August 23rd, 2005


The multi-tasking tribe

My first Wired column is online. It's a piece called "Reading Green Tea Leaves in Tokyo" and it's about how capitalism shows different faces in different places, how some of its localized versions are less toxic than others, less injurious to human health and human intelligence, and whether these differences are down to consumers or producers.

Scanning the Wired site, I found a really nice article entitled How mobile phones conquered Japan. It's a review of a new English-language book called Personal, Portable, Pedestrian: Mobile Phones in Japanese Life. The article made me realise how scarred my brain has become by reading (and refuting) the daily doses of crusading cynicism going on over at Neomarxisme. I now half expect every book about Japan to be an exposé of conspiracies, yakuza control, or gripes about a system that's headed for oblivion. So it's tremendously refreshing to read the conclusion of the Wired piece: "By understanding how a once-alien technology became such a natural extension of everyday life in Japan, we may yet understand what is in store for the rest of the world."

Xeni Jardin, who wrote the piece, comes to this delightfully Japanophilic conclusion (its optimism matches my own basic feeling about Japan) not after turgid, cynical analyses of the business structure or marketing history of the keitai, but with a look at Japan's history, and specifically at cultural precedents like "the 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, as I put it in my Superlegitimacy essay, 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.

It's odd that Marxy and I have such different views of Japan—mine culturalist, aestheticist, utopian-evangelical, his structuralist, business-oriented and pessimistic—and odder still to read, in a recent Marxy interview, that my early essays about Japan (he cites Shibuya-kei is Dead) were a big influence on the young Marxy: "He was the only one I could find who really understood what was going on there."

But it wouldn't be the first time theologians (because that's what we are, Japan theologians) have diverged. I was watching a documentary last night called "God's Rottweiler", a biography of Pope Benedict. Joseph Ratzinger and Hans Kung were both modernisers in the 1960s, responsible for bringing the Catholic church into the 20th century (Vatican 2 saw the end of Latin mass, for instance). But they soon diverged, Ratzinger deciding that liberalization was making the church lose its identity, and Kung heading leftwards into Marxist-influenced Liberation Theology. (There's a nice joke about Ratzinger and Kung at the Pearly gates here.) So which of us is Ratzinger and which of us is Kung? I leave that up to you to decide.