Why it's time to lighten up about "weird" Japan

lisamiku640.pngA book called Crazy Wacky Theme Restaurants: Japan landed in my mailbox a couple of months ago. It's a beautifully-designed volume full of photos and essays chronicling author La Carmina's journey into the world of fetish restaurants in Japan. Carmina, who is from Vancouver, has a Gothic-Lolita Japanese fashion blog, and when she goes out, she wears Japanese street style-inspired attire.  She writes about Japan because she is "fascinated" by the culture.  "I can't pinpoint exactly what it is," she tells me over the phone from her book tour. "There's something very fresh and westernized about Japanese design. It's a certain sensibility." 

Carmina's not the only one who feels this way — obsession with Japanese culture is everywhere. I didn't realize just how big it was until I became an intern at Wired four years ago. On my first day there, an editor asked me to write textbook graffiti in kanji for the September issue's Japanese School Girl Watch section

The simple fact that I'm Japanese quickly became one of my greatest advantages as an aspiring writer. I started paying attention to my motherland as a repository of story ideas. I looked at things differently when I went back home, honed my story-finding skills, and launched my own blog, TokyoMango. I got major Japan-related assignments from magazines, consulting gigs from print and radio outlets, and a book deal. It was really strange for me, because all I thought I was doing was telling people about the place I came from. One thing was clear: Weird Japan sells. It's an almost guaranteed success for book publishers and major traffic bait for blogs.

But writing about my own country's quirks has its downside. I strive to tell each story objectively without condescension or sensationalism, but every time I write an article about, say, the engineer who has a body pillow girlfriend or the grad student who married a Nintendo DS character, I get hundreds of racially-charged comments from readers, long ranting responses from defenders of Japanese culture, and dozens of emails from people at big media outlets who want to find out more about these "strange" phenomena.

Why do so many love to gawk at this mysterious, foreign "other" that is Japanese culture? There are plenty of strange things going on in the US too, but when it happens in Japan, it's suddenly incomprehensible, despicable, awesome, and crazy. This fascination doesn't just end with angry commenters, either. Over the last couple of decades, it has spawned a huge industry of magazines, blogs, and products themed around Japanese culture marketed to Westerners by Westerners who are also obsessed with Japanese culture.

My friend Joi Ito and I talk about this a lot. He, like me, is Japanese and was brought up with both American and Japanese influences. This question resonates not only with the work that we do, but with our personal identities. While we do our fair share of sitting around analyzing Japanese culture, it's also deeply personal to us when someone criticizes our country or our opinions of it.

One big reason for the global obsession may be that Japanese culture is like an altered, offbeat version of American culture. The Japanese schoolgirl uniform "sailor fuku" is adapted from American sailor uniforms, for example, and the whole maid cafe phenomenon takes its origins from French maids. Everyone can relate to anime at least a little bit, because all of us grew up with some cartoon influence in our lives.

"Americans in particular like Japanese culture because it is eerily close to their own — with just a few tweaks," W. David Marx, CNNGo's Tokyo city editor and an American living in Japan, says over email.

"Japan often feels like a hyperextended high-tech version of 1950s America — frozen gender roles, mass culture incapable of controversy or antisocial sentiments, an entertainment world run by the mob. Japan is basically the Jetsons. We don't have to take it seriously, but we are entertained."

Japan also has one of the biggest consumer markets outside of the US, and it's a relatively safe place to fetishize.

"A lot of the sick stuff is on the surface, but it's not threatening," Ito says. "Nobody will beat you up. You can't fetishize about the Muslim Brotherhood; that would be dangerous."

Overriding all this Japanalysis, though, is the fact that none of this is meant to be taken seriously. One important premise of Japanese popular culture is the commitment to have fun and not take offense. Japanese humor works on many different levels and its nuances can be hard to explain to people who didn't grow up with it.

If you're one of those people who watched our wedding video between the man and his DS girlfriend and said things like: "He's such a loser" "He takes it too seriously LOL" and "God help this poor soul" — not to mention the racist comments about Japs and nukes and one-inch dicks — you just don't get it. You're not in on the joke. You're the one taking it too seriously, and you might be imposing your own biases and hang-ups on someone else's situation.

Being majime (too serious) is not cool in Japan; likewise it is important for voyeurs of Japanese culture to recognize that most everything pop-culture-y that is exported to the West comes at us with a wink. If you're all up in arms about it, then maybe the joke is on you.

On the outside, guys like Sal9000 (the guy who married his DS girlfriend) and Nisan (the guy with the body pillow girlfriend) may seem "weird" or "crazy." But they've really just found creative ways to toy with amorphous concepts like love and romance that complement their own unique lives.

Same with the venues in Carmina's fetish restaurant guide. Make what you will of getting drunk in a fake church or being chased out of an Alcatrez-themed restaurant by masked crazies, but it's most important to remember that it's all in good fun. The way I see it, Japanese popular culture is like abstract art. Both involve many components that can be interpreted in many ways. If you ask the artist what it means, he might say, "What do you think it means?" And whatever meaning you attach to it is more a reflection of who you are than the composition of the art itself.

As Camina writes in her book: "you can moan 'this is stoopid'… or you can work with it. Roll with it."

I think we'd all understand Japan a little better if we made a commitment to roll with it.