Hiding in the shadows of the virtual.
From Tamagotchi to RealDolls, contemporary Japanese culture has exhibited a penchant for virtually mediated relationships. But with the recent outbreak of what Japanese media outlets have been calling “sekkusu shinai shokogun”, or “celibacy syndrome,” more and more Japanese youth are increasingly forsaking all forms of intimacy and pleasure…replacing love and sex—virtual or not—with other activities. “Why have young people in Japan stopped having sex?” and “what happens to a country when its young people stop having sex,” are questions asked by Abigail Haworth in her recent article published by The Guardian.
Japanese-American author Roland Kelts is cited in Haworth’s article stating his belief that the Japanese example foreshadows a likely future for the rest of us. He suggests that the desire to flee intro virtuality emerges in overcrowded nations and urban centers like Tokyo. Kelts’ article from Adbusters #86 below offers further and deeper insight into this impulse to retreat from intimacy and reality.
When Japan’s master animation artist Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, Totoro) addressed a room of mostly Western journalists in Tokyo in 2008, many of us were expecting him to talk about his latest fantastical feature film, Ponyo, which was just about to open worldwide. Instead, the 68-year-old director spent 15 minutes issuing a stern warning about the dangers and delusions of living through virtual media. “All of our young people today derive their pleasure, entertainment, communication and information from virtual worlds,” he declared. “And all of those worlds have one thing in common: They’re making young Japanese weak.”
Miyazaki ticked off the usual suspects – cell phones, emails, video games, television – and he also included two more categories: manga and anime. “These things take away [young peoples’] inherent natural strengths,” he continued, “and so they lose their ability to cope with the real world. They lose their imaginations.”
Japan has long been recognized as a global leader in the development of virtual realms. A land of limited physical space and, yes, very active imaginations has applied artifice to often highly sophisticated uses in order to enhance livability. Traditionally, the artful arrangement of atokonoma – a raised alcove displaying seasonal flowers and hanging scrolls in a teahouse – created an artificial environment where samurai warriors could temporarily duck the realities of ongoing warfare and engage in peaceful meditation and reflection. (Battling enemies would allegedly set aside their swords and hostilities for a few quiet moments of matcha, Japanese green tea.) Similarly, rock gardens, carp pools and bonsai trees take elements of the natural world and reshape them into objects of visual and spiritual refuge: escapes from the otherwise chaotic and untamable world of the actual.
Adding technology to the mix has expanded Japan’s virtual zones exponentially, of course, and its related exports have arguably transformed lives far beyond its shores. The world’s first digital answering machine came from Japan, allowing us to forever exist in the virtual state of being perpetually “at home.” The Sony Walkman helped us shut out our physical surroundings, wherever we might be, to indulge in the concert halls and recording studios of our minds. Virtual pets like the Tamagotchi gave us a portable, ever-present someone or something to feed, clean up after and keep alive through anthropomorphic love. As author William Gibson, one of the first Western writers to see the face of the 21st century in Japan, notes: “If you believe, as I do, that all cultural change is essentially technology-driven, you pay attention to Japan.”
The Japanese have also proven particularly adept at cultivating private virtual worlds amid very crowded public realities. Author and translator Frederik L. Schodt, a veteran authority on Japanese pop culture media, has used the term “autistic” to define the characteristics of a comparatively inward-looking, narrowly focused sensibility. I often find myself trekking between Japan and the US, and the differences in spatial perceptions and public behaviors have become glaringly obvious.
For Americans accustomed to traversing space, reaching out across the vast distances to “touch someone,” as an old AT&T ad campaign once exhorted people to do, speaking out to a stranger in a subway car or on an elevator or sidewalk is practically de rigueur. Arriving at a US airport, for example, I am often peppered with spontaneous questions from a cab driver or fellow traveler about my port of departure, my work and my preferred airline. It’s often coupled with chitchat about the local weather and sometimes more intimate disclosures about the speaker’s family and personal histories – all this from someone I’ve never met before and likely won’t meet again.
Arriving in Japan, by contrast, involves only the most necessary exchanges with customs and immigration officials and baggage handlers. And most of the time, the voices of jet-lagged conversationalists on the bus or train entering Tokyo issue from non-Japanese. An elevator in Japan is a womb of silent transport; a subway car is equally hushed: a train’s muted whoosh down a tunnel is broken only by the occasional clicks, bleeps and jingles of passengers’ cell phones – their vivid screens held mere centimeters from their users’ mesmerized eyes. With the exception of the oft-muttered “sumimasen,” or “excuse me,” as passengers jostle for space, no one says a word.
The sum effect of being surrounded in close quarters by people whose thoughts and attentions are deliberately displaced through willful distraction or digital media, is that privacy is not simply sustained, it’s thrust upon you. Even the stray pair of eyes that might fix upon you momentarily will soon flicker away out of politeness or sheer discomfort. Directness – let alone contact of any kind – is to be avoided.
Miyazaki’s comments about this very issue resonated against a backdrop of unsettling news. Cases of hikikomori, or socially withdrawn youths, who seclude themselves in their rooms and rely exclusively upon digital communications in order to avoid any kind of public interaction, were reportedly on the rise. The same with so-called “parasite singles” (young women who refuse to get married, get pregnant or move out of their parents’ homes); hakken and arubaito workers and internet homeless (part-time, contract laborers who often seek employment during overnight stays in internet cafes); internet suicide pacts (online suicidal meet & greets); and the recently branded soshoku-danshi (grass-eating/herbivore men) young males who reject the very tenets of masculinity – from eating meat to the fleshly pursuit the opposite sex, from following career paths to buying in to brand-name consumerism.
Just six months prior to Miyazaki’s appearance, Japan suffered one of its worst killing sprees on record when 25-year-old Tomohiro Kato plowed a rental truck into masses of pedestrians, then began to indiscriminately stab passersby, slashing 17 and killing seven. Even more chilling was the way Kato conducted his attacks. He committed his crime at midday on a Sunday, primetime for Japan’s shopping masses, in the heart of Akihabara, Tokyo’s locus of digital media marketing (electronics, cell phones, video and computer games) and virtual realities (anime, manga and porn). And he posted a running commentary in the hours and minutes leading up to the murders on an internet Bulletin Board System (BBS) from his mobile phone.
Subsequent police report revealed that Kato had made some 3,000-plus internet postings in a span of 30 days, many of which complain of loneliness, unattractiveness and social failure. “I’m tired of life,” Kato told the cops by way of an explanation.
Scholars, sociologists and commentators East and West have identified a generation-wide malaise in Japan following its late 20th-century economic juggernaut. University of California Berkeley professor Michael Zielenziger argues in his book Shutting Out the Sun that post-bubble Japan has created its own “lost generation” of the young and aimless. The grafting of capitalism onto Japan’s unique “social architecture,” writes Zielenziger, has resulted in a Japan with “nothing to believe in,” a spiritual crisis whose only balm is sought in cycles of materialism that neither satisfy nor heal.
What the pathologies affecting Japanese all have in common is a rejection of active engagement, a refusal to participate in the actual world beyond the confines of specifically tailored, intimately controllable private spaces – a bedroom, a booth in an internet café, an online chat room or a bulletin board site. It’s something I’ve taken to calling Japan’s “Bartleby rebellion,” after Herman Melville’s eponymous 19th-century law staffer in his novel Bartleby the Scrivener, whose refusal to accede to societal expectations eventually results in his rejection of sustenance itself. He starves himself to death in his prison cell. Bartleby’s irreverent mantra? “I’d prefer not to.” Tell that to the cops.
But Bartleby didn’t have a wired virtual world at his disposal – no multifunctional cell phone, Wi-Fi laptop or any of the other conduits of an enticing, seductive and infinitely elaborate digital reality – nowhere to air his darkest insecurities and perceptions. One can only imagine the beleaguered legal scribe in contemporary Tokyo posting thousands of complaints about the inanity of his boss’s requests, the stupidity of his colleagues and the increasing loneliness of his isolated outpost. The question is: would anyone listen or, better yet, reply?
Consumer and cultural critic Mariko Fujiwara believes that one of the most dangerous deceptions of virtual life, especially for lonely and isolated individuals like Kato, is that it creates a false sense of belonging. Internet communities, she says, are fundamentally different from communities in the real world, largely because they are so fleeting and fundamentally insubstantial.
“When we talk about communities, there should be a certain amount ofcommitment,” Fujiwara says, distinguishing between participants in online forums and offline groups of like-minded individuals. “When we talk about quote-unquote communities on the internet, some people are very committed, while others are simply casual visitors to the site. They say whatever they feel like saying at the moment in five words … and then go on surfing the web for a few hours, never paying attention to what other members of the online community might go through in the next five hours.”
Kato’s thousands of postings made him feel like he was connected to others, she adds, “but he didn’t really have any connections to the real communities around him, like his coworkers or neighbors, or even his divorced parents. Only on the internet was he somebody who could talk and hope that other people would respond. But his virtual community didn’t exist in a way that could really support him – especially at the moment he so desperately needed support.”
Japan’s virtual communities are vast and very active. While Japan ranks third behind the US and China in overall internet usage, it is home to what is often cited as the world’s largest public internet forum, the now famous 2-channel, a Japanese language-dominant social networking site (SNS) called Mixi and a Japanese language-only, YouTube-styled video sharing site called Nico Nico Douga – plus a host of other forums, BBSs and chat rooms devoted to nearly every topic imaginable. Japanese internet users have access to the fastest consumer broadband connections in the world at 160 megabytes per second, meaning they can post, watch and download high-quality media and multitask with comparable ease.
But the one thing most Japanese won’t do in their virtual lives is reveal anything about their real lives – or even tell you who they are.
An AP report published last year stated that “the vast majority of Mixi’s roughly 15 million users don’t reveal anything about themselves,” using fake names, ages and addresses to maintain privacy, but also anonymity, a crucial factor in a culture where standing out and drawing attention to oneself is still frowned on. The same article revealed that less than half of the Japanese customers of the dating site Match.com were willing to post their own photographs, a practice gleefully undertaken by the site’s American users. And on YouTube Japanese users are far more likely to submit videos of their pets than themselves. When Google released the mapping application Street View in Japan, which has close-up photographs of specific addresses and locales, many Japanese cried foul, citing an invasion of privacy in photos featuring actual people, residences and license plates. The issue eventually wound up in the courts, and Google made several concessions to protect Japanese citizens.
The clichéd Japanese saying, deru kugi-wa utareru (the nail that sticks out gets hammered down) remains as relevant to the virtual world as it does to the real one. But in a group-oriented culture where conformity and consensus maintain the prized sense of wa – social harmony – in the daily life of the actual world, the anonymity of the virtual space can open numerous Pandora’s boxes. Anonymous contributors to 2-channel, for example, often unleash virulent diatribes betraying archly nationalistic sentiments, bigotry and slander, issued from behind the shield of a fake moniker – an identity chosen for the needs of the moment.
Obviously, this is hardly exclusive to Japan. The banal swill of anonymous postings oozing down the commentary sections of politically or celebrity oriented blogs and news sites worldwide is often crude and obscene enough to make one give up on civilization entirely. The displacement of the self and all of its earthly responsibilities affords us numerous opportunities to engage in careless, lazy or just bad behavior in the virtual realm, even as it may feel liberating, at least at first. But what if, as Miyazaki suggests, the very real self issuing such pronouncements via its virtual counterparts, its simulated selves, is not so strongly developed to begin with.
Japanese-American blogger and journalist Lisa Katayama, author ofUrawaza, a book about Japanese household solutions to everyday problems, published a recent article in the New York Times about so-called 2-D love – a subculture of Japanese men who seek romantic relationships with illustrations of their ideal partners, sometimes in the form of manga or anime characters, doll-like figurines or, in the case of the main subject in Katayama’s story, a life-sized portable pillow featuring a drawing of the object of his affection. “In an ideal moe relationship,” Katayama writes, citing the slang term for the fetishization of hyper-cute, two-dimensional female characters, “a man frees himself from the expectations of an ordinary human relationship and expresses his passion for a chosen character without fear of being judged or rejected” (emphasis added).
This last phrase brings us back to Fujiwara’s use of the word “commitment” when comparing real-world relationships to their virtual versions. Committing oneself to a task, to a relationship, to a goal of any type naturally involves risk. But the manifold seductions of virtual realities – anyone can join, anyone can post and you can be anyone, anywhere, at any time – reduce our sense of risk, promising to banish our insecurities, imperfections and uncertainties, if not finally being able to eradicate them entirely.
Fujiwara uses a baseball analogy to describe the collapse of Japan’s actual communities in the face of global competition and expanding technologies. Japan was competing in the minor leagues during its developing years post World War II, she argues, when its future continued to improve by dint of diligence, sacrifice and pragmatism. “Ganbaru, motto ganbaru” (“work hard, work very hard”) parents would tell their children and bosses would tell their employees. For a while, it worked: “Japan became a champion in minor league baseball.”
The nation’s social institutions, including families, worked well enough to propel Japan onto the world stage, or into the major leagues, as Fujiwara puts it. But once it got there, the communities failed to evolve.
“‘Work hard’ is just advice,” she says. “It’s not a real strategy for a complex future. We now have well-trained unemployed and under-employed young people, and the gap between their expectations and their realities is huge. And as a result of affluence, the largest type of household in Japan is a single-person household. These are older people living alone after their spouses have died, but also a rising tide of young individuals. And they feel isolated and alienated, and they think that maybe out there, in the virtual world, you would find someone more sympathetic than you find around you physically.”
Fujiwara notes a critical difference between the communal behaviors of her generation and that of Japan’s digitally-bound youth. “According to our research,” she says, “they just want to have as many friends as they can. It’s very important to have lots of friends in your cell phone address book or on Mixi, but to have a very casual and noncommittal relationship is even more important. The experience of having a best friend, your best friend in life to whom you can confide everything seems to be long gone. They think that sort of deep relationship is just too much … It’s too heavy, too much effort to maintain and too scary.”
This past summer the US had its own internet blogging murderer, who revealed his angst, loneliness and criminal intentions to the virtual world. George Sodini, a 48-year-old single male, opened fire in a gym during a female aerobics class, killing three and injuring nine before shooting himself to death. Expressing sentiments eerily similar to those posted by Japan’s Kato a year earlier, Sodini wrote: “The biggest problem of all is not having relationships or friends, but not being able to achieve and acquire what I desire in those or many other areas … Maybe all this will shed insight on why some people just cannot make things happen in their life.”
Granted, it’s often hard to make things happen in real life. Committing to a relationship or the achievement of an ambition is usually a lot more challenging than creating a sudden buzz on the internet, posting a blog entry, tweeting 140 characters or adding new friends to your Facebook, Mixi or digital address pages. But a retreat from reality poses its own set of risks: newly emerging anxieties and uncertainties that we are only now beginning to recognize and understand. Tetsuya Akikawa, a musician who unwittingly became a counselor to Japan’s suicidal youth when he hosted a radio call-in program, distills his listeners’ most common complaint: “A lot of teenagers said to me that they couldn’t feel the real feelings of living,” he says, shaking his head in disbelief. “They live a shadow of a life, rather than life itself.”
Divorced from the very human responsibility to contact and interact directly with other living beings, we may feel hollowed out, emptied of the sense of an evolving self that can make existence worth its painful bouts of adversity and growth. A life spent lurking too long in the shadows of the virtual world might turn out to be no life at all.