Monday, 17 March 2014

Kill Your Sempai 2

As part of an event I sometimes organise with my friends Gotal and Ralouf from the band Lo-shi, I did a set of illustrations under the title Kill Your Sempai 2 (there was a part 1 a couple of years ago). Most of the models were just taken from album covers and photo shoots from old Japanese pop stars and models, although there's one of my friend Ayako in there somewhere too. The text is just stuff I was thinking about at the time: satirical cheap shots mostly.

It's a Guided By Voices song title, but a wonderful phrase regardless.

The life of a writer these days -- fuck you, Huffington Post. Also, not sure what happened to the right strap of her bikini.

Physical goods for virtual currency.

Bastards.

AKB48 general manager Tomonobu Togasaki's excuse after being caught at a love hotel with a teenage prostitute.

The hard right, nationalist former military general is very popular with the youth of today. Although this girl looks like something from the 80s.

It's the look of disdain on her face that does it for me.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

The Japan Society for Artificial Intelligence and its "gynoid" servant girl


Some quarters of the Japanese and overseas media got themselves into a flap recently over the Japan Society for Artificial Intelligence's decision to spice up their rather dry in-house journal with an illustration rather than the usual raw text adorning the cover. Let's have a look at the illustration in question first and see if you can work out what the problem is:




It's an android servant girl with a typically manga-esque sweet, gentle expression, holding a broom in one hand and a book in the other, with a cable plugged into her back. The core issue behind the outcry is the cleaning robot = woman equation that the image seems to suggest, although the fact that it's in the form of a pretty girl with a subservient, submissive expression is a subsidiary but related issue that to some brings to mind a sort of dubious Stepford Wives male/female power dynamic.

First up, let's make clear that the illustration was drawn by a woman. Some people think this is significant, although I'm not so sure. Women are just as capable of expressing and embodying regressive ideas, something to which anyone like me who grew up in Thatcher's Britain should be able to testify. Nevertheless, that fact should be a warning against reading this debate on too much of a superficial level. We're dealing with embedded assumptions here, not something that can be claimed or dismissed without a bit of unravelling.

So let's take a look again at the picture and think a little about what it represents. The interior decor of the room suggests a rural cottage and this is combined with the faintly retro garb the android girl is wearing and the old fashioned broom (not to mention the fact that she's reading a book, which when you think about it would be a pretty pointless activity for an AI brain that could download and digest a book in a matter of seconds) to evoke without directly depicting times past. She is a modern equivalent of the domestic servants of times past, with the man-machine interface replacing the class relationships that lay behind master-servant interactions of the past.

But she's not simply carrying out her function like a robot, she's reading a book, an action symbolic of (if not always synonymous with) learning. She is upgrading her functions independently, and just as education has been posited as a springboard to transcending class boundaries, the image holds out promise of the android girl becoming more than simply a machine.

Now this is an interesting set of signifiers the image is sending off, and I'd hazard that this was the artist's original intention with the work. People dismissing it as a work of straightforward sexism are not giving the artist credit for her ideas and imposing a probably unintended set of meanings on it.

However, that's not the end of the story, much as I suspect a lot of people would like it to be. Look again at the girl's face. She may be demonstrating an independent capacity and willingness to learn and transcend her base functions, but there's nothing overtly threatening in it; her gaze remains blank and inscrutable. There may be some specific intention behind this, but given what a common trope it is in manga and anime depictions of femininity, chances are that the main rationale behind it is simply "because kawaii". This goes for the clothing and decor as well to a certain extent, it builds towards constructing the girl as a fetishistic object of desire, or to put it in otaku terms, it's moé.

Viewed through that prism, we can see how the image has internalised a great deal of the unthinking assumptions of the manga/anime world, most of which are socially and culturally conservative, especially in their depiction of women. There is no reason why the android needed to be depicted as an attractive young girl, but it wasn't a simple coin toss that could have gone wither way: there is no alternative universe where someone with a background in manga/anime fandom wouldn't have depicted a cleaning android as a young woman (a man would have been a butler).

The blank expression suggests a passive nature in contrast with the independent mindedness suggested by the book. In another context, this could set the book as a subversive item, undermining her submissive programming, but in the context of the moé, where (usually feminine) weakness is the key to unlocking fetishistic desire, it's more a statement of, "Aww, it's trying to learn, bless it's little cotton socks!"

So context is the problem. In the context of anime or manga, where those sorts of assumptions go unchallenged, this image would be a very effective one. However, in a wider media context, those assumptions can't be relied on. Another Japanese artist, Sputniko! (her exclamation mark, not mine), whose life's work also deals with the interactions between technology and our daily lives, describes the image as, "a gynoid robot with hollow eyes" and noted that, "A black cleaning robot featured on the cover of a US academic journal would cause an uproar."

The reaction to Sputniko!'s comments on Twitter was highly abusive from some, and the anger generated by her criticism suggests that the image does indeed touch on issues of patriarchy and privilege, as well as providing yet more evidence, if any were needed, of the rage with which many people respond to statements that make them question why they are attracted to things that they like. Japan not being a nation that tends to equip its people well for such deconstruction of the semiotics of art and pop cultural images, many people here have responded with bafflement that something so self-evidently cute could ever be a bad thing, and it's hard to say whether that makes the issue less or more of a problem.

Another aspect of context is that the illustration appeared in the context of an academic journal, and it's clear that lots of the criticism from within academic circles has centred not on the gender issues so much as the appropriateness of using a comicbook style illustration on what is supposed to be a serious magazine. It's depressing in a way that even criticism of the work has to come from another side of Japanese conservatism, but in any case, it's important to note what other factors are in play. The poppification of science and academia includes a whole world of discussion all by itself.

So the illustration is an interesting one that I think successfully fills its remit of depicting an issue at the core of AI research and development in an attractive if rather limited way. It does have problematic gender issues though, which are issues inherent in manga and anime culture and reveal a wider problem in the way gender stereotypes are enforced through repetition in aspects of the media, leading to their unquestioning acceptance by many, including perhaps by the artist herself. The fact that the miniature storm over its publication happened at all is really reflective of the problems caused when otaku-dominated images (with their raft of moé signifiers) collide with a world from outside their closed circle of signs and signifiers.

Ikumi Yoshimatsu, talent agency "stalking" and women's rights


One of the big Japan stories in the English language media lately has been the case of Ikumi Yoshimatsu, the beauty queen who has taken the rare step of going public about a campaign of intimidation by Genichi Taniguchi, an executive of the talent agency K-Dash after she chose not to sign up with his company. Investigative journalist Jake Adelstein summarises the story very nicely here, but the specific complaints are detailed by Yoshimatsu as:

“Today I filed criminal charges against Genichi Taniguchi, a Japanese talent agency executive, who in December of last year grabbed me, forced his way into my dressing room and tried to abduct me. Since then, he has intimidated my family, sent private detectives to my home, tried to extort money from me and my company, slandered me in the press and has made threatening calls to my family, sponsors and business associates.”

Typically with these kinds of stories, the Japanese media has afforded it zero coverage. The main reason for that is that K-Dash is affiliated with the all-powerful talent agency octopus Burning Production, a company widely understood as an affiliate of the Yamaguchi-gumi yakuza syndicate and detailed as such in leaked police documents. News media in Japan rarely ever deals with scandals involving powerful talent agencies like Burning or Johnny & Associates for fear of being blacklisted from access to the bankable stars those agencies control.

Nevertheless, it's been reported widely in English language media, and Yoshimatsu herself has established a petition on change.org urging the Japanese government to revise the law to provide better protection for women against such harassment.

It's interesting that so much of the coverage, including the way Yoshimatsu herself frames the issue, centres around the idea of stalking and crimes against women.

Now the image we usually associate with stalking is of the lone weirdo harassing a woman he has a romantic obsession with, which is obviously a very different sort of case to the Taniguchi/Yoshimatsu case. The most obvious issue here is of the gangsterish business practices of the thugs who run still heavily yakuza-influenced talent agency system and the way the rest of the entertainment industry kowtows to them, collaborating in the blacklisting of performers who step out of line. This informal blacklisting can be seen in the way the female singer Ami Suzuki and the male rock band Glay were effectively erased from the entertainment world in the early 2000s after breaking from their former management companies, so it's not a practice that exclusively targets women.

However, there are I think good reasons why this way of framing Yoshimatsu's case makes sense.

Firstly, the international media has no context by which it can relate to the ins and outs of the Japanese entertainment industry. Readers would get that it's unfair, but it doesn't touch them and their lives. The issue of crimes against women is far more effective as an emotional hook to reel people into the story and give them a way of relating it to their own lives and experiences. Given the supine Japanese media's willful blindness to the thuggish, bullying behaviour of talent agencies, using foreign language media to shame the establishment into enforcing changes is an alternative way of putting the case (albeit one that I think overestimates the capacity of the Japanese media and entertainment worlds to experience shame) and one which is most effectively done by framing it in a way that international readers will best be able to relate to.

Secondly, there is a problem in Japan of inadequate protection of women from stalking and harassment, and relating this potentially high profile story to that issue both gives it more immediacy and also could do a lot of good by way of provoking much needed action. The case of Rie Miyoshi, stabbed to death by her ex-boyfriend Hideto Kozutsumi in 2011 after the police refused to accept that a thousand threatening emails could constitute stalking is a particularly horrific example of the feeble levels of protection offered to women. Even if Yoshimatsu's case is clearly being driven by a different set of circumstances, relating it to the issue of protection of women could be a more effective way of getting action and might result in an outcome that would benefit not only Yoshimatsu herself but many other women throughout Japan.

Lastly, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, despite being an evil warmongering, proto-fascist piece of shit, has officially at least stated publicly that improving women's position in society is a priority to him. His wife, Akie Abe, has come out in Yoshimatsu's support, so it makes sense that if any action is going to occur, pushing the women's rights angle again seems like the most effective course of action.

The truth is that yakuza involvement in the entertainment industry is simply an issue too few people care about, and the talent agencies' hold over public discourse is too great for any headway on that angle to be possible. As an entertainment journalist, and as a human being who hates thugs and bullies, that is a source of much frustration to me, but on this at least, Ikumi Yoshimatsu appears to be a smart operator, so good luck to her and let's hope she makes progress where so many others have failed.

Monday, 13 May 2013

Context is not a myth: Stewart Lee's "Carpet Remnant World", Tim Maughan's "Havana Augmented" and notions of society


I've been talking a lot recently about the values that writers impose on the stories they tell and what effect that has on the story, and I realise that part of my obsession with this idea comes not from narrative fiction but from stand-up comedy. Exploring the notion of idealised societies and how we behave in collective groups is a theme that runs through Stewart Lee's Carpet Remnant World, a two hour comedy routine in which Lee, in character, attempts to tackle a serious issue but serially fails to develop the idea in a coherent way because he's constantly being distracted by the day to day problems of touring and looking after a small child (no clips, you need to watch the whole thing for it to make any sense at all).

But idealised notions of society are what writers in the realm of speculative fiction are all dealing with. What makes these visions utopian or dystopian is how humans collectively behave within those societies. In Carpet Remnant World, Lee gives us a few examples taken from the news, juxtaposing the hysterical, vengeance-fuelled celebrations of some Americans on the death of Osama Bin Laden with some observations on the religious rules of islamic societies. He roves around British prime minister David Cameron's idea of the "big society", the degeneration of the postwar social fabric under Thatcher (via the framing devide of an imaginary Scooby Doo movie), the shifting nature of development and regeneration of urban spaces, the effects of social media, in particular Twitter, and then finally, the more fantastical and abstract ideas represented by the titular "Carpet Remnant World". Within a lot of this are the questions what does this society or social structure stand for, and what does our behaviour within that social space say about us and how well we uphold those supposed values?

The problem with some of these films and stories like 300 and King Arthur that I've been talking about recently is that the values are pasted on, out of context and there is an internal contradiction between the stated values (i.e. freedom) and the behaviour we're actually presented with (often despotic) when a more interesting story would be to look at what you actually have and show us a bit about why those people are willing to fight for it.

A good example of a story that grapples with this is the story Havana Augmented by British writer Tim Maughan. The story is set in a Cuba that is even more than now a socialist island in a sea of free market capitalism. Freedom is still an issue here, as it is in the two other stories that accompany it in the Paintwork collection, but the implications of that freedom are more clearly explored. The kind of freedom Maughan is interested in manifests itself in the ownership of public space, something the kids in Havana Augmented engage with with their AR robot street battle games (and which the characters of Paintwork deal with via street art -- the other story, Paparazzi, looks at the romanticisation of medieval fantasy and reminds the reader of whose backs the freedoms of the privileged few are built on). Rather than simply being a battle against the communist establishment for the kids' right to, y'know, have fun'n'that, Maughan instead looks at how commercial entities exploit kids like his heroes in ways that are damaging to the wider fabric of society. Crucially, the protagonists of Havana Augmented reach the culmination of their arc not by embracing some nebulous notion of freedom, but by thinking in tune with their environment -- not just by their local knowledge of the battlefield, but by thinking like Cubans, protecting their shared values against an invading ideology that comes wrapped in the flag of liberty but promises only a new kind of subjugation.

In a larger and less benign scale, Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl pulls off a similar trick of getting int the mindset of a different culture and making decisions they make that run contrary to our own established way of thinking seem internally consistent and understandable. Having the larger canvas of a full novel to work with, he's able to draw more fully on the environmental and political world in which his characters live in order to sculpt their actions and reactions.

As I've said before, it's thrilling to be able to read something and see a person act in a completely alien way to your own way of thinking, yet at the same time have that decision completely logical. Speculative fiction is all about this kind of thing, but you see it just as much in contemporary drama that deals with cultures that you are unfamiliar with. The Wire is an excellent drama for a number of reasons, but one of them is that it presents you with characters behaving in horrendous ways but every one of them is scrupulously logical, and more often than not, David Simon & co. have a parallel example of the same logic in play in a different, perhaps more familiar arena. The viewer is never let off the hook.

Where foreign drama doesn't work, something similar is often at play. I often found myself baffled by the behaviour of characters in the Hong Kong films I used to watch as a teenager, because they were acting according to Chinese cultural conventions that had no traction in the West. Chinese audiences were clearly expected to understand this as natural, but the film gave me no context to understand it. The scriptwriter wasn't making allowances for outsiders, and looking back, this made me doubly conscious of the way American films presuppose American values without giving them context, especially given that American cultural products are made with the expectation of international consumption (something Asian works often aren't). Waving the word "freedom" in people's faces without giving them an idea of what that freedom is meant to mean is just as nonsensical as waving Japan-centric notions like honne & tatemae in someone's face and expecting them to get it immediately.

It's not impossible though. All cultures understand freedom, although they might have different notions of what it means, and the contrast between one's true feelings and the face you wear in public is far from unique to Japan. Cultural notions are often slippery, but there are usually ways into them if contextualised sensitively.

This idea of sensitivity is one that Stewart Lee returns to at the end of Carpet Remnant World. Given that he has spent the whole of his two hour show deliberately sabotaging his own attempts to discuss the concepts of idealised societies, he indirectly (and probably unintentionally -- Lee would perhaps shy away from such a trite observation) makes the point that all societies are imperfect, and his failure to discuss it in a coherent way is simply an echo of that. Against a utopian cityscape composed of rolled carpets of varying sizes, he delivers the line: "a ragbag of seemingly disparate and unrelated items, people, concepts, things, can, if stitched together in the correct order with an degree of sensitivity, give the impression of being a satisfying whole." And in a way, what Lee has done with his comedy show is the same as what a good speculative fiction writer would do. He's taken no concept for granted, he's broken down every idea into its constituent parts and left you with no room for lazy assumptions, and at the same time, by showing us the "Carpet Remnant World" in which his character lives, he's made sure that this arrogant, neurotic comedian living in fear of his own death (or worse, irrelevance) now not only makes sense to us but commands our sympathy.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

King Arthur, 300, and freedom


Last night I watched two terrible films that were both interesting in a similar way. Zack Snyder's adaptation of popular reactionary bigot Frank Miller's comic book 300 was an objectively horrible film, but managed to turn out the better of the two by virtue of its sheer stylised, exaggerated grotesqueness and audacity. The trees made of dead bodies, the utterly ridiculous depiction of Persian emperor Xerxes as a towering, growly voiced, extravagantly pierced monster, the way the Spartan soldiers insist on doing all their fighting in their pants, the better to show off their immaculately sculpted pecs, all these aspects place the film in a realm beyond any need for even the illusion of reality. The claustrophobic chromakey backdrops and humourless, pretentious, childish dialogue are no better for being in such a context, but at least they have a context. They fit into some sort of overarching framework of poor artistic decisions and are piece with the flawed whole.

What's interesting about 300 is the way the conflict is constantly pitched as one between freedom and tyranny, with King Leonidas and the Spartans depicted as defenders of liberty and Xerxes and the Persians as dusky invaders. However, loudly and frequently as the Spartans may claim freedom as their goal, the image of freedom Frank Miller creates looks suspiciously like fascism. The Spartans are a military people, with the structure of the army the only social unit depicted as pure. The political machinations of democracy or something like it (Sparta was an oligarchy, strictly speaking) in the form of Dominic "Detective McNulty" West's Theron, a character absent from Miller's original comic, is shown as irreparably corrupt, in a way that only the swift justice of the blade can cleanse. In many ways, the Sparta of 300 is very similar to the militaristic world of Starship Troopers, with citizenship conferred as a reward for military service and women taking a more active role in society. However, where a master satirist like Paul Verhoeven was able to turn Robert Heinlein's moral world on its head, a screen stylist like Zack Snyder can only polish Miller's essentially fascist tale into a shinier, more crystalline form of its own fascism.

This is where Frank Miller probably deserves to be given a bit of leeway, because while he's clearly a reactionary bigot, he's not an outright nazi. He's aware of the contradiction between the fascism inherent in Spartan society and the notion (advanced by Diodorus) that they were defending freedom, and like any good writer, he finds that contradiction interesting. Unfortunately, while Frank Miller is an excellent artist, he isn't a good writer. He's a little boy whose love of bold moral generalisations and heroic posturing overwhelms his ability to explore moral ambiguities, and the movie production only simplifies it further.

The 2004 film King Arthur comes from the stable of producer Jerry Bruckheimer, a man whose cinematic oeuvre has never knowingly overcomplicated an idea where slam-the-audience-in-the-face-with-an-iron simplicity is an available option, and like 300, it's a horrible film with something strangely out of place to say about freedom.

Again there's an appalling script, which serves to undermine the efforts of most of the cast -- Clive Owen as Arthur is particularly hamstrung by the quality of the lines he's expected to deliver, although Stellan Skarsgard as the psychotic, racist leader of the Saxon invaders steals the film. The infantile script does serve one function though, which is that also like 300, it underlines the simplistic message of freedom that the film wants to push. In fact, even more so than 300, it underlines the message, scratches it out in bold and highlights it in fluorescent marker pen. Arthur's men are fighting for their own freedom from their indenture to the Roman army, and as the film progresses, Arthur comes to see his fight as one for the freedom of all Britons from both the departing Roman occupiers and the invading Saxon hordes.

Another similarity with 300 is the depiction of Kiera Knightley's Guinevere, like Lena Headey's Queen Gorgo, as a strong, active woman, willing to fight for her land. In Hollywood nowadays, women can't be damsels in distress, and the Celts and Picts seem to have had their fair share of warrior queens from which her role could be mined. In fact, the historical accuracy of the story is one point where King Arthur gives a fair shake. The setting of the story around Hadrian's Wall may not have been accurate -- the location of the Battle of Badon Hill is unknown and has been identified with anywhere from Scotland to Bath -- but the general situation described by the film, featuring conflict between Romano-Celts, Picts and Saxons is more or less as it happened, and if any Arthur figure ever really did exist, it's in this world that he probably would have lived.

Also, here, as in 300, the notion of freedom is delivered directly through the dialogue, as if speaking directly to the audience, without context, and without any notion of what this freedom actually entails. Arthur is a soldier of an occupying military power, and his devotion to the teachings of Pelagius aside, the Roman Empire was hardly an upstanding model of freedom (a point, to be fair, that the film tries to make further down the line, but it's nevertheless hard to imagine how Arthur could be surprised by this revelation). The Saxons are defeated and Arthur, a military commander, is simply declared king of the Britons, so what is this freedom that is being spoken of? Freedom to be ruled by one king rather than another? What King Arthur is really about is nationalism, another relatively modern idea that the filmmakers have decided to pin on the Arthur legend.

In both films, there's something terribly jarring about hearing the language of Western notions of freedom in the mouths of people who would likely have seen those notions in very different terms, if they had understood them at all. The way that both films are so direct in how they articulate these ideas of freedom and liberty is also interesting. The contemporary Western concept of liberty is delivered as something so natural to these people that no possible disagreement is even considered except from the mouths of tyrants. It seems like a neurotic response from Hollywood to the shaken certainties post-9/11 of America's role as a beacon of liberty, or maybe the malaise goes back even further, to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the loss of the tyrannical "evil empire" of the Soviet Union for America to define itself against. In either case, it's hard to see a Hollywood film of the 1950s delivering such a stern lecture on freedom to its viewers. Epics like Spartacus, Ben Hur and El Cid (I nearly added the explicitly propagandist 1944 Henry V to this list, although it benefitted from having a scriptwriter of rather higher calibre) all dealt with similar conflicts, but didn't feel the same need to shout their message into the audience's faces. For all its historical inaccuracies, Hollywood used to know how to have fun.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Abenomics and the nuclear debate


When the nuclear power plant in Fukushima started to go into meltdown after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, something strange started to happen to people. Men and women who had never before in their life thought about nuclear power except in the wooliest of terms (and I count myself among them) suddenly became experts, scouring the news media, Wikipedia, and whatever they could find on Google for information, and words like microsievert, bequerel and caesium 137 entered the daily vocabulary of millions of people looking for something to explain the crisis, reassure them, or simply justify their reaction.

It didn't really help though, and rather than illuminating the discourse, these words, facts, and often non-facts, became weapons in a dispute between people whose positions as proponents or opponents of nuclear power were already fixed. Here in Japan, it took on a more personal dimension, as a person's fear or faith became an identifying mark, a litmus test providing a window into a person's moral character, science as a set of dueling swords to be wielded in support of the most emotional, unscientific motivations.

And with the recently elected Liberal Democratic Party's economic policy, we're seeing a similar, if less widespread thing. Like the nuclear crisis, the post-2008 global economic crisis has started to make experts of all sorts of people for similar reasons, as they seek explanation or just to bolster their emotional prejudices. It may not be as dramatic as a nuclear meltdown, but terms like quantitative easing, expansionary austerity, and liquidity trap, with which few people pre-crisis would have had more than a passing familiarity, became far more commonplace.

In Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's sweeping changes to the nation's economic policy, encapsulated in the ugly and misleading compound term "Abenomics" have acted as a lightning rod for comment in a similar way to the nuclear crisis. An article from Reuters on April 29th collected a number of criticisms, ranging from the wise-sounding but ultimately meaningless statement that "there are no simple solutions or shortcuts" to the utterly bizarre remarks by former finance minister Kaoru Yosano that, "Since ancient Greece and Rome, most policies that excited people ended in failure. The fact that people are pleased and in a festive mood seems to prove this policy won't work."

One of the catchiest soundbites to come out of the article was Yuuki Sakurai of Fukoku Capital Management's claim that Bank of Japan policy was like "shooting a sparrow with a cannon." It's a nice image, and again it sounds wise, although comparing an economic slump now more than twenty years long with a sparrow might seem to some to rather underestimate the scale of the actions required to deal with Japan's economic woes. In a way though, as with the nuclear power argument, its the debate over Abenomics that is what's really trying to hit a sparrow with a cannon.

There are apparently some claiming that it's the magic bullet to solve all Japan's economic problems (I have yet to see any evidence that this is anything other than a straw man used by critics, although it's probably fair to say that within the LDP, there will be party shills willing to parrot this line) and there are certainly many who seem implacably opposed to Abenomics in its entirety, and its within these arguments that the scalpel rather than the cannon needs to be employed.

First, what does Abenomics promise? Well, primarily, it seems to be a plan by the bank of Japan to target higher inflation rates and expand the monetary base, combined with promises of greater public investment. In theory, and economists like Martin Wolf at The Financial Times and Paul Krugman at The New York Times have been calling for policies like these for a long time, this combination of higher inflation and greater public investment, if sustained credibly, should be able to stimulate demand put the economy back on a growth track without resulting in catastrophic hyperinflation or Greece-style debt disaster. There's nothing intrinsically new in it, since the policies basically conform to the Keynsian IS-LM economic model that has been a pretty accurate predictor of economic events since the crisis (and this is why I say "Abenomics" is a misnomer), but it's certainly a big step by a major economy in the current climate.

So what doesn't it promise? Well, for a start, inflation targeting can only work if investors trust the Bank of Japan to continue its expansionary monetary policy until growth is well underway, something previous BOJ chairmen have consistently failed to do. Despite current chairman Kuroda's insistence that he will do what takes, it might fail if people simply don't believe him. Also, the policy has nothing to say about how the fiscal stimulus will be targeted. It's widely suspected that Abe's government will use it like a bribe to bolster their position in key electoral areas, and to put money in the pockets of their friends. In macroeconomic terms, this shouldn't matter to the overall economy, but individually, region by region, worker by worker, this is important. Also, there are issues like the increase in sales tax, which may stimulate consumption in the short run, but which is a regressive tax that will hurt the poor more than the well-off. And then there's the vague sounding promises of "structural reform," which is so often a buzzword for relaxing environmental regulations and limiting employment rights, especially in view of the recent praise Abe has heaped on Margaret Thatcher.

Abenomics also has nothing to say on the biggest problem facing Japan's economy, namely the growing shortage of Japanese. Without a sudden boost to the birthrate (not going to happen) or a more relaxed attitude to immigration, the Japanese economy is on a long term relative downward trend. More can be done to maximise the participation of women in the workplace, something that all parties claim to support, but concrete action on which is rarely forthcoming, but in the end, immigration is the elephant in the room.

Just as the nuclear debate turned into a binary for or against slanging match, leading to important discussions of the extent and enforcement of safety regulations, the unhealthy way energy companies, government and media are intertwined, and Japan's commitment to the longer term fight against global warming being lost, discussion of Abenomics is so often depressingly black and white, obscuring the real issues surrounding its execution and longer term economic policy.

Monday, 29 April 2013

A guide to Akihabara

I wrote an article for MTV 81 about Akihabara the other week and you can check it out here. It's not an exhaustive investigation since it's really aimed just at new visitors, and it's not really a critical analysis in any way since it's written for MTV, but it might be useful to some people. I'm hoping to make it part of a longer series of articles about the local scenes of various other parts of Tokyo, with pieces to follow on places like Harajuku, Shibuya, Shinjuku, Koenji and Shimokitazawa.

Also, if you want an alternative to the focus on Akihabara, this fine piece by Colony Drop's own Sean O'Mara for Otaku USA is a super introduction to rival otaku culture spot Nakano Broadway.