Last week for Wired News, I reviewed Personal, Portable, Pedestrian, a book co-edited by Mizuko Ito that examines how mobile phone technology is changing Japanese culture. In the article, I referenced the Japanese legend of…
Sontoku (Kinjiro) Ninomiya, a Johnny Appleseed-like national folk hero often represented in statues outside bookstores and schools… most often remembered reading as he walks, burdened with bundles of firewood gathered in daily chores. The book points to this multitasker ancestor as a precursor of contemporary nagara ("while-doing-something-else") mobility, a concept now embodied in students who wander from home to class and back again, eternally gazing into a palm full of e-mails.
This sense that Japan's technological modernity (and even avant gardism) might be rooted not in incomplete emulations of the West but in something very ancient, folksy and specifically Japanese is exactly what I feel about the country; that it's a place where (…) trains may look like Western trains, but are actually "a set of Japanese etiquettes and assumptions travelling through space".
I asked Hisae about this idea of the "multi-tasking tribe", the Nagara-zoku, and she came up immediately with an even older, more folksy ancestor: Prince Shotoku Taishi, a medieval multi-tasker so intelligent that he could listen to what ten people were saying, all speaking at once. He's the man in the statue to the left, and he would have loved the keitai.
It might seem odd to hold the view that Japanese phenomena are so rooted in local Japanese traditions, and yet applicable (by "Japanization") to the rest of the world, but I don't think it's a contradiction. When I think of the really successful Japanese products — Pokemon, or the films of Miyazaki, for instance — they're successful because they're full of a very specific Japaneseness. Their universality is rooted in their particularism, and their global reach comes from their local resonance.
Image: statue of proto-multitasker Prince Shotoku Taishi.