Let's improve Western documentaries about Japanese street style!
How does the hierarchy of deceptions go? Lies, damned lies, statistics, things we tell those we badly want to fuck, outright barefaced deceptions, the babbling of blithering lunatics, and, finally -- the most rabidly delusional of all -- assertions about individuality and free will in Western documentaries about Japanese youth culture. Just watch the first thirty seconds of this 2000-broadcast BBC documentary on Japanese fashion, for instance:
"Japanese schoolgirls," begins the script (read by Japanese voice actor Naoko Mori, but written by director Marcus Boyle) "-- studious, reserved, obedient. Across the country these sailor uniforms can be seen in thousands of classrooms. It's the ultimate symbol of Japanese conformity and self-control. But one group of girls have decided to rebel. Prim and proper is a thing of the past. The kogyaru or "black-faced girls"..."
This tried and tired journalistic formula structures itself around trusty, fusty orthodoxies about women and Japan and free will, a few flimsy binaries (then / now, conformist / rebellious, group / individual), and the projection of Western values onto Eastern people. Apparently impervious to the inherent irony of the situation, a Western male puts words into the mouth of an Asian female (the voice-over actress) about her own nation, and about female "empowerment". A small group of schoolgirls have, in this reading, "decided" to bust out of a set of strait-laced clichés better suited, in fact, to Britain's Victorian past than Japan's present. We look at them, now and see... us, then.
Here's a maxim we can try on for size: Every Western documentary that purports to be about Japanese style is in fact a documentary about the Western concept of free will. No matter how much information the visuals in these documentaries give us about the actual business of designing, making, selling and wearing clothes (and they actually give us surprisingly little), this is the theme the script typically returns to with almost obsessive insistence. That was then, this is now. Women were this, now they're that. We live like this, they live like that. School forces one behavior, the free market permits another.
In addition to market cheerleading, there is, of course, a huge amount of hidden racism here, because the "that" supposedly always just on the brink of being displaced by a new "this" contains vastly more of the cultural DNA of the society being examined than the newly-arrived, dubiously-construed "this" does. To dismiss it is therefore to dismiss the bulk of the culture. Just beneath the feelgood messages of consumerism-as-empowerment-through-individualism and the banal sub-Spice-Girls pseudo-feminism lies a deep -- if unintentional -- ethnocentricity.
Made In J-Pop is a french documentary directed by Laurent Bouit in 2007 and adapted for the Discovery Channel. It's much better than the BBC doc, with a lot more direct interviews with the Japanese protagonists. Again we have an Asian female reading a script written by a Westerner, though, producing a confusion: are we being guided around Japan by a Japanese person with specifically Japanese explanations for the things we see, or being given a series of Western projections voiced in a deceptively Japanese-sounding way? What's the difference between a journalist and an actress?
Here too we start in a "conformist" classroom where "everyone has to wear the uniform", as opposed to the low-cut jeans (for the girls) and baggy pants (for the boys) they want to wear. Ah, free will! Its absence sees you dressing like a 19th century British sailor, its presence a 20th century American cowboy! What a wonderful thing free will is, when applied to fashion! What a difference it makes! How clear it all is!
But wait -- now a Japanese person is allowed to talk directly to camera, and she's telling us with obvious pride and affection about her school uniform, pointing out the places where the school emblem is sewn! Could it be that conformity, in some circumstances, is a positive joy? And that individualism -- the state of not-belonging -- is a bit sad, something for outcasts and losers?
These documentaries have a bit of a problem in their treatment of the paradox of a so-called "individualism" which is actually expressed in "tribes". What the script-writers very much want to treat as evidence of individual will -- of "breaking out" of various social straitjackets -- is, itself, shown to be happening on a group level, the level of conformity, too. What to do about that, when your whole film is structured around the idea of rejecting groupthink?
What Western Japdocs never do explicitly in the script is talk about the rebel splinter groups depicted (kogyaru, Gothic Lolitas, Visual-kei fans) as conformists, even when the visuals show them all dressed exactly the same as each other, performing group choreography (scroll forward to 4mins 30 in the clip above). Even when conformity is being presented as an obvious joy and pleasure -- as an ecstatic choreography, in fact -- the script cannot admit this. It must present joy and pleasure as "rebellion". In groups.
These documentaries have a friend (the international market system) and an enemy (the government, society, and the education system of Japan). They are thus predisposed to treat the conformity imposed by society, the government and the educational authorities with much less charity than the conformity imposed by the market, to the extent that one is labeled "conformity" and the other -- no matter how intensively marketed, how closely aligned with actual global power flows, how remorselessly bludgeoned into the youth with means your school could only dream of -- is labeled as "rebellion". It's unfair, but that's how it is in style documentaries about Japan.
Again and again, during these documentaries, I want to shout at the screen: "Ask the Japanese!" You'd think it would be a really obvious thing to do in a street style documentary; ask the people on the street why they're wearing what they're wearing. Instead, we get scenes like the ones that follow in the Discovery doc. We see an American photographer telling some Cosplay girls on the Harajuku Bridge that the uniforms (literally!) they're wearing come "from the imagination" (and I thought they came from the shops, like school uniform does!). We get the same man explaining to the camera that because they wear school uniform "which makes everyone look the same" for five or six days a week, the tribes in question have, "on Sunday and sometimes Saturday, the chance to be completely individual... individualistic". Again, zero examination of how conforming to the codes of the school and conforming to the codes of a Cosplay tribe on Harajuku Bridge might be an expression of the exact same thing, a thing that "individual... individualistic" just doesn't describe well.
Bubbling under the surface of the script, of course, is the notion that "individual" is something the West does well, it's an attribute of the "freedom" we like to think we embody, and that Japan is just poised on the brink of discovering the things we discovered long ago, of busting out of Japanese-style conformity into Western-style individuality. "They're all on a quest for a look," trills the voice-over actress, perhaps blushing at the implied treachery to her gender and her nationality, "or, better still, a personality." This is not only deeply dismissive of Asian culture, whose collective orientation is far older and wiser than ours, it's also deeply question-begging about the extent to which our own market-driven individualism is an expression of free will.
Are consumers expressing free will when they purchase things in any country, let alone Japan? It's the question that Japan-focused documentaries raise, but never answer. It's something even experienced Western market analysts based in Japan seem to have trouble with. I'd find it vastly preferable if someone like Marxy scripted these documentaries, but even the venerable Marxy founders when confronted with The Paradox of Free Will. Recently he commented on Kensuke Kojima's view that Abercrombie and Fitch -- launching in Japan in December -- will not be a sales success. Kojima says there's a big advance media buzz about A&F's opening, but cites a decline of interest amongst Japanese consumers in the American preppy look, and its high price at a time when Japanese prefer cheap clothes and have easy access to H&M.
"It's often dangerous to say, X will fail in Japan because Japanese people don't like X," Marxy tweets on Neojaponisme, adding: "Turns out, Japanese consumers tend to buy against their own personal preferences if the media buzz is strong enough."
Take "Japanese" out of that sentence and we get: "Turns out, consumers tend to buy against their own personal preferences if the media buzz is strong enough". This is surely a basic principle of all marketing and advertising: if you can create a strong enough buzz about something, you can change people's minds about it, and make them buy it when they otherwise wouldn't have done.
The market system proposed in documentaries about Japan as the ultimate locus of the expression of individual free will is, in fact, dependent on successive collective acts of submission to peer pressure (from alongside) and sales pressure (from above). That's what these documentaries -- whose stated enemy is the government and the education system -- call "freedom". Their model is a silly and a sorry one indeed.
If you're a documentary-maker heading out to Japan to make a film about street style, I have some advice. I'm not naive enough to think you're going to deconstruct the Western concept of Free Will every time you make a statement about skirt hems. But please, I beg you to consider three very simple pieces of advice that will make your documentaries less palpably silly:
1. Whenever possible, ask a Japanese person.
2. If your script is written by a Western male, have it voiced by a Western male in the film. If it's written by a Japanese female (and I'd strongly encourage that), by all means have it voiced by a Japanese female in the film.
3. Try not to portray fundamental traits of the culture you're filming as "errors" which are "now changing".
Let's improve our documentaries about Japanese street style! We can do that! Ganbarimasu!
I have to ask a dumb question, I hope you don't mind:
I'm a little confused as to what drives this street style fashion thing - I'm getting the feeling, just from watching the first made-for-France clip that it's just driven by the intense consumerism and extremely fast-moving seasonal style changes.
I had the thought in my mind - especially early on when I first learned about street style of Japan - probably from the Fruits book, or Alan Fletchers's take on the Fruits book in The Art of Looking Sideways that street style *was* a more rebellious act. He must have seen the same BBC documentary that you first linked to.
If this is just something fueled by consumerism, do you see it being identified as say a form of performance art? Do these kids in school continue to want to go out in flamboyant street styles and continue to erm, express themselves? Or, do you they just shift to a different, perhaps more conservative style - like that, "LA" style. Is it their, "Love for shopping" that makes them want to express themselves with clothing, rather than, maybe... do some 2d/3d art - or whatevs?
I think want I'm feeling, as a westerner, a lot of information, both from popular culture and in art critiques about different ideas on what japanese street style is and I don't know what to think, anymore. It doesn't help I've never been to Japan.
I need the job of taking pictures of street styles for French designers... now.
Well, rather than "rebellion into individuality through markets", I think these documentarists should pack a copy of Bataille's The Accursed Share with their luggage:
"According to Bataille's theory of consumption, the accursed share is that excessive and non-recuperable part of any economy which is destined to one of two modes of economic and social expenditure. This must either be spent luxuriously and knowingly without gain in the arts, in non-procreative sexuality, in spectacles and sumptuous monuments, or it is obliviously destined to an outrageous and catastrophic outpouring, in the contemporary age most often in war, or in former ages as destructive and ruinous acts of giving or sacrifice, but always in a manner that threatens the prevailing system."
I think seeing fashion as a spectacle of deliberate waste which both threatens and expresses the ultimate peacetime desire of a society is a much better model. Rather than casting teenagers as rebels and adults, the school system, the government and so on as oppressive conformists, I think this "accursed share" model shows a sort of self-injury on the part of the whole society, expressed in peacetime via various forms of waste, and in wartime as pointless slaughter.
I was so tired of every male in the city wearing jeans and t-shirts, so I decided to explore a fashionable gay area in the busiest part of São Paulo in the busiest night of the week.
Guess what? Jeans and t-shirts and jeans, and t-shirts, and more jeans, and more t-shirts, and MORE jeans, and EVEN MORE t-shirts. Every. Single. Person. The same converses, the same halfassed baseball caps, and above all, the same stupid uncomfortable ugly blue cowboy pants originally intended to protect skin from horse sweat.
Isn’t it wonderful, the æsthetic miracles of free will in the pinnacle of Western individualistic hedonism? :(
The alternative makes you want the alternative to the alternative. And the alternative to the alternative makes you want the alternative to the alternative to the alternative. Like Russian dolls, they all reproduce the big surrounding doll exactly, at smaller and smaller sizes.
I'm not sure what either documentary is saying. Britian has school uniforms, and plenty of dressing up in Camden Market (possibly with a less heavy grip on daddy's money). The problem with cosplay and fancy dress is how they're neither counterculture, nor the threat of a new order, nor even a parallel world. It's self-admitted powder and fabric!
they're neither counterculture, nor the threat of a new order, nor even a parallel world
This all goes back to the characteristic Western delusion that there is a neutral space outside society that people in society can step back into, and still "be themselves" and "make decisions" and "think thoughts in language" and so on. And so Western film crews fly to Japan and film schoolgirls "deciding to rebel against their society", when they're actually doing nothing of the kind. In fact, they're glorying intensely in being young girls, and conforming gratefully and unabashedly to the role that society allots to young girls. But you could never, ever say that on the BBC. Well, not outside Laurie Taylor's Thinking Allowed, anyway.
I think the missing piece in your analysis is the desire to acquire the best of or perfection in whatever one has an interest in. The ability to achieve that is surely observation and improving upon what's out there. Didn't 19th Century Japanese educators observe Prussian naval cadets and their school uniforms?
I generally agree there is a superficial level of what appears to be a conformity in categories of unusual dress when grouped as subcultures, tribes, pop culture phenomena, what have you. But perhaps it's driven by the desire to acquire or assemble the best outfit and that's being read or misread as conformity. Focus on the 'new' and latest as well as being different confuses something else going on, none of those is generally the ultimate goal.
"Turns out, consumers tend to buy against their own personal preferences if the media buzz is strong enough". This is surely a basic principle of all marketing and advertising
Like all comparisons between "The West" and Japan, this is a question of degree. Yes, the so-called bandwagon effect can be seen in all markets, but in Japan, there is a very large pool of consumers who find something positive (or at least, do not see any negative) in buying the same products as everyone else. This is actually getting stronger as the markets in Japan decline. If you have very little money, you want to spend money on something that can create opportunities for social interaction and social communication rather than ways to create distance between people. There is a reason why the mass markets have now completely rejected the kind of cutting-edge art, music, and fashion of the 1990s — it's too divisive and risky.
1. Whenever possible, ask a Japanese person.
This is actually not such an easy solution. Educated Japanese people are fully aware of the Western narrative of free will and often criticize Japan in identical ways. Very few stand up for "conformity" as a positive thing. And conversely, very few take pride in creating new value systems. When I interviewed the Editor in Chief of Koakuma Ageha — the magazine for hostesses — earlier this year she basically said, "We have to dress like this because we are ugly, stupid, and born into bad families."
So maybe there is a Western bias in your belief that Japanese people themselves will take a Western-style pride in Eastern-style principles of social organization. They will likely be overly modest and agree with the Western criticisms. The real way to get to the meat of Japanese social behavior is to ask Japanese people and also watch their real life behavior.
The real way to get to the meat of Japanese social behavior is to ask Japanese people and also watch their real life behavior.
Completely agree with that.
There is a reason why the mass markets have now completely rejected the kind of cutting-edge art, music, and fashion of the 1990s — it's too divisive and risky.
I think the 90s, in the West as well as Japan, saw a final sophistication tug at and tinge mass culture markets thanks to globalisation. I say "final" because those mass markets were shortly thereafter dealt a death blow by the internet. Everything became fragmented, and the sophisticated consumers disappeared back into their niches, leaving the mass market untroubled by their elite influence.
I did an entry a while ago in which I scanned the Western media -- reviews of cultural products -- looking for talk of originality. I actually found surprisingly little. I had a similar experience yesterday looking through reviews of The Mountain Goats' new album The Life of the World To Come. I find that neither the album nor the reviews of it trouble themselves much with the requirement to be original. There just isn't a climate now in the West that demands much originality. Other things are considered more important.
But all the paradoxes about conformist individuality apply to originality (which is basically just individuality in action) too. Do I only rate originality because I'm the product of a decade (the 1960s) in which "the done thing" was to freewheel, and rebellion was basically a game for conformists? And in 90s Japan, wasn't it just "the done thing" to buy records by Pizzicato 5, or, more realistically, if we're talking about the mass market, Tetsuya Komuro productions.
Following my own advice, I ask a Japanese person. Hisae says "It's just the style has changed."
It's not clear to me what you're saying here. On the one hand it seems you think that individualism is a myth. We can't step outside society. When Westerners think they're being rebels, they're actually being conformist. That's your take on contemporary rock, isn't it? And yet, you take these Westerners to task for being conformist. Wearing jeans is bad, etc. So why is Western conformism bad and Japanese conformism good? Are you going to argue that it's because of Western conformism's bad faith? In which case, it's a non-argument, since all cultures develop self-serving theories about their own behaviour.
So why is Western conformism bad and Japanese conformism good? Are you going to argue that it's because of Western conformism's bad faith?
On the logical level yes, you could say that it's better to be a conformist who values collectivism than a conformist who pretends to be a rebel. But I think consistency and the avoidance of ambiguity and paradox are over-rated, and I'm pretty bored with accusations of hypocrisy. So I'm inclined to find the West's paradox of conformist individualism a cute quirk, an eccentricity. There might be some narcissism built into that stance, because of course I don't escape the paradox myself.
But the real answer to your question -- why Japanese conformism is good -- is that I came to that view texturally. Not only is Japanese net originality not diminished one whit by its collectivism (I'm daily stunned by Japanese originality as much as by Japanese conformism; they ought to be at odds, but they aren't), but the daily habitus of Japanese culture is less toxic than any other society I've known, and certainly a lot less so than Britain. To specify why would be far beyond my powers of description -- you'd need a Max Weber for that. But that this is the case... well, I'm as sure of that as I am that the sun rises.
You probably wouldn't choose to ask Naoko Mori about Japanese street fashion because she's lived in Britain since she was 12. She's best known for her role as Toshiko Sato in Dr Who spin-off Torchwood.
I think it's a subtle problem with their western framing of Japanese conventions.
"What Western Japdocs never do explicitly in the script is talk about the rebel splinter groups depicted (kogyaru, Gothic Lolitas, Visual-kei fans) as conformists, even when the visuals show them all dressed exactly the same as each other, performing group choreography (scroll forward to 4mins 30 in the clip above)."
They use the word "individuality" but they mean to use "tribes". These are tribes and gangs within larger tribes. These girls are readjusting the warpaint of their sub-tribe.
Japan very much have their own way of doing things and it's too often that we try to superimpose our values on them, but the tribal view cuts to the global quick. Skinhead gangs in the UK, rastafarianism, U.S. fraternities, etc. It's all matryoshkas of groupthink - there is such a thing as true individuality (and not necessarily always a positive thing, as you mentioned) - but nothing on display in those documentaries is an example of that.
thanks for this post! from the photos I always assumed these were rebellious japanese kids until I went to harajuku and saw them roaming in identical looking groups... which somehow makes this even more fascinating.
but I have another theory and I'd like to have you opinion. when I was in tokyo I did a little bit of grass roots self promotion with the help of a japanese friend who's was born there (I do is illustration). it was a complete failure on every level. I got the idea that what I was doing was very alien to the shops/galleries I approached and not welcome. also I got the sense that japan observes the west very closely and they will call for you if you have proven yourself to be on the cutting edge of western culture. in short...japan is a small island and highly protective of what they let into their country. however they seem to know a lot more about our culture than we know about theirs. they pick and select a "best of" western culture in fashion, design an art and make it available to the japanese public. numerous small and talented european fashion designers could only survive because they became a sudden favourite in japan (only that it mostly turns out to be a short lived fad).
I recognise the scenario you've outlined here. Yes, the Japanese filter. Yes, they know us better than we know them. Yes, they select cutting edge stuff. Yes, their attitude is very much "Don't call us, we'll call you." When you're hot you're hot, when you're not you're not.
I may be wrong, but I think that as a music artist I probably couldn't get arrested in Japan these days. Luckily I'm going there this time as a curator, so I don't need to worry about that.
"but the daily habitus of Japanese culture is less toxic than any other society I've known, and certainly a lot less so than Britain."
what part of the culture in japan?
you mean running to the train at 7am, sleeping on the train, eating at your desk, and running to the train at 10pm, sleeping on the train again, and eating more vitamin-less carbs from a kombini at home while watching mind-numbing, asinine TV? THIS is a typical japanese worker's life...
or do you mean some WESTERN idea of japanese culture?
those who've lived and worked in japan know that it's far from a healthy environment...and i don't mean those who've lived there for a few months, riding a bike around, not speaking the language and not working...
Individuality is incredibly difficult to track; understanding its existence would require a full taxonomy of people and a willful derealization of the self at once--maybe something Japanese streetstyle has played with more than other forms of popular culture have dared.
You don't look at Western people closely enough to see their individuality, as you fear you might see yourself. They don't conform to your self-imposed (but noble) anti-mental illness of self analysis toward tradition. Looking past the jeans might spoil the aristocratic mood like an uncontrollable blithering maniac who will only be institutionalized anyway (check--a win for conformity in the face of pathological rebellion!!!).
Society necessitates a constant imagining of its nonexistence. Rebellion supports and keeps society intact while conformity brings a culture to staid levels, undermining its strength to form an elastic rather than a pile of shattered punk glass. Japanese conformity allows visual experimentation to be seen, free, and celebratory, rather than shaking a core identity as every youth fad in Western culture has purported to do.
What do you think of dropsnap.jp? You once posted on Tentosen, who blogs there, and I wonder what someone with his sophisticated grasp of personal style might have to say on this rather general subject. Are aesthetes, connoisseurs, and those above the median level of discourse too individual to be included in a style documentary? A major problem and, at the same time, vital force, of international streetstyle media is that the ideas read only visually and will always either play upon or playfully break a viewer's sentimental expectations, so long as things are presented en catalogue and as a photo album. Fash docs build on this "The Face" snapshot and blurb format to dramatically depersonalize subjects and to create the illusion of authorship.
I think you should bother to read this one, though. Because it's not about Japan, but about how Westerners project what they want onto Japan. And by your own logic, this should be a subject I am very, very qualified to talk about, even if I'm not qualified to talk about Japan itself.