Thursday, August 12, 2004
Once upon a time, in the mythical land of ‘Wa’, a place whose very name was synonymous with the concept of peace and harmony itself (that is, before Japan footed a disproportionate amount of the war bill in both Iraqi wars at the behest of America), the yen ruled supreme - yada, yada, yada. Well, that IS how the prologue goes, at any rate.
But these days, actually finding someone who CAN’T recount verbatium the tale told ad nauseam of a nation toppled by an atom, a godlike Emperor fallen from grace to become merely a 'man', and a blessed little economic bubble that saved everyone here, at least for a while, from being ‘merely’ Asian (instead of tellingly ‘Japanese’ a mark of prestige) is a more than formidiable challenge.
However, the number of voyeristic Japanophiles out there that can actually make the quantum leap from mere historian of, to soothsayer for this island country can be counted on one hand -- and with a few digits to spare at that. Why is this so? Well, picking up the saga where thing left off in the first paragraph:
Ah, the roaring 80’s! When things got so bloated that even the embodiment of that era’s zeitgeist (on BOTH sides of the Pacific), Pac-Man - whose name derives from a Japanese onomatopoeia ‘paku-paku’, meaning ‘to munch’ - had little choice but to eat his own heart out. All hail the Japanese and their indefatigable language! It was then and still is now the uttermost user-friendly syntax of a hyper-capitalism (a la Baudrillard) itself. This metaphor, logically extended, allows us to imagine the Japanese consuming machine built on an American pre-WWII ‘Classical’ capitalism, functioning as a kind of obsolete ‘machine code’. This metaphor, distended, poses the question: If Japanese is the language of consumption itself, wouldn't it be advisable to articulate a kind of 'KEIGO OF CONSUMPTION'? Where IS the Japanese version of F. Scott Fitzgerald when you need him/her to write 'Za Gureto Gatsby?
The seemilngy indefatigable bubble grew and grew, and grew still more, becoming over-inflated -- well beyond the limits of macro-economic sanity -- from the conspicuously consumptive, pipe dream lifestyles being lead in the Land of the Rising Sun. Until one day the inevitable finally occured: the whole thing blew up in the faces of the unsuspecting Japanese. It must have been back in ‘89 or so...
Well guess what? In terms of the financial bottom line, they’re STILL wiping the post-bubble residue off their collective mugs in an effort to well, save ‘face’ as the saying goes.
Naturally a kind of economic triage was attempted immediately in the wake of the financial decimation: downsizing bloated staff, phasing out the lifetime employment system, trimming the fat from the biannual bonus. The belt of a nation was taken in a notch or three. Though the funny thing is that up until quite recently, that is after things leveled-out for the most part, a first-time visitor to Japan would have been able to enjoy their time in Tokyo unawares, with no inkling that they were jet setting it up in a country caught in the throes of a lingering post-bubble recession. That’s because the shopaholic frequenters of places like Daikanyama (which makes Rodeo Drive look like skid row) have been utterly obsessed with keeping up with the Joneses -- err, the Susukis, and most especially since the economic ‘Fall(out)’ took place.
Of course this is mostly common knowledge to one and all -- that is, except for the Japanese themselves, who were probably way too caught up their own visissitudes to actually notice that their spending addictions weren’t being weaned off spending out of pocked, but rather force-fed even more glutionous portions. And yes, all of this WAS true, up until about...the day before yesterday, when a cross section of the the twentysomethings finally figured out being poor was hipper than not, but of course with that typical Tokyoite twist: the Japanese have transcended living on the cheap because they HAVE to; they’ve realized the beauty of doing so because they simply CAN. Who will be the next self-committed winner on ZENIGATA KINTARO/Binbou Battle? Who know's, but their 'cool' value of their 'cool currency' will soar. Now why don't you try communicating this cultural nuance to anyone who lives in China, where the per capita income hovers around 1,500 USD/year.
Now since the bottom line in either case is, in a word, thriftiness, this may seem to some to be of mostly semantic rather than actual real-world relevance. HARDLY. The crux of it all is that this is actually an expansive rather than a reductive behavior, since have added the Swiss army knife-life ‘not spending money to aquire cool’ option to the previous toolbelt of cool that previously exclusively ‘spending money to aquire cool’ tools. The following three terms barely scratch the surface of an emerging, ever-growing list of keywords - the standard cant to iterate new economic va et vient - that has become nearly universally recognized: freeta (part-time work as a career), slow-life (an educated sidesteping of the rat-race), UNIQLO (cheap, cool duds anyone can afford to wear), etc.
Morgan Spurlock need look no further for the subject of his next documentary than Tokyo, where the recent paradigm shift in thinking has made rail thin and faux poor the new rich, but by choice this time, and thus with own, new kind of otherworldy dignity. Lifestyle as a plastic art was never this good.