Modern Orientalism in Business Reports on Japan

One of my good friends, Kiki, brought to my attention this article by Richard Morgan for Fortune magazine about a startup incubator in Fukuoka called Fukuoka Growth Next.

The incubator sounds interesting, has a cool website, and appears to host interesting meetups. What Richard Morgan did, however, was to decide to add a thick, unwanted layer of Orientalist gloss into what otherwise would have been a pretty interesting puff piece about Japanese startup culture.

The article starts off with the customary horror story about Japan’s Marunouchi men:

Despite behemoth native power players including Honda, Mitsubishi, Nintendo, SoftBank, Sony, and Toyota, its corporate salaryman circles are full of squares, by design. Nearly every member of the Japanese workforce is a de facto senior vice president of rules and regulations. Japan’s national sport is protocol.

Is Japan’s national sport protocol? I thought it was baseball. And is it really fair to generalize every member of the Japanese workforce, from part-time convenience store housewives, expatriate English-language teachers, NGO co-founders, gay bartenders, to cross-dressing theater troupe members “de factor senior vice presidents of rules and regulations”? As an aside, I know more Japanese friends who want to avoid corporate Japan, rather than to actively seek to be a part of it. But that’s beside the point.

Facebook is now an Evil Force in 2019, but Richard Morgan wants to tell us that Japanese startup culture is nothing like the bros in Silicon Valley. He says that people in the Far East don’t want to break things, because it’s part and parcel of the culture:

But what if the lack of Silicon Valley-style disruption is a cultural asset? Consider the Japanese art of kintsugi, in which broken pottery is repaired by filling the hibi, or cracks, with gold. What if “move fast and break things” — the early Facebook motto adopted by brogrammers everywhere — isn’t lost in translation as much as it’s discarded in translation? Why break when you can beautify?

I’m not trained well enough about business to say whether “move fast and break things” is a thing in Japan. When I discussed this article with Kiki, I brought up a Financial Times feature on cashless technology in Japan, which I thought had a much lighter dose of gloom and doom about the pitfalls of Japanese business culture. (I was wrong.)

In any case, Morgan later contradicts his own self-professed prowess on Japanese pottery by also saying that in Fukuoka there are

Large populations of American, Chinese, Filipino, Indian, Indonesian, Korean, Nepalese, Portuguese, Thai, and Vietnamese immigrants were bolstered by relaxed labor laws in March.

It’s great that Fukuoka is welcoming immigrants from all over the world as it reinvents itself as a regional tech hub. But surely these immigrants (who are hopefully integrating and being treated well) move to Fukuoka ostensibly because of the opportunities there, and not because entrepreneurs spend their waking hours daydreaming about strained analogies between traditional craft and, well, actual entrepreneurship?

The more I continue to read Watson’s article, the more I believe that he went to Fukuoka with a set of rose-tinted weeabo lenses. He literally describes his main interviewee like this:

Yuichiro Uchida, FGN’s executive director, throws his arms into a human emoticon: ¯()/¯.

I think Uchida is trying to explain that Fukuoka has a creator-friendly environment (as all tech hubs should, presumably?). So of course it should welcome people from all backgrounds. But Watson decides to unnecessarily contextualize a quote from Uchida in a heaping pile of bushido shit, as if Uchida’s spirit is inherently linked to the souls of the samurai of generations past, whose musings about the solitude of the tea ceremony will become key to Fukuoka’s future:

His is a train of thought born of wabisabi, the Japanese notion that imperfection is often better than perfection. As Tomita puts it: “I value diversity. You can’t embrace diversity and expect perfection.”

What the flying fuck has whatever Uchida said got to do with wabi and sabi?

In 2011, Saturday Night Life satirized Americans fans of anime in a segment called “J-Pop America Fun Time Now.” Taran Killam and Vanessa Bayer put on a hyperactive display of affection for Japanese culture as two Michigan State college students with their own show on the campus television network. They woo, pretend to be shy, and in one episode, accept “a very Japanese figure of Yao Ming” from the empress of the Hello Kitty Appreciation Club (played by Katy Perry). (I also wrote about this sketch while in college in 2016.) The crux of this very ambitious, very funny skit was to show how certain fans of Japanese culture exoticize what they profess to love.

So life imitates art. Perhaps Watson really wanted to show Fukuoka’s new face for the upcoming decade. I don’t question his intentions, but I do question his method. I’m sad to see that for a business report on Japanese startup culture to get clicks, Fortune magazine’s editors had to resort to approving these awful orientalist stereotypes about the Japanese mind.

Sad news about Kyoto Animation

At least 23 people have died after a man ignited gasoline at a Kyoto Animation studio building today.

According to the Mainichi Shimbun, the man had no known relation (employment or otherwise) with the studio. Witnesses said that before he set fire to the building, he yelled death threats and accused the studio of plagiarism (“パクりやがって”).

The studio’s animation archives and servers could be lost from the fire:

According to this tweet below, the studio’s CEO went on record to say that the studio regularly receives hate mail and death threats:

The New York Times‘ Motoko Rich provides more context about today’s very sad news:

If the authorities’ fears about the death toll are proven correct, the fire would be one of the worst in Japan’s recent history. In 2008, 16 people were killed when a video store burned down in Osaka. In 2001, 44 people died after a fire broke out at a crowded gambling club in Tokyo’s busiest entertainment district.

The blaze on Thursday came less than two months after a man went on a stabbing rampage in a suburb outside Tokyo, attacking 17 schoolgirls, killing one of them as well as an adult. The rampage by the 51-year-old man cast attention to the phenomenon of Japan’s “hikikomori,” adults who are extreme recluses, and their psychological issues.

I can’t claim to be as shocked as the creators, animators, and voiceover artists who personally know people from Kyoto Animation and must be devastated by the news. Kyoto Animation is responsible for some of my favourite anime pieces—A Silent Voice, a film about a deaf girl and her bully (which also never really had a chance against the much less interesting Your Name. #fightme) and Nichijou, one of the best animated comedies I’ve seen. It’s also a studio that treats its employees well, and responsible for empowering women in the animation industry.

Here’s hoping that everyone makes a speedy recovery.

Ata Distance: “Japanese Typography, Apple Maps and the Art of Using Color Kanji”

Came across a really interesting article about the intersection of Japanese typography and phone maps (while researching an article about how to use the Suica card on Apple Pay), and how Apple Maps fails to adhere to customary rules to keep things legible:

It is important for designers to understand the difference and keep it in mind when working with Japanese typography. Unless the designer takes careful steps, Japanese text quickly becomes unreadable at smaller sizes especially when overlaid on colored backgrounds.The best example for keeping Japanese text legible against a varied background is the humble, lowly supermarket chirashi: the supermarket ads inserted in the daily newspaper that end up as kitty litter box liner. Supermarket chirashi are the meat and potatoes of Japanese printing companies big and small and the first work that new to the job employees and designers cut their teeth on.

Bonus for smartphone map nerds (completely unrelated to Japan): Justin O’Beirne’s captivating analysis of Google Maps’ evolution in the past decade.

Tsundoku Digest: July 2, 2019

Here are some tabs I’ve left hanging in my browser this past month:

A fascinating collection of articles on Tokyo’s decaying suburbs, seats on commuter trains for sale, and a visual comparison between the Neo-Tokyo in Akira and 2019 Tokyo in real life.

Coincidentally, NHK is also doing a series of documentaries about Tokyo (東京ミラクル). The nerd in me is fascinated about the JR East’s control center for all the trains in the Tokyo Metropolitan Area.

A comprehensive 12-part series on Japan’s last thirty years in 12 punchy titles. See also: a CSIS debate on Japan’s soft power during the Heisei Period.

The truth behind Shinzo Abe’s “Society Where Women Shine” is that most working women are still stuck in low-wage part-time employment. No wonder Health Minister Takumi Nemoto, in response to #KuToo, thinks that high heels at work are “within the range of what’s commonly accepted as necessary and appropriate in the workplace (社会通念に照らして業務上必要かつ相当な範囲かと)” (and as a cis-gendered male, ostensibly does not wear high heels to work).

A retrospective (?) of a Japanese art collective called Ashita Shoujo Tai (明日少女隊), or Tomorrow Girls Troop in English, whose works focus on the intersection of East Asian feminist issues and art. Did you know, for example, that Kojien (the Japanese equivalent of the Oxford English Dictionary) for years said that the colloquial term for ‘feminist’ is 女に甘い男 (men who are easygoing or suck up to women)?

(The article translates 甘い as “lenient”, but I think the nuance is more than just lenience—the term implies a threat that strong women allegedly pose to masculinity).

And importantly, they speak to my personal discomfort with ‘Cool Japan’ at the expense of sexualizing women’s bodies:

TGT is not against moe kyara, and respects the freedom of expression of artists and creatives—after all, it is first and foremost an artist collective. Nor is TGT against otaku culture or advocating for the censorship of it. The questions TGT wished to raise with the petition was what it meant when an authoritative entity (like a municipal government) endorses representations of a sexualised minor, what kinds of messages this sends, and the prevalence of sexually objectified women and children in public spaces.

(Thanks to Kaitlin Chan for sharing!)

There’s an exhibition called “Manga” in the British Museum this summer, but is it too ambitious (or is there even a point) to try to stuff everything about manga in one giant show? As one commenter puts it:

Manga is a medium… it’s not one thing. People saying it’s sexist or rapey [sic] or problematic are talking about some forms of manga the same way I could talk about some forms of television

An anonymous complaint surfaces about an African student’s “bad body odor” at a dorm at the International University of Japan, and the school offers a solution by asking for their name and offering to “talk to them privately”.

The African students are justifiably mad:

アフリカ出身の別の女子学生は「大学から学生全員に向けて正式な経過説明と謝罪がないのはおかしいし、誰も責任を取らないのもおかしい。こういう行為が容認されると受け取られれば、さらなる差別が増長されてしまう」と話す。別のアフリカ出身の女子学生は「アフリカの国の中には、少し前までアパルトヘイトという人種差別制度があった国もあり、こういう差別的発言に対して敏感だ。校内の誰かが、私たちアフリカ人全員を臭いと思っていると思うと、キャンパスで生活することが嫌になる」と話した。
A female student from Africa said: “It’s ridiculous that the school hasn’t officially explained what happened or apologized, and that no one has taken any responsibility. If people see that the school tolerates complaints like these, discrimination against us will only grow.” Another female student from Africa said: “Apartheid existed in some African countries until very recently, so we feel sensitive towards these comments. If someone on campus thinks that us Africans are all smelly, then our campus life is going to be very difficult.”

An interview with Hiroki Mochizuki (望月優大), author of ふたつの日本 「移民国家」の建前と現実 (Two Japans: The Tatemae and Honne of the Immigrant Nation) and editor of the excellent website Nihon Fukuzatsu Kihou, talks about Japan’s immigrant-filled future:

とても重要なのは、「日本人」と「外国人」という別々の存在がいるということではなく、この社会に長く暮らしていく人という意味ではどちらも同じだと考えることだ。
It’s important that 
“Nihonjin” and “Gaikokujin” do not exist as separate concepts, but they both refer to people who are going to live in our society for a very long time.

On the importance of communicating with Japan’s immigrant residents during times of natural disaster.

If you’re in Tokyo on July 20, check out this book fair in Asakusa which has an amazing list of independent publishers and recommended books from the fair. If you stick around in Asakusa, check out this exhibition on hand-made books at Book&Design, and if you’re around the previous week, the 2019 Tokyo Art Book Fair in Kiyosumi-shirakawa.

  • More responses from Japan generally to the recent protests in Hong Kong

In anticipation of the G20 summit held in Osaka this past weekend, the Asahi Shimbun and the Japan Times had full-page advertisements calling for international attention towards the erosion of Hong Kong’s freedoms. A week ago, TBS News broadcast a 20 minute documentary on the protests.

But are these Japanese thought pieces merely academic—to borrow a synonym from law school? Because, as Karen Cheung puts it in Foreign Policy, “the truth is that the world doesn’t really care about Hong Kong anymore, even if Hong Kongers don’t like to admit it. The tale of a city facing a slow and almost certain death, stretched over the span of 50 years, is pretty anticlimactic”.

And the Japanese blogosphere is filled with posts about how people feel about Hong Kong as a place:

香港人の香港なんて初めから無かったのだ。という人もいるだろう。でも、あったんだよ。彼らはそのなかで生きてきた。嫌なら国外へ出て行けという人もいるだろう。だが香港人が愛した香港は、香港にしかない。
Some people might say that there is so such thing as a Hong Kong that belonged to Hong Kong people. But I think there is. They’ve always lived in a place that belonged to them. Others might say, if they hate the place so much, why not leave? But to Hong Kong people who love Hong Kong, this is the only place they have.

Finally, while this isn’t really a link, Your Name had a re-run in Japan, and TV Asahi did something silly with the corporate sponsors’ logos. (Kind of spoiler alert for those who haven’t watched the film?)