the rigidity of shodo – lots of different stuff being done lately.

    Not sure about the Kendo thing, either. There are lots of Japanese company types who submit poetry to competitions, get up on Sunday mornings to watch the NHK Go and Shogi programs, etc.

    “That’s the one example of social change, if I am not mistaken.”

    Don’t have a lot of time now, but just look into some of the reforms that Kishi was thinking about making to policing in the late 1950s, Dowa, nikkyoso’s influence on education, etc.

    “Some people like their jobs? Some people like their wives and children!”

    You can make too much of the narrative, you know. We know that more Japanese can work fewer hours because there are lots doing it already.

    As for not pinning Japan’s national narrative on Nintendo – didn’t you do it above for Apple and the US?

  32. M-Bone Says:

    “In the US, at least, the individual can associate the variety of his own diverse existence with a national identity, which means that you can always say, “this national trend has nothing to do with me.” ”

    This also might be the single biggest problem in America’s cultural space. There are people who would say – that has nothing to do with me, its all those godless folk and foreigners in New York!

    Meanwhile in New York – That has nothing to do with me, that’s Red State stuff!

    As a result – dialogue on the big issues seems impossible. Something like 48% of people didn’t vote for Obama’s hope message – they voted for McOldie and his nutzo sidekick – even after 8 years of Bush.

    You also make it sound like it is culturally impossible for critical Japanese to distance themselves from the national narrative because they are… what? Not proactive in shaping their own identities? Some do it, more CAN do it…. maybe that’s the future.

  33. Matt Says:

    I probably sound disparaging here, but maybe, just maybe, I suspect that Japan’s greatest cultural moments are when the cultural elite teach and everyone listens.

    So the argument against LOHAS boils down to “it isn’t as popular with non-elites as 90s magazines and Shibuya-kei were”? I don’t think that’s even true, but in any case we’d need to define a lot of terms and dig up some statistics to even start a sensible discussion along these lines.

    Being LOHAS almost perfectly corresponds with being educated, upper middle-class

    That’s not what I observe down here. (At least no more than being Japanese almost perfectly corresponds with being educated and upper-middle-class.) In particular small farmers and other primary producers I know are embracing the movement because it is about the only way they can get anything close to a living wage for their work. This is anecdotal, but so is your claim.

    It’s true that there are plenty of LOHASsholes and hypocrites out there, and I’m not saying that LOHAS will in its present form remake Japan in its image (or even that it necessarily should). But I don’t see how you can claim that it isn’t a narrative, a non-dominant but still reasonably popular one, that gives people reason to be optimistic. It directly addresses the stagnation and decline thing by arguing for different priorities in the first place. Will it revitalize the fashion and magazine industries? Probably not, but that’s the whole point, and given Japan’s demographics if you believe that such a thing is necessary for a healthy culture you will, by definition, be pessimistic.

  34. W. David MARX Says:

    So the argument against LOHAS boils down to “it isn’t as popular with non-elites as 90s magazines and Shibuya-kei were”?

    I think I was trying to say, if LOHAS takes off in the same pattern as Shibuya-kei, that’d be great for Japan. But last time I checked Koakuma Ageha is vastly outselling ku:nel.

    In particular small farmers and other primary producers I know are embracing the movement because it is about the only way they can get anything close to a living wage for their work.

    I think you are kind of definition LOHAS-esque with that kind of profession. Unless they spend all their free time dumping chemicals into lakes or something.

    The main problem with the Expo 2004/LOHAS type narrative and optimism is that it essentially says, “If we work hard, we may be able to maintain our current standard of living.” Living more simply sounds like a luxury for the rich and busy, not for the poor.

  35. M-Bone Says:

    “LOHASsholes”

    Lovely.

    To expand a bit – I don’t think that my points about North American culture are that controversial or anything, really – all of that is in De Tocqueville, Bertrand Russell, and Galbraith. Well, except Palin being nuts but they would have all thought that anyway….

    “Bill” is also a real person that I know – now that the recession has hit and his dreams of buying and Escalade and taking a trip to Vegas are over, I’m not sure that he has much left.

    Since we are talking narratives here, I’m a bit concerned about the way that the Japan one is going. You can make a credible case that Japan has seen no significant social change / coming together for the good since the 1960s and that the victories in that decade were only superficial. I think that you can also build a credible narrative around the opposite by using the few points that I mentioned and others.

    The same is true of the United States. You could argue that a lot of Americans biggest problems remain unchanged since the 1960s – the lack of humane socialized healthcare and welfare, the breakdown of the working class, American militarism took a short vacation after the Vietnam War and raged back under Regan (recent book about the CIA, its not called “Legacy of Ashes” for nothing) and ended up &#%$ing up the Middle East lately, etc. Civil Rights you can point to as a big, big success and a real revolution but someone would no doubt raise the point that the shift in consciousness took place without the will for social infrastructure investment – we get from Martin Luther King to “The Wire” somehow. You could raise feminism, but American does not look like it is out in front compared to New Zealand and various North European countries and the criterion would no doubt shift to there.

    With all of these narratives possibly, why does Japan need to be fatally and eternally locked down by its Confucianism? Since we can’t see the future, doesn’t it pay to keep a bit of optimism (or America as well), even if we know we can summon all our Socratic problem-raising to break into pessimism any time we want?

  36. Adamu Says:

    Just as an aside, I have to say that living in a place where everyone is following a “national narrative” is actually kind of fun and exciting.

    Foreigners will complain that Japanese people are apolitical and unengaged, but a lot of people are completely engaged with the current state of society for the reasons outlined above. There is a sense that we are all in the same boat and that is reflected in all kinds of ways, from news coverage to pop culture (who remembers that Morning Musume’s “Love Machine” was about staying genki during the economic recession? Same goes for the “Yatta!” song but that wasn’t a #1 hit). I always wonder if this attitude rubs off on the expat population and contributes to the endless stream of armchair analysis.

    Foreigners may be on the sidelines, but if you can understand the conversation it’s hard not to want to listen in and maybe make your own contribution.

  37. W. David MARX Says:

    I think the media really tried to ride the Koizumi wave and Hills-zoku to boost the spirits of the nation, but Horie’s arrest, coupled with the very relatable Kakusa narrative, quickly killed any optimism.

    I don’t think the US is any more exempt from pessimism — think the ’70s or early ’90s. But the changes are dynamic and obvious enough for people to have hope about something big coming along and “saving” the nation.

    You could argue that a lot of Americans biggest problems remain unchanged since the 1960

    But I would argue that the 1960s social change in America was massive and vastly changed social values, so even if not much has changed since, the decade created antagonistic forces that output cultural change. Japan has had minor modifications to a system that was set in 1955 and never really thrown away as outdated. As we will see tomorrow in Tobias Harris’ post on Japanese politics, “decay can be change,” and I think post-1955 is mostly about slow decay of the original system, not a complete overhaul. The LDP is still in power after 53 years of almost totally unbroken rule.

  38. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    I think I was trying to say, if LOHAS takes off in the same pattern as Shibuya-kei, that’d be great for Japan.

    I disagree. If it took off in the same pattern of consumerism and coolhunting, it would become meaningless. I put it to you that it has already “taken off” to at least as great an extent as Shibuya-kei did — it’s just that its effects are felt in cultural and physical areas that don’t interest you. Which is fair enough, but it’s a bit much to include “must interest and/or entertain me” as a requirement for entry into the cultural renaissance hall.

    But last time I checked Koakuma Ageha is vastly outselling ku:nel.

    Irrelevant. The culture KA serves is defined by its fidelity to the images in KA. Buying KA, or at least paying close attention to those who do, is a condition of membership. LOHAS/Slow Food is just thinking “Yo, I should buy fewer, better things, preferably from local sources, enjoy idleness, and focus more on the little pleasures of life.” That’s it. Ku:nel (and Sotokoto, etc.) serve folks who want info about things and ideas related to this ideal. There may be a superficial/coolhunting factor there, but you’re not required to play along. If you haven’t gone to that great new organic beet restaurant in Kanazawa yet, there’s no social penalty except not being able to talk about it.

    Me: In particular small farmers and other primary producers I know are embracing the movement because it is about the only way they can get anything close to a living wage for their work.

    You: I think you are kind of definition LOHAS-esque with that kind of profession. Unless they spend all their free time dumping chemicals into lakes or something.

    Well, there’s LOHAS and then there’s LOHAS. If you’re a farmer, do you grow a bunch of the same crop or focus on variety? Do you grow stuff people are familiar with or stuff they aren’t? Use pesticides (legally) or avoid them entirely? Non-organic or organic? In every case, the latter takes you closer to the Platonic Ideal of LOHAS, but it also gives you less product that’s not as easy to sell. Fortunately, LOHAS buyers will pay more for interesting, pesticide-free, organic vegetables grown near them, so that’s who you focus on. What I’m saying is that the farmers I know do tend to lean towards the LOHAS end because it’s easier to make a living selling to people who are willing to pay for quality or “meaning” than it would be trying to undercut 2nd- or 3rd-world produce.

    The main problem with the Expo 2004/LOHAS type narrative and optimism is that it essentially says, “If we work hard, we may be able to maintain our current standard of living.” Living more simply sounds like a luxury for the rich and busy, not for the poor.

    That’s not true at all. LOHAS aims at a higher standard of living, in terms of happiness, by focusing on what actually makes you happy. In many cases it’s a kind of crypto-techno-utopianism: we now have the technology to grow food and make furniture that’s more natural and rustic than ever before! In other cases it’s a kind of anti-dystopian: by reassuring ourselves that we can be happy with X instead of Y, we ensure that we will remain happy when Y is no longer available due to global warming/peak oil/etc.

    And okay, it’s true: if you’re dirt poor and living paycheck to paycheck, you may find it hard to implement the principles of LOHAS. But then how exactly did the poor benefit from the 90s renaissance in fashion, design, and music?

  39. Ratiocinational Says:

    M-Bone, the only real issue I took is that you used the word “tanked” at all, because I see it as complete and steady growth, but your clarification at least let’s me know what you mean. I suppose the lull at the end of the PS1 era could be what you were talking about, but I’d never call that tanking, just waiting for the generational leap. Still, I suppose I can see how it may be interpreted as such. They also aren’t really down this year, just growing at a slower rate than last year. But inherently you’re right, we were arguing the same thing, now that I go back and read more carefully. They are perhaps the one thing Marx mentioned that is NOT nosediving, unless you examine it solely in a software context, which is still tenuous.

    In fact I think that’s the very problem they have on the technology front. They have always focused on hardware which was great in the past, as hardware is where gains were to be made, but in the current climate it’s just not true. A lot of popular culture is reliant on the technology that drives it, and they were way ahead of the game when it came to perfecting that technology on a hardware level, but they can’t compete on a software level. If you look at the iPhone, it’s not really the hardware that makes it so impressive–It’s just a conglomeration of hardware that was already out there. What makes it impressive is the software the cohesively ties it all together. We’re approaching a level where technology gains are being made at a far faster pace in the software side, rather than the hardware side of things. As far as I’m concerned this is evinced, for example, by IBM refocusing away from hardware production to enterprise level support services (not to say they don’t still do hardware, but on nowhere near the level they used to).

    I’m a software engineer, so I’m going to nerd this up a little, I apologize ahead of time. It used to be the case that what proved the ability of your systems was the underlying technology of the hardware it was based on, and this was something Japan had perfected, and they still maintain this quality. The problem now is that the software that runs on this hardware is what is now relevant. Off the top of my head I can think of no single example of a large Japanese software development firm. There are no major operating systems development being done there, and there is only one asian Linux distribution that I can think of (asianux) and it was developed by a Korean, Vietnamese, and Chinese partnership. The only major programming language that I can think of to be developed in Japan is Ruby (although Ruby is pretty cool). Compensation for software engineers is also low. I’ve heard of software engineers making 250,000 to 300,000 Yen per month, which is astronomically low compared to the compensation software engineers make in the west. I would expect it to be somewhat lower, but that’s close to half the amount I make as an entry level developer in Philadelphia. As far as I understand, software engineers in Japan make on average 60-70,000 Yen less than other forms of engineering. The only thing I can place this on is a focus on hardware development rather than software development. Exporting hardware faces problems of currency fluctuation much more than exporting software ever will, since tangible goods are being exchanged. It is much more susceptible to fluctuations in pricing as there is an expense per unit produced. With software the cost is relatively fixed, which would help to alleviate the problems of currency fluctuation.

    So, long story short, what Japan needs to do to stay technologically relevant is switch its technological pursuits to the software field rather than the hardware field. Being as resourceful as they are, I have no doubt that this will happen, and there’s a good window for such change now. And when they make the change more fully, I suspect the ripples it will have on pop culture will be as large as the ones the US is experiencing currently. I just hope to god it takes a direction that is different from myspace/facebook, as I can’t stand them!

    Whatever happens, in my completely unqualified and non-expert opinion, I think that the cultural changes will follow the technology paradigm shift as they have in the past with Japan. If there is a structural pessimism currently, it’s because of this transitionary period.

  40. Mulboyne Says:

    I’m no techie but I can say with confidence that the idea that software drives profitability rather than hardware has been around at least since Matsushita’s VHS defeated Sony’s Betamax. It was also the rationale behind the investments that Sony, Pioneer and Matsushita made in Hollywood so it’s certainly not a nineties or even early noughties discovery.

  41. M-Bone Says:

    “Just as an aside, I have to say that living in a place where everyone is following a “national narrative” is actually kind of fun and exciting.”

    Word. It also opens the possibility for the narrative to turn in positive directions.

    “The LDP is still in power after 53 years of almost totally unbroken rule.”

    On the narrative level, you could also argue that the “military industrial complex” is still running the show in the US, right? People do. You also don’t want to forget that if you add up the murderer’s row of Nixon, Regan, Bush I, and Bush II, you get a long chunk of time in which Americans acquiesced to militarist fundamentalist cronyism. Sure they get voted out, but were lessons learned? Did we really see a radical departure under Clinton? They saddled him with a Republican congress, after all so was the right really canned? If you look at the overall direction of the American political establishment, you can see a 1955 system there as well.

    One of the big skills of the LDP is that they “stole” large chunks of the Liberal agenda to buy voters – environment, greatly expanded social service, taking money from the wealthy center and pouring it (along with concrete, admittedly) into the regions, etc. The US left has been totally unable to make potent gains in health and environment since 1955. Nobody has time to hit all of the nuances in a blog post, but we should be open to different narratives of the US (and yes, I like Civil Rights just fine and I have big hopes for Obama) AND Japan….

    I think that we agree on a lot of points – some more change in Japan would have done lots for more people. In saying that Japan did not have great change from the late 1950s to present, however… maybe you are underestimating just how bad things were on a lot of levels back then? If you start from a lower conceptual level, the change looks more positive.

  42. M-Bone Says:

    “I suppose the lull at the end of the PS1 era could be what you were talking about, but I’d never call that tanking, just waiting for the generational leap.”

    At the time, Japanese were talking about it like the sky was falling. It was supposed to be the big example of the demographic shift destroying video games. They came back strong, however.

    Rational – there IS a way that Japan can compete on the software level = In a few years, Japanese companies will be able to hire 728 Indian PhDs to do the firmware, etc.

    The big thing for the end user product, however, is aesthetics. Japanese game worlds are often designed on a level that American games, for example, are not approaching in my opinion and that of many others. Do you watch “Zero Punctuation” – oh, another Space Marine, oh, three level textures grey, grey-brown, and brown. Gears of War has great looking… what? Rubble and sweaty muscles. It is often the rich or quirky design of Japanese games that set them apart where the coding can let them down.

    Also, when you look at the way that the industry is put together, Japanese games have a huge edge in the concept area. How much did “Brain Age” or “New Super Mario Brothers” (both brilliant) cost to develop? I would say – in the millions. The big American games cost in the many tens of millions. Halo 3 cost $60,000,000. Japanese companies have been turning out colossal hits with just a fraction of that. If Japan is going to make hay in this area of the economy – low development costs of brilliant ideas is the way to do it.

  43. W. David MARX Says:

    On the narrative level, you could also argue that the “military industrial complex” is still running the show in the US, right?

    I would say this is the actual industrial power base of America, not the “narrative” that people have of the country. So, when Carter became President, that became a narrative of “cleaner government” and when Reagan became President, that became a narrative of “strong America.” Clinton was the narrative of a “Baby Boomer America.” I don’t think that you’ve seen such extreme narrative changes within the LDP. Tanaka was different from Kishi, but c’mon. 1993 was about the only time the narrative changed, and that little rebellion was quickly nipped in the bud.

    In saying that Japan did not have great change from the late 1950s to present

    I am not saying Japan didn’t have change: I am saying that Japan has not experienced clear delineated changes in narrative. Maybe the US narrative changes are phony window-dressing for an unchanging base, but I think when you examine the major narrative directions of Japan in the last 50 years, there was an upwards trajectory on the economy, and then a downwards one, that was soft at first, and now has gotten hard. Since politics is not a spectator-sport and a lot of cultural fields are essentially stabilized due to the industrial organization, economy is one of the main drivers of narrative. Japan would benefit from moving away from that, clearly.

  44. M-Bone Says:

    “not the “narrative” that people have of the country”

    No, but it is WE who are building narratives here and now and often both the point and the counterpoint can be valid arrangements of evidence, so why not have a bit o’ hope?

    “I don’t think that you’ve seen such extreme narrative changes within the LDP.”

    From Kishi’s extreme authoritarianism to Ikeda’s quiet people-centered income doubling and Sato’s dip to the left with the non-nuclear rules.

    From the 60s national power through economics mantra to the Tanaka Kakuei (I know, he was an ass, but he still narrated) “retto kaizo” (Discover Japan at the same time) and a new way of looking at the environment from the 1970 compromise with the left.

    We also had a 1980s flirting with “global contribution” that has resulted in a few things – like Japanese taking aid giving and volunteer work for granted.

    These were BIG changes. At least as big as Carter’s clean government…. I mean, a bit of a joke, right?

    Now, we SHOULD argue that there has been precious little since the 1980s. This is why I agree totally with your original essay here (the lack of narrative point pops up in a variety of contexts elsewhere as well) – “Japan” sure hasn’t found anything to cling to since the Bubble popped. As I hope you will recall, we only started debating with the suggestion that a happy zero growth Japan is an impossibility.

    “I am not saying Japan didn’t have change: I am saying that Japan has not experienced clear delineated changes in narrative.”

    I get that, but at some point we were talking about Confucianism and the will to back actual social change….

  45. M-Bone Says:

    “Japan would benefit from moving away from that, clearly.”

    Now we’ve gotten back to the very first non-ice cream / firearm related point that I made – low growth happy Japan is where it is at for the future. If you doubt the cultural ability to increase leisure time and the potentially redemptive sides of the Japanese cultural tradition that could be tapped…. do you think that Japan can make this move? How should it?

  46. W. David MARX Says:

    One more point, I think you can’t necessarily apply your very learned and subtle take on the changes of Japanese history to the common person’s view of the same time period. I know I take some thing for granted because I am foreign, but if you are a 40 year old Japanese guy, you may also not necessarily be thankful for the anti-pollution movement or know how Tanaka was different from Kishi. You do know, however, that Japan got rich in the ’80s, the bubble burst in the ’90s, and no one made any money but the rich in 2005.

  47. M-Bone Says:

    True, and that is why your narrative (you narrated a narrative) in the original essay is correct IMO. But did the average American really know what was going to be different going into the Regan years? And were 40% of the population not appalled at some of the things that he was getting on with?

    Now Taro (40 year old Japanese) may not now be that up on the narratives of old, but that speaks to a lack of historical awareness (which, I think that most will agree, afflicts Americans just as seriously, if not more) but – I’ve gone through lots of newspapers and magazines for the period of the Kishi transition and there really WAS a contemporary awareness that change was afoot so the Taro’s of that day did follow along. Ditto for the environmental stuff. Japan has those ryukogo things for a reason – often they reflect the public’s engagement with the state’s narrative – or at least it has been like that for much of the postwar period. Many of the examples that I have given made ryukogo status.

    Time now for the gov to wake up again and actually lead the way toward a new narrative, or for people to boot those guys in some direction – and I hope that it is a happy, fun, green, non-economic centered message. May take a while.

  48. Ratiocinational Says:

    Mulboyne: That’s less software and more entertainment content. I’m talking about actual packaged software. Productivity software, editing software, business related software, etc. There are, as I understand, only two main branches of software that get made in japan, from all that I’ve read on the subject: entertainment software (videogames), and proprietary software used to power businesses. Actually, that proprietary software is one of the problems. Since the companies are so secretive they usually hire a few of their own developers, over work them and pay them far below what they should, and then have them write software for the business. That can work out to some extent, but a better approach is for a software development firm to go out, look for types of applications that businesses can use, write them, sell them, and then most importantly, support them. Like I said, I can only go by what I’ve read, and all indications point to that type of thing not happening in Japan, whereas it’s rampant in the US, and to a lesser extent in Europe.

    M-Bone: I think that if they wanted to hire software engineers at all they’d already be outsourcing development. That’s the nice thing about intangible goods, you don’t even have to ship them anywhere. Now, I think that outsourcing would be a horrible idea because it’s been tried and failed many times. In the US they’re finally shifting away from outsourcing development because they realize it just doesn’t work. Throwing large numbers of people at the problem isn’t working. The reason it doesn’t work is that it uses old, inefficient design paradigms out of necessity. The new model is what is called “agile development” and it requires small teams that have very close communication with the business team so that they can rapidly react to changes needed, and instantly have clarifications made, which doesn’t work with outsourced development. Now, sure, they could import the work I suppose, but why would these Indian PhDs go work in Japan when they can go to Europe or the US and get paid close to twice as much? They need to incentivize computer science and give it the prestige that other forms of engineering have in Japan, instead.

    As for Zero Punctuation, I’ve actually contributed to Escapist Magazine and have written videogames journalism for a few years, so I’m familiar with it. Unfortunately, while I agree with your analysis, bald space marines sell. Halo, GTA, Gears of War, they all sell like hot cakes. Games like those are becoming more and more relevant in both the east and west, while unfortunately Japanese games are becoming less and less relevant in the west. You point to the relatively inexpensive games as being popular as the blockbusters of the west, and that’s true, but those games aren’t inexpensive by choice, they’re inexpensive by necessity. Japanese development firms don’t have the capital to create massively expensive games, aside from one or two. Square-Enix, Capcom, and Konami are really the only ones, and of those Konami is in a bad spot right now. Square-Enix puts out about ten lower budget games for every big-budget game they have, and Capcom really only makes medium budget games. You then switch to Western devs like EA, Epic, Bungie, Rockstar… These guys don’t make anything but blockbusters.

  49. M-Bone Says:

    “I think that if they wanted to hire software engineers at all they’d already be outsourcing development.”

    Big, big, big push in Japanese business writing over the past 2 years – India will save us. Nikkei has been beating the drum. Sony and Nintendo might get the message. The idea is to bring them to Japan.

    “but why would these Indian PhDs go work in Japan when they can go to Europe or the US and get paid close to twice as much?”

    Because there are going to be millions of them and Europe and the US won’t be able to soak them all up. The brightest might not even end up working for the most pay, who knows when they are being evaluated from a distance like that.

    “These guys don’t make anything but blockbusters.”

    But they also end up backing themselves into a corner where they have to risk tens of millions on a product. You mentioned some successes, but “Age of Conan”? “Tabula Rasa”? The “Titan Quest” developer folded recently. Lots of people are scared about the way that it is going.

    Also, why do you write about Japanese companies creating huge hits with little investment as though it is a bad thing?

    “Japanese games are becoming less and less relevant in the west.”

    I don’t buy that argument. The Wii and DS are the biggest hits in the USA and the best selling software for this systems is overwhelmingly Japanese. Sure they have competition, but how much are they going to have to spend on the next Halo game to market it as cutting edge? $100,000,000? Sure Halo 3 did something like $150,000,000 of sales in its first weekend, but that’s RETAIL – how much to the people who pay to produce the product actually see? We also have to consider the issue that X-Box 360 games are hot because Microsoft subsidises them – they take a loss on systems to put the power in homes. Nintendo cleans up on hardware AND software. How much longer is that going to last?

    In any case, I’d rather do $30,000,000 in business on a game that costs $2,000,000 to make any day. Watch what happens with Dragon Quest IX – less than $5,000,000 to make and I bet they end up doing 4,000,000 plus copies sold IN JAPAN.

  50. M-Bone Says:

    Umberto Eco tells us how Japan can save itself –

    “A democratic civilization will save itself only if it makes the language of the image into a stimulus for critical reflection — not an invitation for hypnosis.”

  51. Ratiocinational Says:

    As far as the software development thing goes, I suppose I’d just rather see Software Development respected nationally in Japan rather than necessitating the import of it into the country. I think that’s better for national growth, but either way the focus has to change to it.

    Now as far as gaming goes…

    Every example you gave was of companies trying to enter the MMO realm, which has been virtually a one company show for since it’s existed. First Everquest from Sony, and now WoW from Blizzard. It’s an extremely difficult industry to break into. You’d be better off pointing to western companies like Free Radical, who just went under, or the rumored troubles of Factor 5. They’re better examples of companies who chased after the traditional blockbuster and failed to obtain it, with unfortunate results for them. You’re right, it is bad to back yourself into a corner. Giants like Ubisoft and EA balance their blockbusters with good old faithful franchises, and unfortunately not all companies can do that.

    Now as far as the decline of eastern games in the west–You’re off base here. For one, no single eastern game is in the top ten best selling games in the USA. GTA: San Andreas sold 10 Million units in the US alone. Now, sure, it had a $20 Million budget, but it also sold somewhere in the range of three or four times as much as the best selling DQ game ever has, and even with its smaller budget the profit margins are nowhere near close. That’s a common narrative when it comes to western vs eastern developed game sales. It’s not a bad thing, in fact if Japanese devs switch to this model entirely it would probably be a better thing for the games industry in general, as far as I’m concerned.

    Now, the Wii and the DS systems are huge sellers in the US, there’s no argument there. The issue comes in on software sales. Frankly, they’re just not there, especially for Japanese developers. There are only two types of games that sell for Wii and DS, those made by Nintendo, and those made by Western developers. If you take a look at the NPD sales data for the entirety of this year I don’t believe there is a single japanese developed third party game on the charts for either Wii or the Nintendo DS. But it’s not just the charts or me that’s saying this, it’s the japanese developers themselves.

    Akira Yamaoka (Creator of Silent Hill) – “There’s a huge gap, actually. They’re very advanced. I’m Japanese, and I think this is not just with Silent Hill but with the whole of the industry — I look at what American developers are doing and I think wow… Japan is in trouble.”

    Hideo Kojima “If you honestly compare Japanese games with Western ones, Japan has lost” and “Unfortunately, overseas game production companies, which are well-funded and extremely skilled, have surpassed us by a couple of steps. It was once said that Japan molded the world’s video game [industry], but that’s becoming a thing of the past. Sad as it may be, it’s the truth.”

    At this past years E3 Japanese developers were only nominated 12 times out of 71 nominations, which I believe is an all time low. Every year at the Game Developers Conference for the past three years they’ve won fewer awards. The facts are the facts, Japanese games are, unfortunately, becoming less relevant in the west. I don’t like it one bit, because I’ve always enjoyed their games more, but those are the sad facts.

  52. M-Bone Says:

    “Now as far as the decline of eastern games in the west–You’re off base here.”

    Last month there were 4 Japanese games in the top 10 in the US and it looks like it will stay that way through Christmas. GTA is a big deal – one of America’s leading cultural products globally. But… they only put out a huge hit in that series every 2-3 years. It does not negate the load of Japanese games that are going well.

    I disagree with Kojima and Yamaoka – they make games, they don’t analyze markets and they don’t rate cultural products. They are also individuals who are not on the Wii bandwagon… so they may be knocking Wii achievements to self-promote. What they mean is that the US makes better huge budget first person type games. This has not been the big change of this generation of games and hardware – casual gaming on the Wii and DS has and let’s see what that picture looks like –

    On the bestselling system in the USA, the Wii, 8 of the top 10 selling games of 2007 were Japanese. 4 of the top 10 selling games of any type were Japanese. Number of American games in the top 10 in Japan? Zero, of course.

    Through January to October of 2008, 4 of the top 5 bestselling games in the US were Japanese made Wii exclusives – Brawl, Mario Kart, Wii Play, and Wii Fit.

    Japanese games are still relevant. American games had a very good year this year and people are talking like the sky is falling!

    One of your points concerns the strength of EA – 24 hours ago, they announced that they are laying off 10% of their workforce!

  53. Ratiocinational Says:

    And if you look at every single Japanese game that has cracked the top ten in the US, they’re all made by ONE company–Nintendo. That’s not speaking good about the rest of the industry there. Nintendo is just about the only Japanese game developer with any worldwide effect. Capcom and Konami have had mild success. You’re citing the exception as the rule, and it’s not the case. It’s not just the video games developers that are saying this stuff. It’s coming from analysts, journalists (such as Stephen Totilo for instance) or the editors of Nikkei Shimbum when they published the article “The Melancholy of Cool Japan”, and gamers themselves as well. It’s not an uncommon sentiment in this current generation of games.

    Go ahead and take another peak at that list of the top ten Wii games. 8 of 10 are developed by Nintendo, and 9 of 10 star Nintendo characters. The only other one on the list is a Western game. That sums up the problem of japanese software right now. The only company gaining and ground on the largest gaming platform out there is the company that made the platform and has the power to bundle it with peripherals. This really isn’t a good example to show that the gaming software industry in japan is doing well in the west, when only a single company is having any influence whatsoever, and it just so happens that they own the platform. Third party games are barely charting for the Wii whatsoever, whether that be in Japan or the west. And the problem is, there’s only one first party company. It is the exception to the otherwise depressing to look at rule.

    As for EA, they cut 10% of their workforce, and they’re still the largest game manufacturer in the world. I’m not all that concerned.

  54. M-Bone Says:

    “It’s not an uncommon sentiment in this current generation of games.”

    There are people like “Wired”, however, that are arguing the exact opposite.

    You also changed the argument from “Japanese games are in decline to” “okay, Nintendo rules but where are the other hits?”. There are other success – Square Enix do huge business in the Japanese market and okay overseas. Right now, Nintendo is carrying the torch for the Japanese gaming industry, but something similar could be said for the US – there are a handful of big franchises – GTA, Halo, Gears, some crap that will always sell like John Madden Football and some things that have cribbed from Japanese games like Rockband. I’m dead concerned for American games when you have companies like Rockstar that basically put out one HUGE product every 3-4 years (stuff like Bully is small potatoes compared to GTA) and put all of their eggs in that basket. What if customers get sick of the formula? What if they mess up a new control scheme (and in the medium term, I bet those guys are terrified of what the Wii means)? What if a Palin administration bans the game or forces them to tone down content to the point that the games are no longer of interest? These scenarios are unlikely but they are not unrealistic – each one ends in bankruptcy.

    Nintendo selling the hardware (like hotcakes) that powers its in-house games is not a weakness – it may be the way forward.

    Nintendo has managed to do what is supposed to be impossible – they put out a tech product that is inferior to the competition on every conceivable level except the intangibles – fun and design – and are beating the pants off Sony and Microsoft.

    There are other reasons to worry about American game companies. They basically do well with FPSs (let’s leave WoW out of this). What made Capcom weak? Essentially, their fighting games, huge in the 90s, stopped evolving and gamers lost interest. Something similar could be said of the JRPG stateside. Is something similar happening to the FPS? In recent incarnations they have gone online, had a radical graphics upgrade (to the point where we have to think if they get much more realistic they will just be disgusting), and tapped out the natural gameplay upgrades (cover). With jumps like these, it is no wonder that people have been on board. What’s next? Gears 2 saw nothing significantly new.

    If FPSs come to a point where they are no longer evolving, American companies may be saddled with a series of high profile flops. American game development seems to be based around the idea that GTA VIII or Halo XIX will continue to be huge, meanwhile, Nintendo has rewritten the book on what it means to be a relevant games company.

  55. MattAlt Says:

    They basically do well with FPSs

    I think that’s an oversimplification — if you look at the bestseller list there are plenty of hits in other genres. “Sandbox” games like GTA and music games like Guitar Hero are huge hits right now, not to mention the sports genre (soccer, football, etc.)…

    The whole “relevance” issue is a red herring anyway, because the real issue is the gap between what Japanese and non-Japanese gamers want to play. Just compare what sells in Japan (heavily scripted fare like “dating simulators,” the Final Fantasy series, or the Metal Gear series) versus what sells abroad (multiplayer experiences like Call of Duty or open-ended RPGs like Grand Theft Auto 4.) It’s difficult for smaller developers in particular to develop products that appeal to both playing styles.

    Considering that there are far more Wiis and DSes out there than Xbox 360s one would have to be delusional to argue that the Japanese game industry is “irrelevant,” but the Wii and DS succeed because of their differences from traditional video game consoles — they’re family entertainment systems geared towards puzzle and party games. Fun and successful though they may be I really don’t think they have anywhere near the “cool factor” that older generations of game systems once enjoyed.

  56. M-Bone Says:

    I think that the new GTA can be classified as a FPS – they certainly went that way with the combat. Ditto for Fallout and Oblivion.

    You make a good point on what sells in Japan and what sells overseas, but the middle ground is what sells EVERYWHERE, and that is Mario Kart, Wii Fit, Wii Sports, etc. They transcend the whole Japan/West video game experience and that, in my opinion, is one of the reasons why Nintendo is so damn smart.

    “anywhere near the “cool factor” that older generations of game systems once enjoyed.”

    While this may go for PS2 and maybe PS, it is my understanding that SNES and earlier were basically considered to be “kids stuff” in North America. I’m not sure that they can be linked with “Japan Cool”. In any case, I think that getting away from Japan Cool is a good thing for Japanese producers – people don’t buy the iPod because of an American mistique, they buy it because it is a great product – I think that Nintendo is putting itself in a similar position.

  57. M-Bone Says:

    Thanks to Matt and Ratio for an engaging games discussion – going into the biggest time of year for game sales, can only hope that the better Japanese and American games do well all over.

    American games have put forward some innovations this year that I am hopeful will be a harbinger of something bigger(may get me back playing seriously again, who knows….) – for example, Warhammer Online seems to have addressed the fact that game narratives have been relatively stagnant for a while now by allowing gamers to “unlock” what really amounts to short stories, dialogues, pieces of fictional “scholarly non-fiction” (about necromancy or alchemy, stuff like that) by taking certain in game actions. I absolutely love this idea. Sure beats cookie cutter cinemas. It almost seems like an archaic version of the GTA radio…

  58. MattAlt Says:

    SNES and earlier were basically considered to be “kids stuff” in North America. I’m not sure that they can be linked with “Japan Cool”.

    I’m sure adults considered them to be “kids stuff” (and really, they were!), but then again, you could say the same for anime and manga. The original NES games were light-years ahead of anything Americans were producing at the time, and the distinctive aesthetic (both visually and sonically) had a major, major impact on my social group at the time. Even at that tender age we were able to intuit the connections between what we were seeing drawn in pixels, in cels, and pen and ink coming out of Japan, and so the NES was most definitely woven into the fabric of “Japan cool” — or at least how my budding otaku-wannabe pals and I described it.

    (I think you’re spot on about disengaging from the made-in-Japan thing to reach a broader audience, though.)

  59. M-Bone Says:

    I’m of the same generation, more or less, and I think that the NES, etc. did help to pave the way for “Japan Cool” (without being a direct part of it, we can’t trace Japan Cool back to the 80s in a very meaningful way) – the dif is that during the PS1-2 generations, people in their 20s and 30s became a major market, perhaps THE major market for games and it was around that time that Japan Cool (for anime, manga, games, music downloads, etc.) heated up. This also corresponds to the period when high speed internet really got going, come to think of it.

    In any case, it all helped to prepare us for the anime/manga aesthetic. No games means no Japan Cool (maybe, or at least the Japan Cool that you and I like).

    You mention how craptastic American games were in the 80s and for most of the 90s – very true. Historically, however, I think that was something of an aberration. America has bigger bucks for pop culture than anywhere and once the investment kicks in, it is going to be a factor.

    There is also a matter of PC gaming going downhill and a lot of that talent going over to platform.

    All of that has meant a bigger US games presence.

    What has happened is sorta like what happened with Japanese movies – poor, poor box office for most of the 1990s. Utterly slaughtered by American films. Now, Japanese movies have a bigger presence as Japanese movie companies have developed new (aesthetically broken for the most part, but new) ways of reaching consumers. A similar process is evident in the American game industry. However, just because Hollywood does not have the moxy in Japan (in terms of percentages) that it once had does not mean that we should write it off as a major cultural force. I think this logic works for Japanese games in the USA as well. Even some “minor” Japanese games like “Devil May Cry”, for example, have done big numbers (2,000,000 in its first month) – it is not just Nintendo, although Nintendo is the shining example.

    In the end, it makes sense that American companies know how to make games for Americans. It also makes sense that these games only reach a small audience in Japan (a lot of them are “too American” – Call of Duty’s jingoism does not translate well, etc.). What is “special” in my opinion is the ability of Nintendo to make products that sell equally well everywhere. These are also the only games out there that are going to raise a new generation of gamers. I wouldn’t give a 6 year old GTA4 or Gears of War and the American alternatives are mostly AWFUL licensed games like “Cars” and “Happy Feet” (not that I play any of this, just read the reviews).

    “(I think you’re spot on about disengaging from the made-in-Japan thing to reach a broader audience, though.)”

    Fascinating to see the different varieties of this process. Nintendo does it as a business strategy. For manga, however, I see Marvel and others going over more to a “manga” style (and there are also things like “Avatar”). In these cases, it is AMERICAN companies that are working to blur the line between “Japanese” and “culture free / international” medium. I expect that in a dozen years, American kids will not even give that much thought to the “Japaneseness” of the comics that they are reading. (Highlander, Afro Samurai, and the Batman one are all parts of the same process… too bad they all stank).

    I have big hopes for Ponyo – Sen to Chihiro had too much Japanese imagery to be a hit, Howl’s Moving Castle had too much Japanese ideology, Ponyo – just right to work as a global product.