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Friday, September 24, 2010

Terminal (on Why Japan)

I’m too young to really remember the ‘80s. I was only around for the last half of it anyway and very few of those days percolated through a young brain learning the basics of being a human. Brief flashes of locations, events that I’m not sure I actually remember so much as imagine, and a particular color of carpet that will immediately scream out its decade to any nearby observers.

Nonetheless, I am a child of the decade. Or at least I’m a child of the students of the decade, recalling flashes of the Nihonjin-owned future that we were all sure was one day going to sweep over us from the Far East in the west; faint, flickering images of a rain-soaked dystopian Los Angeles, voiceover courtesy of a young Harrison Ford, or skies above ports the color of television, turned to a dead channel.

Most people I know now say the moment has passed, that the so-called Asian Invasion that the Eighties was so sure was in it’s Double-oughts never materialized. I say look around, omae. We’re here.

Twenty years on now from the heyday of the cyberpunk movement and it’s easy to think that greasy, burnt-out future was just the idle dreams of a generation that grew up without a defining cataclysm to call their own. While it’s hard to see it here among the local color palette (which consists primarily of evergreen, concrete and overcast), it’s less that we as a nation avoided the cross-cultural osmosis and more that it’s become invisible to us. We’re used to it. After all, we’ve been living with it for fifteen years now.

My alarm goes off in the morning, and I hit the button that says “off” right next to the one (that doesn’t seem to actually do anything) that says “Sanyo” and get up. I grab my phone, a little black Sony video-enabled camera 3G smartphone with Bluetooth wi-fi that has no special capabilities whatsoever and came free with the service and shuffle toward the kitchen in search of breakfast. On the bulletin board nearby are tacked takeout menus from Himitsu Terikyaki and Kaiten Sushi –both roughly located between my present coordinates and destination for the day- and I foggily wonder if I have time to stop through one. The staff know me in both places, and I’ve apparently progressed past their usual hosting behavior and straight to a hearty “irrashimase!” and the assumption that I know how to find a table and the fridge that they keep the Ramune in on my own. They’re right.

My Toyota pickup is obligingly named after my hometown and I once again find it funny that the logo –which symbolizes the mutually-beneficial trust between the company and customers as well as the “unlimited potential” of Toyota’s technology, gives me a vaguely Texan vibe, which is so far off the designer’s mark that the thought probably never entered the minds of the members of the Toyoda family who approved it.

Later I talk with a friend about what shows he’s watching this fall. The usual fare: Chuck, Big Bang Theory, Bleach, Glee, High School of the Dead, Castle. I roll my eyes at the third one, calling it one of those mindless shounen ‘action’ shows that roll on forever with the same plot recycled over and over again, he retorts with Gurren Lagann, and has me soundly beaten –it’s everything I don’t like about the genre, and is totally awesome.

I trek to Holman and settle into a workstation, chuckling at an overheard okomiyaki joke told in what appears to be an impromptu boke and tsukkomi routine. The joke isn’t really funny, but the overdone, obviously-fake Kansai-ben is. I briefly wonder when I developed the ability to recognize the regional dialects of a language I don’t really speak. I briefly wonder when the giant fan is going to show up and when that became funny, too.

A librarian accosts me ten minutes later because I’ve taken up a print station seat and am not printing, wanting to know if I can move. A clock tells me I need to be wandering toward class anyway, so I obligingly pack up. The student I’m being ousted in favor of gives me a polite bow by way of thanks/apology, which I return in reflex I thought I’d forgotten.

At home that evening a conversation turns to writing for an interactive environment and Kojima comes up as a prominent example of the do-anythingness often needed in that kind of work. The train of thought dies out and I settle down to watch the latest episode of Keion that aired an hour ago and should have propagated out to the video sites by now. It’s not subbed yet, but that’s okay. Subs take a day or two for the fast groups, and then it’s back to the usual game of hide-and-seek trying to find a version that Youtube hasn’t noticed and deleted yet.

As the episode’s catchy, chart-topper of an end credits theme plays, I realize that only about half my day actually happened in English and that a recent line from a comic I read, “Yes, I’m so desperate to avoid you that I walked all the way here [to Yoyogi] from Den-en Chofu” is funny without having to look it up. The comic in question is one of DC’s top-selling manga titles, drawn by a Michigan-native and also selling fairly well in Japan.

What happened there? When did it happen? Sure, we didn’t get the perpetual rain and smog (well, LA did, but that’s not news), the evil all-powerful megacorporations (except for Google), the hyper-controlling fearmongering governments (debatably not counting the Obama Administration), the sensationalist scream-sheet tabloids replacing legitimate news (other than Fox), the mishmash pidgin street languages (except for Spanglish and Engrish), devastating natural disasters wiping out major population centers (besides New Orleans), the emergence of a mass consensual immersive hallucination virtual world and a functional economy that interfaces with the real world (not counting WoW),  a tireless robotic workforce displacing human labor (oh wait…), rampant piracy and terrorism (er…), and massive man-made ecosystem-crushing disasters (other than Deep Horizon)…

Okay, so we are living in a dystopian cyberpunk future. Not quite the one Gibson and Sterling and Scott envisioned for us, but give it time and we may yet get ourselves there.

So that’s why Japan. Even twenty years too late, it’s still the world’s default vision of the future, and it’s a future we’re closer to than we think, and growing larger in our world at an exponential rate, a kind of socio-cultural Moore’s Law.

So is Japan going to take over the US? No. At least not without the US taking over Japan in turn. We live in an era of instant worldwide communication that has done more to break down culture barriers than ever before. Physical borders mean less and less to the average human (if there is such a thing), since he can be in contact with anyone, anywhere in the world, all the time. He can instantly know the lunch special at his favorite restaurant in London while he watches the live-streaming night life at a club in Tokyo while he buys a paper and his morning coffee in Boston.

In 2001, Gibson observed in an article for Wired Magazine that Japan’s status as the “future” was because they’d been living in it for a century and a half. Another nine years has diluted that somewhat as western civilization catches up to them, but with that far mysterious –and yet strangely familiar- island nation coming out of the downward-swing of the economic cycle and we just nose-diving into it, they may leap ahead yet again.

People say cyberpunk as a counterculture and literary genre is dead. I say these people haven’t been to Shinjuku lately.

It didn’t take long for Stephenson’s so-called Metaverse to manifest in the real world in the form of Second Life, and it didn’t take much longer for Gibson’s prediction of an idealized virtual-construct popstar to manifest, either: Hatsune Miku’s recent live concert tour proves that. Now there’s talk of doing to the Bay Bridge exactly what he proposed in 1993’s Virtual Light.

Picture a city in lights, towering glass and steel and neon looming over crowded streets that never empty. Picture the changing of the guard as the city moves from businesslike daytime efficiency to wild nightlife set to pounding synth-bass and retrofuturist sensibility straight out of Hackers. Now, is it New York and Los Angeles and London in your head, or is it Tokyo and Hong Kong and Manila?

Are you sure?

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