[rumori] Gibson on Japan

From: Don Joyce (djATwebbnet.com)
Date: Sun Apr 08 2001 - 20:08:35 PDT

Forwarded by Negativland.

> For sci-fi author William Gibson, Japan has
> been a lifelong inspiration. Here, the writer
> who coined the phrase 'cyberspace', explains
> why no other country comes closer to the
> future... or makes better toothpaste
>Sunday April 1, 2001
>The Observer
>'Why Japan?' I've been asked for the past 20 years or so. Meaning:
>why has Japan been the setting for so much of my fiction? When I
>started writing about Japan, I'd answer by suggesting that Japan was
>about to become a very central, very important place in terms of the
>global economy. And it did. (Or rather, it already had, but most
>people hadn't noticed yet.) A little later, asked the same question,
>I'd say that it was Japan's turn to be the centre of the world, the
>place to which all roads lead; Japan was where the money was and the
>deal was done. Today, with the glory years of the bubble long gone,
>I'm still asked the same question, in exactly the same quizzical
>tone: 'Why Japan?'
>Because Japan is the global imagination's default setting for the future.
>The Japanese seem to the rest of us to live several measurable clicks
>down the time line. The Japanese are the ultimate Early Adaptors, and
>the sort of fiction I write behoves me to pay serious heed to that.
>If you believe, as I do, that all cultural change is essentially
>technologically driven, you pay attention to the Japanese. They've
>been doing it for more than a century now, and they really do have a
>head start on the rest of us, if only in terms of what we used to
>call 'future shock' (but which is now simply the one constant in all
>our lives).
>Consider the Mobile Girl, that ubiquitous feature of contemporary
>Tokyo street life: a schoolgirl busily, constantly messaging on her
>mobile phone (which she never uses for voice communication if she can
>avoid it). The Mobile Girl can convert pad strokes to kanji faster
>than should be humanly possible, and rates her standing in her
>cellular community according to the amount of numbers in her phone's
>memory. What is it that the Mobile Girls are so busily conveying to
>one another? Probably not much at all: the equivalent of a
>schoolgirl's note, passed behind the teacher's back. Content is not
>the issue here, but rather the speed, the weird unconscious surety,
>with which the schoolgirls of Tokyo took up a secondary feature (text
>messaging) of a new version of the cellular telephone, and generated,
>almost overnight, a micro-culture.
>A little over 100 years ago, the equivalent personal, portable
>techno-marvel in Tokyo would have been a mechanical watch. The
>printmakers of the Meiji period made a very large watch the satiric
>symbol of the Westernised dandy, and for the Japanese, clock-time was
>an entirely new continuum, a new reality.
>The techno-cultural suppleness that gives us Mobile Girls today, is
>the result of a traumatic and ongoing temporal dislocation that began
>when the Japanese, emerging in the 1860s from a very long period of
>deep cultural isolation, sent a posse of bright young noblemen off to
>England. These young men returned bearing word of an alien
>technological culture they must have found as marvellous, as
>disconcerting, as we might find the products of reverse-engineered
>Roswell space junk. These Modern Boys, as the techno-cult they
>spawned came popularly to be known, somehow induced the nation of
>Japan to swallow whole the entirety of the Industrial Revolution. The
>resulting spasms were violent, painful, and probably inconceivably
>disorienting. The Japanese bought the entire train-set: clock-time,
>steam railroads, electric telegraphy, Western medical advances. Set
>it all up and yanked the lever to full on. Went mad. Hallucinated.
>Babbled wildly. Ran in circles. Were destroyed. Were reborn.
>Were reborn, in fact, as the first industrialised nation in Asia.
>Which got them, not too many decades later, into empire-building
>expansionist mode, which eventually got them two of their larger
>cities vaporised, blown away by an enemy wielding a technology that
>might as well have come from a distant galaxy.
>And then that enemy, their conquerors, the Americans, turned up in
>person, smilingly intent on an astonishingly ambitious programme of
>cultural re-engineering. The Americans, bent on restructuring the
>national psyche from the roots up, inadvertently plunged the Japanese
>several clicks further along the time line. And then left, their
>grand project hanging fire, and went off to fight Communism instead.
>The result of this stupendous triple-whammy (catastrophic
>industrialisation, the war, the American occupation) is the Japan
>that delights, disturbs and fascinates us today: a mirror world, an
>alien planet we can actually do business with, a future.
>But had this happened to any other Asian country, I doubt the result
>would have been the same. Japanese culture is 'coded', in some
>wonderfully peculiar way that finds its nearest equivalent, I think,
>in English culture. And that is why the Japanese are subject to
>various kinds of Anglophilia, and vice versa. It accounts for the
>totemic significance, to the Japanese, of Burberry plaid, and for the
>number of Paul Smith outlets in Japan, and for much else besides.
>Both nations display a sort of fractal coherence of sign and symbol,
>all the way down into the weave of history. And Tokyo is very nearly,
>in its own way, as 'echoic' (to borrow Peter Ackroyd's term) a city
>as London.
>I've always felt that London is somehow the best place from which to
>observe Tokyo, perhaps because the British appreciation of things
>Japanese is the most entertaining. There is a certain tradition of
>'Orientalia', of the faux-Oriental, that has been present here for a
>long time, and truly, there is something in the quality of a good
>translation that can never be captured in the original.
>London, being London and whatever else, eminently assured of its
>ability to do whatever it is that London's always done, can reflect
>Japan, distort it, enjoy it, in ways that Vancouver, where I live,
>never can. In Vancouver, we cater blandly to the Japanese, both to
>the tour-bus people with the ever-present cameras and to a delightful
>but utterly silent class of Japanese slackers. These latter seem to
>jump ship simply to be here, and can be seen daily about the city, in
>ones and twos, much as, I suspect, you or I might seem to the
>residents of Puerto Vallarta. 'There they are again. I wonder what
>they might be thinking?'
>But we don't reflect them back. We don't have any equivalent of the
>robot sushi bar in Harvey Nichols, which is as perfectly 'Japanese' a
>thing as I've seen anywhere, and which probably wouldn't look nearly
>as cool if it had been built in Tokyo or Osaka.
>We don't have branches of Muji interspersed between our Starbucks
>(although I wish we did, because I'm running out of their excellent
>toothpaste). Muji is the perfect example of the sort of thing I'm
>thinking of, because it calls up a wonderful Japan that doesn't
>really exist. A Japan of the mind, where even toenail-clippers and
>plastic coat-hangers possess a Zen purity: functional, minimal,
>reasonably priced. I would very much like to visit the Japan that
>Muji evokes. I would vacation there and attain a new serenity, smooth
>and translucent, in perfect counterpoint to natural fabrics and
>unbleached cardboard. My toiletries would pretend to be nothing more
>than what they are, and neither would I. (If Mujiland exists
>anywhere, it's probably not in Japan. If anywhere, it may actually be
>here, in London.)
>Because we don't reflect them back, in Vancouver, they don't market
>to us in the same way they market to you.
>The trendy watch chains of London are the only places in the world,
>aside from Japan, where one can purchase the almost-very-latest
>Japan-only product from Casio and Seiko.
>Because Japanese manufacturers know that you see them, in London.
>They know that you get it. They know that you are a market.
>I like to watch the Japanese in Portobello market. Some are there for
>the crowd, sightseeing, but others are there on specific,
>narrow-bandwidth, obsessional missions, hunting British military
>watches or Victorian corkscrews or Dinky Toys or Bakelite napkin
>rings. The dealers' eyes still brighten at the sight of a tight shoal
>of Japanese, significantly sans cameras, sweeping determinedly in
>with a translator in tow. A legacy from the affluent days of the
>bubble, perhaps, but still the Japanese are likely to buy, should
>they spot that one particular object of otaku desire. Not an
>impulse-buy, but the snapping of a trap set long ago, with great
>The otaku, the passionate obsessive, the information age's embodiment
>of the connoisseur, more concerned with the accumulation of data than
>of objects, seems a natural crossover figure in today's interface of
>British and Japanese cultures. I see it in the eyes of the Portobello
>dealers, and in the eyes of the Japanese collectors: a perfectly calm
>train-spotter frenzy, murderous and sublime. Understanding otaku
>-hood, I think, is one of the keys to understanding the culture of
>the web. There is something profoundly post-national about it,
>extra-geographic. We are all curators, in the post-modern world,
>whether we want to be or not.
>The Japanese are great appreciators of what they call 'secret
>brands', and in this too they share something with the British. There
>is a similar fascination with detail, with cataloguing, with
>distinguishing one thing from another. Both cultures are singularly
>adroit at re-conceptualising foreign product, at absorbing it and
>making it their own.
>Why Japan, then? Because they live in the future, but neither yours
>nor mine, and somehow make it seem either interesting or comical or
>really interestingly dreadful. Because they are capable of naming an
>après-sport drink Your Water. Because they build museum-grade
>reproductions of the MA-1 flight jacket that require prospective
>owners to be on waiting lists for several years before one even has a
>chance of possibly, one day, owning the jacket. Because they can say
>to you, with absolute seriousness, believing that it means something,
>'I like your lifestyle!'
>Because they are Japanese, and you are British, and I am American (or
>possibly Canadian, by this point).
>And I like both your lifestyles.
>Enjoy one another!
>* William Gibson is the author of All Tomorrow's Parties, and the
>forthcoming Pattern Recognition, both Penguin UK
>Partner, Creative Director
>Sp3d, Inc.
>Media Design & Production
>(415) 864-3302 - VOX
>(415) 864-3402 - FAX

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