Friday, October 16, 2015

We're All Mad Here: Is Japan Really So Weird?

It's all over the internet on sites like WTF Japan and the tumblr Meanwhile in Japan...bizarre costumes, naughty vending machines, incomprehensible anime .gif images, over-the-top cuteness, tentacles in places there shouldn't be tentacles, etc. The Japanese government has been trying to promote the country's brand as a producer of sophisticated, high-quality, impressive things and experiences with the phrase "Cool Japan". Unfortunately in the young Internet community "Weird Japan" is probably more accurate.

But is Japan really so weird? If so, what makes it weird, and if not, why does it continue to put out a "weird" image? One has to keep in mind that the bizarre images you can find online under the wtfjapan tag are mostly stills from Japanese TV shows. Comedy shows. They are designed to be shocking or to make people laugh, and in a country untouched by Christianity, the outworking of that is a bit different from what Western people are used to. In the same vein, anime conventions, cosplay, and the otaku district of Akihabara are definitely deviations from the mainstream here. Not very many Japanese people watch only anime or wear maid costumes or buy used panties from vending machines. Most Japanese people join you in thinking it's weird. But weirdness can be entertainment gold, so it's often on TV as the object of ridicule. Japanese pop culture seems to be about entertaining the majority with some odd thing rather than reflecting what the majority is really like. There is an interesting theory I read about current Japanese pop culture and the tyranny of the minority--since only otaku (geeky fans) spend money on music and pop culture, they get to dictate what's popular. So we end up with idol groups like AKB on the TV 24/7.

In reality, city-dwelling Japanese lives are, on average I'd say, extremely mundane. Routine, convenience, obligation, sterility, common sense. A young Japanese pop-culture fan from overseas might be disappointed at how plain and conservative real Japanese life is. In daily life, in the activities people engage in, the conversations they have, the clothes they wear, the city streets they walk in, there is very little to jar the senses. Every morning, put on the same business attire as 80% of the population, leave your tiny nondescript apartment in your nondescript neighborhood and catch the crowded commuter train to work. After work, head to a bar with coworkers to complain about your job. Go back to your apartment for 6 hours of sleep. Rinse and repeat. Non-confrontational and harmonious. To Japanese people, the very opposite of weird. But for me...

Sometimes, when I'm particularly bitter or culture-shocked about working life here, I think of words like cult, anthill, hive-mind. Sameness and not stepping out of line, not offending anyone, finding comfort and meaning in being a useful cog in the machine--all things Americans were taught to fear and hate during the Cold War era and into the social rebellions of the 1970s and 80s. The mistrust of government and large organizations, of unity and basic mainstream-ness is still going strong in our culture. So the harmony of Japan is weird: mind-numbingly boring at best and dangerously soul-sucking at worst. The tumblr threads about "weird Japan" are completely missing the real weirdness.

Where did it all come from? How did Japan get to be this way? Who'd have guessed, a lot of the things I think are weird are actually from...America! That's right. After the war, Japan implemented (or was made to implement) many of the business practices and social norms of 1940s-50s America. And a lot of it has stuck to this day. Filtered and modified through Japanese group-oriented culture the society presents itself in a unique but not wholly unfamiliar shape. Like looking through time at an older, dear departed America in one of those fun mirrors at the fair. Think Mad Men with the tempering influence of Confucianism, a communal mindset, and risk aversion; add smartphones. When you copy and paste something, what you end up with is the content from that point in time. If the original document undergoes changes, what you pasted doesn't automatically change unless you make sure to update and paste the new parts in. Japan was extremely successful with the first material it copied and pasted from Western countries. The success is starting to run thin, so it will be interesting to see the route Japan takes into the future.

It still weirds me out that to find the weirdest thing about Japan, this American has to look in the mirror at her own culture. Perhaps the Cheshire cat was right, the problem is we're all mad here.

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