Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Sexless Japan

Story for The Guardian with missing grafs:

Are a new generation of Japanese men really losing interest in sex? And if so, what's behind the malaise?

It's not easy being a young man in Japan today. Every few months sees the release of a new set of stats and stories trumpeting the same meme: today's Japanese men are unmanly – and worse, they don't seem bothered by it.

Tagged in the domestic media over the past few years as hikikomori (socially withdrawn boys), soshoku danshi (grass-eating/herbivore men, uninterested in meat, fleshly sex and physical or workplace competition), or just generally feckless, Japan's Y-chromosomed youth today elicit shrugs of "why?", followed by sighs of disappointment from their postwar elders and members of the opposite sex. With the country's economy stagnant at best, its geopolitical foothold rapidly slipping into the crevice between China and the United States, and its northeast coastline still struggling with the aftermath of disaster and an ongoing nuclear crisis, the reaction to a failure of Japan's men to take the reins, even symbolically, has evolved from whispers of curiosity to charges of incompetence.

In the most recent government study, published at the end of last month, the percentage of unmarried men spiked 9.2 points from five years ago. More telling: 61% of those unwed men reported not having a girlfriend, and 45% said they couldn't care less about finding one.

What gives? As anyone who has watched Japanese or Korean pop videos knows, the popular image of men in Asia, seen from a western perspective, is more effeminate than macho, rife with makeup, stylised hairdos and choreographed dance steps. Even so-called punks in Japan lean more to Vivienne Westwood than Malcolm McLaren – more familiar with fashion spreads than the spitting in the street.

And yet Japan was rebuilt from the ashes of the second world war into an economic and technological powerhouse with historically unprecedented speed on the backs of labourers, mainly men, laying the rails of the nation's astonishing bullet train, for example.

Why the generational malaise and indifference to sex? 

Theories abound. The most provocative to me, a Japanese-American and longtime Tokyo resident, is that Japanese women have become stronger socially and economically at the very same time that Japanese men have become more mole-ish and fully absorbed in virtual worlds, satiated by the very technological wizardry their fore bears foisted upon them, and even preferring it to reality

"I don't like real women," one bloke superciliously sniffed on Japan's 2channel, the world's largest and most active internet bulletin board site. "They're too picky nowadays. I'd much rather have a virtual girlfriend."

Virtual girlfriends became a sensation last summer, when Japanese game-maker Konami released its second-generation of its popular Love Plus, called, aptly, Love Plus +, for the Nintendo DS gaming system. Konami skillfully arranged for an otherwise deadbeat beach resort town called Atami to host a Love Plus + holiday weekend. Players were invited to tote their virtual girlfriends, via the gaming console, to the actual resort town to cavort for a weekend in romantic bliss. The promotion was absurdly successful, with local resort operators reporting that it was their best weekend in decades.

I tried to explain the phenomenon via a TV interview for a US cable station: the men who spent their yen on a weekend of romance with a digital lover were a subset of a subculture many times removed from mainstream Japan. They are known as otaku, or hyper-obsessive and often asocial men who seek solace in imaginary worlds (not unlike many artists and writers, I should add). Nevertheless, these were clearly young Japanese men of a generation that found the imperfect or just unexpected demands of real-world relationships with women less enticing than the lure of the virtual libido. You can't have sex with a digital graphic, but you can get sexually excited, and maybe satisfied, by one.

Of course, the insertion of the male libido into virtual domains is neither new nor strictly Japanese.  

In 2004, American feminist writer Naomi Wolf wrote in New York magazine that “the onslaught of [Internet] porn is responsible for deadening male libido in relation to real women, and leading men to see fewer and fewer women as ‘porn-worthy.’” Earlier this year, the same magazine, in a story titled, “He’s Just Not That Into Anyone,” voiced the concerns of a young American man who discovered that he was faking orgasms with real women, largely because they were less satisfying than online offerings.

And earlier this month, the tanking marriage rate in the US cast the entire institution into question--especially for men with receding incentives.

The phrase "herbivore men" was coined by a female Japanese journalist in 2006. By 2009, the Japanese male's lack of ambition, sexual or otherwise, had become a media meme. With the latest reports in Japan, of men who can't get it up for real women who won't get married or have kids, the mutual gender-chill phenomenon has become mainstream. It may be the future, but is it really Japanese?

"Maybe we're just advanced human beings," says a Japanese friend of mine who won't let me use her real name over dinner last week in Tokyo. She is an attractive, 40-something editor at one of Japan's premier fashion magazines, and she is still single. "Maybe," she adds, "we've learned how to service ourselves."

Thursday, December 22, 2011

L'Arc~en~Ciel go global in 2012--via anime

Last column for the Yomiuri in 2011:

SOFT POWER HARD TRUTHS / L'Arc-en-Ciel blaze a global anime music trail

On my way into Kyocera Osaka Dome earlier this month, I passed a handful of young people of both sexes sporting dreadlocks, blousy shirts and kabuki-style white makeup. They were cosplaying as hyde, the coy lead singer of L'Arc~en~Ciel, the Japanese rock superstars who were about to go onstage.
I felt like I might have been at an anime convention in the United States--there were also a few women dressed as maids--but this was a rock concert first and a cosplay blowout second.

L'Arc~en~Ciel are now entering their 20th year of record-busting CD sales and sold-out concerts. I watched them perform two shows, with 40,000 seats both nights going at 9,000 yen a pop. The events were expertly paced and ludicrously high-tech--what you'd expect from a Japanese production that mixes carefully planned moments of seeming candor with expert efficiency.

Vocalist hyde live in Osaka
"In the beginning, L'Arc's music was associated with anime," manager Masahiro Oishi told me in a backstage interview. "But through experiencing their music directly, fans in several countries gradually came to recognize the band's worth based on its music alone. They have become genuine fans of L'Arc's music, whether or not they like anime."

J-pop and J-rock's connection to anime has long been both a burden and an opportunity. In the 1970s and 80s, anime soundtracks were heavily localized to attract American viewers, just as the anime narratives were butchered to fit expectations shaped by Hollywood and television.

But in the late 90s and early 2000s, the Internet connected global fans to Japanese creators with an immediacy that transcended distance. An edited Pokemon or Naruto episode was no longer acceptable. And original songs, written and sung by Japanese artists, were prized as a sign of authenticity.

American fans who knew no Japanese could still sing along with songs written and sung by Japanese bands like L'Arc.

L'Arc saw an opportunity in 2004 and had themselves booked at Otakon, the largest anime convention on the East Coast, for a live show at Baltimore's 1st Mariner Arena. The venue's 12,000 seats sold fast. Enthusiasm for the pairing of Japanese rock and anime was infectious.

"Nobody had tried anything like this [in the United States] before, certainly not on that scale," Otakon director Jim Vowles said. "But the announcement triggered a weeklong wave of Internet buzz, including buzz in Japan. And the show itself was fantastic and over-the-top, a real once-in-a-lifetime event. The reaction was overwhelmingly positive. People are still talking about that gig, almost a decade later."

Meanwhile, Japan's pop culture industries are facing an unpleasant but unavoidable truth: Growth at home is no longer possible. A chronically low birthrate and unstable economy guarantee that. And competition from South Korea and China is making Japanese pop culture producers increasingly antsy about their futures.

"Even before the global media started picking up on the band," Oishi noted, "the number of our visitors on YouTube went over several million, and the Facebook fansites of each region grew bigger. We are now receiving numerous requests for live concerts directly from foreign fans. There is no way for us to not do it now."

L'Arc~en~Ciel backstage at Kyocera Osaka Dome, Dec. 4
L'Arc released two singles this fall and winter, the hard-driving "Chase" and the infectious "X X X (Kiss Kiss Kiss)," and they are currently finishing a new studio album. Next year, they will embark on their first world tour, with stops in Europe, the United States and Asia.

Their song "Good Luck My Way" is featured on the soundtrack of the latest Fullmetal Alchemist anime film, "The Sacred Star of Milos," which will be screened across North America courtesy of veteran US distributor Funimation next month.

"We don't make any distinction between our otaku fans and our rock fans," hyde tells me. "We want them both, and we want to make them happy. I love Evangelion, but I also love Depeche Mode and Duran Duran."

Other band members cite Pink Floyd, Jeff Buckley and Motley Crue drummer Tommy Lee as critical influences. In short, they offer a smorgasbord of Western influences, served up Japanese-style, with genuine spasms of talent.

But is that enough to tie together the West's rock and anime audiences in competitive markets like New York and London? We'll likely learn in 2012. Bassist tetsuya, a founding member, thinks the band has something unique to offer.

"We do the best show we can each time out, whether the venue is in Japan or elsewhere. We may not be able to do the same show with the same resources in the U.S. and Europe, but performance-wise, we'll make every show special."

And Otakon's Vowles believes that Japanese bands can succeed overseas--especially if they honor anime fans.

"Ever since that show in 2004, the bar has been raised considerably for fandom, and while there have been some awesome moments since, it remains a high point in our history," he says. "For Otakon, it made music a major element in our event going forward, and that had ripple effects throughout the anime convention world."
Kelts, a visiting scholar at the University of  Tokyo, is the author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S. and the forthcoming novel, "Access."

Monday, December 19, 2011

Another England

Heading 'home' to another England--new and old.

Season's Greets.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

On US Anime Cons for JP Foundation's WOCHI KOCHI

Yumiko Sakuma nails the scene:





 日本のポップカルチャーに詳しく、「ジャパナメリカ 日本発ポップカルチャー革命」の著者であるローランド・ケルツ氏が解説する。







海外のアニメ・コンベンションが急速に広がっている理由に、若者たちの間でコスプレが圧倒的に支持されていること、そしてコスプレファンの間で、出会いの場、コミュニティが集まる場として機能していることがある。 「アメリカの田舎では、インターネットでアニメと出会った若者たちが、地元で仲間を探し、車を共同で借りて、アニメ・コンベンションに出かけていく。彼らが求めているのは、日常生活からの逃避です。コンベンションの開催期間中は、コスプレでキャラクターに扮することで、自分自身になることができる。そこには自分と同じことに興味をもった人たちで形成されるコミュニティがあって、理解しあうことができるのです(ケルツ氏)」
 週間アスキーの元総副編集長で、<Tokyo Kawaii Magazine>の編集長、福岡俊弘氏は2009年に初めてパリの<ジャパン・エキスポ>を訪れて以来、バルセロナ、マルセイユ、ニューヨーク、バルチモア、ロサンゼルスなど数々のコンベンションに足を運んできた。

日本のイベントといえば、コミックマーケット(コミケ)が代表的で、3日間で60万人を動員するが、同人誌販売が中心で、コスプレがメインではないのが大きな違い。海外のコンベンションでは、たとえば<アニメ・エクスポ>では参加者の75%が少なくとも1日はコスプレに参加するというくらい、コスプレ文化が浸透している。  海外でのコスプレブームに呼応する形で、日本でもコスプレ専門のイベントがある。2003年から名古屋で行われている<世界コスプレサミット>だ。ブラジルには<ワールド・コスプレ・サミット>という予選が行われているし、各地のコンベンションで予選を行うこともある。昨年は<世界コスプレサミット>の優勝者がベトナムを訪れたり、コスプレを通じた国際交流も盛んになってきた。




 ニューヨークの<アニメ・フェスティバル>が、都会の日常のなかでふらりと出かける気楽なイベントである一方で、ロスの<アニメ・エクスポ>は、年に一度、気合を入れたコスプレイヤーたちが全米やカナダからやってくる巨大なお祭り。シアトルでは、若者から中年まで様々な世代がコスプレを楽しむ。パリでは<NARUTO-ナルト>や<ONE PIECE>、ロスでは<BLEACH>、<Axis Powers ヘタリア>というように、人気の作品も微妙に異なる。福岡氏のコメントからもわかるように、スペインの<サロン・デル・マンガ >では、「クレヨンしんちゃん」や「うる星やつら」など、懐かしいアニメのコスプレをしたスペイン人と会えるという。




アメリカ人の父親と日本人の母親の間に生まれ、アメリカと日本で育つ。オーバリン大学、コロンビア大学を卒業後、ニューヨーク大学、ラトガーズ大学、バーナード大学などの教壇に立つ。アメリカでは「プレイボーイ」「サロン」「ヴィレッジ・ヴォイス」「コスモポリタン」「ヴォーグ」などの雑誌や新聞に寄稿する。現在は東京とニューヨークを数ヶ月ずつ行ったり来たりしている。著書に「ジャパナメリカ 日本発ポップカルチャー革命」がある。


1979年フランス生まれ。ビジネス・スクールを卒業後、音楽系出版社勤務を経て、複数のパートナーとともに<ジャパン・エクスポ>の創設にかかわり、2000年の第一回開催に尽力する。2004年には漫画の出版社<Taïfu Comics>を、2009年にはポップ・カルチャーのイベント<コミック・コン・パリ>を創立するなど精力的に活動する。現在は<ジャパン・エクスポ>のバイス・プレジデントを務める。




1957年生まれ。1989年アスキー(現:アスキー・メディアワークス)入社。 92 年よりパソコン情報誌「 EYE ・ COM 」編集長。 97年から『週刊アスキー』編集長を務めたほか、ふたつの雑誌の創刊にも携わる。2003年からは同誌編集人。現在はiPhoneで読む海外向けの雑誌アプリ<Tokyo Kawaii Magazin