The Shallowness of Exported Japanese Culture

A recurring theme of this site is my continued wonder at why I’m bothering to learn Japanese at all.  I mean, it is an interesting language, it’s difficult, it’s a challenge.  All these things are true.  But at the end of the day, as a gaikokujin, I find that my reasons for learning the language are really, at the end of the day, somewhat puzzling.

What I mean is this:  after learning Japanese, I’ll have the following abilities:  I’ll be able to read manga in its native language (yay!).  I’ll be able to consume Youtube videos and other media in their native language (yay!).  I’ll be able to…

Umm,  hmm.  What will I be able to do, other than that?

This became clear when I read that AKB48 is not going to have their annual elections this year, and I thought, oh hey, maybe I can post about that!  And then I thought… why would I want to do that?  What possible reason would I have to post about something so incredibly shallow as a bunch of (admittedly quite pretty and cute) Japanese girls getting up on stage and crying because they won a popularity contest?

And the answer came:  Because, as a gaikokujin, I’ve got nothing else interesting to post about!

So I’ll be able to read manga.  So I’ll be able to watch AKBingo videos, or “Gaki No Tsukai Ya Arrahende”.  Or maybe I can watch “Swing Girls” or “Gou Gou Datte Neko De Aru”.  Or some random anime that butchers the language but is interesting nonetheless.  And maybe I won’t need subtitles or translations.

And that’s all there is.

Is it worth the time and money I’ve been spending on it?

It’s an open question.

As of right now, I have no idea what I would even use it for.

5 Reasons J-Pop sucks

AKB48 CafeI’ve posted previously about what I like about J-Pop, but I don’t like everything about it!  As with everything, it has its good sides and bad sides.  Here, in my opinion, are the bad sides.

The Music Can Be Uninteresting

I’ve posted previously about how I think that J-Pop is far more interesting than western pop – but that doesn’t really mean it’s interesting.  At the end of the day, it’s still pop, with all of the insipidity and appealing to the lowest common denominator that that entails.  I love how poetic J-Pop can be, but how many songs can one group write about sakura?

There is Little Focus on Talent

J-Pop performers are selected, basically, for cuteness and relatability first, and they seem to take the attitude that growing as a performer will come in time.  And, that being their criteria, they choose well.  But all told, they aren’t really all that talented.  Those who have the acumen or opportunity to parlay their cuteness into success are very successful.  Those that don’t fade into obscurity.  And that seems to have little to do with their actual potential as a performer.

Honestly, though, this is not a reason J-Pop sucks.  The reason is that it almost seems as if the lack of talent is seen as a positive, rather than a negative.  What, then, of the girls who actually want to make something of themselves as an actual performer?  There is room for that, but, frankly, many don’t.  And as seen on Produce48, many don’t even know it until reality smacks them in the face.  Is this doing them a service?  Maybe.  I’m not so sure.

What You See is Not What You Get

When I was younger, I remember a strong thunderstorm that rolled through.  As the storm left, the sky turned a lurid pink.  It turned out that the anvil was still over us and the setting sun was shining underneath it.  But since the clouds were somewhat transparent, you couldn’t see the clouds – it just looked as if the sky turned pink.

J-Pop feels a little like that.  You are given the opportunity to “get to know” the girls – but it’s all scripted and carefully controlled.  So what you see is what you think you get, but you don’t.  It’s a character.  Perhaps it’s a form of the Japanese tatemae, but the people you think you’re getting to know, well, you’re not.

If they were up front about that it wouldn’t really bother me so much, but I think many people think that the performers are the same as their stage personality, and this leads to much misunderstanding.  And that leads me to

The Fans

This is, frankly, the part of the J-Pop scene I detest the most.  I mean, you could kind of class me as a fan in some ways – I know a lot of their music, a lot of the performers, I even have my favorites if you want to get picky.  But at the end of the day, I know they’re just a bunch of girls doing a job, and I keep it in perspective.

But many fans don’t seem to.  I’ve heard of fans buying thousands of CDs just to get the little tickets to vote in the senbatsu and then throwing them all away, I’ve seen people go absolutely nuts when they meet their favorite idol, and frankly, it’s kind of embarrassing all around.  Yes, it’s kind of interesting in its own way, but in the same way you only mostly cover your eyes when you see an inevitable train wreck.  I really hate being a fan because of who it is I end up lumped in with by association.

The Costumes

Oh holy mother of dog, the costumes.  Some are okay, but some of them look like the designer took ate crayons and threw up on fabric.  They’re so loud it’s amazing to see.  It’s like they took a Japanese school uniform and turned it to 11, blowing out the amp.  I’m no fashion critic, and I suppose maybe their target audience thinks differently, but this just helps to cement my opinions about the Japanese taking existing things and taking them in directions no reasonable person would ever even consider.  Sometimes it’s strange and wonderful.  Sometimes it’s J-Pop costumes.

The Sparkle! It Burns!

These are the reasons I think J-Pop sucks.  Of course, there are also plenty of reasons it doesn’t.  What do you think?

(I am trying a new format for blog posts.  Like it?  Hate it?  Let me know!)

Photo Credits:

AKB48 cafe by User: (WT-shared) 耕太郎 at wts wikivoyage [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

Costume By Dick Thomas Johnson from Tokyo, Japan [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Sunday Song #4: Sakura No Hanabiritachi (AKB48)

I haven’t written one of these for a while, and this one’s a little late.  I have some good excuses which you don’t care about, but if you knew them, you’d agree that they’re good, so we’ll just leave it at that.

This is an interesting song.  Its first few bars of introduction are really catchy and high energy – they actually remind me of an 80s or 90s song.  In fact, that’s how I found this song, because they kept playing that intro on AKBingo and I liked it enough that I wondered what song it belonged to.

This is a song about endings and beginnings.  As I have mentioned, the sakura (or cherry tree) seems to have a significance to Japanese culture, and at least in the way it’s usually used in J-Pop songs, as a marker of time.  For the sakura blossoms only for a few days a year, and then they all fall off, waiting for the next year to come around.

This is a sweet and sad song, about graduation from school and heading into adulthood.  That’s an experience that, for many reasons, I never really had, but it seems that in this song they are trying to capture the bittersweet feelings that must come with that kind of an event.  As the petals drop from the cherry tree, so does one stage of life end and another begin.

The petals of these tears go pitter-patter
On these cheeks they come out, flow, and fall
As we look up to the blue sky
And breathe in deeply
The petals of these tears go pitter-patter
Memories of that part make me happy
The stairs to adulthood before our eyes
Together we climb and wave our hands

This is something I’ve really grown to appreciate about J-Pop.  It can be very sweet and saccharine, it can be fun and mindless, it can be sweet and sad, it can even be tragic, but there is a depth and poetry that is very much missing from western pop, and has been for many, many years.  It’s like, they want to sell albums, but they are also proud of what they produce.

What would it look like if we could take A-Pop (what I call American pop) and infuse a Japanese sense into it?  The sense of beauty that the Japanese have cultivated over thousands of years, and even now, manifests in a bunch of young girls and women dancing around in frilly, colorful (and sometimes downright loud) costumes and singing about things they may or may not understand?

What would it look like, indeed.  I’d like to know.  It would be nice if there was actually some “A-Pop” that one didn’t have to feel embarrassed to do anything but make fun of.

Am I Otaku?

I’ll be honest. I dont identify as otaku and I dont want to be otaku.

But last night I sent a bunch of funny links to my friend from AKBingo, explained to him who Takahashi Minami and Shinoda Mariko are, and then gave him the backstory on how Shinoda-san became an idol. Then I was humming “Oogoe Diamond” and the intro to “Sakura no Hanabiritachi”, after I went through most of their discography to find out where that intro came from (it’s catchy).

Unfortunately I guess that makes me otaku.

Why does that upset me?

Because I consider otaku somewhat unbalanced, tbh. One commenter to this very site told me he’d punch someone out if they dissed his favorite AKB48 member. And that is disturbing. Sure they’re cute and funny, but they’re just entertainers and I’m entertained. Sure, if I were escorting an idol down the street and someone threatened her I’d open a can of whoopass, but that’s because it’s the right thing to do, not because they’re idols.

I dont want to be associated with that. But I guess by talking about it, I am.

So what to do?

When Reality Attacks

I have always found idol culture in Japan interesting, but partly because I sought to understand it.  I found this video which helped a little.

These are several members of AKB48 who were in a contest with a bunch of Korean idols, and found themselves so lacking in comparison it seemed to completely wreck them.

I’ve often wondered how well the Japanese idol culture (in general) prepares the girls for a life in media.  They’re not great at dancing (better than me, for sure, but not great objectively), they’re not all that good at singing (if you disagree, hold that thought, and then find one where they’re singing solo without accompaniment.  They’re almost always way out of tune), they can kind of act but they’re not great at it.  And that’s because that’s not their job.  Their job is to be cute and funny, and incidentally, sell music.

And they’re really good at it.  Ishikawa Miori (Fresh Lemon) comes to mind.  I don’t know how you can get cuter than this:

But I have to wonder if they are well served by that.  As they grow older, it becomes harder to be cute and funny, and if they don’t have any real skills to fall back on, what good has it done them?  They’re kind of insulated from it because their fans love them for how cute and funny they are, until…  they get slapped in the face with the rather rude realization that that’s all they’ve been trained to be.

As in the above video.  It’s almost heartbreaking to watch them suddenly realize that when put in a competition with people who have been trained to sing, dance, etc., they don’t even come close to measuring up.

Japanese idols don’t really seem all that poorly treated (a little exploited, yes, but not in an abusive way), they look like they generally have fun, and even when it’s difficult they seem to have an attitude of “ganbatte” that helps them to be resilient.  But I wonder how those girls will react to the horrible dose of reality they just got.  Will they become depressed?  Will they “ganbatte” – try their best with what they have?  Or will they get themselves trainers and resolve that that will never happen again?

If I were in their shoes…. I don’t know which I’d choose, to be honest.  But I’m pretty sure I’d react like they did.  That’s not fun at all.

Ohori Meshibe

In my seeking to understand Japanese culture, I found this YouTube video, and found it very interesting.

 

Ohori Meshibe (also known as Ohori Megumi, but that was her name for this recording) was a 25 year old AKB48 member who was given an opportunity, but with a catch:  we’ll give you a solo debut, but you have to sell 10,000 CDs within a month or you’ll have to graduate.

So for a month, she went all over, selling one CD at a time, giving little performances all over the place, and even ended up sleeping on the ground one night (though there was a cameraman there so I’m very much doubting that she was truly in any danger).  Finally, the month was over, and this documented her trying to get over the finish line in the last day.

Halfway through the day, she had a nervous breakdown, and Sata and Kiyoto ended up having to go out and entertain the crowd while she pulled herself together – and it was a close thing, she even started to hyperventilate a bit.

But there are a few observations about this, some of which I found out through other means.

Many westerners would have given up and accepted their fate, honestly, at about the time that she had her nervous breakdown.  We would have ran out and never looked back.  But she pulled herself together, went out, and ended up meeting her goal, after many of the other members came by and helped out.  Her fans also pulled together and filled the last “hug event”.  This is the Japanese idea of “ganbatte” – or “try your best” – anything less than your best is not an option, and it seems they just pull themselves together and get it done.

This is even more poignant because of something they don’t tell you:  she lost her beloved grandmother – the only person in her family who supported her idol career – two days before the producer pulled her into a room and offered her the solo debut.  So she was already dealing with a lot, and then…

I don’t know how much of this was scripted, to be honest.  Probably more of it than appeared.  I’m also not at all sure if she would ever have been allowed to graduate.  I’m even not sure if the timing of it wasn’t an accident so that it would increase the drama.  But it shows a lot about Japanese “ganbatte” culture.  She tried her best, even surmounting some pretty incredible odds.

And it’s hard to not find that inspirational.

Lately she got married and had a child.  Which seems to be the ending of all idol (or gravure) related activity, as Japanese culture seems to expect women to raise children when they have one (something I generally respect, tbh).  Still, I wish her well.

Akimoto Yasushi – Good or Evil?

 

 

 

A few days ago, I stumbled upon this interview with Akimoto Yasushi, the mastermind of AKB48 and all of its different sister groups.

I listened. I was thoughtful.  And then I lost a little respect for him.

I have posted previously about AKB48.  My feelings about them have been conflicted ever since watching “Heavy Rotation” – I don’t think I’ve ever seen a music video with more sexualized connotations since “Anaconda” (though in fairness I don’t watch many at all).  These are girls of various ages wearing lingerie having a slumber party, throwing pillows, kissing mirrors, coming very close to kissing each other – it’s egregious in almost every way.

So I listened to Akimoto-san’s justification for it.

He said something similar to this (and it is a paraphrase):

These words are not coming from the girls.  I try to write music that speaks to what is on the mind of youths.

Okay, fine.  I get that.  This is how people have been making money ever since the music business started.  Where do you think rock music came from in the first place?

But I think this justification is just stupid.

The reason is this:  children were not put on this planet for adults to exploit for a quick buck.  So what is on the minds of children really doesn’t matter in this context.  At some point you have to make a choice – am I going to pander to what is on the mind of children in order to make a quick buck, or am I going to help shape them into a more mature person?

I don’t think lyrics like “I want to take off my school uniform” really helps to make well rounded children.

I see him as a person that is more exploiting than guiding in that context.

And that bothers me.

I know there may be fans of AKB48 reading this, and I know you are sometimes very easily riled up.  I imagine you have a lot to say.  So let me say this first:  I don’t feel this way about all of AKB48’s (or other idol groups’) songs.  I think Oogoe Diamond, for example, is quite catchy and a bit sweet.   I think Hello! Project has this gift for creating catchy songs that actually make you think (“What is Love” has some very thoughtful lyrics, and “Joshi kashimashi monogatari” is just FUN).  I’m not by any means saying all of the music that AKB48, et al., performs, is exploitative.  In fact, I think Tsunku-san and Akimoto-san have created a very efficient pipeline for giving untalented girls the training they need to become talents later in life.  I’m all for that.

I also don’t think he’s intentionally exploitative.  I read a book by Sashihara Rino which had nothing but good things to say about him.  He apparently had some very good advice for her, and because she chose to take it, she became much more of a success than she would have otherwise – even after she was demoted for breaking the rules against dating.

But songs like Heavy Rotation?  Particularly the video?

Yeah.  I can’t call it anything else.  That’s what it is.  Exploitation.