Politics of Rebellion vs. Politics of Prescription: Engaging Japanese Contemporary Music

Music and politics has long been a well known combination throughout history. In fact, whole musical genres were founded with that combination in mind. Punk rock might be the most obvious example of that. Japanese music has been no exception, with musical genres well known for its politics making political statements in their Japanese versions as well, with rap, folk, and punk rock groups using their songs to discuss politics in Japan and in the world. Japanese music has not only limited its politics to local issues. Former superstar rap group King Giddra have recorded in the past a song about the events of 9/11 in New York, with lyrics that said:

“Is this terrorists vs. nations? No, wrong. That would me mistaking one part for the whole. The media’s strategy is to push good against evil. Makes me see again an atom bomb that fell in the past.”

This is certainly not to say that everyday life politics of Japan are also not taken into account. In a more recent music, Kyoto based rapper Anarchy sings:

“Gambling on payday and without money. I’m sick of hearing “I won’t drink again”. […] This hard environment got us trapped in a cycle. The heart is as strong as the amount of tears.”

However, there is another music genre in Japan that I have dedicated the last 5 years researching about that give us some new way of performing politics within music. That would be a genre called “Visual Kei”. Whereas traditionally political music is framed at an external problem to that of the singer, such as a culture of war, poverty, nuclear politics, and so on; Visual Kei’s political lyrics usually change the focus from the external to that of the self. It is the violence directed at yourself as a way to deal with the pain caused by your surroundings. Sometimes the “violence against self” goes beyond the metaphor and strikes directly at the flesh.

Kyo No Future Blood Kyo No Future Scar

Yet, what political Visual Kei lyrics do is to drop from the focus at the issue and bring the focus to the individual, the victim, the sufferer. Dadaroma’s first released song can exemplify this shift of perspective:

“The beautiful images you show on TV are just making our eyes worse. I wonder if you will even set a price on the warmth that slightly remains” […] “An airplane fell, too many people died, I’ll forget the TV’s number by tomorrow”

Dadaroma’s lyrics can be seem as a tale of loss of the senses in an age of post-modernity commodification and velocity. Just as the materiality of the TV only hurts your eyes no matter how beautiful the images that they show are, and how even the warmth can have a price putted on it, the velocity with which the news fly by, as informational numbers and data, robs one’s capacity to relate or empathize with the lives lost and the suffering shown. Another band, the Gallo, give us another example of portraying critique through the broken lenses of the self:

A dandelion is being trampled in the greater Tokyo area that I used to dream about. I’m casting my fears aside due to the methamphetamine and I’m looking for tender passion in the red-light district.” […] “I glare at miserable rich-men while I’m rummaging through the garbage of the red-light district.”

This self that looks for tender love in the red-light streets, where delicate flowers are trampled upon in the land of dreams set us again in a path of looking at the dirt and ugliness of reality while being invited to imagine dreams and have tender feelings in it. It is hard not to give more weight to these lyrics when one remembers the context of Tokyo’s over-developed “love” industry.

The point here is that while political Visual Kei lyrics don’t let go of critique of the social, they are doing so without so much of the prescriptive element that more traditional forms of political lyrics have. The calls for political union and devotion to a common cause. The idea of standing together against evil. Nonetheless, Visual Kei manages to give voice to a post-modern generation that is often lost in nihilism and hopelessness, and bring them to address these topics that might have otherwise been swept under the rug in more general political discussions of mainstream Japan.

As Japanese philosopher Toshiya Ueno said that there are no longer a public sphere in (Metropolitan) Japan, as people are more and more forced to congregate ideas and perspectives in privatized spaces (And as someone who frequently used Mr.Donuts as a space for debate, I can vouche for that), some Visual Kei performer can be seem filling this space, using the privatized space of music industry and live houses to express that which is hidden in public discourse. Making politics beyond prescription. A new form of politics for a new era.

Momoiro Clover Z vs. Kiss – Orientalism vs. Westernization

In one unexpected collaboration the J-Pop group Momoiro Clover Z teamed up with Hard Rock band Kiss to produce a single together. A single that also became a video with the participation of both groups of artists. The results of that you can check in the official channel of the bands in YouTube

Now, besides the unusual combination being interesting to talk about in itself, in this post I would wish to talk more about how this can illustrate a debate that permeates most of the commentaries regarding Japanese contemporary (pop) culture. The long lasting feud between Orientalism vs. Westernization.

On one side we have those who defend the idea that contemporary Japanese culture has “Westernized” (or Americanized) itself. Usually the defenders of this line of argument see a loss of “Japanese traditions” in today’s culture and see little difference between today’s Japanese Post-Modern Capitalist Society and the culture in what is often called “The West”. Thus, when calling contemporary Japan “Western” there is also a hint of nostalgia for a loss of something that used to be there. What kind of things, you wonder? Well, maybe the music video in question can help us answer that.

In less than one minute into the video, we can already observe a lot of what the “Japanese Tradition” usually stands for in the minds of the “Westernization” circle: Sakura (cherry blossoms), Carps, hand fans, wafuku, the mythical figure Kappa, etc… All that wrapped in an anime format with your curry rice here and there. In fact the end of the first verse makes references to a old children song sung in Japan and in Japanese migrant communities (koi, koi, hotaru koi) and to a long lasting game still played in Japan today (achi, muite, hoi!).

As the anime characters turn into their real personas in the video, the background remain being made of drawings, except that instead of anime now is the ukiyo-e style drawings that constitute the background with images of the mount fuji, the rising sun, and other motifs that can be called into the “Traditional Japanese” repertoire

Momoiro Kiss Fuji

Now they mimic Sumo wrestlers, before a few seconds later some creatures from the Japanese mythological repertoire give them powers and their clothes “evolve” into samurai looking armors.

Momoiro Samurai Armor

As the video ends, one question remains. How come Japanese contemporary pop-culture lost its “traditional roots” if most of what we see from this January 2015 music video consists in those same elements that are referred as being lost?

Perhaps the other side of the debate might offer us some answers. For those who defend the “Orientalism” perspective, Japanese contemporary culture is the result of a orientalist gaze that looks for what is exotic and “unique” in it, feeling the need to read it as part of a irreconcilable difference between it and what is called the “Modern West”. Thus, to them, what is framed as Japanese contemporary pop culture often stands for a Western consumption of the exotic elements of Japan, having little to do with the lived experiences of actual Japan.

However, to them, the question that emerge from the video is what would explain then the fact that Momoiro Clover Z, a band who is far from being directed at an international career and that has its biggest audience inside Japan, decided to perform this song and video full of this traditional elements mainly to the local audience of Japan?

In the end, who emerges victorious from the debate between Westernization vs. Orientalism ?

My answer? None.

While the Orientalist side is right to make the critique that much of what is consumed outside of Japan in terms of pop-culture stands more to a exotic vision of Japan than to any contemporary lived reality, it neglects the fact that this is still a product of contemporary Japanese society, thus, constituting Japanese contemporary culture. Meanwhile, if the Westernization side is correct in seeing today’s society having little to do with those imagined elements of tradition, it both misreads it as “Westernization”, neglecting the fact that Japanese culture is also constantly shifting and, just as in any culture in the world, elements that made sense in the past does not necessarily make sense in contemporary society, thus rather than seeing it as a loss, they should be seeing it as contemporary; as well as it misreads what it calls “Tradition” as being more “authentic” and more “Japanese” than the elements present in contemporary culture.

What I propose instead is that we read the “traditional Japanese” elements in the music video not as “authentic Japaneseness” nor as “Western orientalism”, but as an “apparatus of subjectification”. By bringing these elements into contemporary pop culture, what Momoiro does is taking them from a previous territorialized context and instead inserting them as “pure-symbols of Japaneseness”. Thus, it creates in its local audiences a sense of “Being-Japanese”, or in other words, it produces “Japanese subjects”.

Thus, what this music video does goes beyond the debate between westernization and orientalism, but it happens in their midst. It does work with all these elements because it deals no longer with the idea of Japan, the island; but with the idea of Global Japan. Yet, we should not let ourselves be trapped by “West”-centric notions as if anything that happens is aimed at “The West”, for what Japan seems to be doing is related to “how to be Japanese in a global era.” One should not be impressed by how close Prime Minister Abe and the girls from Momoiro Clover Z got during his years in power.

As for who emerges victorious between Momoiro Clover Z vs. Kiss ?

That is an easier one: certainly both.

Momoiro Kiss Kumite Moon

The Selfie Stick: From uselessness to must have

By now you all must have heard about the “selfie stick”, literally a stick made so that people can take better selfies, which itself is a quite recent phenomena. Well, it turns out that recently people in the internet have found out that years before the popularity of the invention, the “selfie stick” was already present in a book of “useless Japanese inventions“, published in 1995 to showcase a lot of humorous inventions made in Japan that anyone at that time would find useless.

What can we make out of that? Can we say that their interpretation was wrong all along and what was deemed as useless was in fact a multimillionaire invention? Or should we say that this just proves that today’s society worship the useless, and that in fact the selfie-stick is as useless and ridiculous as the book have told us?

I would prefer to say that the “selfie stick” teaches us a lesson in the historicity of values.

What is it that makes something come from the book of uselessness to the ultimate must have item of today?
Well, perhaps we should take a look at the societies that produced these different evaluations.

For starters, 1995 was not exactly considered the age of internet. Digital cameras were not exactly as popular as now, and even less were cellphone cameras, let alone smartphones. The world of interconnectedness was a far away concept that had little feasibility in those times.

For an author born in the late 80s such as myself, I remember going to the store to get the pictures revealed by a professional in order to take a look at how the photos we took in our camera turned out to look like. So, given that, it is indeed a strange idea to imagine a stick that can take a picture of yourself.

But this is not only about technology, for there was also no need to take a picture of yourself. After all, the means of showing pictures around would have to be inviting everyone over a photo album to look at it, and even that was considered a rather personal activity.

Now fast forward to today’s society. The society of online social networking. The society of the food pictures, the #Hashtags, the geo-tags, and more to our point, the selfie.

The selfie has emerged as a phenomena in an age in which most of us has grown accustomed to produce permanent, yet ever-changing, portfolios of ourselves. The selfie came about as a territorial demarcation in the age of mobility. A photographic veni, vidi, vici.  As if to say “I was there, here is the proof!”.

It is the age of experience marketing, the immaterial economy that consumes lifestyles rather than just products. But more than that, that advertises ourselves as having certain lifestyles, or more precisely, as having many lifestyles.

Given that, it is not hard to comprehend how an invention such as the “selfie stick” has moved from the Japanese book of useless inventions, and into the shelves of most stores around the globe.
Truth is, none of them were wrong, but they were both right from their epoch’s point of view.

Now, you may still want to say that a “selfie stick” remains an useless invention. But the truth is, it is certainly useful from the point of view of giving the needed tools to a society that demands our image to be constantly online, always updated, always somewhere new or doing something different.

Translate that into Japanese urban society and the news about individualization summed with hyper-marketization of human relations, and you get extra points of usefulness!

As someone that has been living in Tokyo for years, I grew accustomed (to a certain extent) to seeing stores that sell human-contact by the hour. For those who are already familiar with the image of Host and Hostess bars in which people pay someone to flirt and talk to them at a bar, I would say this is just the tip of the iceberg. Tokyo has also produced Dating games, that now with the gps technology of the 3DS portable consoles allows gamers to take their games for a walk, or going on a trip with them, all with corresponding reactions from the in-game girl. There is also places where you can pay by the time for someone to look you in the eyes, blow into your ear, pet your hair, and so on.

Another feature, as I indicated above, is the marketization of yourself into a permanent hyper-connected portfolio.
Linkedin, Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, and even a blog such as this one, are shortcuts into someone’s self-identity.
Thus the selfie becomes an apparatus of identity making. A powerful tool to those who need to create a marketable identity of themselves in a growing networked, connected, and marketed world.

For that, the “selfie-stick” is, indeed, a Japanese useless invention from 1995, that couldn’t be more useful for today’s society. As for me, I’m curious to see which next invention might make out of our categories of uselessness and into the world of must haves. Do you have any guesses?

Selfie stick

Source: http://imgur.com/a/WJsAZ