Welcome to the N.H.K. and the postmodern outlook for Japan’s youth

I wrote this essay in July 2016 for a class at Waseda University called ‘Japanese Youth in Visual Culture.’

First broadcast in 2006 and adapted from a novel of the same name, Welcome to the N.H.K. is a connected series of stories revolving around a 22-year old man named Tatsuhiro Sato, who stops going to university and becomes a hikkikomori in his one-person apartment in the suburbs of Tokyo. N.H.K. was one of my first exposures to Japanese made-for-television animation when I started learning Japanese as an undergraduate. The show stood out because it was stylistically and substantially different: it was brimming with depressing stories of post-bubble era life in precarity, such as Internet suicide pacts and the mildly creepy lolicon phenomenon, and created a cynical contrast to the sanitized, government-endorsed ‘Cool Japan’ image that attracts thousands of foreigners to pick up interest in Japan every year.

This essay will argue that at first glance, Sato’s hikkikomori and, briefly, otaku behaviors are part of a broader range of popular escapist endeavors that Japanese youth are expected to abandon when they mature into adults with responsibility. Upon further examination, the anime presents these youth phenomena as the natural conclusion of Japan’s post-Fordist societal conditions in the early 21st century and problematizes the celebration of otaku behaviors in the ‘Cool Japan’ discourse. N.H.K. predicts an uncertain future in the long term for youth who lack belonging and attachment in a harsh, urban neoliberal society.

Although a decade has passed since N.H.K. first went into the airwaves, I believe that this anime’s message on the precarity and hope of Japanese youth remains powerfully relevant. Having lived in the working class district of Kameido, Tokyo, and worked with freeters at my part-time job at the Familymart convenience store in Waseda University’s Building No. 11 during my exchange program, I have encountered a diverse variety of denizens in Tokyo who have fallen on the wrong side of the opportunity gap and rest their adult careers on flexible employment. Most of the English-language academic writing about N.H.K. merely offers an overly simplified treatment of otaku, while ignoring the other problems portrayed in the anime. This essay attempts to engage and contribute towards the existing discourse.

Two primary characters in N.H.K. are caricatures of the two most internationally visible Japanese youth phenomenon in the Heisei era—the hikkikomori and the (male) otaku, represented by Kaoru Yamazaki, Sato’s kouhai. N.H.K. begins indoors, trapping the audience with Sato. The first thing we see is not an establishing shot, but fragments of Sato’s high school memories, conversations with the anthropomorphized appliances in Sato’s apartment, psychological delusions of being trapped in a conspiracy by the Nihon Hikkikomori Kyokai, a sinister media organization designed to turn all over Japan’s youth into hikkikomori.[1] People like Sato are refugees in a war with the outside, “where hostilities of the peopled world get (re)imagined and replayed—ad nauseum.”[2] N.H.K. also presents a ruthless parody of the male otaku’s consumption/production practices. In recent years, popular media mix franchises such as Sword Art Online and No Game No Life have cast video gamers as leaders and saviors of entire worlds. Such protagonists rival traditional models of masculine heroes, because they show that even otaku video gamers can get the reverence and respect that samurai and high school baseball players receive—to generalize on the tropes of young masculine heroes in anime and manga. However, Yamazaki compartmentalizes those masculine hero narratives as fantasy with the bluntness expected of N.H.K.’s stooge character. In Episode 5, set entirely in Akihabara, Yamazaki explains to Sato that maid cafes, while both of them stare at a waitress’ exposed buttocks, “lets you be ‘master’ at a reasonable price…and are a realization of gal game players’ dreams!”[3] Indeed, as male social hegemony eroded in the 1990s, Akihabara’s “sexualized cute-girl figures serve as…sites of fantasy for those wishing to avoid facing the difficulties and imperfections of the real world and real women.”[4] In Episode 20, when Yamazaki invites Nanako, his female classmate in animation school and love interest, that the ero-game he and Sato are making is tentacle pornography with her as the model, Nanako punches Yamazaki in the face and leaves.[5] Hence, as complete failures in courtship, they further fail to contribute to Japan’s future survival by propagating the country’s devastatingly low birth rates. No wonder otaku “live a double life…in their rooms or in areas of the city like Akihabara [to] indulge in their ‘secret vices.’”[6] There is little to aspire from, let alone entertain talk of heroism, a montage of two grown men looking under the skirts of plastic figurines.

A narrative feature in N.H.K. appears to propagate the notion that Japanese youth can somehow recover from these conditions. Something that stood out in this distinctively Heisei-era story is the inclusion of one-liner commentaries from minor characters who characters are visibly much older and from the Showa generation. In Episode 19, soba store owner remarks after employing a desperate hikkikomori whose sister stopped giving him food: “If they get hungry, human beings will work.”[7] They speak, with their air of wisdom in a hierarchical society, about the linear relationship between effort and success. Such a perspective frames hikkikomori as a voluntary choice of extending one’s adolescence in the age of plenty who “can be cured with tough love and being kicked out of the nest.”[8] Rosenbaum even argues that “just as anorexia is predominately a female affliction in the West, hikkikomori appears to be the equivalent male affliction in Japan.”[9] Once these youths rediscover the difficulty of living in a materialist society where one has to work to survive, they will stop abandoning their responsibilities. However, is the hikkikomori phenomenon a voluntary act of ‘affliction’? Are all of a hikkikomori’s problems solved by showing up to a soba shop and begging for work?

In postmodern, advanced capitalist systems, otaku and hikkikomori, or more generally youth in precarity, and are both unknowing participants in the broader trends of neoliberal society with little discernable purpose. Otaku consumers become producers of the very things that they consume. Azuma first pioneered the comparison of otaku as a creature different from humans, “who build social relations…because they have intersubjective desire, [whereas] animal needs can be satisfied without the other.”[10] For example, otaku can satisfy themselves by distantly admiring the sexualized female workers in maid cafés while remaining conservative in their actual perversions—in other words, an aimless sexuality. Living in the fiercely competitive market for media mix campaigns that start and end every four months, otaku youth “withdraw into the production of little narratives organized around ‘animalized’ responses to the moé elements of characters.”[11] In his study on otaku consumption and capital, Kam found that Japanese university students he interviewed “[frowned] upon imagination, collection, and knowledge for the sake of self-satisfaction” and cites a conversation he had with a media professional, who “lamented that the acts of the ‘otaku’ are ‘masturbatory.’”[12] Nonetheless, neoliberal society thrives on a class of individuals whose productive consumption practices are aimless, because their underlying skills of “imagination, knowledge, and the desire to collect are capacities fundamental to an advanced capitalist economy.”[13]

While otaku are able to prosper without the need for social connections, youth in precarity live a life without social relations not out of choice, but because of the simple fact that they have lost access to any connections in their lives. Japanese youth become hikkikomori not due to some cultural-bound syndrome specific to Japan, but because they withdraw as a reaction to “the deprivation of indulgence, dependence, or amae” from their parents.[14] Moreover, freeters, as flexible workers that the economy needs without any guarantee of stable employment or social security, suffer from “psychic turmoil of being a Japanese worker who lacks affiliation…It carries with it a sense of existential emptiness and social negation.”[15] As these precarious youth age into adulthood, they remain individuals without a social network that they can rely on. In addition, with opportunities for middle class jobs shrinking with an economy in malaise, “refugeeism from the social is becoming more ordinary every day.”[16] Therefore, what N.H.K. does not portray about youth in precariat is perhaps the narrative’s darkest development. In the last episode, because Sato can no longer receive money from his parents because his father has suffered from a corporate restructuring, he takes up a part-time construction job.[17] However, N.H.K. does not offer an extrapolation of his future, which would not be pretty. Who would Sato be another ten, twenty years from now? These are the same questions one should ask about the freeters who are reaching middle age and seem destined to remain in irregular employment, and thus without a place of belonging, for life. Freeters remain producers who consume to survive another day of their unending ontological crisis. If otakus consume with no purpose, then freeters too produce with no purpose.

By viewing otaku and hikkikomori as products of a neoliberal economy who are both consuming and producing without the need for ningen kankei, N.H.K. becomes a criticism of the harsh excesses of a competitive postmodern society with an overemphasis on value. One’s individual existence becomes atomized and what relationships that do form are strictly transactional. In Episode 9, Yamazaki declares that ero-games are popular with male purveyors of two-dimensional women because “originally, romantic love didn’t exist in Japan…romantic love is a trap to expand the capitalist system.”[18] These games, among other developments such as compensated dating and child prostitution, financially exploits the transformation of love, the pinnacle of human relations and organic desire for the ‘other,’ into a commodity that anyone can market and sell. Furthermore, in another important sub-plot in N.H.K., Misaki, the anime’s deuteragonist, sets up a nightly lecture program apparently for Sato to escape from his hikkikomori tendencies, imposes a financial penalty of one million yen to force Sato to attend and tries to purchase Sato’s friendship through a contract. In Episode 13, the audience finds out that Misaki, reeling from the pressures of an abusive stepfamily, is only interested in Sato’s relative value, or lack thereof, because he is “the first person [she has] ever found who’s much more of a throwaway hunk of refuse than me.”[19] Indeed, in a time where one would require more than ever support the cope with ever-rising hardships and sorrow produced from the fast-paced market economy, atomized individuals establish and abandon relationships with the rapid tempo of information capitalism. The sociality of Japanese youth is oppressive communal rather than mutually beneficial; they must be careful “not to burden friends and to stay popular in an age when knowing how to read, and stay in sync, with the mood of the movement…is everything.”[20] Just as friendships are now devoid of their definitional elements because they are now founded on value, so is corporate employment conditions for Japanese youth. In recent years, not even Japanese youth are spared from the excesses of the desire to capture maximum capitalist value. ‘Black companies,’ as they are known, “abuse and discard young workers in an evil way” by forcing high-value employees into employment contracts, and then forcing the destruction of those contracts when the value of those employees have dried up.[21] The human elements of building long-term careers and cultivating alliances no longer matter when the prospect of lifetime irregular employment threatens to brand youth as forever valueless.

Through such a perspective, N.H.K. is a starkly human story in a world where larger-than-life, out-of-control postmodern conditions have irreversibly bent the fabric of reality. This is perhaps the crux of Sato’s imaginary Nihon Hikkikomori Kyokai, the anime’s namesake. The invisible currents that have institutionally pushed hundreds of thousands of youth into poverty, disillusionment, and alienation is truly akin to a sinister conspiracy. In the real world, NHK refers to the state broadcast, and by extension, the greater Japanese media industry connected to the high echelons of state power, whose fast-paced, endless production of mind-numbing shows that reinforce, rather than question the tragic status quo, or as Sato believes, the media’s plan to make all of Japan’s youth into hikkikomori by continuously making high-quality anime. On a metaphysical level, N.H.K. itself participates in the media reality-distortion field too. N.H.K. is a franchise published by Kadokawa Shoten, one of the pioneers in the media mix world-building empire. The story in the novel, anime, and manga all differ—for example, Sato is under the influence of drugs, which prompt him to conjure the N.H.K. conspiracy, in the manga, while drug abuse is entirely absent in the anime.[22] Furthermore, N.H.K.’s author is himself a hikkikomori who apparently wrote the story “as a way to earn a living by never leaving home.”[23] The audience may never know which is the true N.H.K. story, or if the N.H.K. story is based on truth, but then again, in this brave new world, does any of that really matter?

Therefore, upon returning to the assertion that being a hikkikomori is a cultural affliction, we find that hikkikomori youth are committing something far from it. It is inappropriate, if a little insensitive, to simply say that all hikkikomori need is a little encouragement to ‘leave the nest,’ or quit their irresponsible behaviors like an anorexic woman should, as Rosenbaum and Harrison have put forth. These comments only serve to heighten the generational disconnect and the widespread complacency towards disintegrating social structures in postmodern Japan. To withdraw is not a failure to launch into adulthood, but an expression of one’s legitimate fear facing a hostile outside, especially when that hostility is not psychologically imagined, but physically real: the superficial friendships, the value-hunting ‘black companies’ with unlimited power, and the socially insecure affective labor jobs. Is there anybody who really wants to participate in the unending tragedy of the precariat? Would the Showa generation characters in N.H.K. repeat their well-versed mantras and achieve success if they also tried hard under today’s structural inequalities? Perhaps more frighteningly, the Japanese government’s ‘Cool Japan’ policies, which strives “to strip otaku subjectivity of its perceived creepiness toward the formation of a new majoritarian subject,” wants permanently encase this new, insecure Japan by sanitizing it into a ‘hip’ and ‘cool’ product sold to an international audience.[24] Against a backdrop of young female part-time workers spoon-feeding ice-cream into the mouths of male customers, Yamazaki declares, perhaps without much irony, that the maid café is “a subculture Japan prides itself on.”[25] Certainly, Japan would do well to export this profit-making subculture, which surely completes some ends of the neoliberal society, but at the cost of commodifying, exploiting, and atomizing its next generation.

In conclusion, N.H.K. invites sympathy for the predicaments that Japanese youth, who have to experience conditions that no other generation has faced. The otaku and hikkikomori, two related but distinct identities, are postmodern products, rather than drivers, of a postmodern, neoliberal society in which capitalism has gone on overdrive with reality-bending media mix franchises, human relationships that are devoid of any human elements, and ontological existences devoid of meaningful sociality. ‘Cool Japan’ government policies that aim to preserve and promote such growing productive consumption practices in a limp economy, and hence the current precarious status quo and its structural inequalities and oppression, is perhaps as absurd as N.H.K.’s repetitious montages of Sato’s dancing house appliances. This essay has just barely unpacked what N.H.K. has to offer. The development of these broken and exploited youth identities in the second decade of the 21st century deserves continued academic attention.

Notes

[1] Welcome to the NHK, Chiba Television Broadcasting (Chiba: CTC, 2006), Television.

[2] Anne Allison, Precarious Japan (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013), 73.

[3] Welcome to the NHK, Chiba Television Broadcasting (Chiba: CTC, 2006), Television.

[4] Yumiko Iida, Rethinking Identity in Modern Japan (London: Routledge, 2002), 227.

[5] Welcome to the NHK.

[6] Thomas Lamarre, “Cool, Creepy, Moe: Otaku Fictions, Discourses, and Policies,” Diversité urbaine 13, no. 1 (2013): 134, doi: 10.7202/1024714ar.

[7] Welcome to the NHK.

[8] Marc Hairston, “A Cocoon With a View: Hikkikomori, Otaku, and Welcome to the NHK,” Mechademia 5, no. 1 (2010): 319.

[9] Roman Rosenbaum, “Graphic representation of the precariat in popular culture,” in Visions of Precarity in Japanese Popular Culture and Literature, ed. Kristina Iwata-Weickgenannt and Roman Rosenbaum (Oxon: Routledge, 2015), 148.

[10] Hiroki Azuma, Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals, trans. Jonathan E. Abel and Shion Kono (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), 86-87.

[11] LaMarre, 148.

[12] Thiam Huat Kam, “The Anxieties that Make the ‘Otaku’: Capital and the Common Sense of Consumption in Contemporary Japan,” Japanese Studies 33, no. 1 (2013), 52: doi: 10.1080/10371397.2013.768336

[13] Ibid., 53.

[14] Matthew Bowker, “Hikikomori as Disfigured Desire: Indulgence, Mystification, and Victimization in the Phenomenon of Extreme Social Isolation in Japan.” Journal of Psycho-Social Studies 9, no. 1 (2016): 41.theely  next generation.society, but at the cost . me to the NHK,”es in the second ticesty. In the face of ‘elements.m has gone

[15] Allison, 69.

[16] Ibid., 69.

[17] Welcome to the NHK.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Welcome to the NHK.

[20] Allison, 70.

[21] Nobuaki Fujioka, “The Youth Labor Market in Japan,” in Creating Social Cohesion in a Dependent World: Experiences of Australia in Japan, eds. Ernest Healy et al. (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 270.

[22] Rosenbaum, 137.

[23] Allison, 73.

[24] Lamarre, 149.

[25] Welcome to the NHK.

Some 本音 about foreign professionals working in Japan

A recent Toyo Keizai (a website kind of like Business Insider, but in my opinion much more substantial) article interviewed a number of expats working in Japan. Issues about expats generally aside, I thought that the interviewees dished out some hard truths about working in Japan.

[All emphases in the extracts are mine.]

よく聞かれるんです、「日本はいつまでですか?」「いつスペインに帰るんですか?」と。僕は特に帰る予定はないのに、外国人はある一定期間だけ日本で仕事をして、そのあとは必ずみんな帰るというイメージがあるようです。でも、日本にずっと住みたい人もいますよ。

This interviewee says, in essence, that he gets asked a lot when he’s returning to Spain. Reviewing my LINE chat logs recently, I realize I got asked this a lot when I was on exchange in Japan. Everyone’s foreigner existence is supposed to be fleeting.

グローバル化にあたっては、それをそのまま受け入れる、何も変えようとしないというスキルが必要。そのスキルは、職場に入って「これからグローバルになります」と言ってできるものではなく、教育の現場から変わらないと難しいと思います

Here the interviewee poses the question: What is the meaning of ‘global’? Does it create a legitimate expectation among professionals attracted to working in Japan who act in reliance on it, and then suffer adversely when that legitimate expectation is breached? And to what extent does it begin in education?

ちょっと気をつけてほしいのは、グローバルは大事だけれど、自分のアイデンティティを守ることも大事だということ。外国人を受け入れると同時に、日本らしさも残しておかないといけないですね僕は日本語を話せるけど日本人じゃなくて、ウズベキスタン人だというアイデンティティを持っているのが大事なんだと思う。

More hard questions. As Japan imports more foreign workers (skilled and non-skilled), will divisions about Japanese identity rise? (Not that it hasn’t risen already vis-a-vis ethnic Korean Japanese and returnees from Latin America!)

Recent journal articles

All from the latest issue of electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies.

Ethnographic approach on cultural practice through CMC: New Year greetings in Japanese mobile phone e-mail as example (Noboru Sakai)

A review of customs and norms of new year’s greetings sent among friends and family (in lieu of paper postcards) – emojis comprise of 4.79 percent of the message content, which is ~2 percent more than a normal message!

Conceptual and concrete views of globalisation on a multicultural Japanese university campus (Ana Sofia Hofmeyr)

Interesting findings from a survey done at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University vis-a-vis the trend of a ‘globalized’ Japanese workforce (whatever that means):

Although Ritsumeikan APU has a uniquely multicultural campus, where Japanese students are not only encouraged, but often required to interact with international students both within and outside the classroom, only half of the students surveyed said they felt satisfied with the amount of intercultural interaction on campus. Moreover, less than half admitted to making use of the intercultural opportunities provided on campus and many identified issues establishing friendships with non-Japanese speaking peers.

What this blog will cover

I hope this blog will bring forward what I consider missing discourse on urban life, transitions into adulthood, the “millennial” generation, and how English-speaking, ethnically Chinese individuals from Hong Kong broadly interface with other cultures.

To that end, I aim to cover some of these topics in the future:

  • Job-hunting in Japan
  • Passive-aggressiveness
  • Driving as a gendered act
  • Personal experiences as a language learner
  • The two times I’ve been called “unprofessional” in my life (they were both during unpaid internships)
  • Book titles that challenge norms and boundaries about Japan, or at least provide interesting views
  • Convenience stores
  • Jinshin jiko

What this blog will NOT cover:

  • Why Japan is so cool and amazing and why everyone should visit and eat all the ramen and sushi and visit Akihabara
  • The future of the rule of law in Hong Kong, and views with regards other sensationalist ‘legal’ issues that I believe have the right to keep to myself; besides, I am fatally unqualified to cover this issue.