Interview: Genron

When acclaimed critic Hiroki Azuma isn’t writing or teaching at Waseda University, he’s bridging the gap between academia and the general public through the Contectures publishing company as its President and Editor-in-Chief.

With Genron, Contectures English language portal, he and his staff have their eyes set abroad by translating articles for Western readers not adversed in Japanese.

We had the opportunity to sit down with Naoki Matsuyama who is in charge of translations and global outreach and Ko Ransom, a translator for the company, to discuss Genron, criticism in Japan, Azuma’s work, the Great East Japan Earthquake, and the country’s future.

BF: How did you get involved with this project?

NM: I was born and grew up in Italy and I studied in the UK. I came to Japan two or three years ago with very little knowledge of Japanese criticism or Azuma-san’s works. A friend of mine introduced me to Azuma-san’s books by chance and they completely blew me away. It felt to me like it was the first time that criticism was trying to convey something about the current situation and move forward to do something about it, instead of providing a simple negation of the current conditions. I immediately knew that this was something I wanted to get involved in, and I knew I could contribute having straddled between cultures all my life.

So one day I sent him an e-mail saying, because I’m a translator, “If you need any help, I’ll be more than happy to”. That was before the first issue of the journal Shisouchizu Beta was published, and a few days later I received an email saying that he wanted to include English abstracts for all articles in it and that he wanted me to work on that. From there, I started to become involved in different activities of Contectures, the company that was created to publish the journal, including the website Genron that I initiated and an iPad app[lication] as well.

KR: Right around April after the disaster, I was in a Japanese language program in Yokohama. All of my classes at school got cancelled so I was just sitting at home most of the day. I looked at Twitter and I saw someone retweet something that Naoki sent saying that Contectures was searching for translators. I sent an application and after that I managed to get here. It was part of the company’s wave of hiring new translators to do more articles for the disaster issue.

BF: What’s the translation process?

NM: We usually do entire articles and each translator works on one article at a time. The translation team is composed of myself, Ko, and three other translators who all have different specializations. Ko’s is subculture, and he also knows a lot about criticism related to subculture. The other guys specialize in different fields such as modern critical theory in Japan, Japanese orthography and the political history of Japan. We try to do whatever we can that we think will have an impact focusing on translating articles we feel should be read abroad.

BF: Does Shisouchizu Beta primarily go into Otaku culture or is it just about criticism?

NM: Otaku culture is not its main focus. For the first series of Shisouchizu that was published by NHK Publishing, the first issue focused on the theme “Japan”, the second on “generations”, followed by “architecture”, ”imagination” and “social criticism”.

Later, Azuma-san established Contectures with a few others as a limited liability company to have more editorial freedom to accomplish what he envisioned. The first issue published by Contectures, Shisouchizu beta vol. 1, focuses on two main topics. One is shopping malls and the other one is pattern sciences. So, it’s a bit removed from subculture and, although it has been featured consistently, it’s always been framed by larger questions. For example, if you see one of the first interviews in the issue between Hiroki Azuma, Takashi Murakami, and Inose Naoki who is the Vice-Governor of Tokyo, they discuss the “Non-existent Youth” problem which is a problem that primarily concerns subculture but relates to issues of freedom of expression and censorship.

KR: In 2010, Tokyo was specifically trying to pass new legislation that would place tighter restrictions on drawn erotic depictions of children. The law was written in a very broad way that could potentially place harsh restrictions on a significant portion of artistic expression and have a strong chilling effect. So, there was a fair bit of discussion on the legislation at that time.

NM: Inose was on the government’s side pushing for that legislation and Murakami —coming from his background that combines Japanese subculture with contemporary art—was against this as he feared it would stifle creativity. Azuma-san wanted to bring the two together to actually discuss what the source of the problem was and to figure out a way forward.

KR: The problem many had with the legislation is that not only was it broadly-written, it seemed to give a lot of discretion to the authorities to enforce the provisions as they felt. It’s actually quite similar to some of the problems that people had with SOPA and PIPA a few months ago, where some people might agree with the spirit of the legislation, but because it was written so vaguely, there was a lot of potential for its misapplication and abuse.

NM: The main point is that it’s not about subculture per se. Subculture is becoming less of a focus for Contectures. It’s more about the contemporary Japanese situation at large.

The first issue is about shopping malls, which is definitely not the most beloved phenomenon among intellectuals in Japan–and perhaps in this world. They have earned the name fasuto fudo (fast food, but it’s a pun; fudo is climate, scenery, or culture). Sociologist Atsushi Miura coined this term to denote these suburban landscapes that were the same everywhere and aimed at mass consumption. The reason we wanted to focus on shopping malls was because we see new possibilities in that landscape. As the world is becoming more widely connected, and similar conditions are springing up everywhere, these kinds of new landscapes could connect us with other people in the world. We want to discern those conditions and create something upon them.

When they talk about poor suburban culture, are they talking about the gyaru?

NM: You probably ask me this because I recently wrote a review on Kenrou Hayamizu’s book on the subject (Keitaishousetsu-teki), but gyaru is actually a culture that came out of a condition where everything is beginning to look the same. Azuma’s criticism, as well as what we call zero generation criticism–a body of work by young critics that attracted attention in the 2000s–tries to look at these new conditions like shopping malls, suburbia, the internet, and mass consumption as not necessarily negative, but purely as a given environment on which new cultures like that of gyaru can thrive.

Is that what Azuma meant when he said that he envisioned the Otaku as the future?

NM: I feel I’m talking too much on behalf of him but I think he’d agree with that. Otaku are usually seen as antisocial people who don’t want to connect with society, almost a nuisance for society at large, but he sees it as a new subjectivity that was generated by the new context. His latest book relates to that: he suggests that the mode of behavior of otaku can be a new form of political participation. The book is called General Will 2.0: Rousseau, Freud, and Google, and we’re currently in the process of translating it. “General will” is Rousseau’s concept of the will of all people that just exists there as an infallible indicator of the common good. That may be a misleading way to put it because he differentiates it with the “will of all” which is the collection of personal wills formed through people deliberating issues among each other. General will, according to Roursseau’s definition, requires no communication or association, or rather it’s better without them.

Azuma-san believes that in the era of the internet, where all sorts data is becoming available in massive quantities, it’s possible to update this concept. All this data about what everybody wants and what they’re doing makes their subconscious manifest. For example, you know how Google predicts your next search? That’s not something that Google constructs on it own, but rather something that’s generated and improved upon by each and every search people are making. In a way, Google is visualizing what people actually want, their unconscious desires. The new internet environment is allowing the general will to be visualized. By just being at home alone, people are actually contributing to society.

BF: It sounds like consumers are creating technology, so to say.

NM: …So to say, but not creating technology itself so much as a massive database that makes us understand what we want this society to be.

BF: Let’s move onto the disaster issue. Did you both get to go to Ishinomaki or Fukushima?

NM: I went to Fukushima, but the reason that we started this campaign for hiring new translators was because we made a commitment to translate the entire book about the disaster because…well, Japan screwed up, especially with the management of the events that unfolded after the disaster. The government was not giving out information that we and everyone else in the world needed. Any shred of trust that people had in politics has evaporated.

What we felt we needed to do as a company that focuses on work that primarily has to do with words, was to leave a record of the words on how people are coping with the current situation and trying to overcome it, because we believe that it will be useful for other people in the future around the world.

BF: You probably had an opinion prior to going to Fukushima. Did it change afterwards?

NM: Yes. I went to Namie Town, which is within the off limits zone around the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. We actually went the day before it was declared off limits. It’s a town where time has stopped. It’s largely intact because the damage from the earthquake was not as bad as in the coastal areas that were hit by the tsunami. All the lights are still on and even the five-o’clock music from the loud speakers to notify people of children going home still plays everyday. But, nobody’s there. Everything is functioning as it should be but nobody’s there. In a primary school, all the school bags were there, but the children were nowhere to be seen. The place was filled with a silence I had never experienced before.

Japan is a very easy place to live. Everything is clean and convenient and one inevitably gets that feeling that everything will just go on as it is with not a trace of major upheavals. Sociologist Shinji Miyadai used the expression “endless everyday” and it feels exactly like that. But that sight in Namie Town forced me to realize the fragility of all this. The endlessness has been broken.

That silence in Namie continues to grow inside me. It’s like a hole. And I’m constantly reminded of the fact that there’s this hole in Japan too where nobody can go. I think of the people who used to live there and had to leave everything behind. I feel I need to do something about it. And that’s part of the reason I work for Contectures.

BF: Prior to this, Azuma published an article in the New York Times that for the first time ever, people are actually proud to be Japanese and shortly afterwards he wrote one of the most cynical pieces I’ve ever read in my entire life. Was his visit what prompted his opinion to change?

NM: I wouldn’t call it cynical but his opinion has changed. It wasn’t just that trip though. It was possibly more due to people’s reactions that he saw on social networks. The New York Times piece was written only a few days after the disaster so there really was this sense that everybody truly wanted to do something about this situation, but then it became increasingly clearer that was going to go away quickly. What became clear to him was the fact that we were “bara bara”—which means fragmented. Everybody lives in different conditions and is focused on their own concerns, making communication difficult, especially when it comes to severe questions like a nuclear disaster. We lack a shared language. The disaster momentarily made us think that was going to change—that it would be the trigger for Japan to wake itself up to do something about its future…but that didn’t happen.

BF: Is there still that hope that social media can help improve things?

NM: On Twitter—maybe this isn’t just a Japanese phenomenon—there’s this atmosphere that whatever you say can immediately be stifled. There’s this word, kuuki, which means air, but it also denotes something like “atmosphere”. In Japan, this kuuki forces self-censorship because any opinion that it’s out of the norm is immediately attacked by an undefined amount of people. That’s become very clear after the disaster because the number of users shot up. Twitter did have an important role, as it was used as a useful tool for gathering information during the disaster. But it also exacerbated this unique Japanese kuuki as well. Although there is hope as journalist Tsuda writes on our website that social media will contribute to change things, there are also deep-rooted problems. I don’t want to paint a solely negative picture, it’s just that we need to learn to harness the strengths of our new found tools in a way that befits the cultural conditions of this country.

BF: It sounds like political action has been absent since the 1970s—if my conception of Japanese history is correct. Is there any indication that [the Japanese] are trying to start a movement online?

NM: There are some efforts but I’m not sure they are widely recognized as a full-fledged movement. Because of the complete failure of political activities during the 60s and 70s, there was this strong disillusionment that led to the collapse of the grand narratives to use Lyotard’s expression. Before that, there were big stories, big ideologies that people believed in. After that—especially after the cold war ended—all those grand narratives collapsed and people started to form smaller social universes and that’s making it particularly difficult now to start any kind of collective action. My impression is that Twitter hasn’t contributed in a way that it has, say, in the Middle East. This relates to what I said earlier about kuuki.

That’s part of the reason why Azuma-san is more interested in political action, not as a kind of mass movement like it was in the 60s and 70s, but more as an individual action turned unconsciously into a political contribution.

BF: Is his objective to discover a new grand narrative or to see what we can do without one?

NM: Without. That is our given condition, our new “natural environment” in Japan, and we need to think of ways to change things on the basis of this.

BF: I’m outside of the sphere of criticism. Azuma is a fairly prominent figure in Japanese Criticism right now. Is there anyone else who adds to it?

NM: I’m not in a very good position to give you an objective opinion about that, but I think it’s safe to say that Azuma-san’s one of the most influential thinkers in Japan today. I wouldn’t know which other thinkers I should name, and few of the older generation have been active after the disaster, but particularly close to our activities at Contectures is what we call “zero generation criticism”. There are a bunch of new, young critics that are trying to talk about these new conditions. Satoshi Hamano, Tsunehiro Uno, Ryota Fukushima, Kensuke Suzuki…. There are several critics emerging from this context, but strongly in relation to the framework set by Azuma-san, though they may be in conflict with him on some issues or they may not even like to be grouped in this category. So, Azuma-san’s influence has been fundamental in creating this movement in new criticism. We will publish an article on our website with details about how public figures, including critics, acted after the disaster so this might help English readers to understand who is active now in Japan.

I’ve been meaning to ask you, what kind of readership would be interested in what we’re doing?

BF: I want to say academic, but it’s matter of getting it read. My friends and I discuss this all the time–and this is separate from criticism–but Postmodernism in general is secluded in an ivory tower and if it stays there, then it’s just junk information if it’s not widespread. That’s what makes Azuma’s books so amazing is the fact that he’s able to make his ideas communicable.

NM: I agree with that, and that’s one of the things that Contectures is trying to do. Japan has a tradition of intellectual figures opening their own private schools and creating their own movements outside of academia like Fukuzawa Yukichi. Fukuzawa was a key figure around the period of the Meiji restoration, and he was not only a political thinker and author but also an entrepreneur and educator. He opened a small private school on Dutch Studies that has now become Keio University.

In a similar way, we believe that we can create a sphere of intellect outside of the molding rigidity of the academia. We want to have an impact on society and in order to do so we need to connect with a broader readership than that of university students. That’s why our books tend to adopt a language that can be read by anyone, and we carry out a variety of activities other than publishing including video broadcasts, talk events, and creating a group of supporters who get a bimonthly magazine. It’s not a coincidence either that we’ll soon start a “school” for young people who want to write criticism. We need to be out the ivory tower to open new possibilities and to keep on being relevant. The fact that we’re a commercial company is in line with this philosophy.

The reason why we’re doing this entire English project is because these current conditions in Japan with surburban fasuto fudo, shopping malls, the internet, and otakus as well, are springing up everywhere around the world. We feel that we can–and must–connect with all those people around the world. That’s why we need to do it in English. One of the problems about Japan is that it’s been so isolated. There was the Edo period and Postwar Japan was also extremely isolated in terms of culture. That’s why we got such wonderfully strange anime (laughs). We feel that we need to contribute to opening up Japan to the outside world. I feel it’s a matter of survival. The theme of our next issue is “Japan 2.0” and in it we try to reconsider Japan within the current spectrum of possibilities of information technology and globalization. The main theme is “Kaikoku” or opening up Japan, which was also the driving force in the Meiji Restoration.

I hope that what we’re doing with Genron will be the starting point for new conversations to occur. That’s our aim and I’m looking forward to make that happen.

Read more about Genron on their homepage. You can also follow them on Twitter and Facebook.

[Correction: We originally misspelled "Contectures" as "Conjectures."]