2013: A New Hope / W. David MARX
This website shall reward no high fives to Prime Minister Abe Shinzō (especially after his Yasukuni visit), but we will admit that the Abe Regime Redux successfully implanted a hypnotic suggestion, both in Japan and overseas, that the Japanese economy may be heading towards its long-awaited recovery. Looky, looky — the Nikkei cracked 16,000! Of course the skepticism index grows in parallel. Normal Japanese people suspect that the Abenomics momentum will not deliver higher wages, and herein lies a threat of serious sugar crash. At no time was the air more pessimistic about the future than in the mid-2000s when people heard constantly in the media about a “growing economy” and yet saw no changes in their bank accounts.
Putting aside Abenomics, however, there were some exciting hints that Japanese society is under transformation. Between Fukushima and the abominable new secrecy law, there is real potential for a semblance of political debate returning to popular culture — even if the mainstream media refuses to be the host. The rise in smartphones and web literacy means that the Japanese Internet may soon become a true reflection of the national experience rather than an exclusive meeting ground of anonymous, angry, right wing-sympathetic idol-lovers. And Puzzle & Dragons and Line are not just hit apps: the companies behind them are answering Japan’s long call for more entrepreneurs.
Times remain perilous, but fortunately, with less faith in the establishment, the Japanese people are striking out to save themselves.
Economics and Politics / Noah SMITH
Abe has been riding the wave of popularity from Kuroda Haruhiko’s program of monetary easing, but the success of that policy is mainly just a rebound from the deflationary hole which Japan dug itself into after the 2008 crisis. To boost growth in the longer term, Abe is going to need to tackle the thorny issue of structural reform, which he is unlikely to do, given the havoc it will wreak on the Japanese social contract.
Meanwhile the Japanese opposition is splintering once again. This is only natural; the LDP has a nationalist ideological core that keeps it glued together, while Japan’s liberals have no such central idea or group around which to coalesce — especially after a defeat. As long as liberalism has no central organizing principle in Japan, the LDP or something like it will continue to reign with only short interruptions.
The Secrecy Law is a clear product of this new political order. The fragmentation of the Japanese opposition, combined with the brief spurt of economic optimism created by monetary policy, made this terrible law possible. Given the inertia of Japan’s politics, it is doubtful that this loss of freedom can be undone without major political upheaval. The only silver lining will be if the law galvanizes a grassroots liberal movement in Japan.
Kanji of the Year / Matt TREYVAUD
The 2013 Kanji of the Year was 輪, “ring,” as in Olympics (五輪), because of course. Of course. Some voters were all, oh, you see, the much-discussed TPP promises to turn the Pacific rim into a big ring of trade and blah blah blah — come on, man. Even 五, which just means “five” and is the other half of the Japanese translation of “Olympic Games,” made it to 14th place, ahead of 税, “tax”. See you in 2020, 五!
A Shift in the Great Shift / W. David MARX
The central idea of my long 2011 essay “The Great Shift in Japanese Pop Culture” was that otaku and gyaru subcultures’ current dominance was not a cyclical trend but instead the result of structural changes in society. To wit, lower levels of youth culture consumption forced the industry to cater almost exclusively to highly-dedicated subcultural groups and ignore mainstream or sophisticated tastes.
The events of 2013 completely challenged this thesis. At some point in the last few years, the gyaru look essentially disappeared. The front of Shibuya 109 is full of women who look almost… normal. Meanwhile the once influential gyaru-o newsletter men’s egg closed up shop. Working class kids from the countryside who wore outrageous things in the past have significantly mellowed. Meanwhile the shrinking of the total youth market means that the fashion industry needs to further collapse subcultural barriers to make one big “youth culture” with very few hard edges. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is working hard to be both Harajuku and Shibuya — although it’s unclear whether these neighborhoods will continue to signify a clear difference in fashion.
At the same time, mainstream consumers are growing tired of otaku antics, fueled in part by normal people’s looming takeover of the Japanese Internet. From here on, culture will be born on the open web and thus recenter around something other than 2ch. In this scenario, otaku will keeping demanding infantile cartoon females to soothe their psychological pain but the rest of society will no longer have to watch.
Peak AKB48 / Ian MARTIN
For years now, idol music has made a mockery of the Oricon singles charts, but 2013 was a new low, with AKB48 and their sister clones accounting for half of the top 30 singles of the year and boy bands from Johnny Kitagawa’s thousand-year reich accounting for most of the rest (Exile, Southern All Stars, and Linked Horizon were the only intruders in this idol love-in).
An AKB48 single will sell ten times an Oricon number one from other weeks, somewhat from the Dentsu-machine’s cross-marketing media saturation. The primary driver, however, remains encouraging consumption patterns among fans that have nothing to do with music and everything to do with the dutiful purchase of silicon discs as if they are character goods. The AKB48 cult has essentially gamified the groups, allowing fans to “play” through their consumption levels.
This system, however, encourages fans to see idols as their personal property, which naturally leads to terrifying penance rituals like Minegishi Minami’s concentration camp cosplay head-shaving. These rituals help keep fans engaged, but the Minegishi incident — along with Shukan Shunbun catching top AKB48 manager Kubota Yasushi having a sleepover with member Kasai Tomomi and then manager Togasaki Tomonobu merrily deploying “prostitution” as his alibi for being seen taking young girls to a love hotel — provided the weary public with some very concrete examples of AKB48’s once abstract ickiness.
The objective evidence suggests that AKB48 jumped the shark this year. Google Trends shows a very clear decline for AKB48 searches, and with the top members from the group’s glory days going solo, 2014 could be the year that consumers finally force the media-industrial complex to move on to something else. The question is, what in the world will replace them?
Japanese Indie Music / Ian MARTIN
The idols and best-of albums on the yearly charts suggest that the mainstream music market is stuck in an ‘80s-’90s fug of golden era nostalgia, but the indie scene also harked back to the old days in its own way. My Bloody Valentine’s long-awaited follow-up to Loveless gave the Japanese shoegaze scene a shot in the arm, with the lineups of the Yellow Loveless tribute album and the Japan Shoegaze Festival revealing a level of diversity (although not always of quality) that is less the scene that celebrates itself and more the scene that celebrates absolutely bloody everything.
Indiepop of a definitively ‘80s variety was all over the place as well, with groups like Wallflower, Homecomings, Elen Never Sleeps, The Moments, Ykiki Beat, Boyish, and Hearsays putting out new releases, many of whom on Fukuoka label Dead Funny Records. While the shoegaze scene tends to use the past as a springboard towards creating something of their own, indiepop is increasingly unaware of the genre’s ’80s roots and draws more from contemporary overseas acts like Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Veronica Falls, and French Films.
Other music that impressed in 2013 included Buddy Girl and Mechanic’s excellent self-titled debut as well as a magnificent new album by Melt Banana. And notably, there was a new Capsule album Caps Lock that represents some of the most interesting and promising work Nakata Yasutaka has done in years — and a welcome relief from the frequently overbearing nature of his output over the past few years.
RIP Tsutsumi Seiji (1927-2013) / W. David MARX
Why do retailers in such a fundamentally conservative culture like Japan frequently champion the world’s most creative, innovative, and iconoclastic artists? Tsutsumi Seiji, who passed away late this year, embodied the answer to this question. Tsutsumi did not just play a key role in the expansion of Japanese consumer society, but made sure that it developed in interesting directions.
As an inheritance consolation prize from his father, Tsutsumi took control of the family’s second-rate department store Seibu. Importing French designers and holding grand art exhibits, Tsutsumi turned Seibu into a cultural powerhouse and then spun its financial success into the broader Saison retailing group — namely, fashion building Parco, DIY-shop Loft, import record store Wave, avant-garde fashion boutique Seed, and the back-to-basics Mujirushi Ryohin (MUJI). Tsutsumi was an enlightened despot among capitalists; a theoretical thinker and respected poet/writer, he once explained to shareholders his business strategy “as a Baudrillardean exercise in embrace of simulacra and parody.” He made Saison a patron for the world’s great talent: The PARCO theater, for example, opened with a performance from avant-garde dramatist Terayama Shūji.
Tsutsumi personally set the highest levels of taste for Japan’s fast-moving, sophisticated consumer society. Sadly, the Japanese economy over the last decade has not been able to sustain the advances Tsutsumi made, as stores and brands head towards lowest common denominators to sustain sales. The lingering brilliance in retailing, however, can be directly traced back to Tsutsumi.
(To learn more about Tsutsumi, read either Architects of Affluence or the more gossip-y The Brothers: The Hidden World of Japan’s Richest Family.)
RIP Yamazaki Masayuki (1945-2013) / W. David MARX
In the early 1970s, Harajuku was a quiet neighborhood like any other residential area of Tokyo, with a small creative class clustered around a café called Leon. In 1972, bar owner and Elvis aficionado Yamazaki Masayuki of famed grimy Shinjuku bar Kaijin 20 Mensō opened a new watering hole called King Kong down the street from Leon. Its success led to more bars, and in 1975, Yamazaki opened a new shop off Meiji-doori called Cream Soda to sell vintage 1950s clothing he picked up in London. The store struck gold, sparking not just a boom for retro Greaser fashion in the American Graffiti mold but also launched the distinctly Japanese business of scooping up second-hand American garments and selling them at huge markups back in Tokyo. Yamazaki made millions from selling American delinquent style to teens, culminating in the multi-level Pink Dragon store on Cat Street that still stands today. The rockabilly boom faded in the mid-1980s, but as Yamazaki’s great legacy, Harajuku still stands today as Tokyo’s center of youth culture.
RIP Hayashida Teruyoshi (1930-2013) / W. David MARX
The 1965 photo book Take Ivy clearly demonstrates the degree to which Japan has acted as the unofficial archivist of Western popular culture. Americans in the 1960s never thought to photograph, document, and annotate the campus styles of university students any more than they thought to produce books about other everyday things such as traffic lights, Howard Johnsons, or silverware. As part of a team from clothing brand VAN Jacket and magazine Men’s Club, photographer Hayashida Teruyoshi visited six Ivy League campuses in May 1965, and his images became the Take Ivy book. Between web scans and a U.S. reprint in 2010, his snaps from the voyage have been traded around the American cognoscenti as the definitive guide to classic American style. Hayashida was only vaguely aware of his recent fame overseas, but after his death, he should forever represent the beginning of Japan’s importance in reverently chronicling global culture.
RIP men’s egg (1999-2013) / Patrick MACIAS
men’s egg magazine (never capitalized) fought the good fight for bad taste, beginning in 1999 and finishing on a very sad day in November 2013. The gas, it seemed, had finally gone out of a screaming, howling fourteen-year streak that straddled the pre-millennial generation of dark-tanned sidewalk surfer dudes to the post-apocalyptic gutter playboys of the Center Guy tribe.
A magazine designed as spin-off from egg magazine proper — designed for girls and still in print, it should now be noted — men’s egg was rude, funny, and possessed of a clinical myopia that assumed that the Shibuya ward was the only place in the world that really existed and actually mattered. Ostensibly a fashion and lifestyle periodical, the pages were thick with fear of the opposite sex, and plenty of anxiety about sex itself. With that came the constant reassurance that the worst obstacles could always be overcome with the right pickup lines and the correct consumer choices (depending on who the advertisers were that month).
The exact cause of men’s egg death is unknown, but the usual suspects — low circulation, the decline of the print magazine, and a sluggish specialized men’s fashion market — probably didn’t help. Maybe it was time for everyone associated with the scene to just grow up and graduate already (Hot gossip: I know of one guy who spent 2013 experiencing partial hair loss over the stress associated with modeling for men’s egg, running his own brand, working as a host, and who knows what else).
When I got the news that the magazine was going away, two quotes from two friends came immediately to mind. They may seem really simple, or even unrelated, but that’s the way real hard truth sometimes shows up at the end of the year. “Work aimed at young people in Japan is quite difficult,” says one. “I feel sorry for today’s kids. They don’t have money to spend on stupid clothes anymore,” says another. But as long as there is a Tokyo and a Shibuya with trash-strewn streets acting as incubators of sorts, I’d like to think that there will always be eggs.
The Year in Murakami Haruki / Daniel MORALES
2013 was the year that Murakami Haruki became a super-duper star equally in all parts of the world. Not only was his April novel Colorless Tazaki Tsukuru and His Years of Pilgrimage Japan’s best-selling book, even the publication of a single short story in Japanese drew the attention of the international press.
“Drive My Car: Men Without Women,” published in the December Bungei Shunju, concerns a stage actor Kafuku who has to hire a driver after a DUI. The driver turns out to a be a younger woman named Watari Misaki in whom he feels comfortable confiding his solitary life as a widower. Between this and the English translation of the very strange “Samsa in Love,” published in The New Yorker in October, Murakami has had a strong year, returning to his roots and focusing less on writing long, “comprehensive” novels.
Amazon Bestsellers / Matt TREYVAUD
Fully half of Amazon’s top 10 bestselling books this year were by either Hyakuta Naoki or Ikeito Jun. In fact, apart from Murakami Haruki (in at #2 for Colorless Tazaki Tsukuru etc.), they are the only two authors of fiction in the entire top twenty. We also got two Kankore books, some game guides, and various books promising improved communication: better handwriting, better speaking, better interactions with your doctor. Oddly, the best-selling book in the “foreign books” (洋書) category is… the Rider-Waite tarot deck?
Anime Movies / Matthew PENNEY
2013 saw the release of two Ghibli films — Kaze Tachinu (The Wind Rises) and Kaguya Hime no Monogatari (The Tale of Princess Kaguya) — perhaps the final feature-length movies in the respective careers of anime titans Miyazaki Hayao and Takahata Isao. Both films have moments of brilliance, but both also have problems that hold them back from the top tier of the Ghibli canon. In Kaze, Miyazaki may have been true to his vision of Zero fighter designer Horikoshi’s struggles, but the love story felt forced and makes female lead Nahoko into a sort of prop in the engineer’s tale. Miyazaki is renowned for sketching young heroines full of vitality and potential but has never shown how one gets from that state to actual adulthood. Nahoko in particular lacks agency and ends up as simple fodder for the tragic climax. Takahata’s Kaguya carries on his experimentation with animation technique, but at well over two hours it loses some of the concise archetypal force of the folktales on which it is based.
While Kaze and Kaguya may be strong films by great directors, it is Shinkai Makoto’s Koto no Ha no Niwa (Garden of Words) that may stand as the most confident anime film of 2013. Koto is a short film at 46 minutes and does not move much beyond the themes and experiments with style and tone of Shinkai’s earlier films like Byosoku Go Senchimetoru (Five Centimeters Per Second), but it is a fine return to form after the visually brilliant but narratively cluttered attempt to do a Miyazaki-style adventure film in Hoshi wo Ou Kodomo (Children Who Chase Lost Voices).
Anime TV / Matthew PENNEY
2013 is the best year for anime TV of the last five thanks to excellent examples of many anime genres. Action series Shingeki no Kyojin (Attack on Titan) has established a strong presence in Japanese popular culture despite (because of?) an absence of the saccharine and sexploitative elements that keep most recent anime in the otaku ghetto. The reworking of zombie / monster, 99% dystopia vs. 1% utopia, and high-flying hero tropes in Shingeki show that in a crowded international action-thriller market, Japanese manga and anime can still show us something fresh. For “slice of life” Uchoten Kazoku (The Eccentric Family) stands out for the warmth of its storytelling and its incredibly detailed depiction of Kyoto — perhaps the best representation of a real environment in anime history. The robot anime Suisei no Gargantia (Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet) echoes past greats like Mirai Shonen Konan (Future Boy Conan) and Gunbuster but also appears as a breath of fresh air in a genre that still creaks under the weight of the legacy of introspective and not infrequently grim Evangelion. At 13 episodes, it is perfectly paced and effectively weds elements of space opera, futurist thinking about artificial intelligence, and the classic anime eco-fable. The comedy series Watashi ga Motenai no ha do Kangaetemo Omaera ga Warui (No Matter How I Look at It, It’s You Guys’ Fault I’m Not Popular!) is another standout. The hilarious exterior provided by voice actress Kitta Izumi’s brilliant performance is frequently peeled back to reveal a poignant look at adolescent fear of others and the self-defeating fantasies which are a dark side of otaku experience.
My pick for the best anime TV series of 2013 is drama Aku no Hana (The Flowers of Evil). An experiment in rotoscoping by Nagahama Hiroshi, known for his work on Mushishi which stands as one of the great achievements of small screen anime. Aku no Hana improves on the manga with its constricting, decayed representation of a small Japanese town, enhanced sense of realism, and fantastic score. Finally, the deliberately stupidly insane Kill la Kill defies genre pigeonholing (and good taste) but is relentlessly entertaining and yet another memorable series from what was an excellent year in TV anime.
Attack on Titan / Matt TREYVAUD
After four years building steam, Isayama Hajime’s Attack on Titan made the leap from manga to anime this year, immediately becoming a worldwide hit and spawning endless arguments about whether the protagonist’s surname is spelled “Jaeger” or “Yeagar” (not to mention baffled posts on Chiebukuro asking whether “Attack on Titan” is really an appropriate translation of 進撃の巨人). Titan‘s refreshingly non-sexist attitude drew particular praise, and its mysterious setting has inspired endless allegorical interpretations: The titans are China! No, the walled, doomed city is Japan! Me, I prefer to see the titans of the early chapters as stand-ins for colonialism, War of the Worlds style.
Typography on the Web / Ian LYNAM
In June, telecommunications giant SoftBank announced the purchase of Fukuoka-based FontWorks, one of Japan’s leading type foundries. The acquisition neatly mirrored events in American telecommunications over the past few years, notably Adobe’s buy up of the Typekit webfont service in 2011. Softbank and FontWorks were strategic business partners since 2011, having worked together to develop FontPlus, SoftBank’s proprietary webfont service. (The official explanation in the merger document is that “SBT believes that we are able to establish system which enables us to utilize mutual corporate resources rapidly and effectively, and it will make further progress on our service deployment combining ‘creativity’ including the Web-font service and ‘technology.'”) The acquisition reifies Softbank’s aggressive interest in web technologies and an expansion from mere mobile communications to more developed aspects of mobile computing. The ¥1,760 million purchase belies SoftBank’s outlook for the future of web-based typography in Japan.
Kiss me Kappa / Matt ALT
After the short-lived fad for pouty, come-hither “duck mouth” expressions peaked in 2010, domestic and foreign media scrambled to identify other facial trends without much success (an even shorter-lived fad for “sparrow face,” notwithstanding.) We finally have a new contender: “kappa mouth,” which takes its name from the flatulent, frog-skinned, bird-beaked yokai with a penchant for sticking slimy fingers into swimmers’ colons. It involves rolling in the lips and pushing down to create a shallow V. Pundits are suspiciously silent as to whether the naming refers to the yokai’s beak, or rather the expression one assumes after having a slimy finger stuck into their backside.