imomus (imomus) wrote,

Offshore accounting

When I'm traveling I often read The Economist. It's less depressing, more oriented to the present and the future than some sad old Retro Necro rock mag (oh God, is that what Neil Young looks like now?). And since the style press (in the shape of Monocle) is trying so desperately to ape The Economist just now, why not go straight for the real thing, with all those lovely pie charts and graphs (and terrible illustrations)?

The current issue has a 14-page report on business in Japan. According to the various articles in this, Japan's business world is an anomaly combining the stability of the old with the dynamism of the new, Western with domestic models, and capitalism with social values. There's some evidence that Japan's current concern -- reflected in statements by the new prime minister -- is to slow down the rate of Koizumi-style reforms which have only served to increase social inequalities in Japan. The overall picture that emerges is of a return to something we could call "Swedish" in its commitment to social care: with the proviso that Japan is perhaps more "Swedish" than Sweden in this respect.

An article entitled "JapAnglo-Saxon Capitalism" describes how Japanese capitalism is a weird and anomalyous hybrid of capitalist styles: "A lot of Asian countries are saying: 'We hope Japan will succeed, so we have a new model that combines capitalism with social values,'" says Hirotaka Takeuchi of Hitotsubashi University. Does that mean something like the European model? Yes, but not identical, because taxes are lower and the state is smaller in Japan -- and unlike in France, Germany or Scandinavia, companies provide a lot of social support. Another difference with many parts of Europe is that in Japan business is regarded as a respectable pursuit that provides social goods rather than a necessary evil."

That bit caught my eye, because the post-Japan ("Japanized") me is particularly frustrated by the way we in the West continue to designate certain things as "evil", and therefore make them so. We do this because we like to think we're outside certain things, getting our hands dirty touching them only when we have to. We do this with our necessities and our pleasures. Business is "a necessary evil" and pleasure is "guilty pleasure". As a result of this thinking (we call it "critical thinking", marked by "critical distance") we mark almost everything we do with distaste, cynicism and disgust.

Distaste for business in the West might come from a Marxist-Socialist tradition (mine certainly does) or a Calvinist tradition or academia. In all three cases, these traditions depend on "creative accountancy" -- we could call it "offshore accounting" -- to make their cases. They each employ a notional, imaginary space -- a sort of margin outside of current reality -- to justify their distaste for currently-existing material reality. In the case of Marxism, everything in the present is seen from the imaginary space that will exist "after the revolution". In Christianity, of course, it's heaven and hell, the "offshore" places we reach after death. In academia it's the idea of critical distance -- the idea that there's a neutral space you can step into, a sort of cupboard from which you can spy on the world without being a part of it, without being tarnished by its values. And what underpins all three of these ideas is the Platonic message that ultimate reality is both higher than what we see and yet remote from what we see -- true reality is distant, invisible, not-yet-here, "offshore". What's here and visible is low and dirty and contingent.

Although there's some of this asceticism built into Buddhism, my sense is that Japan has never really bought into these forms of detachment, these methods of "offshore accounting", this idea of a neutral margin, or heaven, or revolution which justifies your disgust for what's in front of you. As a result, guilty pleasures or a sense that business is a necessary evil are refreshingly absent from Japanese life. The basic attitude towards business in Japan seems to be summed up by maneki neko, the lucky cat who beckons you to come and buy.

I come from a rather un-businesslike family; we're all teachers, academics, librarians, creative performers. Hisae's family is much more canny; her mum's life is a perpetual business trip, shuttling between China, Korea and Japan buying and selling clothes, running stores in Osaka. Now, I won't say that one of these lives is more ethical than the other. What the Economist article suggests, though, is that in the West ethics comes from outside (from an "offshore" class of teachers, politicians, ministers) whereas in Japan it's much more integrated and structural: ethics comes from business itself, it's built into everyday logistics. Justice is not something you bolt on afterwards, or shout about from some place offshore or outside the daily structures. A Japanese company is a bit like a family; it looks after its own, and thinks about the world (The Economist's symbol for this is the Toyota Prius hybrid car, and Japan's world lead in solar paneling).

I was sitting in Smart Deli reading Hisae bits of the Economist article, telling her my idea that we in the West are undermined by our sense that both business and pleasure must be "evil" in some way. Then I picked up Exberliner, the Berlin English-language listings magazine. It only seemed to confirm my worst fears. Here's a bit from Exberliner's article on shoplifting, for instance:

"Another shoplifter, 32 year-old Christian, has a habit of occasionally nicking shirts and watches from big department stores. "It's fun to beat the system and get away with it," he says. "I never take anything too pricey but whenever I do steal stuff I stick a mental finger up at corporations. Once in a while this materialistic society prompts these things."

Christian (what a perfect name!) only takes material things, it seems, as a protest against people taking material things. His attraction and his disgust are the same thing. He clearly has a basic problem with his relationship to the system of production.

A few pages later there's a piece on "Shopping Addiction" in which "Germany's top specialist" Professor Dr Gerhard Raab says: "Nearly all shopping addicts suffer from low self-esteem. They try to compensate for it with this act of shopping. Said simply, they feel very good for that short period of time. Then they realise that their behaviour wasn't right and they feel low self-esteem and the cycle begins again." Needless to say, this article is full of drug metaphors: shopping is an addiction, need is a needle. Again, there seems to be a fundamental problem in the way we relate to our own need, and to the production system that exists to fill it.

Later still, Exberliner reviews "Loveless" by Japancakes. "One could imagine parts of this album being sold as background in a bank commercial," grumbles D. Strauss. "In New York City," he concludes with sinister darkness, "there's a bank on every corner now". It's clearly a bad review, because it mixes music up with everyday production system stuff like banking. Music is sacred, and mustn't get mixed up in the material world, production, money. It's the sort of guilt-by-association I'd imply myself, probably. But I love how people don't do that in Japan. People don't slight commercial art by pointing out that it's -- gasp! -- commercial. They don't damn something in the consumerist system by pointing out that it's in the consumerist system.

I won't say there aren't oddities of consumption -- anorexic-bulimic patterns -- in Japan. A project like Kyoichi Tsuzuki's photo-documentation of collectors, Happy Victims, shows oddly unbalanced consumption patterns in Japanese too. But at least these people are, as the title says, happy.

There's an interesting interview in Tablog with Nakako Hayashi, who started Here and There magazine and more or less runs it (printing just 1500 copies) singlehandedly. Actually, Hayashi does condemn mainstream magazines for their emphasis on bling:

"Most of the time," she tells Tablog, "I don’t like most magazines. So there is a contradiction, because magazines that you can get the most work from are the magazines for the ‘nouveau riche’. Often they will ask me to do an art story, but it's very strange because I receive the magazine and I don’t like what I see, this strange new rich lifestyle. I feel very bad after reading it. If you buy it, it's expensive, and also makes you feel bad because you can’t have this lifestyle in your daily life, you can’t live like a wealthy Hong Kong mother. It’s strange to spend all this money and feel so bad after reading it."

What Hayashi seems to be worried about there is another form of "offshore accounting" we forgot to list earlier: the whole bling-celebrity thing which substitutes unlikely and unjust concentrations of wealth (in certain super-rich celebrities) for heaven, or academic distance, or the revolution. "When I'm super-rich like they are, all will be right in the world..."

Hayashi has some interesting thoughts, too, on the famous Japanese "lack of critical thinking": "I like it when the editors are really curious, really want to find something out, and I think most of the Japanese are really curious editors. I don’t know if they are more critical, but they just want to show the mood."

This emphasis on curiosity and information rather than critical judgement (the desire to investigate what is rather than what should be) is also, thinks Hayashi, what prevents the Japanese embracing contemporary art: "We see some exhibitions in museums of modern art but I think Japanese people are not ready for the conceptual art scene. They can try to do it but it's not really from the bottom of their hearts. Maybe the Japanese don’t need this conceptual way of thinking or critical point of view so much."

Why? asks Tokyo Art Beat Blog. Is it a kind of discovery without judgment?

"I don’t know," says Hayashi, "I think Japanese people are not so much trying to think in a critical way, they just feel out what’s new, what’s nice, interesting."

But is that a good thing?

"Well I don’t think it’s a bad thing."

I'd like to finish Hayashi's thought. When critical thinking becomes a way to condemn the system of production we depend on, to cast both business and pleasure as "evil", it can indeed be a bad thing: a sort of judgement without discovery. A production system branded as evil begins to operate in evil ways. If you say and I say and everyone says (on the left and on the right) that business is all about the benefit of shareholders and has no social responsibilities, that's the kind of world you, I and everyone else will end up living in. Justify it all you like with offshore or posthumous ideal worlds, but your denigration of reality will lead to a degradation of reality. Maybe "discovery without judgement" isn't such a bad way to relate to the world. Take it from a pirate; stay onshore.
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