Category Archives: Society

Facebook blunders, Anime, and Nekulturny

Over the weekend, a New Hampshire state representative, Nikolas Levasseur made some ridiculous commentary on Facebook, saying that “Anime is the reason just 2 nukes wasn’t enough.”

Now, of course, for some, to be upset over this comment will be another example of oversensitivity and politically-correct responses to an ill-thought out, idiotic statement. But looking deeper, we can see that this is more than purely foolish rhetoric. Many people think Facebook is private and safe, but anyone who has been to “Failbooking” will recognize that what you say on Facebook may not stay among your close network of 500 friends. Indeed, we forget just how public the internet is. So perhaps Mr. Levasseur was just making an idiotic comment that one might make at a bar with friends, where some of his actual meat-space friends would say, “Nick, come on, that’s not cool.” And perhaps, he would have relented thinking that maybe “jokes” about thousands of people instantly dying are not funny in the least.

Perhaps this statement is also an example of someone simply being uneducated. As any Tom Clancy fan will know, a highly-charged Russian insult is to call someone Nekulturny, meaning “Uncultured.” A boorish, loud person might be prone to say such things. A person without deeper historic, or cultural appreciation for Japan might think it OK to say something like this. Maybe a way to prevent this kind of thinking is education.

Sure, there are things in anime that I find detestable, and I would not advise people to pick up and enjoy those titles. But, there is a huge variety of excellent, deep, moving, refreshing content within the anime genre that deserves to be seen and enjoyed. Most anime that we might find objectionable in the west is created for a subset of a purely Japanese audience, who has a different sense of what it means to enjoy something versus acting out on it. (We Americans seem to act out our violent fantasies, rather than leaving them in the realm of fantasy…just look at the murder/rape rate and compare to Japan.) But, to say anime is a reason a country should have been wiped out, and that a state representative is saying such things, is really inexcusable. If he read up a bit, he might realize, as Takashi Murakami posits, anime and the otaku subculture is really in response to the atomic vaporization of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

So, I humbly submit a short reading list for the state representative, and hope he will begin to do some homework before shooting of his mouth again.

  1. Dower, John. Embracing Defeat
  2. Drazen, Patrick. Anime Explosion
  3. Gravett, Paul. Manga, 60 Years of Japanese Comics
  4. Hendry, Joy. Understanding Japanese Society
  5. Ibuse, Masuji. Black Rain
  6. Kelts, Roland. Japanamerica
  7. De Bary, Keene, Tsunoda, and Varley. Sources of Japanese Tradition, vols 1-3
  8. Napier, Susan. Anime: From Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle.
  9. Schodt, Frederick L. Dreamland Japan
  10. Schodt, Frederick L. Manga, Manga, Manga
  11. Sugimoto, Yoshio. An Introduction to Japanese Society

空中庭園 (Hanging Garden) and 空白 (Kûhaku) as social commentary

33203328cd8859a45b9990zmIn class, I had my students read Chin Music Press’ excellent Kûhaku and other stories from Japan (2004) paired up with watching “Hanging Garden” or Kûchû Teien (2005). Where Kûhaku gives a broad spectrum of personal narratives concerning Japan, from both native and gaijin perspectives, Kûchû Teien is kind of a Japanese “FUBU” (For Us, By Us) movie that contains a strong social commentary.

At the same time, Kûhaku is a fantastic little book. The binding is a thick, grey canvas, embossed with color and thick, black lettering. The inner leaves are crimson, and the pages are at least 40# weight. The text of the book is a bit charcoal, on paper that has more of a yellowish tinge. There are color pages, especially in the poem/graphical journey for which the book is named. Kûhaku leaves the reader feeling uneasy, as if something is out of place. It is akin to that jet-lagged feeling you get after step off the plane at KIX, expecting it to be early in the morning, but the sun is just getting ready to set. Some essays deal with the Marxist superstructure/dialectic tension of a Confucian society. Others flat out vomit up honne when you are least expecting it. Especially engaging is David Cady’s Canned Coffee, where he chronicles the experiences he had whilst enjoying…er…imbibing various types of canned coffee. Equally valuable are the “Floating Feeling” series; three essays that explore the plight of various Japanese housewives. Also, Roland Kelts’ Oyaji Gari piece is most helpful, especially when dealing with the concept of きれる (kireru): losing it when you can’t take the pressure any longer.

Reading Kûhaku in conjunction with “Hanging Garden” is especially suitable for understanding Eriko’s (the main character’s) plight. Eriko lives in a fantasy world she has created for herself because she finds her own lived experiences to be too painful to accept as “reality.” She has schemed to build the “perfect” family where no one has any secrets, true honne, if you will, but ends up being completely false and “obsessed” with the lie she lives. Her husband cheats on her with a variety of women. Her daughter is trying to experiment with boys. Her son is almost a hikikômori, or shut-in, who lives in the simulation of reality he has created for himself on his macbook. Her mother is a bit of a free-spirit, and old baba who speaks her mind and is not afraid to make waves. Each member of the family has some major societal disfunction; but by the end, the family realizes its pretenses and resolves their problems in a tepid way. The movie is just claustrophobic, with an almost-happy ending; a good example of a superflat movie that deals with the postmodern social issues that some families face. There is hope at the end, but built on what? Trust? Faith? Faithfulness? Freedom? More like old-fashioned Confucian resolve and some phenomenological twists. The mother is reborn after she leaves her womb of her false reality, and the family is there for her to re-engage. But at what cost?

Some have compared it to American Beauty, and I think this is a fair assessment. It is important to examine postmodern Japan through the lens Japanese themselves are using to understand their own context. Instead of jumping to conclusions and saying, “All Japanese are X,” it is better to say, “These types of problems exist in society, and here is how some Japanese understand them.” As westerners looking in, we always run the danger of fetishizing or synecdochizing Japan based on slivers of stories that make their ways to our shores.

Disturbing, endearing, and enchanting, I cannot recommend these works enough.

Good articles on Adbusters

Roland Kelts has written a new article on Adbusters called “The Soul of Japan.” Kelts discusses the nature of Japanese popular culture, and connects some intriguing dots: Japan, being conquered by the USA, then officially occupied, followed up by years of US forces being present throughout Japan, has made Japan have a “little brother” complex, not allowing social maturation. He quotes Murakami Ryu, Murakami Haruki, and Murakami Takashi – the three big famous Murakamis (unrelated) with good effect.

Specifically pointed is Murakami Takashi’s point that because Japan lost the war, was completely firebombed, and twice atom bombed, then lost the divine status of the emperor; moreover, in a Confucian context: they lost their national father, they began to express their loss and underlying discontent in subcultural media, like manga, anime, and the like.

picture-1Another good article by Kelts at Adbusters.org speaks to the Japanese aesthetic of negative space, links Hello Kitty’s 17 lines to the success of minimalism, then talks to the attitudes surrounding garbage disposal and recycling, and how keeping the streets and planet clean fit into that matrix.

Japanese attitudes on trash have changed in the past 15 or so years. In 1994, we were burning almost all of our trash in the back-yard behind my small homestay family’s house in Gunma-ken. By 1997, it still had not caught on, but by 2000, recycling bins were popping up everywhere.

Funny thing is, anything you throw out, Japanese can tell how you live. If I threw out a pair of red boxer shorts, people would see them in the transparent bags that are used for showing which trash is which.

Growing up in NYC, we had red garbage cans for commingled recyclables by the late ’80’s with “curbside recycling.” It was fun and new, and always cool to think about the help to the environment. Sad thing was when you forgot, if a garbage cop found something in your regular trash, you’d get a ticket. The law took away our joy…and then when we learned that most of it wound up in a landfill anyway, we were sadly disillusioned. Still, the red trash cans were cool. Those who got them from the city later, had blue cans with white lids…they just weren’t as cool.