Friday, 25 June 2010

Railway Etiquette and the Lighter Side of Virtual Dating

An article I wrote was published today in Tokyo-based English magazine Metropolis on the subject of the DS dating simulation game phenomenon that is Loveplus, or more accurately Loveplus+, in view of the latter's release tomorrow.

Read that?

OK, now first up, Metropolis' "Pop Life" column isn't the kind of place that encourages long, rambling discourses on sociological and postmodernist topics, but some of the stuff that came up in this article touched on one of my pet issues, and I think intersects interestingly with some aspects of modern Japanese life.

In his 1997 book The Plague of Fantasies, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek says:

The need for the phantasmic support of the public symbolic order (materialized in the so-called unwritten rules) thus bears witness to the system's vulnerability: the system is compelled to allow for possibilities of choices which must never actually take place, since their occurrence would cause the system to disintegrate, and the function of the unwritten rules is precisely to prevent the actualization of these choices formally allowed by the system. In the Soviet Union of the 1930s and 1940s -- to take the most extreme example -- it was not only forbidden to criticize Stalin, it was perhaps even more forbidden to announce this very prohibition: to state publically that it was forbidden to criticize Stalin. The system needed to maintain the appearance that one was allowed to criticize Stalin, the appearance that the absence of criticism [...] simply demonstrated that Stalin was effectively the best and (almost) always right.
In other words, it is the peeling back of the facade, by revealing the true process that underlies the lie, even though we all know it to be a lie, that is the crime.

What has a piece of Nintendo dating simulation software got to do with Josef Stalin, one might well ask? Let's think about these "unwritten rules" here.

Every culture has its unwritten rules; they are the foundation stones of what makes our society function. An example most of us have experienced at some point is the dilemma of what to do when offered a free meal. If someone offers to pay your half of the bill, you must make a quick calculation as to whether this is an occasion where you are to insist on paying your share, or one where you must merely make a show of insisting before relenting; the option to accept right off the bat, applies only to certain people in certain relationships, and you must be aware of these rules (these unwritten rules) in order to function smoothly in this situation.

In Japan, many of these unwritten rules are breaking.

The Tokyo Metro has been running a series of advertisements in its stations to educate passengers on the finer points of train etiquette. To an outsider, these "Please Do it at Home" posters probably seem like a mixture of common sense and outright weirdness, but there are some key signifiers that tell us what they are about.

Firstly there is the recurring character of the gentle, unfairly harassed old man who is the victim of all this bad behaviour. Secondly, the perpetrators of most (although not all) of these crimes are young people. Generally speaking, I think it's fair to say that there is a generation gap on display here. Young people either do not know, or simply disregard the unwritten rules.

Yet by producing these posters, hasn't Eidan Line themselves done damage to the system? By writing down the rules, the rules are no longer unwritten. By displaying the rules, they actually reveal more clearly the breakdown of the system, and by showing up the generation gap, they accentuate the differences.

One clear early memory of my early time in Japan is of an older middle-aged student that I was teaching telling me, "The good thing about a homogeneous society like Japan is that you can sit on a train and look at the person opposite you, knowing that they're thinking the same way as you." There was a great deal of comfort to be found in knowing that society shares the same values and rules. Now, how does he feel stepping into the Metro and seeing those posters? Perhaps he is comforted, but not in the same way as before. The poster comforts him by saying, "While the people opposite you may no longer think the same way as you, be assured that the system is on your side of the cultural division."

A more recent discussion I have had, this time with a group of middle-aged women, centred around the phenomenon of young women doing their makeup on the train, and this is where it gets really interesting for me.

Now as a man, and a foreign one at that, this is something I had never previously cared about, and the way the Eidan Line posters complained about it baffled me. How does a women doing her makeup harm anyone? Who cares? Sometimes I worried that a sudden jolt might send a line of mascara skew whiff, but that seemed to me a matter for the girl to deal with. Nevertheless, these three women were horrified by the trend towards girls doing this in public. To them, the act of showing oneself doing one's makeup on the train was equivalent to getting dressed in public. Viewing the process of transformation was what disgusted them. You may wear makeup -- and Japan is a culture that practically demands that its women spend a fortune on the stuff -- but you may not show yourself applying the makeup.

Perhaps significantly, or perhaps by happy coincidence, the Japanese term for "making up" literally means "changing" or "transforming" oneself, which brings us back to Stalin: by revealing the process, you shatter the illusion, and even though everyone knows it is an illusion, it is necessary for society to maintain the pretence of not knowing; to peel back the facade is forbidden.

This is where the real division between generations lies, and the crux of the matter comes in Japan's transformation into a postmodern society. The truth of these girls on the train is that they don't care about the illusion. The makeup is accepted on its own terms, not as a way of tricking people into thinking they are more beautiful; similarly, the elaborate art girls plaster onto their nails has no purpose in creating the illusion of beautiful nails: it is the art itself that they wish to display as beautiful.

Now, finally, let's return to Loveplus. A well worn theme when dealing with otaku culture is the division between reality and make-believe, and a well-worn criticism of otaku themselves is that they become unable to distinguish between the two. Reporting on Loveplus often focussed on the blurring of reality and fantasy, but what I would contend is happening here is very similar to the girls on the trains. The issue of whether the girls in Loveplus are fake or real is irrelevant; the chap I interviewed for the Metropolis piece, Endo-san, is an intelligent person and it's very clear from talking to him that his interest in 2D girls is made with full awareness of what distinguishes them from real women, simply that he accepts the distinctions on their own terms, and actually prefers 2D ones. Perhaps the real controversy with games like Loveplus is not that they blur distinctions between reality and fantasy (this has been the purpose of art since for ever), but that they reveal how easy it is for fantasy to substitute for reality, and that they ask questions of reality that it cannot answer except by reflexively replying "but I am real!" The game's reply to that is simply, "I know I'm not real love, but I argue that I am an improvement on reality. I am not love, I am Love Plus."

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