Tag Archives: Tokyo

Beijing: A Short Introduction

The first thing that struck me about Beijing at night was the signs against the black sky. One after another, red signs passed by the car window as a winter haze hovered around us. It was cold, bitingly cold, a cold that Tokyo knows not the likes of. The congested traffic comforts and annoys me. I am American, so am used to traffic jams, honking horns, being “cut-off” as well as having to drive on a daily basis. Returning to this way of living as opposed to Nippon will once again take some getting used to, but is by no means impossible. Outside my window is a Detroit-esque mixture of urban high rise apartments and absolute rubble. Horses pull carts filled with food, which the vendors will sell, while an old woman stares out from her balcony. “Where should I put my cigarette butt?” “This is China, you can put it anywhere.” A dog limps by and another tries to bite me outside of a supermarket – a “Merry Mart.” Everyone’s eyes are glued to me and fingers are pointed, as well. “Don’t worry, they are not looking at you.” Yet, I know they are looking at me. Meanwhile, in the apartment, a pleasant heat fills the rooms, music floats in from outside and, earlier in the morning, a light snow dripped to the ground. Beijing. Here we go.

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Tokyo Nights: Howl

I’ve been living in Tokyo for two months now. This is my first update since the move. I relocated from a quiet “bed town” in Ibaraki to a beautiful neighborhood close to Shinjuku. While my neighborhood in Tokyo is relatively quiet, I miss the dead-of-night stillness that comes from being in the countryside. I grew up in northern Michigan, so I am quite close to that quietude. It is odd to experience stillness in the midst of a metropolis like Tokyo, and for me, the experience is very different from that of the stillness in the country: being surrounded by open sky and dark woods as opposed to being surrounded by tiny streets, high-rise apartment buildings and cherry blossom trees. Being a fan of horror films, both of these experiences of stillness can be frightening, although the stillness of the woods is a fright closer to my heart. That makes the stillness of the city at night more frightening. The Unexpected can be conjured in both situations, but seems like a wholly different breed to unexpected fright. Are these both symptoms of a fear of what could be lurking around the corner? How do the two different landscapes affect the use and play of shadows?

What I like about the dark nights of the city is the sound of wailing voices coming from the street at night, the frightful chill of an unknown voice and then, upon looking out the window, realizing its only a drunken business man howling because he burnt his “manhood” with his cigarette while trying to urinate on the sidewalk. Now, that’s scary.

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Japanicity: Notes on Akihabara

秋葉原電気街Image via Wikipedia It’s not that I dislike the area of Tokyo known as “Akihabara.” Nonetheless, after several hours of being there, several long hours of being sucked into the ultra-consumerist spirit of the place, I start to change. I begin to count the number of steps back to the station, where I can buy a ticket to another land of confusion. For me, the area is convenient when the object of purchase is kept in mind, but, beneath the electronic veneer of the area lurks something different.

The streets of Akihabara bustle with the lust of electronic consumption. Young women in French maid outfits roam the streets, handing out fliers or loitering in front of the station promoting their cafe of employment. This is a not a place to relax, but a place to spend.

One shop clerk, standing outside the shop, with microphone in hand, was performing an upbeat and speedy rap to the tune of the store’s music. One hour later, he was still there, still rapping for us. Computer shops abound. Turning down a side street, we can see the remains of forgotten laptops and the skeletons of personal computers all for a price. Old IBM Thinkpads, refurbished and polished up…$300.00. Almost one year ago, after waking up to a dead Macbook, I headed down to this same area and bought one of these Thinkpads. I’m now using it to write this article.

In the “Doutour” coffee shop, the smoking section outweighs the non-smoking section. A group of three men sit next to us. One of the men is just a teenager. The other two, his older friends, must be in their forties. Over cups of ice coffee, they rattle on about the intricate stories in their favorite manga. I chain smoke and try not to listen. On the other side of us, two men in their late twenties. One of the men, head down, is apparently asleep or dead. His friend, a husky Japanese man, calmly smokes his MildSeven cigarette and looks at the ceiling. I order another double espresso and drink it quickly. It is time to go. I know this, somehow. I sense my relative peace will soon turn to that odd sense of discomfort that comes from being in Tokyo for too long.

We are in a busy shopping area. A man with two pet bunnies is feeding them warm milk outside of a juice bar. The bunnies tremble and fidget as they sip, sip, sip the milk. Spectators have gathered to see the man with the bunnies. The word “cute” can be heard repeatedly as if it’s the only word that people can say. I tune it out.

A man walks by us with a pink wig, a tight-fitting dress and what looks to be a racoon tail attached to his bottom. No one seems to look twice. Meanwhile, the sounds of the city are overwhelming as the sun sets and a dull darkness fills the streets. The shopping doesn’t stop. We turn a corner and see bags, people pushing around other people, more bags. A man is playing an Xbox 360 outside of a foreign game store. His face is about six inches from the plasma screen. He is playing a game in which his character, a mohawked “punk rocker” lookin guy in fatigues is creeping around with an M-16 assault rifle. The man is so close to the screen. It is like he is being slowly sucked into a trance. Two more teenage maids walk by us.

A white man with gray hair is in front of us. He is slow and lanky. I want to follow him for a little while, but get distracted by a camera shop and remember why we came to this depressing part of the city: to eat at Burger King. We circle around the station and find the entrance to the joint right next to a McDonalds. A businessman whose table is located next to ours has fallen asleep. The back of his head leans over onto our side of the table. It is like a fuzzy black animal watching over us.

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Oden with Tanaka, Ken

It was a rainy and slightly muggy Tuesday evening as I caught up with Ken Tanaka in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district. Amidst the neon blur of Shinjuku, we found ourselves enjoying Japanese “oden” and sharing some wonderful conversation. Thank you Ken for taking the time to meet up and converse.

I hope you will find the time to watch Ken’s videos. And just in case you are wondering, yes, he is a very nice man.

Here are some links to Ken’s recent adventures in Hawaii:

Ken Tanaka goes to Hawaii
Ken Tanaka learns to speak Mo Bettah
Ken Tanaka’s Tour Guide in Hawaii
Ken Tanaka Eats Hawaii and Breaks His Mouth
Ken Tanaka Meets a Taro Farmer
Ken Tanaka Gets LOST in Hawaii

田中さんへこれからもヨロシク!〜

The Extimacy of the Interface

Photo by Late Night Movie

Between the person and the interface of social media, there is a human or humans. In this medium of the blog, I present the reader with static yet increasing snippets from my side of existence and from the zone of other networked friends, bloggers, writers, musicians, designers, critics and thinkers that are blended as a part of me and projected through me into this particular interface. This interface is likely to be one that is quickly passed over in the “stumbling” search for interesting (read: instantly consumable and sharable) web content, or aggregated into a syndicated reader of which one can skim the title for potential after-dinner relevancy. Perhaps this page will appear in a “Google” search for such oddities as “man in mini-skirt” or “Japanese character.” Or, the interface between myself and you could share some kind of interaction in the form of the comment, the email, the mutual subscription to our Twitter feeds.

The New Sky

The human body weakens with time spent sitting in front of one’s computer. Legs become restless, throats parched, yet the fingers and the eyes remain alert, remain active, irking out some yelp to be heard by a random passerby. Although, perhaps the yelp is felt in a close friend who is interfacing with the Web at the same time. Your legs, still growing restless for communication with the Earth outside, disappear from your consciousness, the power of the fingers taking control, the imagined presence of the close friend being delivered to your interface via a network, across multiple networks achieves some kind of satisfaction which stirs within you. Outside, there is the sky and the wind, but the Web has created a new kind of outside for you: the Web is not like gazing into the vast emptiness of the sky, but akin to strolling through the labyrinthine streets of Tokyo. Around this corner, a small restaurant located next to a contemporary art museum. Your options have expanded…you feel connected, but you are merely connected to the symbolic, the imaginary, to the interface of the other, a responsible interface nonetheless.

Extimacy

Psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan coined the word “extimacy,” to express the intersubjective workings of the subject and of the unconscious. For Lacan, the subject is not only within him or herself, but also realized in the other. We could look at the interface of the Web and, moreover, Web 2.0 as a mode of exercising extimacy with other people. A social networking profile is created and within that profile is a blending of various symbols from film, TV, art, others’ photography and so on. Contacting others and “friending” others based on similar web-surfing habits expands one’s online self and entwines within one, the interests and symbolization of another person. Moreover, when looking at the interface of the computer screen, one experiences the decentering of one’s self-image, a fragmented mirroring back of oneself occurs. Desires that are posted by other people, become one’s own desires, desires that one did not even know existed. By expanding one’s network, one comes to see oneself as projected by these other people. Again, there is an intertwining, a conjoining of self and other and in this conjoining, an extimate self is realized.

Meanwhile, you are brought back to your physical body, the body that wishes to move, to temporarily suspend time with this interface. You cannot see your own face, the reflection from the interface is put on “sleep mode” and you step away, into another interface.

Media Uniforms and RFID Tags: The Future of Japanese Wearable Technology? (Interface Humanities)

Hand with the planned location of the RFID chipImage from WikipediaThe study of Interface Humanities is a form of study introduced by Osaka University president and published philosopher, Kiyokazu Washida among others. The basis behind Interface Humanities seems to be the study of our use of interfaces and how they redefine “self” and “other.” Moreover, I think it can be the study and criticism of our uses of these interfaces, technological critiques and ethical considerations. It is sad that most of the research done in Japan has not been translated into English. However, there is a relevant online journal with both English and Japanese called “Nature Interface,” which can be found here: Nature Interface. Given time, I will do my best to translate some Japanese articles into English. Today, I will be briefly talking about wearable technology as presented in an issue of “Nature Interface.”

The article that I read discusses the idea of “Media Uniforms,” which are uniforms with wearable computers or displays such as ID tags or RFID (Radio Frequency Identification). The article seems to take a very innocent and positive approach to the idea of “wearable interfaces” and provides no critique of its possible harmful consequences.

The first point made in the article is the gap between engineers and fashion designers, that is, the lack of a strong fashion point in the marketing of the computerized clothing. They seem to be suggesting that given the support of a good designer, the idea of wearable technology would become more appealing to youth culture. It doesn’t seem to hard to imagine wearable-computerized interfaces spreading through Tokyo.

Second, the idea that “RFID Tags Can Make Management Easier” is brought up. That is, the company that is being talked about in the article (CHIKUMA Ltd.) state that they recycle old uniforms using them to experiment with and/or transform them into usable material for projects in different fields (as they say: acoustic and heat insulators). Also, with the implementation of RFID tags, the person who disposes of a certain piece of clothing can be tracked and an evaluation of the disposal method can be made in accord with environmental concerns. In this way, they are apparently promoting responsibility and environmental care. It should be noted that they are apparently not talking about one’s personal clothing, but with uniforms, perhaps owned by a company (i.e. the disposal and re-use of a security uniform would be monitored).

The third point made in the article is the idea of “Uniforms with Real-Time Advertisement Display.” For example, Tommy Lee Jones recently did an advertising campaign here in Japan for BOSS can coffee. Imagine, you go to the convenience store and buy a can of BOSS coffee. Upon checking out, your can is scanned and lo-and-behold, on the chest of the part-time high school student working behind the counter, a computerized screen turns on and there is Tommy Lee’s smiling face thanking you for buying the coffee. Or, as is suggested in the article, upon renting a certain DVD, when scanned, a transmission is sent from a computer in the rental shop to your wearable interface giving you a free movie preview of an upcoming film by the same company that funded the film that you just rented.

In this way, CHIKUMA Ltd. is wishing to pave the way for a new form of wearable-computerized advertising technology. Instead of the static print advertisement, a moving full-color interactive wearable-computerized advertisement, portable and perhaps personalized to your consumer habits. What interests me is this positive approach to this article gives no form of criticism or concerns. Perhaps, if I read deeper into “Nature Interface,” I will find some answers, but for now I will have to create some probes of my own.

The idea of a track-able and monitored uniform further fragments the self while obliterating personal privacy. Not to mention, viral attacks, system errors or identity theft come to mind as valid possible problems. Moreover, how is the experience of self and other affected by this intrusion of privacy? With the RTAD, what possible consequences do you see? Could someone not perhaps track one’s consumer habits, store those habits while using them to collect data? Does this not already happen in our internet shopping experience? Furthermore, what are hegemonic consequences of what gets advertised and what doesn’t? What happens to the smaller companies with no capital to push their products on the wearable advertising market? I think that, being the visually minded creatures that we are, there is something much more alluring about a moving display as opposed to a static T-shirt advertisement. That is to say, there is a big difference between wearing a T-shirt of the band U2 and having one of their music videos being played on your wearable uniform? I can just imagine a store clerk at a corporate music store having to wear a uniform with an increasingly annoying two minute loop of “new and hot releases.”

I am an amateur when it comes to examining RFID tags. If you wish to share links, please do. Thank you for reading. The original article that I dissected today can be found here: Case Study: From Japan – Wearable Computers That Have Started to Approach Our Daily Life

The Japanicity of Hiro Nakamura: Where is Tadanobu Asano When You Need Him?

Hiro Nakamura (Masi Oka)Image by seiho via FlickrMy first reaction to Masi Oka‘s character Hiro Nakamura on the TV show “Heroes,” was, a phrase coined by a dear friend of mine, “ontological embarrassment.” Moreover, although I have only watched three episodes of “Heroes,” as it was only just released on DVD in Japan, I think I can provide a fair analysis of the (as used by a professor at University of Waterloo) “Japanicity” of Hiro Nakamura.

The first point of embarrassment is the overuse of the tropistic Japanese man, the Japanese stereotypes that are brutally confirmed in the character of Hiro Nakamura (and his co-worker/friend, for that matter). On our introduction to these two characters, we see Nakamura’s friend looking at pornography while at work. This is the first point of shame as it portrays the contemporary Japanese worker as pervert and, perhaps preparing us for the image of “otaku.” We then hear the overzealous spoken Japanese of Nakamura and his unabashed otaku-like character (the childlike femininity of his voice is greatly emphasized through how he speaks Japanese). In juxtaposition to all of the other characters (who emanate control and sexual power), we have just been introduced to the “nerdy” Japanese duo. It seems obvious that “Heroes” were trying to lure in the American anime/manga loving collective, but in doing so and judging by the sheer “ontological embarrassment” on my Japanese friend’s face, have completely isolated the Japanese characters from having the same kind of “coolness” exuding from the others and have relegated the Japanicity of the Japanese to an inferior position.

Also, we again see the tropes of the Japanese male as the duo (Nakamura and his friend), too afraid to talk to women at the bar (enforcing the shyness of the Japanese man in social situations), and converse about comics and science fiction (“maniaku,” “otaku”). When Nakamura’s friend briefly leaves the table, Nakamura, fantasizing about the woman across the bar (or about entering the women’s bathroom) teleports himself into the women’s bathroom (again, Japanese man as pervert). Not only that, but upon getting thrown out of the bar, he is gleeful at having gained access to the bathroom (perversion). We are confused: is his glee from having teleported or from having teleported into his perversity?

We then see Nakamura on a train where there is a poster of New York City conveniently located in front of him. We see in this scene America (more aptly the trope of NYC as being equal to the USA in the eyes of the Japanese) as the fantasy of the Japanese man. He gazes at the poster amid the dreary Tokyo train wishing he could escape his drab life by teleporting to the ultimate symbol of power and freedom: New York City. Well, he does teleport there. Upon arriving, he can be seen as the bumbling perma-grin Japanese tourist shouting out basic textbook English expressions and saying “hello” to random strangers. Moreover, in contrast to every other character, it is only the Japanese character who cannot speak good English. He appears completely silly and, again, is obviously catering to a much overused stereotype of the Japanese man as nerd. When he finds the comic book painted by the character, Isaac of which he is the main character, we are again back in “otaku” territory. We see the Japanese man as infantile in his love of comic books. Instead of him finding a comic book, why not him teleporting to a museum and gazing upon a fine piece of art?) This is even pushed further as he steals the comic book and flees like a rebellious teenager.

It was interesting to watch “Heroes,” which it should be noted I actually quite enjoy thus far despite this criticism, with a Japanese friend. Every time Hiro Nakamura appeared on screen, she cringed. Listening to his Japanese was painful to her and at times it was hard for her to even look at this heavily stereotyped depiction of a Japanese person (Nakamura, through the frame of this show) without a heavy dose of ontological embarrassment. “They are making him out to be some kind of goofy comic book character,” was her reaction.

I am not sure how they will work to change his character as he is developed in the coming episodes, but I think it should be noted that the initial set-up of his character through the first three episodes heavily layers him in stereotypes and, I think, relegates the Japanicity of his character to a kind of cartoonized flat image devoid of authenticity. So, I have a suggestion for the creators of “Heroes.” I think Nakamura’s character should be quickly alleviated, written-out, teleported to a different planet. Then, I think a new Japanese character should be introduced and my proposal is the prolific Tadanobu Asano (actor, musician, model). It seems that Asano would fit much better in the general “Heroes” aesthetic of dark dramatics and give the Americanized version of the Japanese image a much needed make over. Moreover, I see it necessary to completely disconnect Asano from the tropes of Nakamura and actually give him the same depth and cool stylization as other characters seem to receive. Restore the angle of the Japanese character with the same level of intensity given to the others and at least present him as a character who can speak English. By the way, here is a picture of my suggestion for a new Hiro Nakamura, Tadanobu Asano:

Tadanobu Asano

If the DVD sales of “Heroes” declines in Japan, it is not because “Heroes” is a bad show, but it is because of the embarrassing portrayal of the contemporary Japanese man.