When we last spoke to translators for Genron, they were hard at work translating articles for the recent issue of the Shisouchizu Beta journal. Genron is a company founded by one of Japan’s premier critics, Azuma Hiroki, the author of Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals. Genron offers an accessibly fresh “critical discourse” based on “the here and now” in Japanese society. This may sound broad, but it’s merely a reflection of the journal’s range of topics. The journal analyzes everything from the otaku and gyaru subcultures to Japanese political science and literary criticism. There’s something for everyone here. It’s academically intellectual, yet journalistically readable and has information unobtainable through Western media.
The new issue, Japan 2.0, confronts Japan’s looming future after the Great Tohoku Earthquake of “3/11”. “Japan was forcibly changed by the violence of the disaster,” Azuma writes in the opening note. “What we need now are words that, accepting this as a premise, act as a lighthouse which, though perhaps unable to provide the answer to the question of where Japan should be headed, may at least hazily light the way forward.” Communication and change are indeed the journal’s raison d’être. The presence of communication in Japan’s contemporary “atmosphere,” it’s evolution, and the necessity in its transformation for the future is a recurrent point throughout the issue. We had a peek at some of the translated articles and abstracts in the back of the journal. I’ll write comments on the individual articles within the issue in the near future. In the mean time here’s a brief summary.
Highlights include an interview with Fukushima Maiko and Shikura Chiyomaru. Fukushima, better known as Mofuku-chan, is the president of Moé Japan and creator of the Mogra and Dear stage clubs and producer of the Denpagumi.inc idol group. Shikura is the president of MAGES and was involved in the production of Steins;Gate. Together they discuss the current state of Akihabara and some of the challenges and possible changes it faces in the future. They explain how its culture evolved from “2D otaku” to “3D otaku” more interested in creating content through mediums like Nico Nico Douga and interacting with idol groups like AKB48.
Challenges for Akihabara include the manga market’s competition with cellphones. What’s emphasized is that the otaku, usually stereotyped as asocial creatures, seek out modes of communication. They merely used different entertainment mediums as a means for discussing its content for hours on end. Included within the interview is a photoshoot narrated in the style of a Japanese Role Playing Game with Azuma, Shikura, and Fukushima cosplaying as archetypical characters from the genre. The narrative posits whether or not Moé, Akihabara, and the otaku can save the future.
Next is a transcribed speech from Murakami Takashi at his 500 Arhats Exhibit in Doha, Qatar. In it, he describes his motivation for constructing such an art piece and addresses its relationship between it and the Tohoku Earthquake. “I wanted to depict the chaos of Japan in painting and make it a message for the future,” he says. “I felt that it was very important to paint these works and exhibit them as an event cultivating goodwill.”
What’s more, Murakami addresses some of the criticisms inveighed against him by critics in his native country. The specifics of which are nothing new. They attack his originality and tease him for his popularity overseas. “Now that I’m appreciated by foreigners,” he says, “They say I’m tricking them…I came to think that there’s no need for me to address the Japanese if they refuse to take me seriously.”
Amidst this he emphasizes the need for communication to transmit culture through art. “Without communication, you can neither sell nor convey value. Without it, nothing is created no matter how much you raise a ruckus on the Internet…For example, how can one communicate to foreigners the sensibility of the Japanese otaku? My works were a result of thinking this through and through and executing it.”
In contrast to more contemporary forms of art, Azuma leads us down the past with an interview with philosopher Umehara Takeshi. In the interview, Umehara articulates some of the differences between Western and Eastern philosophies. The West is concerned with Being, whereas the East focuses on nothingness. The West dwells on the spirit of the individual while the East is more attuned to nature.
“I think that having experienced both the merits and demerits of Western civilization, has the role in world history of overcoming it.” This is an allusion to the 20th century Kyoto School of philosophy. He further paraphrases a conversation he had with historian Arnold J. Toynbee. “Toynbee said that non-Western civilizations like Japan will have to create, and they will create, a new type of civilization in which they think about science and technology through their own principles.”
Departing from the past, is a more contemporary discussion on the state of journalism in China and Japan between Chinese journalist Michael Anti and Tsuda Daisuke. Anti explains some of the journalistic differences in his native China. Some of it isn’t new like the government’s censorship practices in social media and restrictions on what’s reported by mass media. What’s notable is that Anti conveys that there was a great swell of sympathy expressed by China towards Japan following 3/11. The change in attitudes of some Chinese foreign correspondents reporting on the situation may have contributed to this. “If Chinese people spend two weeks in Japan and during that time report on normal citizens in an authentic manner,” Anti says, “I think they lose their nationalistic prejudices.” Of course this was reported before tensions between the two countries from territorial disputes took the international stage.
In turn, Tsuda explains his own role during disaster relief in Tohoku and how Twitter and social media helped those afflicted by the earthquake and tsunami that mass media couldn’t. He explains that one of the frustrations was that mass media wasn’t reporting on all of the areas damaged by the Tsunami, while Tsuda used this as an opportunity to communicate what was happening by visiting the areas shirked by major news outlets and reporting about their conditions via Twitter.
Their final thoughts conclude with the possibility of information activism and the future of their work. Tsuda once considered himself a journalist, but later rethought this identity after 3.11. He now considers himself an “information activist” and “tries to move people emotionally and mobilize them.” “In order for people with information to create useful action,” Anti says. “They need funds, firstly, and political networking…additionally, translation is of the utmost importance when we talk of networking. In other words, breaking down the language barrier is the first step towards cooperation.”
Again, the recurrent argument in most of the articles is the value and need for or even transformative mode of communication. This is one of the reasons why portions of the journal were translated into English. “Younger readers are becoming rapidly internalized and have little interest in information from overseas,” Azuma said in his discussion with Anti and Tsuda. “There are lots of people who can’t read English at all. I hope this discussion will provide an opportunity to change that situation.”
Regardless of whether or not it does, this translation does offer a golden opportunity for American readers a chance to better understand Japan. For example, intellectuals like Miyadai Shinji are frequently cited by Western academics in pieces on contemporary Japanese studies. Yet, translations for his books have yet to see the light of day. Whether or not this’ll alter interests in the Japanese for information from overseas is for the future to decide. Hopefully Genron will grant the international community a greater means of access to contemporary information on Japan. I can only cross my fingers that this will create a wider intellectual demand that both Japanese and Western readers so direly need.