[9 July 2002]
Perhaps we should start where just about anyone with eyes and institutional memory has: with the hair. In place of the normal obsidian, there’s a billowing cherry-apple Mohawk; instead of the ubiquitous raven black, there’s a ruddy vanilla-scrubbed mop-top; rather than the standard-issue charcoal, one encounters the understated teak Continental cut. Hell, the only one sporting black tresses had it coiled rastafari-style. Well, him and the guy wearing a batman mask. Of course, it wasn’t just what was upstairs, but what’s on the skin, as well. About half of the 23 featured some kind of facial fuzz hints or suggestions, if not outright declarations. Informing us “this is Japan today”. But what was most significant of all was where we were observing this noisy display. Not on some platform in Shinjuku station or in the aisles of a Glay concert. Rather, these coiffures adorned the high profile, government-sanctioned, Coke and Kirin-sponsored billboard that was serving to define and advertise the nation, itself. The colorful locks and non-traditional touches belonged to the select, steely warriors clad in blue and white: 2002’s national soccer team.
Yes, fair readers, another article about the World Cup. Sorry if you English-speakers have already had your fill. You Canucks and Kiwis and Aussies who didn’t even get a ticket stamped to this Asian dance; you Brits who got bumped by Brazil; and you Yanks who got, well, yanked back to earth by your Deutschland über allies.
But a riff on the Cup can’t really be avoided, can it? After all, it was the major cultural event in Japan this year and this is a column about Japanese culture. Popular culture. And when it comes to Japan’s (oh, ahem, and Korea’s) World Cup, nothing could be said to have been more popular. On this side of the pond, television ratings for the event were as tall as Tokyo Tower: 35% of all Japanese households were tuned to the opening match between France and Senegal; 41% plus caught the England-Argentina tiff; 35% saw co-host South Korea dispatch the favored Azurri (that’s Italy for you football er, soccer-challenged readers). And when it came to Japan’s games, why, the needle flew clear off the fanometer. Fifty-nine percent viewed the first match with Belgium witnesses to the nation’s first-ever point earned in World Cup play. Even more unbelievable, two-thirds of all Japanese households tuned into the match with Russia the first-ever victory for Japan in a World Cup tournament. After that, a certain drop-off in interest, which is to say, a mere 46%, observed Japan’s win over Tunisia a game that secured Japan’s first-ever second-round qualification, followed up by 45% who endured the all-too-swift denouement: a rain-soaked one-nil setback at the hands of Turkey.
Of course, demise was inevitable, what with powerhouses Brazil and Germany lurking further on down the road. But the Japanese were hoping for a tad longer run. Perhaps the kind of hellacious, irrational, mega-stropic Hiroshige-like wave that its neighboring foe-feigning-friend, South Korea, rode all the way to Final Four shores. A ride that left the so-called “Red Devils” utterly spent just as the hallowed sands of eternal celebrity loomed in full sight.
The co-host’s success had to be bittersweet for Japanese. There has always been a jittery rivalry between these neighbors. Of course, war and occupation could have something to do with it; but so, too, the sense of inferiority that simmers just beneath the surface because one nation has been just slightly behind the other. Try since the year 553. Anyway, that’s what the one that fancies itself ahead (Japan) is always implying to the other (South Korea). In economy, sure; but also in matters of manners and cultural achievement. Not all of it is real; but imaginations can be a mighty powerful impediment to inner happiness and outer harmony. Even in the lands of Zen. In any case, whatever they may feel on the Korean peninsula, on this side of the Japan Sea, by Cup’s end, it was more like envy.
Sure, the Japanese television folks heaped hearty praise on their co-host’s triumphant march. But in Japanese culture there is a social condition that one must master: a paired set called “honne” and “tatemae” what amounts to front stage and backstage. Living in Japan one quickly learns to navigate the nuances of what can and is said aloud (tatemae) versus what is actually believed and felt within (honne). (Thus so many misunderstandings and ruffled feathers when, just to pick one common example, a Japanese woman says to a western man: “Sure, let’s go on a date sometime . . .”). The point is that seldom do the twain perfectly align (physically or conceptually). More often, it is the case that there is some kind of inverse principle at work: as in what is most loudly proclaimed is what is least strongly felt. It’s what you can think of as ReDot logic.
To return to the case in point: something along the lines of: “screw you &%$#@”! South Koreans for kicking ass.” Sure, it may be true that 60% of Japanese respondents indicated in a poll that they wished the South Koreans would beat Germany and reach the finals, but let me ask this: if the Japanese loved the Koreans so much, why didn’t they arrange to hold joint opening and closing ceremonies for the games? Of course, that question cuts both ways.
As for the Japanese, since sporting cynosure was but half-attained, the Cup’s placement in television news and newsprint rapidly receded from its daily position front and center, top shelf, first and foremost; it now became just another story in which Japan happened to be tangentially related kind of like a G8 summit. Only here Japan was more than simply a rumpled gray suit on the margins of a pack of darker, bigger, more photogenic wardrobes. Here Japan was the cradle, the pitch as well as the borders; the background as well as the faces in the crowd. Why, Japan was the crowd itself by virtue of being host and all-around monsoon-sopped postcard. Despite this, in the Cup’s stead, arose the same-old same-old mix of incompetence, misfeasance, and fluffy entertainment in short, the manna of ReDotPopdom. The communication environment was quickly flooded with stories such as: The perpetually languid economy prompted Prime Minister Koizumi to pen a second tax reform package in advance of his meeting with world leaders. Although the measures were quickly adopted by his cabinet, few analysts deemed the effort sincere or likely efficacious. The media bristled with skepticism.
A high-ranking politico was indicted for diverting public funds for personal use. The legislator, a Japanese caricature of Willy Stark from All the King’s Men steadfastly refused to resign. His party, the all-powerful Liberal Democratic Party, similarly balked at censuring him. The fact that they had done just that two weeks before (for appreciably less cause) to a popular female member, provided provocative fodder for the contentious infotainment machine that is the Japanese news media.
The Yokohama Municipal Assembly voted to expel two members for occupying the assembly chair’s seat. Their refusal to vacate the chair (or the building) came in protest to the council’s raising the Hinomaru (the national flag) in chambers; Tsuyoshi Shinjo, a Japanese baseball export to the U.S. threatened to make the National League All-Star team despite batting a paltry .246 with five home runs and 23 runs batted in (RBIs). The 200,000 votes he suddenly garnered over one week were enough to propel him from fifth to fourth place still not close enough to ascend to one of the guaranteed top three slots but .031 points, 17 home runs and 40 RBIs less than the player he nosed out of fourth. The votes presumably came from supporters in Japan who are now allowed to vote for All-Stars in “America’s favorite pastime”.
But that’s Japan now, and we were talking about then. When Japan had a national soccer team more popular than any idol topping the charts. A team headed by a French coach and stocked with studs playing for teams in Italy and Holland, and warming the benches in England. A team featuring a halfback who, until six months ago, was a Brazilian citizen. A team that no longer boasted the popular free kick specialist with the droopy (black) hair and Charley Brown pessi-cution complex. The kid who, if it had been left to the fans and marketers, would have been first name on the roster. So popular was he that he had appeared in more ads than even those peerless world-conquering footballers, Hidetoshi Nakata and Shinji Ono. As loyal followers of this column surely know, the Japanese ad world is one of the major motors of ReDotPop. Ads may even be ReDotPop incarnate; for the stars and talent they feature, the songs and behaviors they boast, the ideas and situations that are interwoven in ad text are but chutes and ladders between the realm of popular culture and everyday life. Broadcast via these widely-distributed 15-second entertainments, such ideas, people and acts become the stuff of popular consciousness. Amplified and glamorized, ad content becomes firmly ensconced in everyday existence. What is sung or done today in a TV spot will be reprised or mimicked in the clubs and cafes, conveyed over the cell phones and on the streets, and remembered in the bedrooms and boardrooms tomorrow. Which is why ReDotPop is so all-fired significant.
Significant, too, that Nakata, Japan’s first bona-fide soccer export, speaks Italian or goes to Africa while selling digital cameras and color copiers, and that Ono, the prodigy who helped deliver a club championship to his Dutch side in his first year abroad, shops for food in Holland and speaks Flemish while promoting Japanese cars. But it is even more significant that Charley Brown (oh, all right, if you must know, his real name is Shunsuke Nakamura), though continually spurned, neglected and disrespected by the international soccer community, fills his free time by pitching Adidas shoes, Fuji Zerox copiers, Nihon Victor music boxes and Aquarius sports drink. Or, that is, he did sell all those goods until the French coach decided Shunsuke didn’t have game. Not enough game, at least, to counter the versatility of the recent import: the Brazilian-cum-Japanese mid-fielder, Alessandro Santos. And, alas, with Charley scratched from the Cup squad, advertisers drew a red card: having to shelve their Shunsuke ads for another day, locate other talent in the interim and most likely absorb a World Cup loss.
What is so ReDotPop about the preceding fact pattern is that it provides us a glimpse at where Japan’s head is at: cuddly male heroes, making their way in a globalizing world, but ultimately, bringing it all back home. Because no matter how much the World Cup was a celebration of multi-national concourse, for Japanese it was all about Japan. It was about a country (and, by extrapolation, its people) gaining respect, trying to put forever to rest its centuries-old “gaijin complex”, settle its endemic love-hate relationship with itself. All that in a simple sporting event? Well . . . yes! Because, you see, for all its post-war success, its unrivalled rise from the ashes, Japan views itself as the national equivalent of Charley Brown: never able to buy a break, never capable of elevating above its own limitations, forever berating itself for its failures, real or imagined. Never making the foreign coach’s final cut. Losing out on all the big contracts.
“Gaijin complex” is the term Robert Christopher coined for the Japanese belief that they are a “psychological outsider in the developed world.” Gaijin, itself, means “outsider” and that applies to you and me when we’re over here. At the same time, it is us who, according to Christopher, the majority of Japanese have developed a complex about (in the sense of perceived inadequacy, social inequality, a lack of comparative standing). All of which makes them, the Japanese, the outsider. Well, that’s ReDot logic for you. Everything ultimately gets twisted inside-out. As for the complex, it has existed since well before Meiji and even at Japan’s imperialist height was never far from the foreground. High-ranking officials in the Japanese Navy looked at a U.S. industrial capacity ten times its size and thought (to themselves) that the Pearl Harbor attack was tantamount to suicide. Japan simply could not measure up. Of course, they never told the Emperor that (for that would have been suicide).
In any case, it could be argued that the history that World War II spawned, as well as the ideas of Christopher and his fellow Japanologists, has been supplanted by a new generation of conquerors this time in the realm of popular culture. The Nomos and Ichiros and Nakatas may have helped a new generation of Japanese erase their predecessor’s gaijin complex. And if they didn’t, then maybe the thousands of twenty-somethings who flooded the streets following Japan’s victory over Russia did. This cohort, mindless of the rigid social conventions of their elders, engaged in unprecedented social displays: exchanged high fives with hundreds of passing strangers, stripping in public, jumping off bridges into the polluted rivers all in celebration of a simple soccer victory; in commemoration of earned respect. Welcome to the world, Nippon. Glad you could finally make it.
One of globalization’s big effects has been on Japan-watchers as much as the Japanese. This is not necessary a positive development. Many Japanologists make their living seeking to divine cultural change in every tweak in language or mutation in comportment. For this they seek to trace from change to some all-powerful smoking gun. Most often this gun is said to be “globalization”; the specific bullets inflicting the damage (or, more positively, the change): “westernization”. “The western” can be words like “rice” at a so-called “family restaurant” in lieu of the Japanese word for rice, “gohan”. “The western” can also be in practices, such as use of a fork and spoon (instead of chopsticks) when eating spaghetti, whereas chopsticks tend to be employed when eating Japanese noodles. Where Japanologists often step off the pier and take the plunge is by rendering “the western” synonymous with accreting indigenous self-centeredness. (One has to wonder whether the focus on that topic doesn’t betray Japanologist’s own self-possession, seeing as how most of us hail from the west. Seeing, as well, that there is no necessary correspondence between concern for self and westernization).
While we analysts are busy regarding ourselves in the mirror and pronouncing it “Japan”, we also tend to fixate on the native’s increasing individuality. (Ironically, a theme we analysts pursue unreflexively, doggedly, with little variation, as one). Which is why we all latch on to the hair thing. Or better, why we lap it up when Junichi Inamoto, a benchwarmer for Arsenal in the Premier League, publicly outted his long-repressed Id after scoring Japan’s second tourney goal. Not only did he launch into a dazzling sprint across the pitch rather standard fare for any soccer scorer, (but then this was only Japan’s third World Cup goal EVER) but (and get this), here is a representative for “don’t-signal-me-out-for-attention” Japan and he had the audacity to aim his pointer finger squarely at his nose (the Japanese equivalent of self-recognition) and mouth the words “Me! Me! Me!” as he sped past the cameras. Just in case any of the 48,000 raving fans had possibly missed seeing him drill his breakaway into the back of the net.
And if that wasn’t enough to set our Japanologist pencils feverishly a-scribbling, then what Hidetoshi Nakata had to say after Japan’s ouster from the field of 16 certainly did. Nakata, who, after a few years in Italy seems to have remastered, updated and re-released that long-playing Continental nihilist chic, stated (fully in character): “I feel nothing”. After which he snuck behind his wraparound designer shades, struck a pose, and chucked aside his national team’s standard-issue gray suit, white shirt and black tie in favor of his preferred leather vest, bare chest and silver chains. A stark contrast to fellow countrymen who have committed suicide in the past over matters as significant as poor examination results, a failed business presentation, or perhaps even a postal package delivered 20 minutes late.
Thinking through all of the above, one arrives at the $64,000 question: is Japan changing or isn’t it? Well, in a word, the answer doesn’t lie in the hair. Nor does it rest with the behavior of the high profile players. If one pans back to the fans lending support the stadia full of frenzied folks who arrive in identical electric blue jerseys, jiggle with delight as one, and rise in unison to hum “Country Roads” the verdict seems more equivocal. The evidence suggests that Japan is still very much an “I wear what you wear, I act as you act, I think as you think” show room of interchangeable parts. Even as the kids on the street are busy being so individual tinting their locks, piercing their skin, downloading their favorite songs to serve as cell phone advisories that they’ve got mail it can’t be ignored that everyone is doing all this together. Without an exception, they are performing individual acts that depart not a whit from the clan. And when one factors in the “Beckham Boom” the hysteria with which an entire society greeted a single player, hanging on his every breath and trying (with little success) to decipher his every unintelligible utterance one realizes that this behavior differs little from that of generations past.
Like every cohort of the past four decades, the folks of 2002 are experiencing ReDotPop in contagion form. The “World Cup boom” (and its cancerous offshoots such as “the Beckham boom” and “the Azurri boom”) infect the popular consciousness and inspire predatory marketers no different than did the “jogging boom”, the “tennis boom”, the “golfing boom”, the “my car boom”, the “my-home boom”, the “Juliana’s (or disco) boom”, the “Brand (or designer goods) boom”, the “tour (or foreign vacation) boom”, the “internationalization boom”, the “hip-hop boom”, the “loose socks boom”, the “ko-gyal (high school girl) boom”, the “ganguro (or yamaba-inspired) boom”, and the “Internet boom” of years past.
Is it possible that we are merely passing through a “globalization” boom and with the expiration of extra time in the final World Cup match, with the hoisting of the diminutive, twisted golden championship statuary, with the last interviews with Ronaldo (and his bizarre wedge-cut hair) and Kahn (and his equally macabre mutton-chop sideburns), with the last wave “goodbye” at Narita airport, the twin ascents of the Varig plane to Brazil and the Lufthansa liner to Germany, that the Japanese will collectively sigh the sigh of spiritual depletion, disperse, then jointly dispose of the soccer boom? They will then put their collective imaginations together to tell their collective eyes what the next piece of ReDotPop should be collectively consumed. Although I have no way of knowing what it will be, I can guarantee you with utter certitude what it won’t be: a tube of Vidal Sasson hair coloring.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/holden020710/