Friday 13 April 2012

Past Future Present Tense

In some fields Japan is years ahead of the rest of the world
Gina Calver/Alamy

Another article about Japan in the Guardian (well, Observer). Another opportunity for a collective facepalm by any and all of us who know anything at all about the country.

I know this is a little after the fact. I’m never going to win any prizes for topicality or punctuality, but I don’t want to take issue with the contents of the article itself. If you’re reading this, as opposed to the Guardian comments section, you probably know why it’s all kinds of wrong. Picking it apart further is getting dangerously close to ‘fish in a barrel’ territory.

What I’m really interested in is the picture they used to illustrate the article (right at the top here, with original caption). This will have been chosen and captioned by a picture editor, so it’s unfair to take the writer to task for it.

The first thing to say is that at least they’re getting their money’s worth out of it. Much like this picture of a woman using an ipad. Which I guess is to be applauded in these straitened economic times. Obviously the shinkansen picture is hideously clichéd, but even that’s not really what I’m interested in, either. It’s the caption –

“In some fields Japan is years ahead of the rest of the world”

Oh, really? And you thought this picture was a good illustration of that, did you? Two-storey high neon billboards are futuristic are they? If it’s good enough for Ridley Scott, then it’s good enough for the Guardian picture desk.

Trouble is, Blade Runner was released in 1982. That was thirty years ago. Thirty Years. And we’re still apparently stuck with the image of Dotonbori and Nihonbashi as the apex of futurity. Look at those signs, they’re doing nothing more than visually screaming a company’s name at you. It’s like the last few decades of consumer research haven’t happened. Even Don Draper would have found those signs a little unsubtle and outmoded.

Of course, that not to say the picture is necessarily an inaccurate view of Japan. The demographics of the country mean that there’s significantly more profit for advertisers in pitching their stuff at older age groups, and maybe those age groups are more responsive to these, shall we say, ‘traditional’ adverts.

My initial reaction was that chasing the Grey Yen wasn’t exactly gunning for the future. On reflection though, given the way the First World is aging, maybe that’s exactly what the future will hold. Maybe that’s what whoever wrote the caption was trying to convey, Japan’s role as the trailblazer, leading the rest of the world fearlessly into stage 5 of the Demographic Transition Model. But maybe not.

They're called population pyramids for a reason

Given the article is supposed to be about economics/hawking Will Hutton’s books, a small aside. That’s the Fujiya building in Ginza in the background. In the full shot you can see a Canon billboard atop a building they pulled down in 2007, the same year Fujiya had to flog their building in the wake of a scandal involving using dodgy ingredients in their products. Something for Mr Hutton to think about when extolling the Japanese ‘passion for satiating every imaginable human want.’

Every imaginable human want

I hope the economics hasn’t bored you, because now I’m gearing up for a full-on literal trainspotter nerd out. Hold on to your pocket protectors.

The first shinkansen line was opened in 1964. Forty-eight years ago. How the fuck can something half a century old still be ‘years ahead of the world’? You know what else was introduced to the world in 1964? Audio cassettes. Fucking audio cassettes. That’s how ‘futuristic’ the bullet train is.

Obviously there have been advances since then, but here’s where the fun really starts. Bullet train rolling stock doesn’t look like that now. Most trains have pointed, not snub noses (told you this was a full on nerd out). Chances are, this is a Zero Series. As the name suggests, this was the original series when the shinkansen was launched. While they were only withdrawn from service a few years back, the last new one was built in 1986. Rick Deckard would have felt right at home.

My preferred theory, though, is this: as far as I can tell, the train in that picture is really one of the Class 951 trains. It gets better, because the Class 951 were experimental prototypes which were retired from service in…

Wait for it…

Which were retired from service in 1973.

This picture’s four decades old (maybe). This picture was taken (perhaps) when Watergate was being investigated and Bobby Riggs and Billy Jean King were playing tennis. This picture (somehow) fails capture the shock of the new.

All aboard the Progress Express

Even if I’m wrong about the type of train, this picture still specifically illustrates two facets of Japan which have remained fundamentally unchanged for decades. That's not really cutting it as a ‘world leader’. The caption should read -

“In some fields Japan is years ahead of the rest of the world,
but not the two pictured here”

Or maybe -

"In some fields Japan was years ahead of the rest of the world."

I’ve previously talked about the disconnect caused by reading SF novels set in the near future written in the recent past. I shouldn’t have worried, because for large portions of The West: Japan=The Future. Apparently as far as Japan is concerned, the ‘near future’ has looked exactly the same for longer than I've been alive.

And here's the thing - the picture's still fine. The billboards are still there. The trains are still there. You'd only notice the difference if you were a petty, pedantic, anal little man with with an unhealthy interest in marginalia. Japan, decades into everyone's future, still looks and feels exactly the same. But it's still futuristic, because it's Japan.

It’s not just the past that's a foreign country.


  1. And doesn't Korea have a faster train than Japan nowadays?

  2. The Blade Runner tie in is epic in perfection. It is what was. It not now.

    The party is over and no one told the host that everyone stole his shit while he was passed out. Am American stole his music player..a Korean stole his flat panel and various other foreigners are picking away at what's left.

    When you read what passes the eyes of some editors it blows the mind. A lot of smart folks with diplomas and majors in economics are high on drugs or something? is going on?

    1. What's going on with economists having no clue about the real world? I think you may just have answered your own question there.

      The party metaphor is very apt. I like this one, too -

    2. I commented on that post. I liked that writer. Great blog title too.

    3. So you did. It's been months since I read it, but I loved the ex-girlfriend angle. Just perfect.

      That's the trouble with blogs that normally have very large gaps between posts, you're never sure if they're dead or just resting. I think this one's done though, unfortunately.

  3. I think your suggested captions are marvelous (even though I've never really lived in the Japan that is advertised to the world as 'new' or 'futuristic'). Outside the bubble of what may have been futuristic once upon a time is a land that time has been too lazy to remember. Ignored, rusty, corrugated iron shacks, dwellings without insulation in the sub-zero wonderlands, sake induced halitosis, dried squid, and... no, never mind. In a way, I'm kind of happy to know that there might actually have been a place that was state-of-the-art, all robotic-like, and all that. And, maybe, there are a few places that kind of are. But not where I am.

    1. I remember the first time I was in Shinjuku, and there were so many neon billboards that the night felt like day. That was impressive. It was also a decade ago.

      It's easy (and justified) to pick holes in the image Japan has in the West. What really amazes me though is how the West's idea of what the future should look like apparently hasn't changed in decades. We were promised jet-packs! Where's my jet-pack?

  4. I'm going to have to out-nerd you here on the photo date, 'cos the train clearly has a JR logo, which places it at sometime between 1987 and 2008 (the year Wikipedia lists for the withdrawal of that type of "classical" bullet train) and the NEC logo on one of the buildings was replaced in 1992, so it's merely 20 ~ 25 years out of date.

    Still, better than a photo of a geisha toting a 1990's mobile, representing the contrast between tradition and modernity in high-tech Japan, blah blah. Now, when is someone coming round to put decent double-glazed windows in my apartment?

    1. Good job I equivocated at the end there, eh? It doesn't matter how big, or tough, or nerdy you are, there's always someone bigger, tougher, or nerdier. That's just the way it is.

      "better than a photo of a geisha toting a 1990's mobile"

      Absolutely. Think I found hit the mother-lode for the post I put up yesterday though. No geisha, but it ticks all the other cliche boxes.