Monday, January 30, 2006

The Lords of J-pop

I followed J-pop quite a bit when I was in college, but I don't listen to it as much these days. I was a big fan of Tetsuya Komuro and his assorted acts (Globe, TRF, Tomomi Kahala, Ami Suzuki, Namie Amuro, and TMN, just to name a few) when they were still at the top of the charts. TK, as he is known, pioneered a style in Japan that blended European techno/dance music with traditional pop sentimentality. He was enormously successful, but didn't adapt well to the changing times, faltering when R&B sounds became popular in the late 90s, and being upstaged by Tsunku's Hello!Project, whose appeal was brilliantly manufactured to resonate with consumers in post-Bubble Japan.

The article linked to below is from the Guardian Unlimited (August 2005; a bit old, but still interesting if you haven't read it). It talks about Hello!Project's success, its fanbase, and Tsunku, the man behind it all. The article also discusses the enigmatic Johnny Kitagawa, the man behind SMAP and so many other boy bands. Kitagawa has been a major player on the J-pop scene since the 60s.

Article: J-Pop's dream factory

Here's an article on TK from many years back that James wrote:

Tetsuya Komuro: The Phenomenon of the J-pop Mega-Hit Writer/Producer/Composer

When will the next king or queen of J-pop emerge, I wonder?

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Bidding to lose: ethical or not?

Have you ever gone onto ebay and placed a bid on something that you didn't actually want to win? Before you cry out "shill bidding!" let me explain. According to ebay, shill bidding "is bidding that artificially increases an item's price or apparent desirability, or bidding by individuals with a level of access to the seller's item information not available to the general Community." Clearly, based on the second part of the definition, shill bidding is unethical and ebay rightly disallows it. But what about the first part of the definition? What does ebay mean by "artificial"?

Consider the following scenario: a bidder sees an item and bids on it to raise the price of the item, but he does not really want to win it. Yet, the bidder agrees to the fact that his bid is binding and will not retract it, so if he happens to wins the auction, then he will buy the item. In other words, it's a gamble on the part of the bidder.

Why would this ever happen? Well, some people own items that they feel are worth a certain amount of money. When they see those items being sold on ebay at a very low price with very few people bidding on them, they might feel the desire to bid on the item just to raise the price and spur interest, thereby protecting the value of their own item without actually hoping to win it. Keep in mind, in this scenario, the bidder is not associated with the seller at all, and if he wins the item, he knows he is obligated to pay for it and he will. Such a bidder has the following motivations: 1) He increases the value of things that he feels are deserving, and 2) There's the thrill of very possibly winning the auction by accident.

Is this unethical, "artificial", another form of shill bidding? Looking through ebay's policies, I can't find anything that explicitly says it's not allowed. Is there even a term for this type of bidding ("ebay roulette" is the closest I could find)? I imagine that people might do this on auctions for items they themselves want to sell later, so that demand for those items will be kept sufficiently high.

When I mentioned this to a friend, he found the very idea of it to be abhorrent. Is it? Usually, when discussing ethical issues, we talk about who is being harmed. Clearly, the seller is not being harmed in this scenario. The bidder is not harming himself beyond the situation he has willingly placed himself in. Other bidders might be harmed in the sense that they aren't able to get a great bargain anymore, but it's debatable whether or not that was their right to begin with. I think the crux of the issue is whether or not the bidder who doesn't want to win is bidding in good faith. On one hand, he is bidding in good faith, because he will accept the final outcome even if it's not in his favor. He is not in contact with the seller in any special way, and he has no idea what other people are bidding. On the other hand, it is generally understood that people bid in order to win, not just to raise the price of an item. Does this practice violate a basic social contract? Does it undermine the trust necessary to maintain an auction community?

What do you think? Is this practice unethical? Should it be discouraged? Do you have any experience in this matter? If you've done this before or consider yourself a victim and want to share your story, I'd love to hear about it. Feel free to comment anonymously if you want.

Do you know Akiba-kei?

Taking a break from yesterday's long post, here's a quick and fun followup.

Two guys, Rahman and Jeshii, have created their own weekly show called "Yamato Damacy" where they wander around and talk to people in Japan. In episodes 5 and 6 (dated January 13th and 20th respectively) they are in Akihabara asking people there about 'Akiba-kei' and 'otaku'. I love the range of responses. They really highlight how, even in Japan, the meanings of those terms are not set in stone.

Episode #5, Akihabara, Part 1

Episode #6, Akihabara, Part 2

NPR also recently mentioned otaku culture in its review of Katamari Damacy. The review by John Powers is a bit late, but it's pretty interesting. Amongst other things, he mentions how the game represents otaku sensibilities with its emphasis on collection and cataloging. He also discusses how the game negotiates the tension between apocalyptic imagery and cuteness, which reminds of Takashi Murakami's recent "Little Boy" exhibition in New York which dealt with very similar themes.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The Evolution of the Otaku Concept

It has been over two decades since the word 'otaku' was introduced to the Japanese public, and even longer since science fiction and anime fans in Japan began using that form of address to refer to each other. Nonetheless, debate continues regarding the implications of otaku culture, and opinions regarding the word itself remain widely divergent.

It can be argued that otaku culture in Japan has recently become more mainstream than it ever has been. Citing just one example out of many, Densha Otoko ("Train Man") was a smash hit in 2005. Cashing in on the otaku love story's popularity, Napoleon Dynamite is being marketed in Japan as "Bus Otoko". (If Densha Otoko ever makes it to the US, will people call it a Japanese Napoleon Dynamite?)

I'm one of the people who thinks that understanding the otaku phenomenon will give us new tools and strategies for living (and being empowered) in today's information society. Other writers with similar thinking include Toshio Okada and Mizuko Ito.

Being aware of the positive potential of otaku culture has not blinded me to the rest of the discourse surrounding it, however. I am well aware that there is still a cloud of darkness that hovers over the public perception of otaku.

Very recently, we were reminded of the case that initially soured the mainstream image of otaku. Tsutomu Miyazaki, who kidnapped and murdered four young girls in Japan in the late 80s, was sentenced to death by the Japanese courts, and that sentence was upheld last week by the Japanese supreme court.

The image of the otaku, fairly or not, took a big hit when the Miyazaki case was publicized, but times have changed since then. Since the otaku panic, new social problems and new subcultures emerged to make Japanese adult society really nervous, and otaku have been reclassified as being slightly eccentric but very good for the economy. Overly obsessed with cartoons or not, they spend a lot of money, according to research by the Nomura Research Institute.

Geek culture in the UK has been getting the same kind of attention lately:

"The anorak has gone," says Betts and a "new, more chic geek has emerged from the bedroom."

(In a way, I'm kind of sad he said that. I like my anorak. Given that 'anorak' is probably the closest English equivalent to 'otaku', I had hopes that anoraks would become an international otaku uniform of sorts. Is it too late?)

These days, people are more concerned about hikikomori, which was the topic of a recent article by Maggie Jones of the New York Times. Even if we're not much closer to a solution, we've been aware of the hikikomori problem for several years now, and the subcultural landscape of Japan continues to mutate, giving us social scientists plenty to analyze.

Last week, Journeyman Pictures released a really interesting short segment called "Generation Z" that talked about Japan's latest subcultural trends. Here's the summary from their site:

Japan is at a turning point. As its economy struggles to gain momentum, the young are turning to a myriad of subcultures to express their alienation. "I had no hobby and wanted something I could be absorbed into. And by chance it was wrist cutting", states Kiyomi. She's a member of Goth-Lolita, one of Japan's biggest youth trends. Unable to cope with the real world, many young Japanese are retreating to an imaginary one. "This is my inner brain wife", says Toru Honda, an 'Otaku' or uber-nerd, pointing at a picture of a cartoon. "I've never been treated kindly by real women." He also has virtual sisters, a virtual pet, even a virtual maid. Then there are the NEETS - 'Not in Employment, Education or Training' - a tribe who have lost the will to work and the 'Freeters' who have rejected the corporate rat race.

Obviously, otaku culture is still on the radar as something that is troublesome to the Japanese mainstream, but it's not the same as before. The air of "otaku panic" (as described by Sharon Kinsella) has long since passed. If anything, it seems that Toru Honda, who I have mentioned previously, is intentionally trying to revive the notion of otaku as being dangerous and edgy. Toru Honda is leading the backlash against popular culture's co-optation of otaku subculture. He wants to be perceived as dangerous, but in this interview he comes off as slightly comical, not really a threat to anyone except maybe himself. Then again, I'm speaking from my own perspective as an American who values non-conformity, and someone who is already familiar with otaku culture. It's possible that many Japanese would indeed find him scary, and other accounts I've read do make Honda seem a bit more dangerous than he appeared in the "Generation Z" short. His presence in the short does not indicate to me a growing concern about otaku in society. Instead, it seems to represent otaku culture's last stand against those who would make it mainstream.

Whether or not one thinks it is effective, the very existence of this otaku reactionism is interesting. Like so many subcultures before it, otaku subculture is becoming part of popular culture. Otaku-ism is about actively engaging the products of popular culture, but now, popular culture has appropriated the language, mannerisms, and trappings of otaku culture, repackaged it, and sold it back to the youth, many of whom created it in the first place.

It is not surprising, therefore, that Honda rejects cute and popular portrayals of otaku culture, portrayals that have no teeth. His strategy appears to be one of distancing otaku from the mainstream by engaging even more deeply with things that are unacceptable to the general public.

I understand where Toru Honda is coming from. I used to have a sig that said "It's not about mainstreaming otaku, it's about otakunizing the mainstream!" But although I appreciate Honda's sentiments, I don't necessarily agree with his strategy. Certainly, otaku are interesting for reasons beyond the fact that they spend a lot of money and create content that can be exported internationally, but I also think that portraying them to be extremely marginal (as potentially violent sexual deviants, for example) diminishes the subculture's true value. That type of self-marginalization is too reminiscent of those (both inside and outside of fandom) who use the word 'otaku' to label the worst excesses of fandom, whereas I prefer to use the term to describe some of the best and most interesting aspects of fans everywhere--their creativity, dedication, and spirit of discovery. The bad stuff will always be out there, and it needs to be addressed, but focusing too heavily on the negative blinds us to the positive aspects of otakuism that are just as real and important. There's so much more to otaku culture than the fact that some otaku relate better to 2-d women and figurines than real people.

Of course, it's not enough to simply say that otaku culture is a positive thing and then leave it at that. The inevitable question is "what is so good about being an otaku?" and given that we don't encourage everyone to be otaku, "what positive lessons can we learn from otaku culture?" I will be addressing such questions in my dissertation (in progress).

Friday, January 13, 2006

Howard Johnson Ginwa Plaza Hotel

In a near-future fantasy world that William Gibson might describe, Howard Johnson is a five star hotel in China. But wait! Howard Johnson is a five star hotel in China!

My wife Carol was telling me about an NPR story she recently heard about global branding and how companies often reinvent their brands in different regions around the world. In the United States, most people associate Howard Johnson with cheap motels intended for weary and budget-minded travelers who have no need for amenities. In China, however, Howard Johnson was able to create a completely different brand image, one of deluxe accomodations and modern facilities. Check out the difference below:

Howard Johnson in New York

Howard Johnson Express Inn JFK (Jamaica, NY)

Howard Johnson in China

Howard Johnson Ginwa Plaza Hotel (Xian, China)

One day, I hope to get myself a Howard Johnson Ginwa Plaza Hotel t-shirt, and maybe the hotel will be a setting in the cyberpunk novel I'm (not really) working on.

For more thoughts on global branding, see the two articles below:

House of brands vs branded house

Managing Brands in Global Markets: One Size Doesn't Fit All

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Tools for Presenting

In late November, I stumbled upon an excellent informational blog called Presentation Zen, by Garr Reynolds. If you're ever in the position to give a presentation, I highly recommend you read through his posts, as they are all insightful and presented in an entertaining manner. Powerpoint is a great tool, but it is often misused, leading to bad presentations (numerous examples are discussed in the blog). Reynolds provides simple and effective strategies on how to make Powerpoint work for you instead of against you.

Having been in school for almost 25 years, I've given quite a few presentations, and I've seen many more. I think it's safe to say that most people, from college undergrads to tenured professors, could do with more training on how to present their ideas. At Cornell, I was lucky to take Comm 201 - Oral Communication in the summer after my freshman year. A lot of people dreaded the prospect of having to take that class, and I was admittedly nervous as well, but it turned out to be a great experience.

Even with that formal training in public speaking, and having presented in academic and professional settings, I still found a ton of useful tips on Presentation Zen. In the discussion section I taught last semester at RPI, I encouraged my students to visit that blog in order to up the level of their presentations. After that, I noticed a dramatic improvement in their talks.

On November 19th, I had the opportunity to give a presentation on otaku culture at Japanese Culture Day 2005, hosted by the Anime Gamers Alliance. Inspired by Presentation Zen, I tried out a new Powerpoint strategy, and I feel it went very well. When it is done right (and you're speaking about something you're passionate about) presenting is really fun and not a chore.

Right now, I am feeling really motivated to give more presentations. Just yesterday, I ordered a Logitech 2.4 Ghz Presenter from Amazon. For my talk in November, James made me a Powerpoint template which I look forward to using again.