The Year Nothing Happened / W. David MARX
We should all feel blessed that Japan did not see any further tragic natural disasters this year, but at the same time, the widely-desired, post-earthquake national resurgence was not exactly forthcoming. If the last decade saw an explosion of recessionary culture in Japan, 2012 suggested that even this recessionary culture could be on the wane, leaving us a true social vacuum. To have culture, people have to participate in society; to have political change, people have to vote and organize; to have global economic success, companies must make products that the world wants.
None of this happened, however, and in its place, we got nothing new. Instead of a more terrible AKB48-like thing, we got just slightly less AKB48. Instead of extreme political change, the disheartened electorate voted for a return to LDP rule.
A decade ago there was something slightly interesting in the long decline: How would a truly advanced country handle poor economic prospects, fatal demographics, and dwindling global relevance? But now in 2012 we’re too familiar with the very process of decline. We all know that 2013 will just see a little more slouching in the same direction — more nothing. And while the stakes are getting higher and higher for this great nation to turn things around, the stakes for any individual action, field, or event could not feel any lower.
Nothing really happened in 2012, but for your reading pleasure, here are a few things that transpired this year.
Tokyo Skytree / Matt ALT
Even if you don’t appreciate the architecture (or the neato circular pulsing at night), any fan of Japanese entertainment has to pay the Tokyo Skytree a certain grudging respect, if for no other reason than that it serves up its lifeblood — a stable high-definition television signal. But there are two big strikes against the Skytree. In a city filled with perfectly free observation decks (like those of the the iconic Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building), it’s hard to imagine forking out ¥2,000 a head for an elevator ride. But more importantly, every Tokyoite knows in their heart of hearts that the Skytree isn’t really part of the skyline until it gets smashed to pieces in a giant monster movie.
The Election / Adam RICHARDS
Through some weird twist of fate, Abe Shinzo and his long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party regained control of Japan’s messy political system, giving Abe of all people a second stint as prime minister. For three years, the rival Democratic party attempted to forge a new direction for the country but were mired in disagreements on which direction to take, a series of petty scandals, mismanagement following the March 2011 earthquake and nuclear disaster, and a mixed bag of policy decisions. The most lasting of these unpopular policies was to pass a consumption tax hike together with the LDP, in a deal that also kickstarted talks to fundamentally revise Japan’s social safety net protections.
So when Prime Mnister Noda called a snap election as part of said deal, a disappointed electorate returned the LDP to power in resounding fashion. The returning Abe administration has taken on a decidedly bolder policy agenda than when he first came around in 2006, when he tried unsuccessfully to maintain the positive momentum of the Koizumi years. Now his first priority is ending deflation, seemingly at all costs, enlisting former PM Taro Aso as finance minister to keep the bureaucrats from meddling. Once that’s out of the way, he wants to revise the constitution; not to change the pacifist Article 9, at least at first, but to lower the threshold for triggering a referendum for proposed revisions from a 2/3 Diet vote to a simple majority. Of course, it remains to be seen whether Abe will manage to stay in office long enough to do any of this.
Nuclear Protests in Japan / W. David MARX
In 2012, there were many protests against nuclear power in Japan. The DPJ government did nothing concrete in response to these protests, and then the most pro-nuclear political party — the LDP — won back power.
Ishihara Shintaro Trolls the Planet / Connor SHEPHERD
If you think Tokyo governor Ishihara Shintarō’s most entertaining days are behind him, last summer he raised the bar for global-scale trolling with his offer to buy the Senkaku Islands from the Japanese private citizen who owned them. There is ostensibly no practical reason why Tokyo would want or need some unpopulated islands hundreds of miles away from the city, so when Ishihara raised ¥1 billion from some friends to purchase them, we can assume that he did so for no reason other than to anger the Chinese, who want the islands for their awesome hypothetical oil and gas. And it worked — the Chinese got angry! And by essentially forcing the Japanese central government to buy them before he could, he single-handedly caused a significant international incident. Seriously, this guy is a pro.
Operation “Sue-my-datchi” / Matt ALT
2011′s disaster relief “Operation Tomodachi” marked a rare high point in the often strained relationship between Japan and the US military. Late this year, however, eight crewmen from the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Ronald Reagan announced a lawsuit against TEPCO for exposure to radiation, demanding $40 million in compensation and punitive damages. Let’s get this straight: A group of men serving aboard a floating arsenal packing not one but two nuclear reactors and ostensibly engaged in rescue operations, are suing the very country they were trying to assist in the midst of a disaster. One might hope they’d donate any winnings to those who actually lost families and homes, but given the chutzpah needed to even raise a suit like this, it’s probably too much to wish for.
Grandma Went to Jail / Nick DONEGAN
While much is made of Japan’s graying population and the perceptions of filial respect shown by its youth, 2012 saw the elderly turn towards a new activity: crime. With a strangely “understanding” white paper from the Ministry of Justice, and the number of rather gruesome incidents starring the gentile grand-figure, 2012 was a banner year for showcasing granny’s true skills with a knife. With the overall crime rate on the decline — by the National Police Agency’s estimation, at 5.8% per year — and the world economy on the possible brink of recovery, perhaps we will look back on 2012 as “just a phase” in the high-stakes, rebellious, and attention-seeking world of the Japanese pensioner.
Macabre Murder Factory Flies Under the Radar / Adam RICHARDS
Over a period of decades, one woman orchestrated a criminal operation specializing in the systematic kidnapping, torture, defrauding, imprisonment, and murder of perhaps dozens in Hyogo Prefecture’s Amagasaki. Before her arrest this year, Sumida Miyoko would hire thugs to storm the house of an intended target family, subdue them, and proceed to keep them in captivity as she gradually emptied their bank accounts and took ownership of their property. To aid her reign of terror, she would force children to beat their parents while other family members watched. She maintained an apartment full of human doghouses, some of which were on the balcony to keep people for bad behavior during the winter. At least one died from injuries sustained there, while other victims were found in states of extreme starvation, many beaten severely and one with scars making her all but unrecognizable. One daughter of a victim family caught Stockholm Syndrome, became a key accomplice, married Sumida’s son, and had a child.
The grisly details do not stop there, but after reading about this story I had to wonder why on earth isn’t this the Crime of the Century? Perhaps because it highlights so many of the embarrassing systemic problems of Japanese society — police inertia (police refused to intervene on behalf of multiple victims), a lack of neighborly concern, the shocking ease of defrauding Japan’s various bureaucratic systems, etc. Sumida recently killed herself in prison, deftly avoiding justice in a final bit of police bungling that sends a fitting message for those of us living here: When the rules aren’t well enforced, as is so often the case in Japan, it’s the bullies and monsters that will have the upper hand.
Japanese Electronic Maker Doom / Nick DONEGAN and Adam RICHARDS
2012 was one of the most disastrous years for the bloated electronics industry since its inception. Sharp, Panasonic, and Sony started the year off with bad news but thoughtful hopes — selling off factories to Chinese investors, realigning product foci, and even looking to create new product lines! — but ended up reporting losses totaling to ¥1.23 trillion ($15.3 billion). The massive investments failed to pay off, and now Sharp, the most cash strapped of the once-mighty giant manufacturers, looks increasingly likely to end up mostly a parts supplier for Apple. With Sharp supplying iPhone and iPad panels, Sony making the camera sensors, and a small army of smaller manufacturers making many other components, the Japanese electronics industry as a whole seems fated to lack compelling products of its own, forcing it to occupy the less glamorous and less profitable role as the world’s ultra high-tech parts maker.
Japan Keeps Buying US/UK Tech, Nobody Cares / Connor SHEPHERD
Here’s something you might not know: Over the past two years, companies from Japan have been buying all kinds of high-tech companies in the United States and Britain. At the tail end of 2010, social-games giant DeNA bought the American mobile game shop ngmoco for a WTF-level $400 million, and that kicked off a crazy chain of Japanese companies gobbling up US and UK assets (look how many companies mentioned in this article are high-tech), ending with Softbank buying Sprint and HR/classified ad giant Recruit snapping up jobs-listing startup Indeed.com for you-know-what’s-cool-a-billion-dollars (allegedly, not much about this deal is transparent). Despite all this, no part of these deals made any headway towards complicating the general narrative of Japan’s decline.
The Rise of Smartphones / Adam RICHARDS
2012 was undisputedly the year of the smartphone. I bought an iPhone in late 2011, and it has made me curious about what devices my fellow Tokyo commuters are using. Over the past 12 months there has been a remarkable shift. Initially there were maybe one or two smartphone users vs. traditional feature phones in Tokyo, and now the ratio is reversed. I almost feel pity for people who have not opted for a smartphone at this point. By 2013 a clear majority will have them, giving them access to the “real” Internet (and not bastardized versions for feature phones), often for the first time.
Internet Rage Flourishes / Adam RICHARDS
For years now, the mainstream media’s response to — and hence the elite’s general impression of — the Internet was to see it as a threat, prompting all manner of scare stories even as the general population found its own uses for it. And politicians made sure to have a presence there but seldom would turn to it for either policy advice or a source of popular support. In 2012, however, Internet rage became much more visible in public discourse. Earlier this year a scandal erupted on the Internet when it was found that a popular comedian’s mother was fraudulently receiving welfare benefits. Not surprisingly, the right wing Internet communities (by far the most visible on the Japanese web) railed against what they saw as an unworthy program that gives cash to the undeserving. What was surprising, however, was that the political class — both then ruling party DPJ and opposition LDP — reacted to the scandal with measures aimed at responding to their concerns. One might be tempted to praise politicians for joining the modern age as it were, but net right wingers are mostly out of step with the general public (not to mention good policy). The question now is whether new PM Abe will be as eager to please what he sees as a core constituency.
Video Games / Matt ALT
2012 marked Microsoft’s decision to abandon the Tokyo Game Show. Many pundits spun the move as yet another symptom of the Japanese game industry’s decline. Others spun it as yet another example of Japanese gamers’ traditional disdain for the fetishistic first-person violence of American shooting games. But the real story was about the rise of mobile gaming aggregators like Gree and DeNA, whose floor displays dominated those of traditional Japanese console game developers in terms of both size and bombast. Their apps are wildly popular in Japan, but can they crack the foreign marketplace?
Japanese Game Developers / Jean SNOW
The world gaming community has not been kind to Japanese game developers in recent years. In response, a majority of the games being produced in Japan overly cater to the home audience, leaving the rest of the world looking to the West for their gaming entertainment. Not a good thing for the Japanese gaming industry, considering the impact gaming has in today’s culture (see iOS gaming and blockbuster launches of the latest iteration in the Call of Duty series) and especially sad considering that many a longtime gamer was raised on Japanese-produced titles and consoles. But as 2012 comes to a close, there are some signs — like RPG king Square Enix aggressively releasing titles on iOS and Android — that all may not be lost.
The Pop Music Charts in 2012 / Ian MARTIN
At the end of every year, chart organisation Oricon publishes its rankings of the best-selling music of the year, and for the past few years the singles charts have been congealing like a scab around mass idol collective AKB48. This year they and their sister groups accounted for twelve of the top twenty, with the other eight positions taken by boy bands from the stable of the more established evil organisation in pop Johnny & Associates. Meanwhile the album charts were dominated by “best of” repackagings of older artists like Matsutoya Yumi, Yamashita Tatsuro, Exile, and Mr. Children, who held both of the top two positions with their “Micro” and “Macro” compilations. K-Pop was largely absent from the rankings, although KARA and Girls’ Generation continue to be reasonably strong sellers. With singles largely existing as a means for fans to display their love for idols, albums seemingly an exercise in nostalgia for a gradually ageing fanbase, and either the industry or the market turning away from overseas influences, the future looks pretty dismal for the Japanese pop mainstream.
Shugo Tokumaru — In Focus? / W. David MARX
The sweeping and majestic guitar strums of 2010’s Port Entropy took Japanese genius songwriter-producer Shugo Tokumaru from international Pitchfork darling to the heights of indie fame in his home country, complete with his songs plastered under TV CMs for blue-chippers Sony and JAL. With his new In Focus? Tokumaru could have easily gone full-out, feel-good J-Pop, but instead took a step back to his daring, experimental roots — resulting in what is easily the year’s best Japanese record. His eclectic instrumentation may have been further neutralized into a mellow mix, but peppy, peppy songs like “Katachi” and “Down Down” took Tokumaru to new places with fully danceable rhythms and tight pop structure. The whole thing is held together with the glue of cartoonish micro set pieces, weird time signatures, inventive vocal melodies, sped-up munchkin background vocals, and 1960s vocal jazz references. Really, what other miracles could we possibly want from this musical Messiah?
Best Indie Albums / Ian MARTIN
Aside from Shugo Tokumaru, the indie and DIY scenes continued to release a wide array of great music under the radar. Fukuoka all-girl indie supergroup Miu Mau released the News EP on CD/R, with a combination of chunky synths, sweet harmonies and spindly, flat, metallic guitars wandering over tunes ranging from the lo-fi Shibuya-kei of “Neon Sign” to the retro-futurist new wave Asiatica of “Mirai no Classic.” Another all-girl three-piece Fancynumnum put out the more densely layered No Now, bringing mantric krautrock beats and textures together with kayōkyoku-like melodies. One of the most extraordinary albums of the year was minimalist psychedelic post-punk band Extruders’ Pray, a live album recorded in a Buddhist temple and released as a CD/R in a brown paper bag, while at another extreme Half Sports showed that 1980s styled guitar pop doesn’t have to be gloomy and affected with the raucous, ramshackle Slice Of Our City providing moment after moment of joyous power pop. Finally, one of the most category-defying and downright odd albums of the year was Kumamoto band Doit Science’s Beefheartian splatterfest Information, with its off-kilter melodies, disorientating collision of rhythms, and wide-eyed diversions into barbershop.
No Dancing / Ian LYNAM
June saw a handful of protests to the recent renewed enforcement of a 1984 addition to the Entertainment Business Control Law that bans dancing in music venues and clubs with less than a 66 square meter floor. Since 2010, Japanese law enforcement agencies have gone out of their way to crack down on dancing in small clubs in Tokyo, Kyoto, Fukuoka and Osaka. With ten raids in 2010, twenty-one in 2011, and an as-yet undisclosed, yet potentially higher number in 2012, the government is doing its absolute best to uphold an archaic law. The odd thing is that the law was originally instituted in 1948 to crack down on prostitution. As for the reasoning in the contemporary context, the jury is still out.
Jail Time for Downloading / Ian LYNAM
Both houses of the Diet passed a law that added punishments to pre-existing anti-piracy legislation in June of this year, and it came into effect in October. Draconian in nature due to the sprawling range of content and lack of clear definition, this new legal framework, in essence, means watching pirated content or making a backup copy of a DVD can get you up to two years in prison or fines up to ¥2 million. (Don’t worry, Tsutaya fans — ripping CDs is legal.) A key (if untested) loophole that has been discerned thus far is that the viewer must be aware of their pirate action’s illegality. The law requires a rightsholder to identify and report violations themselves, and so far no one has been arrested. All the same, tech-savvy Japan residents would be wise to watch their digital backs.
Sony Music Japan on iTunes / W. David MARX
Sony Music Japan — one of Japan’s biggest music labels — finally put its domestic catalog on Apple’s iTunes Music Store. The lesson here is that Japanese companies can’t stop history or progress, but they can delay for a very long time.
Adrian Favell vs. Nara Yoshitomo / W. David MARX
Earlier in 2012, British sociologist Adrian Favell published an academic look at the rise of Japanese contemporary art titled Before and After Superflat. There was little notice in Japan until a translated version of his chapter on Nara Yoshitomo “as a businessman” hit the desk of… Nara Yoshitomo. The aging punk rocking artist took to his Twitter account to vent his spleen (calling Favell lots of not nice things, including “会ったこともない外人”) and denouncing the article as being factually inaccurate. The controversy boiled down to Favell’s challenge of Nara’s image as a “naïve” pure painter; Nara did not like being called “consummate slacker CEO” — at least the “CEO” part. Most interestingly, this controversy created a wave of people in the Japanese art world who rushed to defend Nara against the evils of foreign academic analysis.
Modern Times / Ian LYNAM
It’s been a big year for Tokyo-based Taiwanese-American photographer Patrick Tsai. After an upset at the Canon “New Cosmos of Photography” competition, he went on to have his first monograph Modern Times published by boutique photo publishing house Nakarokusha. A slew of exhibitions in Tokyo, Osaka, Kobe, Nara, and elsewhere followed, as well as being picked by Time Magazine’s for its best photo books of the year. Modern Times is now being displayed in the art/photography sections of every major bookstore in the country at present — a rarity when most foreigners’ work is valued as an import. Tsai has managed to cultivate a body of work that is deemed worthwhile during their his time spent domestically in Japan.
Takamine Tadasu’s Solo Show / Darryl Jingwen WEE
Almost two years after the fact, Takamine Tadasu presented one of the more nuanced responses to the aftermath of 3/11 by casting a penetrating eye on parts of the Japanese psyche that are often neglected, shrugged off, or willfully ignored. Highlights of his show at Art Tower Mito included a room littered with shambolic reams of paper filled with xenophobic, jingoistic hate speech and bulletin board ephemera, and revolving LED signs that churn out the trite hyōgo slogans that festoon every street corner and public transportation facility in the country. The deft spatial composition of this show that straddles theater set and conceptual, text-based art, combined with a finely balanced sense of irony — as well as fortuitous timing hot on the heels of a rather disappointing election — makes this a highlight of the past year in contemporary art.
Goldblatt in Delight Shock about Murakami Loss / Matt TREYVAUD
Not only did Murakami Haruki not win the Nobel Prize this year, actual winner Mo Yan‘s English translator Howard Goldblatt was reportedly “delighted that the other Asian titan, Japanese author Haruki Murakami [...] didn’t win.” The sentence ends “… when so many other Asian writers get so little attention in the West,” which, okay, admirable sentiments we can all get behind, but still — ouch, man. Next year’s winner will probably just hire a small child to point at Murakami and laugh. (Goldblatt’s Granta interview is also worth reading.)
The Return of the King / Matt TREYVAUD
Ten years after delivering a Tale of Genji for people who like commas and poetry, Royall Tyler has graced the world with a The Tale of the Heike for people who like line breaks (and homework). Fans of tales about premodern Japanese entities with two-syllable names might also want to check out the translation of the Ise Monogatari Tyler banged out in the interim with Joshua S. Mostow.
New Books about Old Music / Matt TREYVAUD
In the world of comics, Amyū’s Kono oto tomare! 『この音とまれ!』 took on the monumental task of making koto music cool (mainly by putting very little actual koto music in the story).On the other hand, 2012 did also see the republication of jiuta master Tomiyama Seikin I’s 1966 Seikin: jiuta shugyō 『清琴 地うた修行』 (as the meat of Jiuta/sōkyoku no sekai『地歌・箏曲の世界』) and Okamoto Chikugai’s Shakuhachi zuisō shū 『尺八随想集』, so the news was not all bad.
Best Action Manga of 2012 / Matthew PENNEY
Yūyami Tokkotai (Twilight Suicide Squad) by Oshikiri Rensuke is a real seinen original that combines high school club stuff, gags, hand-to-hand combat with a ridiculous sense of impact, and some genuinely creepy J-horror scenes that borrow equally from the 1990s and 2000s hits (Ring, Audition, Ju-on) and classic films based on Edogawa Rampo and Yokomizo Seishi novels. Moving deftly between parody and homage and driving almost immediately into a single-arc story that at ten volumes is already foreshadowing a tight and timely conclusion, Yūyami Tokkotai stands out from the many similar series on the market that are ponderously drawing out their stories past thirty volumes and beyond any artistic credibility.
Meanwhile Hunter x Hunter is a series that due to juvenile early arcs and a long hiatus has not built the international fan-base of Shonen Jump brethren Bleach and Naruto. Creator Togashi Yoshihiro, best known for his work on Yu Yu Hakusho, is a experienced creator and in 2011-2012 has successfully introduced a darker tone along with artistic experimentation in the fight scenes — characters take on the form of Buddhist statues and one protagonist’s lines become almost calligraphy-like as he powers up, a far cry from the usual (and increasingly sterile) speed lines and flaming auras.
Best “Artistic” Manga of 2012 / Matthew PENNEY
Maruo Suehiro’s Binzume no Jigoku (Bottled Hell) shows that the ero-guro master continues to grow as an artist. In the title adaptation of Yumeno Kyusaku’s 1928 novella, Maruo brings alive a natural environment that is equally beautiful and terrifying, mirroring perfectly the combination of sexual desire and horror that tears at the protagonists — a shipwrecked adolescent brother and sister. Where Maruo once went for licking eyeballs, he now maintains his transgressive style with symbolism and understatement. Even better, the volume also contains a number of shorts that show he can still summon the old grotesquerie on cue.
Also, Yukimura Makoto’s Vinland Saga is finally beginning to hit the thematic highs of the author’s past hit Planetes. Yukimura uses an old Norse setting to deal with slavery and structures of power and hints that his version of the push to the “new world” is rooted in utopian anarchism.
Fukushima Manga / Matthew PENNEY
There have been over a dozen volume length manga dealing with the March 11, 2011 tsunami and Fukushima Daiichi meltdown. The most challenging is Imashiro Takashi’s Genpatsu genma taisen (the title combines “genpatsu” — nuclear power — with the name of the series of novels about a psychic invader from deep space that became the famous/infamous 1983 anime move Harmagedon) which captures the anger felt by many readers while looking critically at the political economy of nuclear power in Japan.
Kobayashi Yoshinori’s (yes, that Kobayashi Yoshinori) Datsu-Genpatsu Ron (On Abandoning Nuclear Power) makes a strong critique of Japan’s nuclear industry from the Right, asking why the public should be asked to pay month after month to electrical monopolies while still picking up the tab to the tune of hundreds of times the company’s stock value if something goes wrong. Kobayashi, of course, believes that while nuclear power is a no-no; nuclear weapons are where Japan should be looking. On the whole, this volume is less deliberately offensive than most of his work and certainly shows a shadow of the mid-1990s Kobayashi who was held to be an adroit progressive before Sensōron (On War) blew everything up.
The most powerful manga on the 3.11 disasters deals with the tsunami rather than the nuclear crisis. The twenty-first volume of Kusaka Riki’s Helpman! (a reference to elder care “helpers”) looks at the quake and inundation of Tōhoku communities from the point of view of the elderly and care workers. Over half of the total dead were 65 or older and hundreds of elderly died in shelters in the days and weeks after the crisis. Helpman! draws attention to this side of the tragedy, which was often homogenized as a “national” or “regional” experience, without losing the sharp affective high points of a mature seinen style. Helpman! is a underrated series that keeps getting better and shows that mainstream manga magazines (in this case, Evening) continue to explore new possibilities for the medium.