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Fri, Dec. 4th, 2009 01:33 am
Saison Culture

Today I'm flying Finnair to Japan. It's been a couple of years, but that's okay; I like to leave long enough between trips for Japan's unfamiliarity and difference to gather afresh. Even if it's just for a few precious hours, I want to feel like a Japan virgin again.



If every time feels a little like the first time, what did the first time feel like? Well, I landed in Japan in 1992 and 1993 into a very particular time, place and culture. Anthropologists of 20th century Japanese subculture call the thing I encountered "Parco-Saison Culture". Press them for more precision and they'll distinguish those terms: the Parco Culture period actually lasted from 1975 to 1985, and the Saison period from 1983 to 1993. So technically, I arrived in "late Saison Japan". All the artifacts I saw and bought (Poison Girlfriend CDs, Sony Walkmans, copies of CUTiE magazine) are technically Late Saison Japan artifacts, bought from late Saison stores (Wave Records, Libro books). Even unrelated phenomena -- the Animal of Airs shop Hibiki Tokiwa kept in Aoyama, the Nadiff bookstore -- had close family ties to the Saison empire. Nadiff, for instance, was started by the manager of the Libro bookshop inside the Ikebukuro branch of Parco. In British terms, that's as if Magma had started life as a spin-off from Selfridges.

The Japan I witnessed in the early 90s consisted of a small hill between Shibuya Station and Yoyogi Park. Here was my hotel, the Tobu. Here was chic department store Parco, and the club where I played my concerts, the Quattro, located (it seemed bizarre at the time) atop a department store and reached by escalators which traversed the deserted sales floors after closing time. Here also were LOFT and OIOI, the Parco art gallery, the record store Wave, and the arty basement bookshop Libro (Saison Culture loves Italian names, clearly). Not far off was Muji, another specialty store owned by Seibu.



I didn't know it at the time, but my first Japan visit was circumscribed almost entirely by a world conceived and invented by one man, Seiji Tsutsumi. A novelist, award-winning poet, and one-time member of the Japanese communist party, the young Seiji inherited the department store business from his father. Yasujiro Tsutsumi founded the Seibu empire in 1912. Typically for Japan, it consisted of a department store (Seibu) and a railway line to bring people to it (the Seibu line). Seiji's half-brother Yoshiaki Tsutsumi, a much tougher cookie, inherited ten times as much as Seiji did when the old man died in 1964, and by 1990 Yoshiaki was estimated by Forbes magazine to be the richest man in the world, thanks to property and transport holdings in bubble-era Tokyo. But Seiji was the artistic one. He retired in 1991, but the Japan I first encountered bore his mark the way quattrocento Florence bore the imprint of the renaissance princes. (Like the princes, these magnates were financially corrupt, allied to the mafia, and autocratic, but that's another story, and one Seiji was well out of by the time the prison sentences were being handed down.)



While his half-brother (and rival) did business the way businessmen all over the world do, refined and cultivated Seiji got to work creating something rather more poetic; a cultural environment in Shibuya, a blend of art and commerce. A department store doesn't need an excellent art bookstore in the basement, its own culture magazine (Bikkuri House, which published 130 issues between 1974 and 1985, and whose readers were called "housers"), a concert venue, or a well-curated gallery. It doesn't need to commission arty postmodern posters and adverts from the likes of Eiko Ishioka, or music from Sakamoto and Hosono. But Seiji wanted Parco-Saison culture to have these facilities, and he had the power to make it happen. It's something we still see today -- look at the way Soichiro Fukutake, CEO of the Benesse Corporation, is revitalising the islands of the Seto Inland Sea with cultural patronage, art tourism, museums by international architects, and a series of commissions.



Seiji Tsutsumi left such a mark on shoppers that one blog account measures the separate impacts he had on a succession of Japanese generations, from the Baby Boomers and the Apathetics to the Juniors and the Blanks, and across a succession of cities (Parco brought Saison Culture to Sapporo in 1990, so the capital of Hokkaido lived its Saison a little later than Tokyo).

The YouTube clips reveal Parco's interest in sophisticated visual culture. I saw some of these commercials on my hotel TV during my first trips to Tokyo, but I didn't catch the earliest, purest phase of them. Art director Eiko Ishioka, for instance, was headhunted to make posters and TV spots for Parco in the late 70s after working for Shiseido. According to The Postmodern Arts by Nigel Wheale (Routledge, 1995): "In 1978 she directed a one-minute TV commercial to promote Parco, a new Japanese department store. The ad showed Faye Dunaway wearing a black dress against a black background, peeling and eating a hard-boiled egg. The department store name was faded up for the last few seconds of the action, and a low-key voice-over uttered a sentence in broken English: "This is film for Parco." The ad was highly successful, and Eiko rationalized its effects in terms of performance art: eating an egg was a totally "global act" done by rich and poor, advanced and developing peoples."



Much later, in 2001, I signed a deal with the Parco label Quattro (located directly across the road from the Loft store on the same Shibuya hill) and made a record for them with Emi Necozawa. It was deeply uncommercial, and sold almost nothing, but the label didn't seem to care. Perhaps that huge empire -- "Saison Culture" -- gave them a certain stability, even if it was achieved by sleight of hand. Four years later the police raided Seibu, and accusations of insider dealing and falsification of share ownership flew. The company was acquired by the owners of 7-Eleven. But Parco still stands on top of that hill in Shibuya. And although the money this time comes from a British University rather than Quattro-Parco concerts, the credit card that paid for my plane tickets carries the Saison logo.

22CommentReply


(Anonymous)
Fri, Dec. 4th, 2009 02:03 am (UTC)
Japanese

Question:

your English is impeccable. Your German's probably excellent. Your French might even possibly be better than your German.

How do you rate your Japanese, your only (I assume) non- Indo-European language? Any attendant cultural fox's paws? Sorry, faux-pas.


ReplyThread

(Anonymous)
Fri, Dec. 4th, 2009 02:04 am (UTC)
Re: Japanese

Sorry, that looked like 2 questions, but it was kind of a compound question.


ReplyThread Parent
imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Dec. 4th, 2009 02:07 am (UTC)
Re: Japanese

Out of 10, I'd award myself:

English: 8.5
French: 6.5
German: 4.5
Italian: 3
Japanese 2

I've told Hisae that from New Year's Day we're only to speak Japanese at home, though. That should get me motivated.


ReplyThread Parent

(Anonymous)
Fri, Dec. 4th, 2009 02:16 am (UTC)
Re: Japanese

Ah eh oo ee aw. (The extent of my Japanese).

If your English is only 8.5, maybe you need to look up a phrase dictionary and consult "self deprecation" to get the score up. It's easily better than that. Or maybe you meant version 8.5

Savouring the final clicks, by the way.

Anonymous.



ReplyThread Parent
imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Dec. 4th, 2009 02:21 am (UTC)
Re: Japanese

I docked a half point from my English for very poor knowledge of the names of trees and flowers.


ReplyThread Parent

(Anonymous)
Fri, Dec. 4th, 2009 02:33 am (UTC)
Re: Japanese

Botanics, illnesses are mainly Latin.

I cun't believe you didn't know that.


ReplyThread Parent

(Anonymous)
Fri, Dec. 4th, 2009 11:50 am (UTC)
Re: Japanese

I always blamed myself for not knowing trees and plant names in English, until I noticed I don’t know them in my language either.

WTF is a «birch»? Oh, it’s a «bétula». …but WTF is a bétula?


ReplyThread Parent

(no subject) - (Anonymous)
imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Dec. 6th, 2009 02:35 am (UTC)
Re: Japanese

I have never knowingly refused to go into the woods with you, Your Lordship!


ReplyThread Parent
funazushi
funazushi
funazushi
Fri, Dec. 4th, 2009 03:04 am (UTC)
I'm sorry

How will you be celebrating Gomenne day?
http://www.gomenne.jp/


ReplyThread
imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Dec. 4th, 2009 05:29 am (UTC)
Re: I'm sorry

I'll be saying it with flowers. And trees.


ReplyThread Parent

(Anonymous)
Fri, Dec. 4th, 2009 05:57 am (UTC)
japan. you know, samurais and geishas...

will be in japan over the winter, too, with jpnse wife and tot. perhaps see you there; look for the white guy with auburn hair.

indeed, when you first go to japan what you see is the perfectly romanticized experience of it--buddhist temples, shinto shrines, blade runner, gothic lolitas, bullet trains, bamboo groves, etc.

then when you go back, you start noticing people pushing on trains, spitting on the street, old ladies giving you dirty looks in the supermarket, filthy bathrooms...

after several times though, you start seeing the initial things again; or kind of both, together. of course, it must work this way with every country. something about selective cognition; i haven't worked it all out, yet.

another weird thing (and i'm sure nick has experienced this, too) is after several weeks in japan, you notice yourself in a mirror somewhere and realize, "WHAT THE FUCK?! I'M WHITE!!" (that is, if you are white. if you're not, then insert your thing--"WHAT THE FUCK?! I'M [OTHER NON-JAPANESE ETHNICITY OF CHOICE HERE]!!

it's another weird cognitive short-circuit thing that happens after you're immersed in a sea of 99.99999 percent jpnse for an extended amount of time.


ReplyThread
imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Dec. 4th, 2009 06:42 am (UTC)
Re: japan. you know, samurais and geishas...

I know exactly what you mean about the mirror thing. This is something I wrote in The Book of Scotlands:

"The thing these desperate exiles fear most is to have their paradise broken into by one of their own kind, or — heaven forbid! — a multitude of their own kind. Each wishes to be unique, "the only foreigner in Scotland", and to receive — alone! — the generous attentions of the Scots, their tender curiosity, and even their violence and rapacity. For it is at heart a kind of masochism to hate your own kind, and to value only the love you are given by the strangers who surround you.

It is said that some of these jealous foreigners cannot even stand the sight of a mirror. If you are pursued by one, be sure to find a full-length mirror which can be swung between yourself and your pursuer; a wardrobe or bathroom door will do, or the mirrored screens of a fancy tavern. The foreigner will stop, raise his hands in horror against his own reflection, and fall hissing to the cobbles, foaming at the mouth.

For the exile's own image will shatter the perceived perfection of his adopted land, a perfection that depends, above all, on his own absence from it."


ReplyThread Parent

(Anonymous)
Fri, Dec. 4th, 2009 06:58 am (UTC)
Re: japan. you know, samurais and geishas...

i've just realized you're a reverse leonard cohen; he started as a poet/author, then on to folkie legend; you began as folkie legend, then on to poet/author.


ReplyThread Parent

(Anonymous)
Fri, Dec. 4th, 2009 06:11 am (UTC)

muji is owned by Seiyu, not Seibu.

In English terms, we're talking about the difference between Woolworths and Selfridges.


ReplyThread

(Anonymous)
Fri, Dec. 4th, 2009 06:19 am (UTC)
Muji: the ap for snobs

yes, but muji often has a booteek inside seibu deepato.


ReplyThread Parent

(Anonymous)
Fri, Dec. 4th, 2009 06:20 am (UTC)
Re: Muji: the Gap for snobs

The Gap for snobs, that is.


ReplyThread Parent
imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Dec. 4th, 2009 06:29 am (UTC)

The Seiyu Group is owned by the Seibu Saison Group.


ReplyThread Parent
imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Dec. 4th, 2009 06:48 am (UTC)

Correction: was founded and owned by Seibu Saison until 2008, when it was taken over by Wal-Mart.


ReplyThread Parent

(Anonymous)
Fri, Dec. 4th, 2009 08:39 am (UTC)

You are both right. Muji began life as the own-brand label of a downmarket supermarket, not as lifestyle brand connected to an upmarket department store (as in the case of Wave, Libros, Parco & Loft). They began to open stores within the supermarkets and it was only in 1990 that the business was transferred from Seiyu when the group realized it had mileage as a stand alone lifestyle brand.


ReplyThread Parent
vogdoid
vogdoid
vogdoid
Fri, Dec. 4th, 2009 05:00 pm (UTC)

Thanks for writing this! I was infatuated with Parco from my first visits in 93 and 95-6, but didn't know anything about it.


ReplyThread

(Anonymous)
Fri, Dec. 4th, 2009 07:31 pm (UTC)

aND yET.. disengaging caps lock... this subculture looks awfully european doesn't it (or at least like an occidentalist fantasy of europe)?

One would think a westerner might be proud; unless fearful of the horrid truth being revealed.


ReplyThread

(Anonymous)
Sat, Dec. 5th, 2009 03:29 am (UTC)
wtf

are you saying only europeans can have shopping malls, go swimming, buy cologne, dance, and generally be shamelessly consumerist?


ReplyThread Parent