Alter/native Imagi/nations - Workshop 1

Japanese Media Spaces and ‘Japan’ in Crisis

Bringing together diverse perspectives, “Alter/native Imagi/nations: Japanese Media Spaces and ‘Japan’ in Crisis” provided a dynamic space for producing and mediating a broad range of questions, or “gaps,” which made apparent not only the difficulty of bringing together so diverse an array of perspectives, but also the potential for a collaborative inquiry out of which new scenarios might emerge. The following section gives an overview of the first meeting. The contributions page offers a glance at some of the presentations held at that occasion. These videos are for the most part what was presented at “Alter/native Imagi/nations: Japanese Media Spaces and ‘Japan’ in Crisis,” but they have been re-recorded to eliminate noise and improve image quality. The presentations are short, between 10 and 15 minutes, and are intended more as interventions and provocations than complete “papers.” Not only do the videos more closely reproduce what participants saw during the conference, but the immediacy is hoped to inspire questions and comments in much the same way, thus regarding this presentation both as a reflection and as an invitation to further discourse. The order of presentations has also been altered to facilitate smoother viewing and place concepts and problematics that appeared across papers in more explicit dialogue. Instead of a summary of the presentations or recordings of the many stimulating discussions during the meeting, we decided to let the presentations speak for themselves and rather reflect on the event by briefly laying out some of the issues under discussion. This is of course a constructive exercise, the creation of a narrative that we the organizers perceive, but the presenters themselves and you might not agree with. The subsequent account is thus best regarded as an open invitation to further elaboration and critical scrutiny based on the raw material available on the contributions page.

industrial imagination

Following from the discussion of Japan Studies and Japanese popular culture and media in the world today, we begin with Sten Saluveer’s presentation on Japanese film. Saluveer shows a gap between the economical future of a declining Japanese film industry and the global perception of its products, emphasizing the role “Japaneseness” plays in the selection process. He provides a close examination of minor Japanese film productions - a series of releases grouped by Nikkatsu under the label “Sushi Typhoon” - and their trajectories of value accumulation through the international film festival circuit. Scholarly and critical focus on auteurs distracts us from the important role that distribution and exhibition play in the production of film. This is true for the B-film production strategies that aim for cult status, balancing “domestic distancing” with foreign recognition to generate prestige, value and profit. Saluveer argues that the crisis of Japanese cinema - as evident in the inertia of the Japanese film industry and the decline of Tokyo as media capital - pushes talent to the margins of productive sphere, creating new “out-of-system” media spaces, that, in turn, while often also functioning as hosts for social critique, to a large extent are made to shoulder the responsibility of maintaining Japan’s “imaginary power” as a media content producer. As discussed in reference to the Cool Japan dynamic more generally, even as real power declines in Japan, imaginary power is retained. Less important than films made in Japan is “the Japanese film,” which is a process of Japanization. This is not so much the “production fetishism” described by Arjun Appadurai (1996: 41-42), but rather the emptying out and fashioning of “Japan” as imaginative space. If these “out-of-system” media spaces generated in B-movie productions can be seen as potential enclaves for cultural imaginative power freed from the constraints of an otherwise paralyzed industry, an important direction for future research may be to analyze the ways in which such productions empty “Japan” and fill it with a new assemblage of signs.

A similar situation can be observed in Japanese videogames, once thought to be the only truly global media to come out of Japan because it is not marked as “nationally” or “essentially” Japanese the way manga and anime are, which all but forecloses the possibility of naturalization. Unlike manga and anime, videogames are not marginal; Mario is as ubiquitous and well known as Mickey Mouse. As Frederick L. Schodt notes, however, there is a distinct pattern historically of people outside Japan falling in love with Japanese cultural forms that are in decline (Schodt 2005: 26). In his presentation, Mirko Ernquist shows how, with console gaming currently at one-third of peak levels, severe production conditions have forced a shift from high-end console games among Japanese developers. There are various reasons for this: the need to produce “Hollywood-budget” AAA games limit the participation of small creative companies and make companies heavily invested in a title too allergic to risk; Japan is losing its aura as an industry center and reputation for gameplay innovation (Wezorek 2009: 94-96); a long-standing and large domestic market has made Japan resistant to outside games and makers (Consalvo 2009: 138); and so on. Ernquist points to the failure of skill transfer: games benefit from manga, anime and toys, but not from, for example, film and sports as in the United States. These commodities are more tied to a specific aesthetic, which is not necessarily what is popular in the mainstream globally. One might point out that the extraordinary popularity of first person shooters in the United States, and the birth of a gaming industry as a “military-entertainment complex” (Lenoir 2000), cannot be reproduced in Japan because of its history and place in the world. Ernquist reminds us of the importance of economically grounded inquiries rather than talking about specific creators or franchises, and on a more hopeful note, mentions the rise of casual social gaming, where newly accessible technology opens up markets, futures and imaginations, with the potential to be mobilized and politicized.

playful collectives

This potential for an alternative media space and space of imagination is taken up by Patrick W. Galbraith in his presentation on bishōjo games, often called “dating simulator games” outside Japan. As more and more people are drawn to these games, produced by small groups and circulated for a largely domestic and fan market in Japan, supposedly marginalized cultural practices are reinscribed as “national phenomenon.” It is significant that venerable companies such as Nintendo provide the platform for these games. People are getting together at events and interacting with characters, one another and “reality” in new ways. Galbraith describes this in terms of alternatives that are both imaginary and practical, social and political. For him, utopia is a keyword, as is the mobilization of collective imagination. Building on the work of Honda Tōru (2005), Galbraith argues that bishōjo games provide players with opportunities to escape the confines of hegemonic masculinity, the reproductive ethics of “Japan, Inc.” These men are less interested in being competitive in contemporary capitalism than in the playful and exuberant commonality of experience. Here love as political project is imagined through effervescent consumer practice: the production of “a new world, a new social life” (Hardt and Negri 2009: 181).

In a similar vein, Aida Miho shows that social constructions like gender discrimination are actively challenged by contemporary manga culture, particularly where it engages with existing norms in playful and frivolous ways. She outlines the gender categorizations of fujoshi, or “rotten girls,” and male otaku (like those that might play bishōjo games) in the “Fujoshism” series. Aida sees the possibility of recuperating the “rotten” as a category capable of transgressing gender dichotomies and stimulating the production of new affective relations. For her, it is imperative that gender studies pay closer attention to the constantly evolving otaku culture - and make interventions into the “study of otaku” (otakugaku) - in which is contained a radical potential to destabilize gender.

Science Fictions of the Self, the Other, and Society

Carl Li and Mari Nakamura's presentations investigate the potential of alternatives found in science fiction. They work as companion pieces, as Li is interested in exploration of character psychology while Nakamura focuses on alternative public spaces. Li takes the example of 70 oku no hari (7 Billion Needles), where the body of the protagonist plays host to an alien species that invade/share her mental and physical space, fundamentally changing the ways that she experiences and understands the world. The manga itself displays a double movement of estrangement from the everyday and grounding at the level of emotion the character’s experience of this other/self and world. The preoccupation of Galbraith and Aida with dichotomies of male and female, and perhaps, for Saluveer, of Japan and “the West,” seems to culminate with Li in the collapse of self and other and human and nonhuman to allow for movement in new directions. A similar example is provided by Nakamura with Ivu no jikan (Time of Eve), an anime series originally broadcast online, which depicts a world where the boundaries between human and robots have blurred beyond human recognition, but remain legally enforced. The marginalized space of a hidden café here becomes a “utopian enclave” - the reference is to Jameson (2005: 15), who plays a big role in Nakamura’s analysis of an imaginary enclave in real social space (compare this to Harvey 2000 on spaces of hope and dialectical utopianism) - where different ways of thinking and doing are possible. Nakamura sees this space as one of “becoming,” an open-ended and ongoing process of transformation. While their starting points are different, both Li and Nakamura convey a sense of movement, emphasizing the processual character of the alternatives they focus on, which in a sense are infused with hope. These are science fictions seeking their grounds of justification not merely in the exploration of other worlds but even more so in gesturing towards alternative imaginaries of our own. We are reminded of the figure of the cyborg appearing not as imaginary embodiment of the future, but as “a site of condensation” for “reflections of a contemporary state of being (Gonzalez 1995, 267, quoted in Orbaugh 2002); that is, as interlocutory devices for a semantic intervention in the present.

alternative realities

Connecting these presentations is the practice of “worlding,” or the holding together of a precarious world through the experience of it (Stewart 2010: 340), and this experience can be shared, implicative of the potential for affective politics. This is precisely what Love Kindstrand brings to the table in his discussion of the massive street protest and its rekindling as public phenomenon in Japan after the triple disasters of March 11, 2011. Kindstrand refers to the ways in which the current anti-nuclear movement is not only a departure from political protest prior to the Fukushima nuclear meltdown, but also a potential site of emotional and even ecstatic alternatives itself. Despite their seeming failure to support grass-roots democratization and non-capitalist practice, digital media remain one of the most vivid sources that contribute to the shaping and revitalizing of alternative political visions and practices. Kindstrand considers the demonstration as media in two senses: the mediation and embodiment of often incongruent messages towards an imagined public, and as the enactment of a particular utopian imagination mediated through countless simultaneous video broadcasts and social media streams, within which the physical demonstrators’ encounter with another social world is endlessly reiterated. Here is the explicit overlap with Li and Nakamura: the glimpse of “another world” that opens before you in the chronotope of the demonstration, manifest, to Kindstrand, in the affective politics of spontaneous protest participation. It is from within the hypermediated corporeality of the demonstration, existing in-between the actual protest space and the virtual counterpublics sustaining it, that the production of collective subjectivity informs a plethora of dissentient imaginations. Just as Saluveer notes that the discourse on auteurs limits scholarly work on the production of Japanese film (and work on manga, anime and game masks the industry ails identified by Ernquist), Kindstrand suggests that the scholarly obsession with 1960s and 70s movement history actually threatens to incapacitate a nascent politics striving for another, more livable world.

This oscillation between imaginations of the past and future leads to Martin Roth’s presentation, which dissects the chronotope of the event, questioning linear notions of “progression,” “innovation” and “movement.” Roth insists on the disruption of linear time as a potential source of alternatives, arguing that the impossibility to narrate may hint at a radical, non-linear perspective on time. Not only is playing fully possible without considering or understanding game temporality (the player plays on her time), but the contradictory, dissonant qualities of game-time(s) is the locus of a “shock effect” (Buck-Morss 1989: 77, 290), where play can potentially shock us out of complacency, disrupting our understanding of linear time and “everyday temporality” that “colonizes” the future by making it just another space for the present to expand into (here again is Jameson). In this hopeful reimagination/-conceptualization of game-time, every game becomes a “struggle to imagine,” or, as Galbraith puts it (in reference to Graeber 2004: 102), a struggle for the imagination or liberation in and of the imagination.

alternative public spheres

Mobilizing another set of fragments of a post-disaster “collective imagination,” Inoue Akito’s #denkimeter fuses low-tech (non-digital) electricity meters with real-time social media APIs, publicly available development frameworks and open-source software in a social competition of energy conservation. Rejecting the label “gamification” and with it, perhaps, the notion that games can make the world a better place (McGonigal 2011), Inoue instead urges us to take the snickering fascism of “us/them” insider communication - where those in other time and space are ignored, used or despised - identified by other scholars in Japan (Kitada 2005) seriously. Himself operating in a space between these poles, he draws on the popularity of #denkimeter to support his claim for a new organizing principle and strategy among Japanese counterpublics and, accordingly, the need for new approaches to the public sphere in order to keep track of reality. According to Inoue, a Habermasian model of intentional political action is too rigid for the population of Japanese cyberspace, which instead engages in a playful and silly political activism he refers to with the term “2chanification”, based on the infamous discussion platform “2channel”. Though Inoue’s project did see people working together to conserve energy, their involvement should not be described in terms of compassion or politics, which he sees as utterly incompatible with online crowds. Indeed, most were more interested in raising arbitrary “power levels” and spontaneous competition rather than helping others. Explicitly political discourse is rejected in favor of “silly” (baka-ppoi) interventions capable of “accumulating laughter” (warai wo toru) as an organizing principle for collective action and experience on- and offline. In a sense, this is the breaking open of online discourse, which is not closed and “disengaged” but rather is open and engaged, as users turn to media and technology to open up spaces of social and political imagination and (inter)action. If, as Kindstrand suggests, critical Japan scholarship risks becoming too “wrapped up” (Hendry 1995) in discourses of the vanishing past (e.g. of bubble-era consumer subculture, artisanship, activism, etc), then Inoue is a counterexample of joyful collaboration in emergent practice.

The various contributions to “Alter/native Imagi/nations: Japanese Media Spaces and ‘Japan’ in Crisis” encompass a large spectrum of topics. Together, they seem to work towards locating potential spaces for alternatives and imagination, not only in the gaps between or attempts to overcome existing ontological divisions, but also between the perspectives presented at the workshop, in the productive tension between the arguments, and, not less important, by temporarily bridging the spatial and temporal gap between the different locations of the workshop. The unfolding of imagination and critical alternatives does not happen overnight; it is not always obvious and calls for observation and, perhaps now more than ever, participation that orients and attunes one to the space and its limitations and potentials. Who, with Teresa Brennan (2004: 1), has not at least once entered a room and “felt the atmosphere"? But it is exceedingly difficult to “read the atmosphere” (kūki wo yomu) of contemporary Japan. Things are in flux. Must one be in the room - in the nation, the field, the conference room - to feel the atmosphere? What, if anything, do we do with such feelings? Start by sharing. In the videos that follow, we express this hope to contribute to the space of Japan as imagi(ned)nation as well as alternatives to it.


Appadurai, Arjun. 1996. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Brennan, Teresa. 2004. The Transmission of Affect. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Buck-Morss, Susan. 1989. The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Consalvo, Mia. 2009. “Convergence and Globalization in the Japanese Videogame Industry,” Cinema Journal (48:3).

Gonzalez, Jennifer. 1995. “Envisioning cyborg bodies: Notes from current research,” in The Cyborg Handbook, Gill Kirkup et al eds. New York: Routledge.

Graeber, David. 2004. Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.

Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. 2009. Commonwealth. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Harvey, David. 2000. Spaces of Hope. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hendry, Joy. 1995. Wrapping culture: Politeness, presentation, and power in Japan and other societies. New York: Oxford University Press.

Honda, Tōru. 2005. Moeru otoko [The Budding Man]. Tokyo: Chikuma Shobō.
Jameson, Fredric. 2005. Archeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. New York: Verso.

Kitada, Akihiro. 2005. Warau nihon no nashonarizumu [Japan’s Snickering Nationalism]. Tokyo: NHK Shuppan.

Lenoir, Timothy. 2000. “All but War Is Simulation: The Military-Entertainment Complex,” Configurations (8).

McGonigal, Jane. 2011. Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. New York: Penguin Press.

Orbaugh, Sharalyn. 2002. “Sex and the Single Cyborg: Japanese Popular Culture Experiments in Subjectivity,” Science Fiction Studies (29).

Schodt, Frederick L. 2005. “A Different View…,” in Shojo Manga! Girl Power!: Girls’ Comics from Japan, Masami Toku ed. Chico: Flume Press.

Stewart, Kathleen. 2010. “Worlding Refrains,” in The Affect Theory Reader, Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth eds. Durham: Duke University Press.

Wezorek, Joe. 2009. “Japanese Dominance of the Video-game Industry and the Future of Interactive Media,” in The Japanification of Children's Popular Culture: From Godzilla to Miyazaki, Mark I. West ed. Lanham: Scarecrow Press.

workshop 1 - contributors

Sten Saluveer
Miho Aida
Mari Nakamura
Carl Li
Love Kindstrand
Martin Roth
Patrick W. Galbraith

new media space - the technical side of workshop 1

Recognizing the search for the conditions of an alternative not only as a theoretical perspective, but also as a profoundly practical agenda, one goal of this first meeting was to actively explore the possibilities contemporary media open for global academic engagements and their dissemination to an equally global, participating audience.