September 20th, 2006


Mukokuseki diasporans

Mukokuseki: the Japanese word for "without nationality".
Diaspora: an ex-patriated or exiled population, spread through the world.

Marxy has an interesting piece up just now on the new Japanese Tokion. It's very much an insider's perspective, since Marxy was once an editor at the American Tokion. He runs through the confusingly complicated permutations of the magazine's various owners, editions and editors on two continents (this new Tokion is the Japanese one, and is now owned by INFAS, who publish my favourite Japanese magazine, Studio Voice).

Marxy concludes: "The new Tokion is not so much about this messianistic mission of exporting Japanese cool, but looking at the local culture arising from the contemporary mix between foreigners and Japanese."

Now, this is a program I can get behind. While I'm very much into exporting Japanese cool, I do think a goodly amount of it is created by the Japanese who've left Japan to study abroad, and who've miscegenated, culturally and biologically, with foreigners, as well as by foreigners who've been drawn to Japan, "Japanizing" themselves in the process. Sure, I love the pure stuff too, but I'm definitely into bastard chic.

This celebration of the mukokuseki chimes with something I said the other day on Click Opera, when talking about Donald Richie's long and lonely Tokyo exile. Anon commented: "It's not that you want to live in Japan but can't afford to. You actually don't want to live there, only visit once a year. Just like people who live in England but who like to visit France once a year, to eat nice cheese and practise their rusty French. And on top of that, you actually find the intellectual climate there frustrating, and anything but invigorating."

I responded: "I'd say it's more like preferring "the Japanese diaspora" to Japan itself. The Japanese diaspora is multi-culti, and contains many of the most creative Japanese people as well as those foreigners who love Japan. It contains the best of both worlds, and leaves all that's provincial and stifling in both the West and Japan behind."

It seems to be very much this "Japanese diaspora" that the new Tokion will concentrate on. Issue 2 will focus on Tokyo-based Japanese-French couple Yoshi and Audrey, who run cool music / fashion magazine OK Fred, and in many ways they're typical Jap-diasporans, collaborating across racial boundaries, as post-national as Shibuya-kei seemed to be back in the day.

Marxy has some well-founded doubts, though: "My only concern is whether "we foreign Tokyo residents" are actually so interesting or dynamic to warrant such coverage. Tokion Japan does not ignore Japanese creators to solely focus on the ex-pat fashion world, but the latter may end up providing a baseline view of the "glocal" culture... The success of Tokion Japan will eventually depend upon how interesting Tokyo inter-racial, inter-national "glocal" culture actually is."

I think that's the key question, and a very interesting one. Nowhere more than in the style press does the question of "who's interesting, who's dull" feature so centrally. It's all about "who's hot, who's not", and "who's in, who's out of the clique". It's also "who has the right to decide these things", and on the answer to that hangs a self-appointed would-be style authority's success or failure.

There's no doubt that the mukokuseki creators being spotlit in the new Tokion's features have the necessary self-confidence. Last week, for instance, Audrey Fondecave ruffled a few feathers by telling Martin Webb of Japan Times that "when we take our daughter Liliyo to parties, like the opening of an exhibition or shop, and it’s full of people that are unbelievably dull, I see some of them really change when looking at Liliyo’s smile."

This prompted one "Fletcher" to comment (on Jean Snow's blog): "This woman comes across as somewhat pleased with herself in a less-than-modest way... Audrey and your family are among the Beautiful People. Gag me." (I responded by citing a much nicer quote in which Audrey said Tokyo had made her "a better, more tolerant person".)

But it's not enough for we diasporans to be confident, bold and narcissistic, or to bring sunshine into a grey, racially monolithic world with our mukokuseki children. We need an audience, darling, and they must not only be dull, but see themselves as dull before they'll shut up and pay attention to us, or smile back at our gurgling, gurning trans-national babies.

The thing is, it's by no means certain that Japan in 2006 is the right place to find such an audience. Recently the Japanese, once in thrall to all things foreign, seem to have discovered a self-satisfaction worryingly congruous with our own. It's not just evident in Shinzo Abe's "Make Japan proud!" slogan; it runs throughout the whole culture. Switch on TV and it's very hard to find anything non-Japanese at all. The archipelago curves towards itself in an arc of narcissism.

In this climate, a magazine like the new Tokion may have to content itself with a pretty small audience. How many mukokuseki diasporans are there in Tokyo, anyway, to read in Japanese about people pretty much like themselves? And how much disposable income do they have, after their Tokyo rents get paid?