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First Manifesto of Neojaponisme

I. The Past Battle

We had stayed up all night, my colleagues and I. But not as drowsy individuals slouching towards daylight, nor as a collection of human beings shaking hands, waiting to speak, and warming a particular vector in physical space. Spread across manifold longitudes, we took terminal shifts at our terminals, engaging in a two-handed clatter to further embellish a never-ending reel of electronic dialogue. We gladly assumed the Posture of Our Brand New Century: faces illuminated in a fluorescent glow, digits clicking out polyrhythms, sweaty palms soiling the plastic below.

At our distinct junction in the information network, productive discussion and debate almost immediately erupted into destructive warfare. Just like the riverside picnics at the beginning of the Civil War, onlookers multiplied to watch the bloody skirmish in a carnival spirit, judging the success of the posted materials by the numbers of passions inflamed. “Enemies” — who may have ultimately shared the same values and goals, but different priorities — took upon the task of endless rhetorical antagonism, and the obliqueness of sarcasm in the purely written exchange bred further hostility. Maugre our best intentions, these daily skirmishes always ended in scorched earth stalemate. Everyone hobbled away from the battleground, flags singed and elbows bruised.

The war of attrition ultimately decimated the rewards of creation and cerebration. Engaging debate was reduced to ongoing bickering. We lurched towards the reset button.

II. What We Learned

In retreat from the battle, one vision stood out against the sunset like Constantine’s Chi Rho at Saxa Rubra: for all the point scoring and fist pounding, we know absolutely nothing in absolute terms. Whether wearing the masks of “cultural relativists” or “structural determinists,” we should unite to reject dogma — the hard-headed notion infecting disparate ideologies that a single system of thought has already established the answers and our job is to merely punish the vulgarity of unbelievers.

(How can one write a manifesto without offering a fresh, more accurate set of dogmatic principles? Continue reading the First Manifesto of Néojaponisme!)

Dogma involves babysitting heirlooms of dubious value deep within a bunker of reinforced concrete. With so much territory left to explore and subtleties yet to be grasped, how can we subject ourselves to live in such a prison or be employed as one of the guards? We must hit the road, uncover trails, overturn rocks, traverse darkened alleyways, and open more forbidden chests than the members of the Olympic Pandora’s Boxing Team. The jury will always be out on most of our core issues, and we are hardly delusional enough to see ourselves as the final arbiters. Our role can only be the constant presentation of new evidence to the court.

With small numbers and narrow concerns, we will not be able to dislodge the craggy peaks of such hardened concepts as New, Old, Underground, Overground, East, West, Reality, and Fantasy. Instead, from henceforth we pledge to thoroughly explore the valleys of contradiction and inconsistency located in-between these mighty mountain ranges.

III. New/Old: Struggling to Find Novelty

After a lifetime of basking in the languid leisure of discursive entertainments, we have come upon crisis. Technological change continues to corrode the central pillars to our comprehension of art and culture. Once stable concepts like stardom, influence, popularity, and importance are now mere carapaces, no longer in parallel motion with their underlying assumptions.

We had been taught to bestow the banners of innovation and progress upon a tapered array of arts, which we later discovered had been already perfected by our elders. Despite all this talk about the speed of cultural and technological change in the new century, we continue to idolize a music and an ideology of anti-social sloth from fifty years prior. Dependable formats for espousing cultural revolution had slowly morphed into a franchise enterprise of petty crafts.

We flew out into the world believing that progress was inherent and never-ending. We too would inherit the titles and crowns of the previous generation by picking up where our older brothers left off. We followed our instilled desire to break down barriers and raze temples — only to see such destructive passion rot into frustration. Our forefathers had already cleared all the land and built their careers on the bountiful harvest. With pickaxes drawn and nothing to slice in half, our arms began to wither — the weapon hanging over our heads like the Sword of Damocles.

The crisis of our generation, or perhaps, every generation: novelty itself had become an expired idea. And yet we had been warned repeatedly that indulgence in retrospection could only lead to stagnation! “Do not turn back to view Sodom, children!” And yet, we are criticized for not being pillars of salt!

The burden of history has only intensified in our increased ability to consume the New and the Old, the Ancient and the Current, the Established and the Wobbly, equally and simultaneously. (Sorry, Father, in one click we can learn more about the obscure regional hits at your high school prom than you ever knew at the time.) The unconscious calculation fundamental to former ideas of cultural progress that “new automatically trumps old” is based on an expired assumption that we live in a fixed continuum of time.

Modern technology allows greater freedom from the chains of the fourth dimension, but such freedom creates severe competition from ghosts.

Although it seems tempting to demand a total annihilation of the stale cultural values of the past, the concept of scrap-and-build also seems quaintly archaic — as if the world revolves purely on change and not the choices of continuity. Our first goal must be to question contemporary assumptions and their incompatibility with the present before we advocate a program of erasure.

Our generation has no choice but to indulge in a revised futurism beyond the historically-anchored concept of Futurism. Uninhibited time-shifting and multi-directional time-travel are more advanced than constantly pushing the seams of forward progress. With no new territory, we cannot simply be the New Adventures of Lewis and Clark to etch our names in heavy tomes. We must move back and forth, side to side in our honest attempt to break new ground.

IV. Underground/Overground: Welcome Home

The intersections between the underground and the overground seen in the late 1960s and early 1990s should be considered historical flukes, perfect cultural storms of markets, consumers, and media convergence. They are not the inevitable results of cyclical history. Now that the information overload has vastly expanded the individuation and atomization of non-mainstream cultural sects, we have thrown permanent cultural control back to the lazy plurality of the middle. “Number One” is no longer an indicator of public reception as much as the top prize in a petty masculine battle between marketing budgets.

So in this era of self-marginalization, let us celebrate the return of the niche, the minor, the incomprehensible, and the minimal back to its small, hidden nest. We shall no longer lament the passing of an exceptional era when these strange morsels of culture from the fringes found favor in the masses. We weirdos may never climb the heights of our forebears, but let us enjoy the warmth and comfort of our secret caves and secret knocks.

V. East/West: Japan as International

Twelve-hundred words and we have yet to mention why we have congregated: Japan. But keeping in the spirit of exploratory re-imagination, let us no longer construe Japan in such a literal sense, solely as the island nation lying off the Eastern coast of the Asian continent. Japan is bigger than just Japan. Japan is metaphor and allegory, successful case study and cautionary example, tragedy and comedy, Eden and the Land of the Lotus Eaters. All these multiple narratives cannot possibly be correct at the same time, unless we remove Japan from its strict geographical denotation and explore a more abstracted Japan in conjunction with our normal surveillance of reality.

Lessons learned in past battles will guide our new explorations within Japanese society and culture, but let us use internal philosophies within Japan to justify our more expansive approach. We have always been attracted to a certain fringe of contemporary Japanese consumer society that pursues the mukokuseki (無国籍) — a “no nationality” framework of the modern world. In Tokyo, the following are all pedestrian: sips from a Mauritanian vanilla milk tea at a Continental cafe under the soothing pulse of Bossa Nova; glimpses at a kanji-coated article about a Hollywood-funded Hong Kong director; calls on a Korean phone and music on a Chinese-built, American-designed iPod as the Japanese train passes Belgian designer boutiques, German bakeries, and British pubs. Mukokuseki is a New Internationalism — an inclusive philosophy to unite the world on equal terms — more apt for today’s society than early attempts at the forced uniformity into primary colors and straight lines. Japan’s selfish neutrality between East, West, continental system, and island isolation allows such equidistant acceptance.

Even if we remain pinned down with the legal regulations of citizenship, the bureaucratic hustle of visas and master cards, we have already abandoned the psychological confines of the nation state. The Mukokuseki philosophy may have been born from a hyper-materialist, consumerist pursuit, but we shall test the potential of expanding the ideological core. And within this new view, we can no longer examine Japan without an eye to the rest of the world, and conversely, we must explore the rest of the world to keep an eye on Japan.

VI. Reality/Fantasy: Néo-Orientalisme vs. Néojaponisme

Oh, we do like Japan! There has been much controversy over this issue, but we proudly proclaim again that our criticisms come from a hope to see Japan protect its strengths and maximize its potential. We feel sorry for a conception of love hollowed out to command unambiguous and unconditional acceptance of the status quo. We certainly appreciate specific strengths of the Japanese system: excellent transportation, healthy food, public civility, product diversity, and visual proficiency. The question is whether these system outputs fully justify the less desirable elements running behind the scenes — monopoly, duopoly, oligopoly, organized crime, statism, patriarchy, feudalism, or worse. More importantly, are these dark forces integral to producing desired outputs or can they be cleanly removed like vestigial organs?

In the past, we may have been excessively militant about eradicating the fantastical myths that seem to overpower the realities of the Japanese nation.

As Japan blossoms in the international garden, a few cling to Néo-Orientalisme, a Romantic ideology updating the old lust towards submissive geisha and beautiful ukiyo-e with an obsession for Japan’s post-1980s cultural and technological accomplishments. Japan certainly provides the world with alternate social, economic, and political systems for serious consideration, but we should not make the mistake of believing that we have discovered a utopian parallel to our own society. If we really want to advocate certain policy triumphs in Japan for global betterment, we must fully understand the sometimes painful realities behind the working order.

So we will continue to harpoon fictional whales in the Neo-Orientalist pod, but we shall not charge the fields like a grand cavalry of humorless party-poopers. We must admit: the fantasy of Japan is often lovely in its own right. Man cannot live on data alone. By all means, we should celebrate the collective fantasy itself as exquisitely-rendered fantasy. Yes, we will continue to fight the nefarious use of fiction as a deceptive political tactic or cynical tool for economic gain, but we should hardly shun all poetic tributes to Japan in a narrow search for prose.

We have taken the name Néojaponisme as a convenient rubric for our pursuits. This is not a revival of that specific Japonisme visual design style of the 19th century (now often construed as “Neo-Japanesque”), but we do indeed identify ourselves as impudent inheritors of the original Japonisme spirit. We too are non-Japanese inspired by Japanese culture, and we too hope to advocate Japanese products and creative culture that may have been devalued or ignored in Japan. But let us correct the fundamental philosophy of the previous movement in two areas:

First, we expand the idea of Japonistic Japanese inspiration beyond pure visual aesthetics to a broader appreciation of myriad creative fields.

Second, we remove any Orientalisme or self-serving fantasies at the base of appreciation. We know thee not, Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum: fall to thy prayers!

VII. We Want! We Don’t Want!

Starting afresh, we authors, editors, and supporters at Néojaponisme adopt a new stride to move forward and avoid the tarpits of previous sojourns.

1. We no longer want to hear the echoes of our own voices bouncing off the cocoon walls! We invite a host of authors and speakers, artists and thinkers, professors and students, enemies, compatriots, dissidents, and traitors to speak their mind in the virtual pages of our humble journal.
2. We shall bring the words and thoughts of the Japanese public sphere into the current lingua franca and shall aim to eventually bring our English thoughts into Japanese! Why rely on hearsay when you can hear what is actually being said?
3. We refuse to be buried within the steel of a fixed structure! Vaporize the essay! Rip the blog in half! Drown the podcast! Frisk the fisk! Long live the essay! Celebrate diversity and inconsistency! Format innovation should walk hand-in-hand with content innovation!
4. We shall not drown in a sea of text! Welcome, visuals. Hello, music. How are you doing today, video footage? Salut, holographic meta-tags.
5. We refuse to abandon the Net to hollow carbohydrates! Down with link collections! We must provide an alternative to the ever-growing number of Boing-Boingian cultural capsules masquerading as substantive intellectual sustenance! Enough pointing already, Netizens! Such a constant flow of sugary meme morsels will ruin your appetite. Who will sit down and read an essay when the Internet Gods provide hundreds of fragments and gimmicks in its place? We denounce this addiction to sweets and promise to provide protein to the hungry masses. Do children dream of being linkers or linkees?
6. We shall build up and promote the Future to fill the wreckage of our creative destruction in the Present! Nobody wants to hear our whining! If we tear up a poisonous oak, we must plant a fair elm in its place. For every discussion on the problems swimming in our pool, we must relay a glimmer of hope twinkling on the horizon.
7. We shall continue to fight the intrusion of business logics on our creative expressions! Eradicate tie-up advertorial by 2008! Stop creating hierarchies of cultural importance through advertising outlays! The only way to take pop culture seriously is to take pop culture apart, and sometimes dismantling does not please the dismantled.
8. We reject all forms of celebrity, idolization, and implicit social hierarchies! Fame is a symptom we confuse for the ailment. Like charisma, celebrity is not something possessed, but describes the aggregate response of others towards a specific individual. The social relations behind the phenomenon of celebrity are wholly negative: creating barriers and ranks between the like-minded.
9. We shall speak to a broader audience than this old ghetto! We are transmitting live from Tokyo, Japan to the rest of the globe! Slouching in our tender corner of the world, once again we point our queries to the stars! We hope you will be listening when fragments of answers ricochet off the atmosphere and return to our little transceiver.

W. David MARX
August 27, 2007