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click opera - Superlegitimacy: passion and ecstasy of a Tokyo train driver
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Tue, Jul. 20th, 2004 09:45 am
Superlegitimacy: passion and ecstasy of a Tokyo train driver

(Click the picture of the train driver for a 14MB avi video file representing his ecstasy and passion.)

Westerners in Japan often find the things they see spectral, uncanny, plastic. This is because there's a constant sense that, despite similarities to (or simulacra of) western forms, the social organization of Japan is radically different from what we know in the west. On a superficial level, Japanese cities look like western cities, their parks like our parks, their trains like our trains, and so on. Nevertheless, this 'likeness' is an illusion. 'A train' is a western invention adopted by the Japanese in the 19th century. But when we look at, board, and ride a train in Japan it would be foolish to see it as anything like a western train. It's a set of Japanese etiquettes and assumptions travelling through space. It only looks like a train. Soon, explaining the deep otherness of the superficially familiar things he sees around him, the visitor finds himself saying things like this:

That x only looks like an x, something I know well. In fact it is a manifestation of y, something I don't.

One of the things I do here is read signs endlessly, sifting them for meaning, distinguishing the apparent westerness of what I'm seeing from its real Japaneseness, its familiar appearance from its strange reality. Since I don't speak Japanese, I'm particularly focused on body language, gesture, the theatre of the street, the micro-life of small, fleeting encounters. And since I don't know the actual terms for the Japanese social relations I'm seeing beneath the veneer of western-looking stuff, I tend to be making up terms as I go along. Here's a cluster of 'irreducibly Japanese values' which might be hiding in the micro-gestures of some ordinary social interaction.

Superlegitimacy
Mutual capitulation
Cute Formalism
Society as 'The Voice of Heaven'
The veneration of smallness
The universality of fetish
Micro-metaphysics
(the investment of small, practical actions with 'undue' gravitas and charisma)
...and so on.



Let me give you an example of Superlegitimacy. Yesterday I took a Tokyu line train from Okayama to Meguro. I was standing in the first carriage, right behind the driver. I noticed a series of odd cries, muffled by glass, and realized they were coming from the white-gloved driver himself. Alone in his cabin, he was accompanying his actions with sharp cries. It was astonishing, yet, weirdly, I was the only passenger paying any attention. My first thought was that the driver was mentally ill. I admired the train company's lack of prejudice in giving such a responsible job to someone with Tourette's Syndrome, but worried for our safety. Then I remembered that autistic people can often be highly talented in narrow areas -- drawing buildings, for instance, or memorizing music. Perhaps this man was an excellent driver, better than someone mentally, well, well? I watched -- and filmed -- the lunatic. He did seem exceptionally focussed. At each station he made an immaculate white-gloved gesture -- a series of florid manual curlicues more like the gestures of an orchestral conductor than a train driver. He pointed at the TV screens in his console showing the doors, then pulled the train away with both gloved hands on his accelerator lever, uttering as if by compulsion his ecstatic falling cry: 'Kkkkyyyyyoooooooo!' Crossing points or passing other trains, he made similar noises. They seemed less like words than explosions of passion for the regular events of the job. And yet it was a passion as formalized as the whoops and howls of kabuki actors.

More speculations rattled through my mind. Was this a trainee driver, taught to call out loud the actions he was making in the same way that, as a Learner Driver in Britain, I was taught to say 'Mirror, signal, manoeuvre?' I began to see, beside the driver in the cabin, the contours of a ghostly 'guru driver' appear; a calm, modest yet deeply authoritative 'master of the train'. This trainee driver, I speculated, was addressing his ghost, his internalized 'train master', and calling out with passionate capitulation the beloved gestures of his duties for the master to see and approve.

Later, a Japanese friend told me that this weird behaviour is common and normal in Japan. All train drivers shout out their actions in this way, not just trainees.



It seemed impossible to see this driver as (in the western cant) 'a man who just happens, at this moment, to be driving a train... but could be so much more than that if he wanted to be... So don't box him in.' Western society covers its hierarchical verticality with the cant of 'equality of opportunity' (which of course entails its less benign cousin, inequality of result). Sure, the President is better, but you too could be president! Whereas Japanese society is superflat, distributed. Ultimate value might fall at any point on the horizontal plane. Everybody is as important as everybody else, everybody bows to everyone else. The capitulation is mutual, the investment total.

The west prefers us to be divided, to wear masks, to adopt a casual, pragmatic, rather non-committal attitude to our jobs. Only selected professions (entrepreneur, artist, designer, sexual pervert) are really seen as vocational in a passionate way, the way that would make you say 'He's what he does right to his core, he lives it 24 hours a day'. A western train driver might make us feel indifference, scorn and pity, or make us hope he had a nice family and hobbies to compensate for the under-rewarded, uninteresting drudgery of his job. This Tokyu Line employee seemed to have the very soul of a train driver. He had made train driving his religion. He made me feel admiration and jealousy. I wanted his commitment, his dignity. I wanted to wear white gloves and make delicate ceremonial gestures even while doing something completely pragmatic and down-to-earth. I wanted to cry out with ecstasy every time I crossed points. As this driver, I would never feel unimportant. I would feel, in fact, like a star. I would catch glimpses of fascination and envy from children and adults alike. I'd never be surprised to find myself being photographed or filmed. It would seem perfectly natural that video game arcades featured simulations of my job. My glamour would be apparent, though lightly-worn. I would hand over to the next driver with a low bow and a deep sense of satisfaction, not to have the job behind me, but to have the same glories ahead of me tomorrow, and forever. Whatever I was paid would be okay. My reward would be a deep sense of legitimacy. Superlegitimacy, a rich reward.

So this only looked like train-driving. In fact it was something tremendously Japanese; a sense of almost fanatical dedication, a capitulation of self to social role, an internalization of social requirement, a going-to-extremes, an etiquette, a sense of honour. I thought of how Mishima's father, reluctant to see his son become a writer, had said 'Very well, if you become a writer, at least become Japan's best writer.' (Mishima proceeded to do just that.) The ecstasy of my train driver seemed to confirm something very important, a secret of happiness known to Collectivist societies like Japan and lost to increasingly, mistakenly Individualist ones like ours. Namely, that happiness does not lie in evading, avoiding, denying or escaping your social role, but in embracing it completely and joyfully. Stop trying to deny the social category you're in! Relax into your role, or, rather, stiffen into it (in all senses). The clarity will help everyone. By limiting yourself, you will set yourself free. By concentrating on what's here and now and practical, you will reach 'the eternal' and the mysterious. This is the very essence, it seems to me, of Japan.



Whereas in the west we tend to feel uneasy relating to a train driver as a train driver, preferring to see him as 'just a guy', 'just passing through on his way to a management position', 'whatever he wants to be', 'a fan of the Redskins' or 'a guitar player', in Japan being 'Mr Train Driver' to the very core of your soul is just fine. If this man has a wife, I'm sure she refers to him as 'Mr Train Driver' in bed. I can imagine him wearing his uniform even on days when he has no work, as the schoolgirls do here, so wrapped up in the deep joy and honour of being 'a schoolgirl', the pleasures and freedoms of what we'd see as a categorical limitation. I imagine my train driver hero walking by the sea wearing his uniform, and even the sea calling out a cheerful greeting: 'Thank you for your great work, Mr Train Driver!'

Superlegitimacy runs through Japanese society; you begin to see it everywhere. It's the opposite of anomie, and it's beyond price. You could pay western train drivers twice, three times as much and they'd never feel, existentially, this sense of enchantment. As a result they'll never do their job with the love, attention to detail and dedication of a Japanese train driver. Tender, lovely music will never flood western stations as it floods Japanese stations whenever a train arrives (each station has its own melody, and they're frankly, unabashedly romantic; the arriving train is 'the beloved'). The cleanliness and efficiency of the Tokyo subway system is not just a question of throwing money at cleaning services, or the different demographics of urban transport here -- if, in the West, only losers ride the subway, here everyone does. No, all flows from the basic perception, shared by passengers and staff alike, of superlegitimacy. Just as anomie is a vicious circle (we hate the trains, so we trash them, so they become even more dismal, and we hate and trash them more), so superlegitimacy is a virtuous one, an upward spiral.

As a westerner, one fears introducing contempt, dirt, pragmatism or bad manners into such a legitimate system. To us, it all seems like a brittle, tender-minded, insane illusion, a bubble we might burst, eggshells we might break. For superlegitimacy has been lost to the west. Anomie rules, the subway is abandoned, dangerous, smelly, abused, inefficient, threatening, dirty. Here in Japan, though, we wonder if our clothes are clean enough for the seats. We walk on tiptoe, hoping we don't transgress against the codes of etiquette. To fart, for instance, would surely warrant the death penalty. To put shoes up on the seat fabric would be a horrific gaffe. (Both of these things happen every day on the London Underground.) To attack another passenger would be unthinkable, brutish. Even to talk on one's mobile phone would be illegal and downright rude. The etiquette is unpredictable, though: to lightly molest a child might be quite acceptable on the Tokyo subway, no more than a peccadillo to which other passengers would turn a blind eye.

Which brings us to 'That only looks like sex. In fact it is the Japanese love of all things small and cute in sexual form.' What, did you think all Japanese differences were easy to feel good about? Differences it's easy to feel good about might not be real differences at all. I'm not even sure I find our superlegitimate train driver 'healthy'. Isn't he some sort of fascist, a fanatic? And when I envy him, shouldn't I feel slightly disturbed by my feelings, irresistible as they are?

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(Anonymous)
Mon, Jul. 19th, 2004 06:27 pm (UTC)
Superperceptive

This is the best Momus essay I've read since Cute Formalism.

Japan is good medicine for you Nick. She stimulates you and you seem able to observe her with a wisdom lacking in all those Gaijin travel books.

- Lex


ReplyThread

(Anonymous)
Sun, Jan. 6th, 2008 10:17 am (UTC)
Re: Superperceptive

Hi there Momus. A late poster for your 2004 article on train drivers and super-legitimacy, I`m afraid. As a medium-term resident of Japan I have also been fascinated by some of the oddly ritualistic behaviors I`ve witnessed in train drivers. While I agree with your analysis of superlegitimacy and it`s nexus with collectivism, I`m not so smitten by your attempt to contrast it favourably with a supposed `false` individualism in the west. One severe deficiency in this form of experience is that the strength of personal immersion and individual submission it requires makes it rather impervious to reform from within (ie by it`s practitioners). Another is the often severe psychological strains imposed by participation - subjection to exacting behavioral norms, policed by colleagues and superiors, and shaming and scapegoat-like bullying from the same for those who do not fit in properly or who fail to meet behavioral expectations (and who won`t or can`t get those ritualised gestures "right").

An alarming phenomenon in the past few decades has been the numbers of Japanese people who react to these problems not by pressing for reform, but by dropping out, sometimes in ways more severe than observed in western societies. They include school drop outs, "Stay-at-home" hermits, NEET`s, Freetas, and parasite singles. No doubt uncertain economic conditions play a part in explaining these tendencies, as people grasp that immersion in and loyalty to a company ethos will not be repaid as loyally as in the past. Still, I think a lot of this has to do with people in these groups grasping (sometimes too sensitively) the psychological costs of participation in particular social relations, and their imperviousness to reform. Of course, the latter problem then becomes self-perpetuating. Increasing numbers of young women are reacting to the high social expectations and behavior norms associated with being a housewife by putting off marriage and child-bearing as long as possible - or indefinitely. But these same young women often seem indifferent to the prospect of gender reform. And so while female workforce participation rates have grown and women`s value-orientation towards marriage and employment has shifted quickly, little has changed in the sexual division of family labour since the passage of Japan`s first sexual discrimination legislation over 20 years ago.

So I would say that the sort of socially harmonising behavioral norms and rituals you associate with super-legitimacy are co-existing with rising levels of anomie, psychological isolation and a growing individual rejection of conformist social expectations. Like I said, I see these trends as alarming, because instead of becoming sources for reform drop-outs are marginalised or otherwise accommodated and neutralised. Makeinu, parasite singles or freetas become tolerated much like village idiots and eccentrics were tolerated in the collectivist communities of old.

One more thing, I wonder if your perception of civility in Japanese trains has changed in the past few years. I have witnessed dreadful acts of selfishness and some farty "oyaji" salarimen on Osaka, Tokyo and Saitama trains.

Shaun O`Dwyer
(shaunodwyerjp@yahoo.co.jp)


ReplyThread Parent
saikoutron
saikoutron
Teikasaurus Howl
Mon, Jul. 19th, 2004 06:47 pm (UTC)

That's an awesome entry, that is. It brings to mind, now that I think about it, a National Geographic article I read a while back about the Japanese Imperial Palace. One of the Palace's horse handlers was asked whether he liked his job, to which replied (and this is off my memory) that this was the profession chosen for him, whether he liked it or not was irrelevant.

What with studies and work going on, would like to comment a bit more. Perhaps later, thanks, it was a great entry.


ReplyThread
twoheaded_boy
twoheaded_boy
Saelan
Mon, Jul. 19th, 2004 07:36 pm (UTC)

Dear Mr. Currie,

This is a good time, I believe, to let you know how very much I've been enjoying your musings over the last few months. The last few have been especially insightful and elevating, and this one is just a gem. Japan seems to suit you very well indeed.

Best,

-saelan


ReplyThread

(Anonymous)
Mon, Jul. 19th, 2004 08:39 pm (UTC)


On one of train lines I use the drivers seem to be
competing to develop the most exotic
falsetto voices in which they announce stations. I often
wonder whether there is a special voice training course
they must pass before becoming full fledged
train attendants. Their nomikai must be sound really strange "tsugi wa yakitori, yakitori de gozaimasu!".

Bus drivers seem to take less pride in their work.
There are two drivers of the company bus where I work. One
quite clearly considers himself to be living in hell. He can
be rude, impatient, and is invariably a bad, extremely dangerous
driver. He may have a drinking problem. The other has a completely different personality: friendly, talkative, helpful, with a slightly rascalish but good natured look. And he's an excellent driver. If our workplace is a shrine, these drivers are two stone koma-inu at the entry point.

There was a very interesting and illuminating interview with
a chronic Tokyo chikan in a short lived but excellent
'zine about East Asian culture called "Bug".

A high level american IBM executive once told me with
extreme puzzlement, but no small pleasure, a story of
being molested by a high school girl when he was on
his way to a factory in the countryside.

One of my girlfriend's sexual fantasies is about riding
on a "chikan densha" where she's being sexually molested on a bumpy train ride.

Perhaps this is widespread. When I was on my way to Europe
last April, I read something in the Herald Tribune claiming there were more than 100,000 "bluejackers" on the trains
in the London region. Bluejackers or "toothers" use bluetooth
phones to identify sexual partners for brief sexual encounters
on trains or in train stations. Doesn't seem very
believable does it?

For a non-sexually oriented train fantasy check
out the manga version of Miyazawa Kenji's
"Milky Way Railroad".



ReplyThread
imomus
imomus
imomus
Mon, Jul. 19th, 2004 08:46 pm (UTC)

(From the Apple Store in Ginza):

Damn, there's always some otaku who knows more about a subject than you do! ;- )

When I got on the same line today I swear it was the same driver. But this time he had a big audience: a father was lifting his daughter to the window, while a tall schoolboy stood copying all the gestures.


ReplyThread Parent
jozefpronek
jozefpronek
jozefpronek
Mon, Jul. 19th, 2004 08:43 pm (UTC)
otherness

Amazing observations! I have never been in Japan, but that country has some aspects that fascinate me (and other I just can't understand). On the other hand, I find your "clusters of irreducibly Japanese values" very enlightening. The "otherness" (the fact you look at Japan from outside) is crucial in detecting such clusters!


ReplyThread
padmaclynne
padmaclynne
Padraig mac Lynne
Mon, Jul. 19th, 2004 10:03 pm (UTC)

Thank you again, sir, for this enlightenment.

i personally have been trying to reach a superlegitimacy of self, of being the best me i can be, understanding that there is no profession truly suited for my mind. well, episkopos, but i'm not a fantastic one yet. and that's not a comfortable position in any case.

i like the way you think. it is highly stimulating.


ReplyThread

(Anonymous)
Mon, Jul. 19th, 2004 10:47 pm (UTC)
Japan Otaku

Perhaps I'm an otaku, but I think the most otaku-like thing
I do these days is look at the Momus blog perhaps
a little too often for it to be considered rational behaviour.
Why? For all the insights about Japanese culture and one
hundred other things. This is my favourite magazine, though
it is a secret pleasure, which is why I prefer relative
anonymity.

The reply about Japanese workers being "re-purposed" as
theme park workers reminded me of Baudrillard's hilarious
essay on Disneyfication:

http://www.uta.edu/english/apt/collab/texts/disneyworld.html

If you've got 10 minutes. Stop and read this. It could be your
daily laugh. You can almost smell the French cigarettes and
dark roast coffee in this essay.

Cultures everywhere appear strange and ritualistic if you
take a step backwards.

Having spent the better part of a decade here in Japan the
rest of the world is beginning to look exotic to me.


ReplyThread
lord_whimsy
lord_whimsy
whimsy
Mon, Jul. 19th, 2004 11:04 pm (UTC)

Might aestheticism and dandyism be a western path towards this superlegitimacy? They certainly seem to have parallels--particularly self-limitation as it applies to self-emancipation and the fetishization of the quotidian.


ReplyThread
encyclops
encyclops
Mon, Jul. 19th, 2004 11:14 pm (UTC)

Isn't dandyism a bit too individual and egocentric to fit the collectivist role we're talking about? Or do I not grasp what the term means to you?


ReplyThread Parent Expand


encyclops
encyclops
Mon, Jul. 19th, 2004 11:17 pm (UTC)

I'll have a heaping plate of "rapturously wonderful entry" with a side order of "Japan brings out the best in you," just like everyone else is having, please.

If it's not too personal (or ignorant -- perhaps you've discussed this before) a question, why aren't you living there For Good? Is it the language barrier? the cost? or just not wanting to get too settled in one place?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Mon, Jul. 19th, 2004 11:34 pm (UTC)

(Just back from one act at the kabuki-za...)

Why don't I live here For Good? Well, yes, the language barrier, the cost, the fact that it would entail marriage, and the desire to preserve the strangeness of it. I find that when I move to a country I get too close to see all but the quotidian. The sense of delicious strangeness can only be diminished. I think. I might be wrong. Perhaps delicious familiarity would replace it.


ReplyThread Parent

(Anonymous)
Mon, Jul. 19th, 2004 11:42 pm (UTC)


As a long term Japan otaku, I envy Nick's ability to come and
go at will and therefore retain the sense of novelty in Japan,
while also enjoying Japanese expat scenes in Berlin, Paris
etc...

I still like living here but the honeymoon period has long past. For some Japanophiles it lasts about 6 months. I had a particularly strong case of yellow fever and it lasted about
2 years for me.

Many long term gaijin find that prolonged absences from Japan
are necessary for happiness, or indeed, sanity. Many recommend
not learning the language. Sad to say it but, with several
notable exceptions, many of the gaijin I know who are fluent and deeply entrenched here are people who, for one reason or another, one feels would not be functional wherever it is they came from.


ReplyThread
seanthesean
Mr. Sean
Tue, Jul. 20th, 2004 12:15 am (UTC)

some very good points made here, and i think it is in the lack of jobs that people can feel truly proud of in America (i wont speak for "the west") that our society suffers terribly. being rich has been so heavily propagandized while all else is cast as an inhibitor to being rich so that when Americans get rich they have no idea how to spend the money properly! there are still some jobs that there is a culture of pride attached to, like tattooists, the cable-car drivers in San Francisco, librarians, organic farmers, small bakers and things of that ilk... it is unfortunate though, and the solutions are not so clear!


ReplyThread
charleshatcher
charleshatcher
charleshatcher
Tue, Jul. 20th, 2004 07:10 am (UTC)

I'm not sure what, exactly, to make of this. On one hand, I'm charmed and delighted by the social custom, but then, on the other, I'm genuinely saddened by the idea of one's career becoming the core of one's life. That's not to say I don't think a person should take their job seriously and tackle it with expedience, conscientiousness and eagerness, but I feel I also might prefer my train driver to see their job as a job, and aspire to something more: to do a good day's work and return home to oil paint or listen to Dietrich Buxtehude or write short stories or whatever takes their fancy.

Then there's the matter of whether this intensity of utter dedication, when it has become the standard or prerequisite, is, in point of fact, genuine or a mere empty gesture. I've often wondered this about the universal reverence displayed by the Nipponese in countless ways: is the conduct demonstrating respect if it's automatic, almost innate? Do we not value some people more than others? Can we not deem for ourselves who warrants our full esteem? This is not to say we should not be polite, but bowing for bowing's sake seems almost to mock the motion. Is it better to be candid and on occasion indecorous, or somewhat superficial and excessively courteous?

As for the subways being abandoned in the west: I wish! Or maybe I don't; I like that the London Underground inhabits people who put their feet up and rabbit on on mobile phones; I like the chaos of the public, the fumble of personalities, the mash of decorum, the individualism of train drivers.


ReplyThread

(Anonymous)
Tue, Jul. 20th, 2004 09:35 am (UTC)
Train of thought

In the West familarity breeds contempt, in the East familarity breeds contentment. Or so it seems. Maybe if you lived in Japan you would no longer be able to "see Japan" to quote your song. Vocational passion only seems to exist in the professional or artisan classes in the West. The utilitarian is stigmatized, hence the lack of willing hands to do the dirty or drab jobs and hence the culture of bringing in immigrant labour. Japan obviously does not operate this model. By ritualising the repetition (as in your example) it glorifies infrastructure workers and it's society.

Is all of this obsessiveness healthy ? Well maybe to our eyes it seems odd but then we always want to find fault, we always want to explain it away in psychological language. Do the Japanese have psychiatrists ? I'd be interested to know what are the current 'obsessions' in popular culture right now. What are people reading on the train ?

So where does anomie operate in Japanesse society, surely there must be some ? Does it reveal itself in Manga and in the imagination of popular culture ?

Another fabulous entry, Nick. Do you realise that you are fostering a form of compulsive behavior in the people who read and post here ! Reading your musings are habit forming : "Kkkkyyyyyoooooooo!'

Richard g


ReplyThread Parent
fidgital
fidgital
Tue, Jul. 20th, 2004 10:12 am (UTC)
The Shadow of Superlegitimacy

Fantastic entry, Nick, absolutely fascinating.

I deal with the Japanese every day, both for my music and for my "day job", and I see a lot of what you talk about. Particularly, I've really appreciated how the record label and music promoters I deal with in Tokyo really have a superlegitimacy which makes them push very hard to make their artists successful.

Unfortunately, I've noticed a flip side to this: An attempt to preserve a facade of honour without the real qualities of honour; the sogo shosha employee who spends 14 hours a day at the office yet but only really works for 6 of those hours (if that). The other 8+ hours are spent marking time because they believe that long hours are expected of them.

I believe that these people don't really "get" the concepts of honour and service in the foundation of Japan. They see some of the superficial qualities or effects of that honour, and they ape those qualities. Unfortunately, they completely miss the point, and "fake it 'til you make it" is just not going to work for these people.

I've also noticed that while these people do not advance to high station, neither are they exposed for the fakes that they are. They are tolerated; they are encouraged to do better; they are honoured for each small accomplishment as if they truly were performing to the best of their ability. And perhaps they are, though I'd prefer to think otherwise.

Anyway, I could go on on the subject, but I just wanted to post a little footnote to your great article, sadly pointing out the light of superlegitimacy does not fall on all.

-!<.
Fidgital


ReplyThread

(Anonymous)
Tue, Jul. 20th, 2004 03:11 pm (UTC)
Read Nakane

Excellent observations! I have never heard this idea called superlegitimacy, but that's an apt term.

(You would do good by reading Chie Nakane's "Japanese Society" at least to get down the basic concepts of Japanese society. Even the Japanese understand themselves in Nakane's framework.)

The real rub to "superlegitimacy" is basically that these roles are essentially forced upon the Japanese people, and when Western ideas of individual liberty invaded Japan, the system started to break down. People got married and had kids a lot more efficiently before these awful ideas of "renai kekkon" (love-based marriage) came into play. As an essentially authoritarian society, everything that is "Japanese" was invented by the ruling elite to create social harmony. Lifetime employment etc were plots hatched to organize unruly Japanese peasants and workers in the early 20th century, and reinforced to the people as "fundamentally" Japanese ideas.

This all leans towards some kind of liberal Marxist ideology, but superlegitimacy is a rather effective way to control the population by saying "you are your job and nothing else." The West doesn't have this, because there is at least the fundamental believe in free will, which is not a part of the Confucian tradition. Clean subway seats have a price.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Jul. 20th, 2004 04:48 pm (UTC)
Re: Read Nakane

Superlegitimacy is really just an extension of Max Weber's concept of legitimacy. Max Weber is my big sociological hero.

Kojin Karatani, the Japanese neo-Marxist, describes the Japanese system as a kind of 'capitalist Marxism'. I don't disagree with you that Japanese society is authoritarian (I think of it as 'Cute Fascism'), but there are also 'communist' aspects to it:

'Japanese society is superflat, distributed. Ultimate value might fall at any point on the horizontal plane. Everybody is as important as everybody else, everybody bows to everyone else. The capitulation is mutual, the investment total.'

Lifetime employment as a ploy to forestall communist revolution? Isn't that a bit like forestalling Marxism with a form of Marxism?

I'm also much more skeptical than you about the idea of 'free will'. The west is riddled with delusions which simply make people unhappy. Like:

'There is a place outside society.'
'You shouldn't let your social role restrict you.'
'Reality is not here, it's over there (god, happiness, truth).'
'Don't let the body you have dictate who you are.'
'Be true to yourself, do it your way.'
'You were born. So you're free. So happy birthday.'
'Compete, don't co-operate.'
'Aspire, don't conspire.'
'Our system is hierarchical, but anyone can reach the top.'
'Other systems have ideologies, the West has none except Freedom.'
'You can both stay true to your roots and be whoever you want.'
Etc.

I'll try and track down the Chie Nakane book, thanks!


ReplyThread Parent Expand

Re: Read Nakane - (Anonymous) Expand

sirdonut
sirdonut
sirdonut
Tue, Jul. 20th, 2004 05:38 pm (UTC)

Mr. Japan train driver sounds no different from the old guy who drove our trolley one time in New Orleans. He yelled at all the cars blocking our path and announced the buildings as we were passing and their significance in detail.

"Hold that wagon! I'll cut right through that wagon!"

"Tulane Hospital right up here...chop ya up, cut ya up, drug ya up, sew you up!"

He was Mr Trolley Car driver.


ReplyThread
imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Jul. 20th, 2004 06:06 pm (UTC)

No, no, no, no, no, no, no!

Different, different, different, different, different, different, different!

Ultra-rigid ballet, not personal expression!

Total formula. The system finding expression in one willing, heroic cog.

Erasure of all spontaneity, and its replacement by an elegant expressiveness which is not the driver's, but that of the superlegitimate system speaking through him.

Impossible to chat or pass the time of day with my Driver. Like chatting with a priest in the middle of a grave sacrificial rite.

Utter concentration on the moment. Cold, objective, impersonal, cute, elegant, beautiful, rigid, formal.


ReplyThread Parent Expand




(Anonymous)
Tue, Jul. 20th, 2004 07:19 pm (UTC)


To try to take a different tack on this, Momus, let me ask
what do your Japanese expat friends think about
"superlegitimacy" and the aesthetics of super-flatness.
Are there any native Japanese living in Berlin, Paris, New York
reading this discussion who can comment on the essay
and the subsequent discussion?

Many young Japanese want to leave Japan, and many who leave
don't want to go back. Why is this? Others make openly
negative comments about their society, or complain how
frustrating or boring it is to live in Japan. Is this
just self-deprecation or do they really think this is so?

It would be nice if we could have more input into this
discussion from Japanese readers. Onegai shimasu!


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Jul. 20th, 2004 07:35 pm (UTC)

It would be nice to get Japanese input. I did discuss the ideas in this entry with a half-Japanese, half-American woman in Tokyo, who found them interesting, but when I extended the idea to pretty girls also being 'superlegitimate' (loving, being at home with their role as women, rather than trying to bust out of it and be, American style, 'whatever they want to be' -- translation: some kind of ersatz man), she said that was 'problematical'. (I didn't ask if that was the American or the Japanese in her saying that!) Of course, it's precisely when these ideas get 'problematical' that I find them most interesting!


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Jul. 20th, 2004 07:54 pm (UTC)
Kata

I think what Nick is talking about in his last reply may be related
to what is called "kata" in Japanese. These are essential patterns
of behaviour that can be applied in certain situations.
It's somewhat related to the "Pattern Language" approach
to design proposed by the architect Christopher Alexander.
The individual ego takes the back seat and culture is at the
steering wheel or train conductors seat as the case may
be ...
The kata themselves can be quite fixed. The flexibility
results from the combinatorial explosion that results when
you put different kata together. Kata can be the basis
for a universal system, like a human langauge or the genetic
code. Tea ceremony is where you really get to have fun with
kata. It's a strict and formal system, yet somehow it's infinite.
An infinite set of situations is observable. Perhaps it's something
like the game in Herman Hesse's Magister Ludi.

Boye De Mente's book on Kata is worth a look:



Kata: The Key to Understanding & Dealing With the Japanese!
(http://www.amazon.co.jp/exec/obidos/ASIN/0804833869/qid=1090376838/ref=sr_8_xs_ap_i1_xgl/250-2215540-6013822)
Boye Lafayette De Mente


Boye De Mente doesn't have the academic credentials that
Ruth Benedict or some of the other authors cited in the above
discussion have, and some of what he says is dated. But he
does have a lot of practical experience and his book
is full of down-to-earth helpful insights.

Another of his books, Bachelor's Japan (http://www.amazon.co.jp/exec/obidos/ASIN/0804816921/qid=1090377008/sr=1-13/ref=sr_1_0_13/250-2215540-6013822), is so out of date that it is worth a look just for it's kind of smoking-jacket Tokyo Tiki-lounge early 60's retro feel.
You can probably find both over in Tuttle books in Jimbo-cho, Kanda.
(Yasukuni-dori, isn't it? I don't know Tokyo very well).

Hope this spout from a Japan otaku is not too annoying. Just bouncing ideas around ...


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Jul. 20th, 2004 08:05 pm (UTC)
Train Driver

This article is precisely why I like to read this site.
I love the whole thing. Then the twist at the end.
We're seduced by something delicious and exotic, then the whole business is problematized. Its enought to drive you mad and sane at the same time... I am yet to listen to any Momus music. I'll get there.
Thanks for this inspirational site.


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Jul. 20th, 2004 09:28 pm (UTC)
Superlegitimacy

Superlegitimacy. Momus.

There is something incredibly delicious about seeing my life as legitimate and a place where I can live fully engaged! That feels so sweet. Maybe some part of me has been starved for legitimacy.

Adrift in the western way of life we hunger for legitimacy. I think Momus really touches on something of a sore spot in the western psyche, especially for artistic people, but probably for the vast masses. Let me speak as an artist, it seems to me that for the most part artists are not valued. We are considered valuable only when we become $uccessful. Without money we are not valued at all. So to hear tell of some being who feels absolutely legitimate, more, superlegitimate, its enough to make an outsider westerner swoon. I guess it is my hope to some day be legitimate. Imagine being absolutely validated in your work and in your being!

I have an incredible hunger for validation. I would like to live a day when I felt completely at one with my work. As a marginal artist such days are rare. I recall being the recipient of warm applause from an audience who had just seen a small video that I had made. That was amazing. To feel that appreciation.

I think the whole concept of superlegitimacy opens up a can of worms for me psychologically. As an artist I have gone forward with my own art and this belief that I will somehow break through. I have not gone by any known formula, if anything I have always looked towards the unknown. I think that artists need to be adventurous. I love that part of my job. One thing that I didn't anticipate was the amount of validation and legitimacy I would be starved for because of the role I chose in life. I'm a starving artist in this sense. Starved for validation. Starved for legitimacy.

Is your 'superlegitimacy' a real thing in japan or is it a projection of a western hunger artist's need for validation.

It may not be a good thing to be superlegitimate. The superlegitimate are merciless and inhuman. Superlegitimacy is facist. We know that.

I see something very problematic and very western about this whole notion of superlegitimacy. Why must we make a fetish of absolute legitimacy.... My answer is that we have a surplus of indeterminacy in the west so we become hypnotized by what seems to be the exact opposite.

Raised in the secular west, adrift in our the painful triumph of individuality, superlegitimacy will have its charms.


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eduard_green
eduard_green
eduard_green
Wed, Jul. 21st, 2004 03:16 am (UTC)

You're in JAPAN! Stop updating your LJ and go out and enjoy yourself some more :)


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lord_whimsy
lord_whimsy
whimsy
Wed, Jul. 21st, 2004 01:07 pm (UTC)

Nick:

Some wonderful observations. Much to mull over, much to learn.

That said, I beleive the fascinating social model presented here might ultimately stunt human growth and render a society brittle, because the limitations are coming from outside the individual. I still think that only limitations wrought from within--chains of our own making--in a permissive environment might confer true enchantment.

I would suspect that beneath the 'efficient' veneer of Japanese life there lies a great inefficiency of human potential. Could the social environment brought about by Japanese culture produce a Leonardo or Voltaire--or merely fragments of them found dispersed among numerous individuals?

W


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, Jul. 21st, 2004 04:29 pm (UTC)

Could the social environment brought about by Japanese culture produce a Leonardo or Voltaire--or merely fragments of them found dispersed among numerous individuals?

The answer is a very resounding yes. Japan's culture -- with its attention to detail, its eccentric imaginings, its otakus, its wealth, superlegitimacy, curiosity -- leads straight to genius, to scientific and artistic achievement. If you want a modern Leonardo, look no further than the brilliant Toshio Iwai.


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Jul. 21st, 2004 04:19 pm (UTC)
drama, but fun to read

I'm going to play skeptic here, but it's because I enjoy the ideas and debate, and Momus is just about the best blog leader ever, no? You are certainly "Locutus of Blog". Somebody has to push this in another direction besides "I'm enlightened, you are wonderful", though that might be true.

I'm not a sociologist or a philosopher, and all of this dramatic orientalist exoticsm is fun, but I bet you jyu-en that if you interviewed the guy he'd shrug and say, "eh, it's a job." In my working capacity in Japan I've had to shout things whenever someone came in the office, and as they left as well, when the went for lunch, and when they introduced a new client. And I've asked coworkers about it, and they've shrugged and said, "eh, it's just what we have to do." Not terribly different from "Welcome to Wendy's".

Is the train driver feeling "enchantment"? Maybe he is contributing to a 'superlegitimate' society (I like that term), but does it please him to do so? Or is he merely droning on, the same way I did at my computer on the 33rd floor in Manhattan? I have to suggest that it's the latter. I've read so many books about how the Japanese are "different", and it's well known that the biggest problem Japanese have, in relating to the world, is that they believe that that's true. As fun as it is to treat Japan like some kind of 'weirdo wonderland', my experiences here have been mainly ho-hum, fine and pretty much understandable. I guess my point is for readers who come to this blog from other places — Japan is 97% just like wherever you are posting from.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, Jul. 21st, 2004 04:34 pm (UTC)
Re: drama, but fun to read

I'm glad you put a different point of view, but I disagree. Did you watch the video of the train driver? What about the fact that the following day, there were people standing behind him imitating his gestures? Do people do that when you're at your computer on the 33rd floor?

Perhaps we could arrive at a compromise, though: I'll say 'Japan is 47% just like wherever you are posting from'. No, make that 42%.


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Jul. 21st, 2004 06:14 pm (UTC)
Japanese Geniuses


Yes Iwai is a genius. He gave a brilliant lecture and performance at this year's NIME event. There are some photos
and a video clip linked to

http://www.nime.org

In my opinion the real Mozart of technology in Japan is
Jun Rekimoto (http://www.csl.sony.co.jp/person/rekimoto.html) of the Sony CSL Labs. He's one of the few people
I know who can get a standing ovation after a lecture
at a conference meeting.


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Sep. 5th, 2006 12:56 am (UTC)
you might know about japan, but you know shit about tourette's syndrome

people who have tourette's syndrome aren't mentally ill, nor are they autistic. And they are certianly not lunatics. So before you say something, why don't you think twice about it before, it might not only be offensive but completly innaccurate. Worse than not understanding something is misinforming others about it.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Sep. 5th, 2006 02:53 am (UTC)
Re: you might know about japan, but you know shit about tourette's syndrome

Ah, the "disgruntled single-issue googler"!

I know you have little interest in what my narrative was setting out to achieve (the thoughts and misperceptions that rush through a commuter's mind on hearing someone in a subway train suddenly uttering strange cries), but I'd have thought it obvious that this is not meant to be a definitive statement about how people suffering from Tourette's are "lunatics".

I don't need to make any disclaimer here: my text already sets up the idea that "I may have thought x, y or z, but I was wrong."


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Oct. 3rd, 2008 10:07 pm (UTC)

While I understand -- at least superficially -- the notion of superlegitimacy in Japanese living culture, in sharp contrast to western individualism mistaken as legitimacy, I have to wonder whether the train driver's actions really betray superlegitimacy.

I am a train driver myself, in the US (train engineer is the term we use here) and I see the difference daily: train drivers is what we do for a living, not who we are, and we would rather be scientists, movie stars or politicians to earn legitimacy. I personally disagree with this notion and tend to see my profession as a deeper calling, which, in a sense, guarantees its legitimacy for me.

I have no doubt that the Japanese train driver in the video wears his uniform on off days and may even be addressed as Mr. Train Driver by his wife -- this is who he is and without his role, Japan could not survive.

Still, his actions betray something quite different: ritual habits. In our profession, many actions must be ritualistic, even in western societies. The complexity of the job requires that the driver practice good habits -- really, rituals -- or run the danger of forgetting something critical. The job requires persistent focus, continual analysis of conditions ahead and constant multitasking. In an environment such as this, practicing rituals helps simplify what is already too complicated.

This may indeed be little more than "mirror, signal, manoeuvre."

Still, fascinating for western eyes to see. Do you have a longer video of that fellow you could post?

- Delta


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Oct. 3rd, 2008 11:52 pm (UTC)

Wow, great to hear from a real train driver on this thread!

And I take your point about ritual existing even in the West, and being a necessary part of the job.

The film I posted is all the video I have, alas, but there may be other video of Japanese train drivers on YouTube.


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