2014: Plurality Power / W. David MARX
Japan — a country that once prided itself on a “new middle mass” of “100 million middle class” — now finds its direction from passionate minority factions rather than a set of shared mainstream values. In 2014, there is no mass majority in Japan, only powerful pluralities.
The LDP won the election after no one turned out other than their solid bloc of older voters. The right-wing maintained its ruling coalition thanks to the gains of another powerful minority — Kōmeitō, a political party that mobilizes the devoted believers of its affiliated religious group. On the other side of the aisle, the minority Communists grew their numbers — enough to introduce bills to the Diet floor.
In pop culture, there were a few relics of the mass culture era — Frozen and Yokai Watch — but these shared experiences were mostly limited to children. Adults only came together to share downers: complaints about higher taxes, debates over the effectiveness of Abenomics, accusations towards imaginary STAP stem cells. (Even the year’s preordained comedy catch-phrase “dame yo, dame dame” is all about saying “no.”) Otherwise powerful pluralities own the culture. In music, the idol cults continue to dominate the music charts through an aggregation of splintered factions. Even without cable TV, top dramas struggle to pull more than a 10% rating.
So why try to force 2014 into a single story of “national culture”? In the place of any manufactured holistic narrative, here instead are some of the fragments that defined our year.
Abenomics / Noah SMITH
This was a difficult year for Abe Shinzō and his Abenomics program. The economy’s signals are mixed — investment has picked up, but consumption and exports are still anemic. The Bank of Japan continues to buy financial assets at a record pace, the so-called “first arrow” of Abenomics. But with employment at a 15-year low, it’s not clear what else the BOJ can do. Of course, the BOJ is certain to keep purchasing government debt, as this is the only way to maintain Japan’s interest rates at a level low enough for the still-rising government debt to be sustainable. But monetary policy’s effectiveness in terms of boosting the economy is probably near its limit.
Meanwhile, the “second arrow” — fiscal stimulus — is long gone, and Abe’s 3% sales tax hike is widely credited with sending the economy into a sudden recession. Abe could conceivably reverse course and choose to engage in a massive fiscal stimulus, funded by printed money, if the BOJ would go along. But this seems unlikely for political reasons, and with the unemployment rate already low, the effect would likely be minor anyway; there just aren’t that many more idle hands left to put to work. At this point, Japan’s best hope for fiscal policy is treading a wise and careful middle path and avoid derailing the fragile recovery that began in 2013.
As for the “third arrow” — structural reforms — Abe has proposed a large number of bold actions but failed to get them passed so far. His hope, and the hope of reformers in general, is that Abe’s political capital from the recent election victory will allow him to make headway on the TPP, labor reform, corporate governance reform, and other difficult, unpopular neo-liberal measures.
Womenomics / Noah SMITH
There is one way, however, in which Abe may already be sparking deep and lasting change. This is the area of gender equality in the workplace — the so-called “Womenomics” program. Westerners have, by and large, been skeptical that a renowned conservative like Abe could be serious about fighting for gender equality. But the idea seems to have permeated the consciousness of Japan’s elite, including bureaucrats, business leaders, the courts, and the media. Even if many of the women-boosting reforms being pushed by Abe fail, a sea change may have occurred in the mindset of Japan, Inc. Already, companies are announcing voluntary quotas for women in management positions, government ministries are creating plans to make bureaucratic jobs more female-friendly, and courts are ruling in favor of victims of “maternity harassment.”
Devin Stewart of the Carnegie Council has been conducting a series of interviews with Japanese female leaders and business leaders. There is a distinct sense that the change in attitude is real and spreading, although of course much more needs to be done. And the legal measures Abe intends to introduce over the following year — changing the tax system to encourage two-income families, ending incentives for long overtime hours, etc. — seem less likely to encounter resistance from vested interests than the other structural reforms he has proposed.
In other words, Womenomics is still in its infancy, but there are signs that it’s for real.
Kanji of the Year / Matt TREYVAUD
The Kanji of the Year for 2014 was 税 — “tax.” Organizers and individual voters struggled to frame the choice as a reaction to a generally taxocentric year of news, but of course it really just won because everyone’s unhappy about the consumption tax rising to 5% to 8%. Reaction online has been muted and surly, suggesting that a lot of people voted for 税 because they thought they should rather than because they actually wanted it to win. It’s certainly a big comedown after the recent string of positive winners like 絆 “bonds” and 金 “gold”; in fact, there hasn’t been such a purely negative Kanji of the Year since 2007’s 偽, “deceit” (which, incidentally, made #9 this year too; 嘘 “lie” was at #3).
Shukatsu Schedule Change / Adamu KUN
For Japanese third-year university students, December is the start of the job-hunting process (shūshoku katsudō or shūkatsu in Japanese). This commences with research on companies and innumerable “information sessions” that count as pre-pre-pre interviews.
This will change with the graduating class of 2016: Companies have agreed not to begin recruiting activities until March of a student’s third year. Corporate members of the Keidanren agreed to these changes under pressure from the Abe administration, which is interested in encouraging study abroad, internships, and other initiatives that would help Japan adapt its economic model to the modern era.
As dry and bureaucratic as that all sounds, the implications are enormous — millions of Japanese college students will now have an extra six months to study, create, and live life without having to go through an overly long job search.
But let’s be clear — these changes (like much of Abenomics) do not represent a fundamental paradigm shift. In other words, measures like this are intended to strengthen the nation-state of Japan. What has not changed is the high-stakes, one-strike-and-you’re-out nature of the hiring system itself. People who for whatever reason miss out or fail to thrive within the system are effectively shut out of the best jobs Japan has to offer. Perfectly talented individuals who just happen not to fit the mold will still be relegated to the employment underclass.
Foreign Tourists Hit New High / Adamu KUN
Back in 2003, the Japanese government set the goal of attracting 10 million tourists per year to Japan by 2010. They did not make that deadline, but finally surpassed their target. In 2013 the number of visitors from overseas suddenly skyrocketed 30% from the previous year to 10.4 million and is likely to reach 13 million in 2014. The streets of Shinjuku are now clogged with (usually confused and lost) tourists.
What explains the turnaround? To be sure it happened well before plans to create better tourism infrastructure really came to fruition. Japan over the past few years has relaxed some existing barriers to visits from neighboring countries, but the weaker yen has probably done at least as much by nudging a trip to Japan into an affordable price range.
Now that the tourists are coming, it’s up to the local community to ensure they’re having positive experiences that they will tell their friends and relatives about. That includes Anglophone foreigners who live here: One of my New Year’s resolutions will be to be more proactive in helping clearly lost groups of tourists when I’m in an area I know well.
The Olympics: The Biggest Issue that Never Was / Nick DONEGAN
In 2013, Tokyo won its long-running Olympic bid on a platform of compact scale, centralized proceedings, increased efficiency, and a small budget. This year budgets ballooned from $1.5 billion to $3 billion while construction companies found themselves faced with another bidding process. The IOC asked Tokyo for a more decentralized affair and the rather-far-away-from-Tokyo prefecture of Fukushima requested a prominent role, but all the Japanese press reported on was the possible resurrection of softball and baseball as well as plans for the entertainment lineup. In 2015, however, the Olympics may become the biggest issue of 2014 that never was.
RIP: Yakuza Film Stars Takakura Ken and Sugawara Bunta / Brett BULL
Actors Takakura Ken and Sugawara Bunta, who died this year, are among those credited with bringing the yakuza film genre to the world. Many will remember Takakura Ken from Black Rain, in which he appeared opposite Michael Douglas and Andy Garcia as assistant inspector Matsumoto (“And I do fucking speak English”). But for years before that 1987 film, Takakura had already become one of Japan’s most prominent actors. He was cast by the likes of director Yamada Yōji (The Yellow Handkerchief) and appeared in a number of hard-boiled flicks by studio Toei in the 1960s (A Fugitive From The Past). His passing in early November narrowly preceded that of Sugawara Bunta, who rose to fame in the 1970s through Toei’s post-war Battles Without Honor And Humanity series. Directed by Kinji Fukasaku, the films and Sugawara’s performances are frequently praised — notably by Quentin Tarantino — for projecting a realistic look at the underworld onto the screen.
An Obsession with Obscenity / Brett BULL
Japanese law enforcement repeatedly made headlines with its enforcement of Article 175 of the nation’s Penal Code, which restricts the sale and distribution of obscene materials (usually meaning renderings of non-obscured genitalia). On two occasions, Tokyo police arrested artist Igarashi Megumi (aka Rokudenashiko) for distributing image data of her vagina and publicly displaying a plaster replica of said organ. In Nagoya, police pressure forced an Aichi prefectural museum to cover up private parts in photographs of nude males contained in an exhibition. On the Internet, contributors to the video site FC2 Live came under scrutiny twice for streaming live porn segments without the use of a mosaic.
The End of Pink Japan / Brett BULL
1960s-era adult entertainment is in true decline. The Kantō area lost two more “pink” film theaters (one in Tokyo’s Shimbashi, another in Tochigi), leaving the number of theaters dedicated to the soft-core genre now at only 50 nationwide. Four decades ago, there were more than 1,000 venues. Things started to go downhill since the arrival of home video in the 1980s.
Another blow to anachronistic eroticism was the bankruptcy of legendary Rokku-za strip theater in Asakusa. Founded in 1947, the theater, which utilizes a stay-all-day for one price system, has hosted performances from a number of popular porn stars. News reports indicated that the theater has suffered from a substantial drop in attendance over the past decade. Given that the core demographic for both pastimes is the middle-aged male, Japan’s ageing population does not bode well for the survival of either.
Yokai vs. Yokai / Matt ALT
2014 may have been the year of the horse, but as far as the media industry was concerned it was the year of the yōkai — Yōkai Watch, to be precise. Often hailed as the “next Pokémon,” the series centers on a young boy who is able to see and harness monsters from Japanese folklore. As of December 2014, Yōkai Watch swept the worlds of video games (with five million copies sold of the latest installment “Yōkai Watch 2”), manga (it won the 38th Kodansha Manga Award), and toys (raking in 10 billion yen in sales while forcing Bandai-Namco president Ishikawa Shuko to convene a press conference to apologize for shortages.) But perhaps none of these victories was as symbolic as that of Yōkai Watch: The Movie. It opened domestically in mid-December and promptly trounced Disney’s Big Hero 6 — the antagonist of which, ironically enough, just happens to be named Yokai.
Meet The New Cool Japan, Same As The Old Cool Japan / Patrick ST. MICHEL
It was a good year for Japanese pop acts going viral through checking off all the classic “weird Japan” boxes. Idol-pop-meets-heavy-metal trio Babymetal’s “Gimme Chocolate!” racked up millions of YouTube views, and that momentum helped land shows in North America and Europe. Lady Gaga then invited the group to be the opening act during part of her North American tour, as was the Vocaloid avatar Hatsune Miku. In 2014, that holographic singer also performed on the Late Show With David Letterman, leading to a rush of tweets from confused regular viewers wondering what anime was doing on their TV.
Both achieved the same sort of gawked-at success in the West that many other Japanese media entities have managed in the YouTube age, one where the sheer WTF-ness of something (context be damned) surpasses actual appreciation. And it went the other way, too — Western artists such as Clean Bandit and Pharrell Williams used Japan and Japanese pop culture as backdrops for videos they released this year. As did Canadian singer Avril Lavigne, who found herself in hot water after her Harajuku-centric clip for “Hello Kitty” was accused of cultural appropriation.
Idols Actually Aimed At Women / Patrick ST. MICHEL
Up-and-coming idol-pop groups have appropriated nearly every subculture over the last few years. EDM club kids? Yep. Slightly chubby women? You bet. Steampunk? Sure, why not. Yet one of the year’s best selling outfits succeeded with a far more obvious theme — marketing to actual women instead of men. E-Girls, a 27-member-strong supergroup, signed to Avex, technically serving as the all-woman version of EXILE (hence the “E”). The group was a constant name on both the Oricon Charts and various digital rankings, and of course, an advertising staple.
Taking cues from the more mature-leaning groups in Korea, E-Girls presented an image and music that tried to relate to actual women rather than offer up an unsettling fantasy version of girls for male consumers. A poll late in the year found that they were the most aspirational idols for women in Japan. Nothing highlighted this better than the video for their top single of the year, “High School Love,” whereas dozens of idol units donned uniforms and played up the kawaii in a school setting, each member of E-Girls wore something different and danced confidently without infantilizing themselves.
The Year Idol Music Became Sort of Interesting / Devon FISHER
2014’s Oricon singles chart was entirely devoid of surprises, the top 50 almost wholly dominated by the trifecta of Johnny’s groups, EXILE Tribe and Yasushi Akimoto’s ridiculous girl groups, but in the margins of Japan’s idol-obsessed music culture something interesting happened. Exemplified by EXILE Tribe’s K-pop inspired E-Girls and the newly reconfigured Morning Musume ’14 (such a departure from previous generations that Hello! Project management saw fit to add the year to their name), all of a sudden the idol group sound was taking in influences from the Occidental realm of EDM; apparently the expiration date on the Onyanko Club sound has finally been reached. Yasutaka Nakata’s production for Perfume, once a dramatic departure from the ordinary, now no longer sounds all that far-off from the mainstream, and idol groups are all the better for it. If idols are going to completely dominate the realm of popular music anyways, might as well make sure that music is at least somewhat fresh.
Parupaganda / Ian LYNAM
On July 1, Prime Minister Abe announced a decision to reinterpret the Japanese constitution, allowing the Japanese military to support allied nations under attack. In short, this monumental reinterpretation legalized Japanese rearmament, outlawed by the post-war constitution. Within hours of the decision, a YouTube video featuring AKB48 Team A member Haruka “Paruru” Shimazaki (島崎 “ぱるる” 遥香) appeared online encouraging citizens to join the Japan Self-Defense Force (自衛隊).
In the Realm of a Dying Emperor / Jason G. KARLIN
Johnny Kitagawa, the founder and president of the talent agency Johnny & Associates (hereafter Johnny’s), is approaching the twilight of his control over the male idol empire he created. Since Johnny himself appears to be averse to anointing a new president, a succession dispute emerged within the organization and intensified in 2014.
Johnny’s realm is now divided between two factions. One is led by Julie Keiko Fujishima, who is Johnny’s niece. Her faction includes the groups Arashi, TOKIO, V6, and Kanjani Eight, among others. The other faction is headed by Iijima Michi, who has managed SMAP since their creation. Her faction consists of SMAP, Kis-My-Ft2, Sexy Zone, and A.B.C-Z.
In 2014, conflict between these two factions has grown so intense that is creating headaches for Japan’s networks and television program producers. Groups under Fujishima and groups under Iijima almost never appear together on the same music or variety shows. While not uncommon between rivaling labels, this degree of internal competition is unprecedented.The Japanese advertising and entertainment industries yearn for the coronation of a new empress.
Boyz Be Sexy / Jason G. KARLIN
On July 15, 2014, fans of the five-member Johnny’s idol group Sexy Zone were devastated to learn that the group would be re-organized into a three-member unit. Management split off the two youngest members to form a new group called Sexy Boyz.
Sexy Zone was born from disaster. The formation of the group originally was scheduled to be announced in May 2011, but due to the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, the group’s debut was postponed until late September 2011. At the time of their debut, they were the youngest group in the history of Johnny’s idols — the average age of the group’s members was 14.2 and the youngest was only 11. Though more than a few eyebrows were raised about the group’s naming, Johnny Kitagawa responded to criticism by explaining that he wanted “less beautiful boys (bishōnen) and more sexy.”
The two former members of Sexy Zone were combined with six members of Johnny’s Jr. to form the new eight-member idol unit called Sexy Boyz. Before the announcement of Sexy Boyz, an Internet search for the group’s name returned numerous blocked sites that would trigger browser warnings. Today, thanks to Johnny’s, a search for “Sexy Boyz” now safely leads to fan sites and news regarding the group’s activities.
Comedy Band Makes Salient Point / Patrick ST. MICHEL
Popular four-piece Golden Bomber is an “air” band (they pretend to play instruments live while a pre-recorded track plays) best summed up as the “clown princes of contemporary J-pop.” At this year’s Rock In Japan festival, they spent more time on gags and coating themselves in blue paint than performing. Yet Golden Bomber made one on-the-nose point this year — capturing the growing exhaustion with Japanese music promotions. For their August single “Rola No Kizudarake,” the physical single came with plain white cover art, and lacked any of the bonuses that have become a staple of Oricon-topping acts such as AKB48 and EXILE. It was a deliberate “specialization in music” experiment, one which found member Kiryuin lamenting how the current J-pop landscape moves the focus from the music to promotions such as handshake events. Many online agreed with him, and the single debuted at the number-two spot on Oricon… bested only by an EXILE single packaged with tickets to a “high touch” event.
Indie Music / Ian MARTIN
While 2014 was a typically dire year for J-pop in general, it was a marvelous year for brilliant Japanese music of absolutely no broader pop-cultural significance. Fukuoka quartet Hearsays’ In Our Time mini-album was seven cuts of the most gorgeous, shimmering, spine-tingling indiepop imaginable, while Oversleep Excuse’s Slowly Better was steeped in fragile, heartbreaking melodies, and Luminous Orange’s Soar, Kiss the Moon veered thrillingly between Stereolab-esque sophistipop, richly textured shoegaze, and intricate prog/math rock.
2014 also saw a blitzkrieg of raw, discordant postpunk/no-wave/skronk/junk with Panicsmile’s Informed Consent, synth-punk duo Hangaku’s raucous self-titled debut, an even more ferocious temper tantrum of a debut (also eponymous) by early Boredoms-style junk noise band Halbach, The Mornings’ Idea Pattern, Sonic Youth-influenced Nagoya band Free City Noise’s Leaving and Otori’s electrifying I Wanna Be Your Noise. On a rather more eccentric note, Tochigi-based duo Teashikuchibiru’s wonderfully titled Punch! Kick! Kiss! was easily the year’s best violin-and-acoustic-guitar-based folk/new wave/hip hop crossover album, and Umez snatched the prize for best J-pop/machine noise hybrid garage-punk (there’s more of it around than you might think).
Impressive albums also emerged from new wave old timers Convex Level, Sapporo-based indie-folk act Hasymonew, Fukuoka math rockers Macmanaman, intricately-worked Nagoya guitar pop trio Crunch, Tokyo new wave/krautrock band Buddy Girl and Mechanic, rounding off an abundant harvest of wonderful, weird, discordant, delicate and beautiful music with no commercial prospects whatsoever.
Twenty-five Years of Flipper’s Guitar / W. David MARX
In August 1989, Keigō Oyamada and Kenji Ozawa’s band Flipper’s Guitar released its first album Three Cheers for Our Side, unwittingly launching the Japanese music genre known as Shibuya-kei. I wrote in detail about four key Flipper’s Guitar songs over at Memories of Shibuya (one, two, three, four), but what is interesting to me is the degree to which Flipper’s Guitar introduced so many diverse influences to Japanese music… only to have them all be erased 25 years later. Nothing in the world of J-Pop now sounds like Shibuya-kei. The other thing is how far the bar has dropped: J-Pop is so domestically-oriented and incestual that we’re breathless when someone adds something vaguely Skrillex to the mix. We should not forget that Shibuya-kei was not just “Western music made by Japanese people” — it was obscure Western music made by Japanese people.
Shibuya-kei’s Quiet Comeback / Devon FISHER
With the scene having been kept on life support for most of the last decade, it seemed unlikely that the once-trendy sounds of Shibuya-kei would ever be making a comeback. But with Tower Records in Shibuya affecting a revival through their own T-Palette Records label, Shibuya-kei artists who had long since gotten used to irrelevance are making surprise appearances on the pop charts — penning songs for idol groups such as Negicco, granted, but nothing’s perfect. Old standbys such as Cibo Matto and Buffalo Daughter came out with albums this year, the former marking 15 years since the group’s previous full-length. A new generation of musicians are seeking credibility through posing with Maki Nomiya for instagram selfies, Yasuharu Konishi has his own idol group with the model duo Nananon, and little by little the best thing about Japanese music in the ’90s seems poised to reclaim its former glory. Perhaps Cornelius might even start writing “songs” again.
Manga of the Year / Matt TREYVAUD
Unita Yumi’s Aomiyuku Yuki 2 (「青みゆく雪」, 宇仁田ゆみ) is the long-awaited second (and final) volume of a story she began serializing in 2009. The title is an untranslatable pun on the names of the two lead characters, college students Sei (青) and Yukiko (雪子). Sei is the best and most honest representation of an adult learner of Japanese language that I’ve ever seen in a comic book. Instead of stereotypical tics or katakana “desu”s, Unita gives him a genuine, recognizable L2 Japanese of his own. Volume One ended with a cliffhanger: Can love overcome a language boundary? Volume Two adds an intra-Japonic twist to this question and then stands back and lets the characters sort it all out.
Old-Timey Album of the Year / Matt TREYVAUD
I’m not going to make any claims for its status as great art, but I didn’t run across another album all year that was as much fun to listen to as “Nee kōfun shicha iya yo”: Shōwa ero-kayō zenshū 1928-1932 (『ねえ興奮しちゃいやよ』 昭和エロ歌謡全集 1928~32), a compilation of “ero[tic] kayō” from the early Showa period. Erotic march enthusiasts especially will want to pick this one up, as it includes not only the “Ero March” but also the “Ero-ero March.”
Popular Reference Work of the Year / Matt TREYVAUD
Kinsui Satoshi (金水敏) has been working the yakuwari-go 役割語 (“role language”) beat for more than a decade now, exploring why fiction is full of old professors calling themselves washi and rich young women exclaiming yokutte yo even though no-one has said those things in real life for decades. The Kinsui-edited Yakuwari-go shōjiten 〈役割語〉小辞典 (“A small dictionary of role language”) is aimed squarely at a general audience, and as such, offers only very brief summaries of the sociolinguistics of gonsu, batten and the like, but this also allows it to fit in more citations from fiction and manga.
The End of Gyaru Magazines / W. David MARX
Last year I admitted being wrong about a “permanent gyaru dominance” in fashion. Japan’s famously gaudy women have been slowly disappearing from Shibuya, or more likely, showing up in front of 109 in completely reasonable clothing. This year, the End of Gyaru became conventional wisdom with the closing of core publications egg, Koakuma Ageha, and BLENDA.
The demise of the first two came after the publishers ran into major financial trouble. BLENDA, on the other hand, is part of more established Kadokawa Haruki, but even it went away. One can imagine that the decline of actual gyaru has gutted the advertising budgets of gyaru-targeting businesses. International luxury brands have to advertise somewhere, so the existence of LVMH guarantees that there will always be a Spur or Brutus. But subcultural magazines live and die by the health by the smaller scale businesses that cater to them. They go down with the whole ecosystem.
That being said, magazines are not necessarily required for youth culture anymore, especially for the so-called “delinquent subcultures.” The gyaru are no longer in Shibuya, but they’re out there. After merging with yankii in the late 1990s, the gyaru style is primarily a provincial one, and we can imagine strong gyaru communities, heavy make-up, and bright pink, crystal-studded tracksuits outside of the capital. And maybe things are not as dire as they look: Koakuma Ageha is coming back. Japan’s thousands of kyabajō still need style guidance.
Comme des Garçons and Frozen / Team NÉOJAPONISME
A few weeks ago, Sam Byford of The Verge tweeted this photo of Comme des Garçons’ Aoyama flagship store — with illustrations of Elsa and Anna on the window — and asked, “ummm what has happened to comme des garcons.” Yes, Kawakubo Rei’s fiercely avant-garde brand has made a Frozen collection. From the nicest, least critical, “Hey, Adrian, let’s stay friends!” perspective, CdG does these kinds of collaborations all the time with mass market brands — H&M, Speedo, Nike, Fred Perry, The Beatles, Star Wars. But Frozen? Is Kawakubo Rei trying to prove that she can place a halo of coolness on anything in the entire world? For 2015, we hope that Comme des Garçons the company — once a paragon of experimental apparel — can locate some more inspirational standards in collaboration partners. The world does not need Hypebeast pages on CdG x Duck Dynasty, CdG x AXE Body Spray, CdG x Maeda Atsuko, CdG x Liberal Democratic Party, etc., etc….
Azuma Hiroki Goes Global / Brett FUJIOKA
In the world of Japanese criticism, Azuma Hiroki’s new book, General Will 2.0: Rousseau, Freud, Google, received an English translation. The book takes a look at the ways social media could potentially reshape (or rethink) modern democracy in the near future. In Japanese, Azuma published another book on a similar subject matter — “Dark Tourism.” The work received air time on Japanese television and attracted attention from video game developer Hideo Kojima.