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Interview with Sally Suzuki about Genres and Origins of the Shosetsu

Sally Suzuki is media director and co-founder of the collaborative online journal Beholdmyswarthyface.com.

Welcome, Sally. Today I want to talk to you about the origins of the Japanese shōsetsu and the genres included in this term. But before we get to that, could you remind our readers of the genres of novel that exist in the West?

Well, let’s see. There’s the detective novel, the adventure novel, the autobiographical novel, the epistolary novel, the utopian novel, dystopian novel, the existentialist novel, novel of manners, proletarian novel, erotic novel, anti-novel, allegorical novel, the picaresque novel, spy novel, the series novel, roman a clef, romance novel, psychological novel, bildungsroman, science fiction novel, gothic novel, graphic novel, mystery novel, historical novel, and, more recently, the hypertext novel. I would say that nearly all works of fiction in the west, canonical or otherwise, fit into at least one of these genres.

And is there a similar taxonomy for the shōsetsu?

The shōsetsu taxonomist’s job is more complicated, not least because the modern Japanese shōsetsu can be traced back to two separate origins: native (Japan and China) and Western. In fact, it’s debatable whether the terms “shōsetsu” and “novel” correspond at all. Until the Meiji period, the word shōsetsu, or hsiao-shuo in Chinese, referred specifically to haishi 稗史, or “unorthodox histories,” as opposed to the official histories, or seishi 正史. Shōsetsu consisted of “fabrications” rather than “truth” and were thus considered light entertainment, stuff for women and children. It wasn’t until 1885 that Tsubouchi Shōyō redefined the term to correspond to the newly imported concept of the Western roman. 

So the word shōsetsu went from meaning “mere fabrications intended to arouse pleasure” to “a format for portraying psychological truth.” 

That’s right. And the change occurred not only in meaning but in status as well. Shōyō’s designation of shōsetsu as “high art” — a completely new concept to the Japanese at the time — gave the form a certain bourgeois respectability that was previously lacking. As I mentioned, haishi were not highly regarded among the ruling classes. To them, only official histories were worthy of attention. Everything else was light reading. The idea that “fabrications” could be taken seriously was unheard of.

But didn’t Motoori Norinaga defend the value of fabrications in his essays “Ashiwake obune” (1757) and “Isonokami no sasamegoto” (1763), citing The Tale of Genji as the high point in Japanese writing?

Yes, but Motoori’s view was heterodoxy at the time. It was a challenge to the standard Buddhist/Confucian view that the purpose of writing is to convey moral law. 

I see. What about after Shōyō? Did the modern shōsetsu retain features of previous narrative forms — say, gesaku or yomihon — or were they disposed of altogether?

Well, typically traditional narrative forms die hard, partly because they are built into the language itself. Thus many of the earlier features inevitably survived. For example, the political novels (seiji shōsetsu) of the early Meiji period rely heavily on Tokugawa-era conventions, such as those found in yomihon and other haishi genres.

So the old conventions persisted.

Many of them, yes. And still do, I might add.

You mentioned a preponderance of novel genres in Japan. How many are there, to be exact?

Well, Beholdmyswarthyface and I are currently compiling an Online Encyclopedia of Modern Japan, and in it we have a section called “Genres of Shōsetsu and Proto-shōsetsu.” In that section alone there are over 140 entries.

Wow. That’s a lot of genres.

Indeed. I should warn readers that many of the entries have yet to be written. [Laughter]

Well, hopefully some of our readers will volunteer to write a few.

That would be great. You can contact us through the blog. It’s a huge project, for the completion of which we need all the help we can get. 

Is this preponderance of genres in any way related to the shōsetsu’s having two sources of origin?

I think so. The fact that these two very different sources collided to produce a complex smörgåsbord certainly cannot be ignored. Others might see it as another example of the tendency in Japanese culture to categorize phenomena into an ever-increasing number of ever-smaller units.

Well, Sally, I want to thank you for talking with NJ.

Thank you. I have been a fan of your site for years, and look forward to more collaborations.

August 30, 2010

Ryan Morrison grew up in Phoenix, Arizona and went to school in California. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of Tokyo. His blog is Beholdmyswarthyface.

R.I.P. Shibuya HMV

Shibuya HMV

On August 22, music store Shibuya HMV shut down operations. Surely it’s never good to see a large-scale culture shop smack middle in Tokyo’s central youth shopping district have to close its doors, but the obituaries have focused more upon HMV’s historical role than the possible contemporary impact of its disappearance. Mainichi called it the “holy ground” for the ’90s epoch-making music genre Shibuya-kei. As we will see, this is only partly true.

Shibuya HMV opened on November 16, 1990, at the height of the Bubble economy. The original store was inside the ONE-OH-NINE building (not to be confused with Shibuya109), but in 1998 moved to its more iconic location on Center-gai. We should not assume that the opening of Shibuya HMV was as dramatic as its closing. Tower Records was already down the street, as well as Wave — the ultra-trendy import record shop chain from the ultra-trendy Saison retail group (Seibu, Parco, Loft, Muji, Seed). J-Pop and other Japanese sounds could always be bought at Shinseido and other old-school retailers. So Shibuya had both multiple outlets for Japanese and foreign music. Tower was the place to go to buy cheap foreign imports of big mainstream acts. Meanwhile Wave had an incredible diverse selection of small foreign labels and imported 12″s. If you wanted to actually see your favorite DJs and musicians out in the wild buying their latest haul, Wave was the place to go.

So in this record shop ecosystem, Shibuya HMV was positioned as a foreign megastore with a slightly domestic Japanese feeling — like a souped-up version of Shinseido. The shop’s real innovation, credited in all the retrospectives, was the corner where the staff curated a selection of more interesting contemporary Japanese bands — ones that had strayed far from classic kayokyoku conventions to sound like Japanese-language versions of modern Western music. At first, this focused around Flipper’s Guitar, Love Tambourines, Pizzicato Five, and Scha Dara Parr. The bands eventually became known as “Shibuya-kei” in that more than half of their sales came from the record stores within this one shopping district. Shibuya HMV was not the only record store to push these artists, but that particular outlet’s support was perhaps the most visible. (The local retail push surely helped these bands catch on with a trend-sensitive audience, but their mainstream success came after television commercials and dramas used Shibuya-kei songs as the theme songs.)

We should also remember that at the time Shibuya was not just a shopping district but the shopping district. Around 1988, Harajuku emptied out completely as rich delinquent cool kids staked their claim in Shibuya. So the idea of “Shibuya-kei” was not just about the stores in Shibuya but an idea that trendy Tokyo kids alone could get Oricon spots for obscure artists with slightly strange sounds, without powerful management companies and who did not play by the usual “let’s appear on TV variety shows” rules.

Looking back, Shibuya HMV’s ability to foster Shibuya-kei was not just a testament to its ingenious retail curation. The store’s influence stemmed a bit from right time, right place. Everything was predicated on (1) the relative centrality of the store in consumer’s minds (2) the relative simplicity of the market (3) the small number of Shibuya-kei artists who could be organized into a makeshift genre (4) the small amount of new releases from those artists.

None of those conditions lasted beyond the early 1990s. Once Shibuya-kei exploded, indie record shops became a big part of the scene, so hardcore Shibuya-kei fans would go to independent shops Zest or Maximum Joy to find the most precisely-curated selection of rare records. This ended up scattering taste-making legitimacy amongst more players in the market. And when the next wave of Shibuya-kei artists showed up, they nestled easily into the pre-legitimized genre and on the original artists’ own labels like Trattoria and Readymade. There was no need for a larger authority to go out on a limb and vouch for them. The secret to Shibuya HMV’s influence was its brief moment of centrality, when J-Pop fans would go in wide-eyed, browse its shelves, and take note of the special curated records. Now curation of this manner is so commonplace, so built into a record store structure that a consumer would easily glide right by. Tower Records’ well-decorated listening booths seem to play into this, although ironically they are now mostly payola.

So Shibuya HMV and its ilk lost most of their major influence sometime in the 1990s. And forget influence: After the music market peaked in 1998, being a music retailer suddenly became a much less profitable operation. The Daily Yomiuri tries to pin the fall of Shibuya HMV on digital downloading, but the market has basically declined at an equal rate for the last twelve years straight. The original Wave chain folded in 1999. HMV still exists at least, but again, it’s not a good sign that a music store in the middle of Shibuya of all places is no longer sustainable.

But think about the difference two decades make. The neighborhood was once full of rich suburban kids, in the middle of the Bubble, with nothing to spend their overflowing pockets of money on besides records and clothing. Now Center-gai is famous for being the den of the most hardcore lumpen gyaru, who come from prefectures far away, who have suffered twelve years of income decline and have to spend most of their pocket money on cell phone bills. A digital world may not of helped, but the entire Shibuya HMV business model was based on the idea that music was still an exciting part of youth culture and that people still cared vaguely about buying into “the West.” A ¥3000 CD now can buy you ten beef bowls at Sukiya with some change leftover. And who really cares about buying triple-cover price imported magazines. Popular music, more than ever in Japan, is an expensive hobby.

With these factors in mind, the closing of Shibuya HMV should not come as a significant shock, but the defeat is a relatively bold symbol for the desperation of youth culture retailers in 2010. H&M, Forever21, and Shibuya109 may be doing fine due to low reasonable prices but in the days to come, we should probably expect more historic disappearances than arrivals of brand new epoch-defining stores.

W. David MARX
August 25, 2010

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

Team Néojaponisme are a-okay. Thanks for asking.

The Accidental Confederate

Secession T-shirt

A few weeks ago, I was taking some visiting friends around Asakusa. This was unfortunately the day of the Sumidagawa fireworks, and we were trying to get out of the area in the late afternoon, before the crowds got too insane. Being 5pm, however, the yukata-clad girls and their plain-clothes boyfriends were already filing in, and we had to fight the crowds to get on and off of trains.

As we were transferring against the rush of oncoming people, I spotted a relatively average Japanese twenty-something in a white T-shirt with a huge red-and-blue Confederate flag and the catchy slogan:

If at first you don’t secede….

Try, try again.

I literally stopped in my tracks and turned to my companions to tell them to check the shirt out, but all that came out of my mouth was something less intelligible than “T-t-t-t-t-shirt.” Then a North American, a few steps behind the Japanese guy saw my look of bewilderment and said to me with a knowing smile, “You like his T-shirt, right?” I silently nodded. (Sadly, no pictures. The image above is our artist’s abstract recreation.)

For a long time, my favorite incongruous Japanese youth fashion moment was a hipster Harajuku girl wearing a “Rush is Right” hat. This guy, however, may take the cake. With the Rush hat, there was really no way the girl — even if her English was decent — could have had any idea that Rush referred to right-wing American talk radio host Rush Limbaugh. She probably was just really into 2112. Actually, as we will see, I doubt she even considered the text at all.

Now, as someone originally from the American South, I find modern day secession fetishism to be odious — at worst, thinly-masked bigotry, and at best, a desperate identity politics born from a certain population segment’s growing isolation from the 21st century economy. It takes a real mean asshole to have thoughts like, “The South should leave the United States!” and an even meaner asshole to wear a T-shirt with that message in public.

The T-shirts, of course, were produced in the United States for people who hold this ideological belief and want to exclaim it to the rest of the world (or more accurately, to like-minded members of their local community). This is what T-shirts do: they convey messages. Almost without exception, American T-shirt culture is about statements: favorite bands, conspicuous consumption logos, jokes, affiliations, artistic expression, and political statements. Nonsense or non-obvious English on a T-shirt would either be a joke in itself or meant to suggest a mood. But either way, the person viewing the T-shirt would certainly try to decode meaning from ambiguous statements.

In previous years, this author and many of the readers had engaged in the debate about Japanese punk kids brandishing Nazi swastikas. (I have seen less of this in recent years, mostly because there are less kids into “classic” punk and most other imported Western subcultures) In the case of this makeshift Harajuku SS, the issue was that they were confusing the swastika for a punk symbol, almost exclusively due to Sid Vicious. The principle here is that within Japanese fashion, whether swastikas, a gorilla head from The Planet of the Apes, or Gucci pattern, logos are an important shorthand, carrying strong meanings from one person to another. For a small minority of Japanese kids, the sign of Hitler’s genocidal regime unfortunately got filed away under modern day re-enactments of ’70s rebelliousness.

But coming back to our guy in the Confederate battle flag, he likely had no intention at all to convey the symbolism of the flag. His embrace of the Rebel flag was pure accident or abstracted aesthetic choice — an old bulk-imported T-shirt chosen out of thousands at some anonymous vintage store across Japan. Some worldly buyer likely scoured every Salvation Army in backwater Tennessee towns circa 1997, and a decade later, a kid purchased one shirt from that original haul for ¥1000. And now the guy’s wearing it out to Asakusa because it was the only thing clean in his closet. Thank you, Japanese obsession with American vintage clothing.

What is interesting to me about this case, however, is how easy it would have been for the wearer to uncover the shirt’s meaning. The entire Japanese population is familiar with the roman script. We are not talking about trying to figure out ’90s pro-Serbian T-shirts in Cyrillic or an “Eradicate Tibetan Feudalism” written in Chinese. Also, had this been 1984, trying to decode the flag and the accompanying English joke would have required long trips to the National Diet Library and a few consultations with a local professor of American history. But now we have this thing called the Internet, and our Jefferson Davis could have easily googled the phrase and in about 15 minutes come up with a pretty good idea of what the shirt was talking about. There’s even a very detailed Japanese Wikipedia page on the Confederate flags, including details on the modern day controversy still surrounding it.

But I suspect that this guy did not do the research, nor would he even think to do the research. Between this case and hundreds of others compounded into my understanding of Japanese fashion, the very idea that the English on a T-shirt could mean something may be an Anglophone concept we project onto our readings of other countries. Japanese shirt designers often use nonsensical English phrases — yes, the ones that fuel the Engrish industry — and consumers make the unconscious assumption that they do not have to actually consider the content of their T-shirt messaging before deciding to purchase. Again, logos and symbols mean a lot, but T-shirt messaging is understood to be relatively content-free. A Dinosaur Jr. T-shirt is just a fashion accessory, not an indication of liking Dinosaur Jr. — a guitar-oriented rock band with alienating vocals. So if the basic idea of T-shirt text is opposite of the American one — T-shirts convey no messages other than brand logos and the most basic graphical, aesthetic elements — then no one is likely to consider the idea that strange English expressions need decoding.

We should likely refrain from normative judgments, but this general disposition towards T-shirt text does not bode well for English in Japan being something other than a diagnostic code meant for educational testing — like, maybe, a language used as communication. I can’t believe that an engaged student of French would not make a cursory attempt to understand any French language message on his/her on shirt. We English speakers can enjoy the irony of a Japanese kid unintentionally supporting white supremacy, but we are in fact laughing at a slightly depressing provincialism. That is to say, secessionist shirts in Japan may be a “random” quirk of globalized markets but they are not completely accidental. The whole episode requires a pretty significant linguistic obliviousness on the part of the wearer. Brian Austin Green’s terrible “midori” (みどり) tattoo on his chest is nothing to celebrate, but at least the 90210 star comes down on the side that foreign languages are meant to carry meanings. I never understood how radical that idea was.

W. David MARX
August 16, 2010

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

Pattern Pattern 25


The latest in a series of graphic design tools for Néojaponisme readers: a number of red, white, and black patterns based on Modern Japanese graphic design from the 1950s.

These patterns are free to use for non-commercial applications. (For commercial applications, please contact us for a license.)

The patterns are provided in Illustrator CS3, Illustrator CS, and Adobe PDF format. You can download a zipped file containing all three formats here.

August 2, 2010

Ian Lynam is a graphic designer living in Tokyo and the art director of Neojaponisme. His website is located at ianlynam.com. His new book, Parallel Strokes, on the intersection of graffiti and typography is available now.