Call for Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.
Call for Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.

Aware of What They Wear?

A thousand years is quite a long time by some accounts — certainly for dragonflies, dogs, and people. The jury’s still out on the lifetime of pop songs and Hollywood movies. What is your bet as to which two or three from our lifetime will still be available at a hyper-wave relay rental outlet in lower Cassiopeia in the year 3002? The Godfather? Strawberry Fields Forever? Dumb and Dumber?

As for the lifespan of countries, well, England would be a graybeard by the thousand-years from now measure; America, just passing out of adolescence; remodeled Germany and retooled Russia, still in their infancies. Of course, these are national designations; mere artificial political demarcations susceptible to the ebb and flow of armaments and aspiration. Culture, though, is a different beast: it is more transcendent continuous and enduring. Which is why contexts like Japan claim heritage dating back centuries: 700 A.D. is a number that commonly pops up in local lore.

As long as that hunk of lived life may be, by comparison, Japan’s involvement on the global stage has been but a flutter of the eyelids, a flick of the wrist, a shudder of the shoulders. When it comes to the cultural flow of people, objects, and information, this island nation’s biography dates back, at most, a mere century. Its global resume features occupying armies in the 1930s, transistor radios in the 1960s, economy cars in the 1970s, VCRs in the 1980s, sushi in the 1990s, and pro baseballers in the 2000s.

Most often, Japan’s contribution to globalization has been to serve as staging area for the ideas and goods of foreign peoples and corporations: an American constitution here, Coca-Cola and Fanta there, a glut of Sylvester Stallone flics, a passel of Bee Gee tunes. Now, however, we’ve got reverse flow: from DragonBall Z for kids to Beat Takeshi oeuvres for adults. And Japanese designs for everyone in between: chic clothiers peddling their wears, influencing trends, dressing the masses.

The Japanese designers are doing what so many foreign marketers have done here in Japan for years: setting the local agenda, telling folks what to think about and how to express themselves. Case in point: a pre-Christmas ad in The New Yorker sponsored by COMMES des GARCONS, a Japanese clothing company of growing global grip. In this ad, though, there was nary a Tee, nor turtleneck, nor tweed; not a shirt, skirt, or pants suit in sight. Instead the ad displayed a bevy of buttons and badges and bangles and clip-pins arranged in a messy pile against a black-drop. There were admonitions and exhortations, written in far-out fonts, applied on rounded shields of banana yellow, phosphorous green and chocolatey brown.

The slogans, all in English, took shape in mauve and puce and lime stenciling. The words were vaguely familiar: pop philosophy and history lessons and politics from an era past — all aimed at reminding any American old enough to have jeered Tricky Dick or hummed along with “White Rabbit”, of the major concerns during those middling twentieth century times. The retro-60s themes were of peace (“MAKE LOVE, NOT WAR”), sex (“lie down, I think I love you”), communal values (“SAVE WATER: SHOWER WITH A FRIEND”), retro attitudes (“Folk You”), new age religion (“Keep the Faith, Baby!”), psychedelisized lifestyle (“Fly LSD”), self-centrism (“I LOVE ME”), unbridled self-confidence (“I AM GREAT IN BED”), marginal mania (“Fag Power”), scatalogical philosophy (“HALITOSIS IS BETTER THAN NO BREATH AT ALL”) and thinking way outside the box (“Unbutton”).

But that was America, then, as captured by COMMES des GARCONS; while the world this column inhabits is ReDotPop, now. It’s a different time, a far different place. A space where the values, ideas, and lifestyles of this Japanese generation flow through the creative products for popular consumption today, telling us as much about the Japan we inhabit as about who we Japanese are.

So, what, then, do Japanese popular goods tell us? Absolutely nothing. Which is to say, they tell you everything you need know about Japanese youth today. For, you see, unfortunate as it is to reveal: the minds of the Japanese youth are basically blank. If we were to reduce this phenomena to a slogan on a badge, it might read: “Are you aware of what you wear?” And don’t count on receiving an affirmative answer.

Perhaps betraying the origin of the COMMES des GARCONS;campaign, in Japan today pins are staging a comeback, affixed mainly to book bags and caps and boots. Bumper stickers can also occasionally be spotted. “Baby on Board” is a particular favorite. (Original, no? These Japanese). One also encounters less-circulated statements culled from random foreign junkets such as “Kuala Zone” or “I brake for Whales”, that sort of thing. What is most apparent in all this public talk, though, is what is not there: it is basically void of political ideology or personal philosophy. For such exposition one has to turn to clothes. In particular, it is the T-shirt that performs the bulk of non-verbal public communication in Japan.

The strange thing though — the thing that really speaks volumes beyond the phrases stitched on the shirts, themselves — is that the kids who sport them (the bearers are mainly college age youth), haven’t a clue what the words actually mean. Honest. I tried it out myself. I asked a young woman in my university class what does that mean? “Don’t Judge a Book by Its COVER,” read the 48 point Comic Sans MS scrolled across her chest. “Beats me,” she replied. Which, ironically, was the point her shirt was busy making. Sort of.

But what else would one expect from contemporary Japan: where style is more important than substance. A simple check of the recent play of politics reminds us of that much. So, too, the woof and warp of everyday life:

“STreet FuckeR”. That was the phrase stenciled on the shoulder patch of the jacket draped over the shoulder of the twenty-year old woman with hair reminiscent of misadventure with the sangria. You know: inverted punch-bowl shaped, and alternate burnt-orange and blond-tinted hue. Her clean, white tee was tucked into her ebb-waisted DKNY jeans — the ones drooping just so — aimed at exposing the perfectly tanned belly-button swimming between protruding bony pelvi.

“Do you know,” I inquired in wonder, “what that . . .” careful how I pointed my finger, “um . . . means?” She followed the line of query to the tip of her extremis, mouthed the words written thereon, returned her eyes to my general direction, face reddening (possibly implicating her in the act of cognizance), and replied, “No?”

As if this was a test. I hadn’t the heart (or perhaps the courage) to hip her to the answer. Sure there was any number of possible retorts — most of which would either have been uncool, or else would have flirted with job security. So I just left it hanging.

Which is really fitting, the leaving it hanging, since that is what this entire word-thing is all about. In the realm of ReDotPop — be it in the guise of shirts or ads, music or TV programs — the sloganeering isn’t about what the words mean; it’s about how the words look. Or sound. Or the feel said look/sound gives off. T-shirt philosophy is not about ideas at all; rather, it’s about attitude. It’s all about aura; about image conjured by color and shape and font, and hell if we care what those signs may actually mean.

Consider the frumpy, dumpy, dowdy 19-year-old in stringy shoulder-length locks, baggy dungarees and powder blue tee with the hyper-real comic up front. In it, two overweight, overall-clad farmers in ten-gallon hats are descending a grassy slope astride a couple of ultra-pink pigs. Huge the pigs are, as obese as the Americans straddling them. The pigs stare straight ahead, placid, while one farmer turns to the other, who’s looking around perplexed. The balloon of words above him reads, “Honest, I heard them bikers talkin’ about ridin’ hogs and lookin’ for chicks. ” Get it?

And then there was the student who was sporting a single pink word scrawled across a gray tank top. Sitting across the room from her was another, wearing a T-shirt which sported a reply. It was a coincidence too delightful to resist; a confluence waiting to happen. All I had to do was bring the elements together to complete the script. I asked both women to approach the front of the class. There, standing side by side, their shirts conducted a conversation all by themselves: “Punch” the one on the left declared; the one on the right replied: “Ouch”. No kidding. Not one student in the class, though, saw the levity in it.

Of course one part of the problem is English, the language into which most of these slogans are rendered. Well, admitted, there is the random “vraiment?” gracing a shirt pocket or “perfecto mundo” adorning a back. So, let’s say the problem lay in foreign language. As in: foreign to these kid’s understanding; as in: unintelligible to their intellect and experience. No matter what language they happen to thumb at the local garmenteria, though, one fact shines through: what these shirts represent their bearers as being has very little to do with what the kids believe they are pulling over their shoulders or sticking their legs down and through. “Life of the Bun People” anyone? That came on a tie-dyed Tee. How about “Surf is life” complemented by the moniker “Hang 5 Guy”.

Fifteen years ago, when I first visited this fair archipelago, T-shirts carried messages such as, “Mickey Mouse is our idol of the world”. A friend met me at the airport wearing “He’s a Friendry Dog”. Indeed, “Thank You and Okay!” was the salutation that greeted visitors at the Tokyo Olympics. These humorous forays into foreign expression certainly stem from Japan’s complex relationship to language. Japanese, you see, supports three distinct syllabularies: Chinese characters, called kanji, for words imported from China; a scripted alphabet, called hiragana, for words, suffixes and prefixes created in Japan; and another scripted alphabet, called katakana, for words that have arrived from beyond these shores. It is the latter, into which most English has been vetted.

Once “romanized”, transcription errors inevitably accrue; the most commonly cited being the old ” r ” for ” l ” switch. But other vexing problems arise in the guise of the hard ” b” becoming “bu” or the cold ” d ” becoming “doe” — a pain in the neck for those of us Todds in the world, for instance, who suddenly have our identity transmogrified into “Toddo”. Not so bad, though, when accompanied by the promise of “rabu” where perhaps “love” was intended. (Would that the world was filled with more such felicitous ambiguity).

But, as bollixed as Jap-lish can be, it has almost become fully-indigenized. Today a form of English routinely courses through and supports the ReDotPop domain: from ad slogans to band names to song lyrics. It’s an ubiquitous, obligatory part of the popular communication landscape. Consider some of this month’s top band brands: “Pornograffiti”, “Da Pump”, “Morning Musume”, “Glay”, “Do As Infinity” and “Mr. Children”. As for their lyrics, in the midst of a cacophony of Japanese tremolo, the plaintive English phrase “Christmas time”, the stray “New Frontier”, or the meandering “Flying fall down” will warble its way into a refrain.

To be fair, though, the expressions have improved. Sure, strange sloganeering is still rampant in advertising (“inspire the next”, “Fun Car Go”, “Sky Shower TV”); so, too, with product labeling (“Blendy”, “Grand Saloon”, “Creap”). But more often than not, language use suggests sufficient competence (“It’s a Sony . . .”, “Baby, I love your way”) to prompt one to wonder about communicator intent. Thus, for instance, when a shirt declaring “BETTER” appears on the street, my semiotically-trained brain naturally seeks to read it in relation to Japan’s ego-less past. From that platform it is but a short skip and jump to interpreting the phrase as reflecting a burgeoning confidence among today’s younger Japanese.

At the same time, it is nearly impossible for the American in me not to speculate and equate: how would an assertion of similar ilk play out in the States? Almost certainly, were a comparative to grace an American’s breast, it would not take a diminutive form; surely it would be rendered as the highest superlative. I mean, would an American settle for “BETTER” when she could have “BEST”? All of which I take to mean that, assuming language is really a reflection of social milieu, then the words spied on Japanese shirts today suggest only modest egoism in play. The current condition of Japanese ReDotPoppers is not, as yet, fully aggrandized; though possibly, in contrast to the attitude of their forebears, it is inchoate and advancing.

Then again, one probably ought not to take these missives too literally. This is still Japan, after all. This is the only society in the world where kids can study English for ten years and still not know what “It’s a new dawn” or “The Evil Power of Rock ‘n’ Roll” actually mean. More often, what is written on their heart is nothing like what is within it: neither the essence of their soul nor the marrow of their mind. English merely paints a pretty picture; it’s a style point, a token of panaché, a smidgeon of charm.

As with most things Japanese, much of this social motion boils down to affect. Remember the old ad campaign: “Oh what a feeling!”? Well, it was no coincidence that it was for a Japanese car. No different than when Coca-Cola marketed their beverage over here. Their long-running slogan ” I feel Coke!” about says it all. For Japanese, human relations and the organization of everyday life is all about kimochi. (That’s “feeling” to you and me).

What that means for those of us who make their living pondering the world of ReDotPop is this: the licentious embrace of foreign language signals that form matters as much or more than content. That recognition, in turn, serves as a caution that we ought not to excavate and excogitate all too deeply.

Just a word of advice; so that when you step off the plane and encounter that silk screen of Lauren Bacall advancing with assurance toward the luggage carousel, you’re well within your limits to lock in on the flaming orange hair and the extra-glossy red lips splashed across the shimmering acrylic. But, whatever you do, don’t much muse over the caption, for it will only steer you down a darkened alleyway, propelling you head-long into a thick brick wall. “Do Miss our Deep Conversations” the words will declare.

Okay, then. Go ahead, if you must: take it seriously. Inquire about the deeper social meaning, the possible personal intentions, behind the selection of that set of words; the likely human attributes they purport to signal. And as you turn to actually address the receding Japanese figure, you’ll be met with these words glowing in bold caps across the back: