asiascape vistas

Techno-Culture, New Politics, and Philosophy in East Asia

Asiascape Vistas is a forum for discussion about the many and various dimensions of cyberculture found in or originating from East Asia. Its focus is on the interplay between these media and questions of politics & philosophy. Contributions are from the academic collective responsible for the core project, but other contributions will also be considered by that collective.
If you wish to contribute to Asiacape Vistas, please send an email using the form on the contact page.

Clive Thompson: The Folding Game

From Guernica Magazine

The info-sharing of early arcade game enthusiasts mimicked the scientific method. Now, video games and collective intelligence could change the way we approach science, shared problems, and school.

On a Thursday night in September, I raced from Midtown to Bushwick for an impromptu conference organized by Arikia Millikan in what was dubbed a mansion, but I understood to be a large house. I sat on a wooden floor as ten people talked for ten minutes each, all speaking about secrets. One such person was Wired columnist Clive Thompson, who told us how gamers had solved a decade-long scientific mystery in a single month. As a suspicious non-gamer, I was amazed to find altruism within the World of Warcraft. Weeks later, we met at a café in Park Slope to discuss how the increasing complexity of video games led to groupthink, and how groupthink has been harnessed by researchers for scientific gain.
—Erika Anderson for Guernica

more here

The Digital Comic in an Increasingly Portable World

Back in 2000, comics artist Scott McCloud wrote Reinventing Comics, wherein he gave ideas for where comics could go and would go as technology improved and the means for both creating and distributing comics changed. Taking the computer into account, McCloud proposed the concept of an "infinite canvas," stating that the screen could act like a piece of paper without borders, and thus the conventional dimensional restriction of the comics page need not apply. In practice, the truly infinite canvas turned out to be extremely unwieldy and impractical in most instances, and the act of putting comics on computer screens turns out to be not so much a matter of "unlimited potential" but of understanding the screen as something with its own restrictions and particulars that have to be overcome. Nevertheless, as more and more people use electronic devices to look at images and comics, the adaptation of comics to screens, especially portable ones, becomes increasingly relevant.

There are two rough categories when it comes to the adapting of comics for digital screens: converting a paper comic to a digital form, or drawing the comic from the start with the intent of having it viewed on a screen. In both cases, part of the challenge comes from the fact that, even as visual clarity continues to improve, there is a limit to physical dimensions of the device itself, as there will likely people who prefer to view things on their phone, rather than a larger tablet or something similar.

For the once-paper comic, one of the most prominent ways of handling the physical dimensions of smaller devices is through what is called "guided view," shown above. Utilized on sites such as the digital comics distributor Comixology, guided view zooms in on one panel or element (certain faces in a large crowd shot for example) at a time, and removes or cuts away anything deemed at that point in the comic "irrelevant." Essentially, the view moves your eyes for you, telling you what you should be looking at. The drawback of the guided view, in turn, is that it mostly relies on comics which do not prioritize the panel so heavily, and therefore becomes a problem for comics where whole-page composition is especially important, such as most manga.

Indeed, digital manga sites such as jmanga or j-comi do not even try to provide a guided view, despite the option being supposedly available on jmanga. Just the same, however, by keeping the page intact and whole, the act of having to drag and pull through the comic is itself a different and awkward experience. At some point, the physical dimensions of the device become too much, and such whole-page comics will most likely forever require a certain minimum size + visual clarity combination. Even putting computers aside, attempts to convert paper manga to tiny, thumb-sized books, such as the example of Tezuka's Black Jack below, have been an eye-straining novelty at best.

That leaves us with the other route, that of creating the comic for the screen, and the area which McCloud was trying to address the most. Again, however, the "infinite canvas" turns out to be almost anything but, because of a combination of the existing habits of users and different priorities for comics in how they present themselves. The full-range infinite canvas is, perhaps ironically, best suited for images that are more murals of visual information. In "Click and Drag" from the webcomic xkcd for example, the infinite canvas acts as a way of exploring that space where a reader can discover small details on characters or get a sense of how visually dense the image is, but for comics that are visually less dense or less vast, it becomes a potential hindrance.

One effective compromise between the finite screen and the infinite canvas has been to restrict the image horizontally to the sides of the screen while allowing the comic to progress vertically. This takes into account the fact that horizontal scrolling is much more unwieldy on screens compared to vertical scrolling, at least for horizontally written languages such as English or Korean, and it is actually in digital manhwa, Korean comics, where this appears to be utilized most readily. In these digital manhwa, such as the title Tower of God seen left, there are at most two panels horizontally adjacent, making the progression somewhat like seeing a scroll or a film strip continuously unravel, and panel composition takes this into account. These comics thus become easier to read on phones and tablets, and I would suspect that the fact that South Korea is one of the most wired (and wireless) nations on Earth means that this is probably not a coincidence.

At least, that is what we see at this point. If ever physical media disappears entirely and the tablet or similar devices (or perhaps even a "tablet" without a physical presence itself) becomes the primary method for reading comics, then I would have to think that the form of comics would change accordingly, just maybe not as quickly or as drastically as one might expect

An Amateur Utopia

A few weeks ago I attended a talk by Kinoshita Chigaya, Matsumoto Hajime, and Higuchi Takuro, about young people’s alternative politics in Japan. They spoke about their experiences and a loose group of young people around Matsumoto known as “Amateur’s revolt” (shirōto no ran) in particular, which gathers people in pursuit of an alternative lifestyle in the area around Kōenji station in West-Tokyo. Known for their spectacular events for quite some time, the group became internationally acknowledged for its involvement in organizing large-scale anti-nuclear demonstrations in Japan after 3/11. Matsumoto and Higuchi compared their experience with Japanese demonstrations to contemporary activism in other countries like the “occupy” movement in the U.S. (they had spent 10 days in a tent in Zuccotti park last autumn) or Taiwan. Here and there, they hinted at the possibility of an “amateurs’ utopia.”
Shirōto no ran was one of the key groups involved in the planning of the “Stop Nuclear Power Plants” demonstrations of 4/10, 6/11, 9/11 in Japan. According to Matsumoto, their suspected leading position (in fact, they were by far not the only actor) also made them target for the police, and after the 9/11 demonstration led to several arrests, they decided to take a step back and quit being majorly involved in organizing large-scale demonstrations. Of course, demonstrations did not cease but rather were organized all over the country more locally and on a smaller scale.
In their actions, they reshaped the image and maybe the idea of political protest in Japan variously. First, there seems to be no shared ideological agenda beyond the accumulation of personal interests and a general wish to live and act freely as equal human beings. Second, they don’t seem to be interested in convincing people about their ideas or in gaining more influence in society, for example by building a stronger organization. Listening to Matsumoto and Higuchi, one almost had the impression that their goal, at least to some extent, was to win a game against the authorities and their methods to repress demonstrations. By constantly inventing new crazy ideas nobody would expect, they turned the demonstrations into a kind of game of which they defined the rules each time anew and are still changing them in quite creative ways. In one of the demonstrations in Shinjuku, one of Tokyo’s most frequented railway stations, they bypassed the problem that the demonstration was only permitted until a certain time by borrowing campaign cars of politicians, which are permitted to park on the street in front of the station for giving speeches, thereby preventing the arrest of demonstrators who now could be considered as people listening to the “politicians” at the microphone.
Their descriptions of their own as well as other and foreign demonstrations express amazement and joy about the “carnivalesque” atmosphere and the craziness and mixture of the participants more than the political success they may have. Furthermore, they do not expect commitment from anybody. In a strange sense, this indifference, combined with their creative activism, not only suggests a rethinking of the concept of political protest, but it also poses the question of participation and subjective beliefs to each individual from a new angle.
In a sense very democratic, their approach seems to propose accepting a wide range of opinions articulated in discussions. Matsumoto talked about small-scale demonstrations organized by local residents not experienced in organizing demonstrations or political protest in general, for which members of “Shirōto no ran” acted as advisors. With great pleasure he related how everybody from housewife to retired shopowner was allowed to state their opinion on all topics at hand (with opinions for example ranging from “no more nuclear power” to “better standards in nuclear power plants”) and the process of agreeing on a central statement took for hours. Matsumoto ended the account by pointing out that after the meetings, he was not sure if the title “Shirōto no Ran” not really should go to these people, thereby expressing respect for their engagement and the way in which they handled individual differences.
As a community of young people who choose an alternative life not dominated by money or reputation, but rather by the desire to do what they want, Shirōto no Ran provides a creative alternative to the life most people in Japan and elsewhere are used to. Ignore the people in power, Shirōto no Ran aims to create a “mysterious space where anything is possible for anybody who enters.” (Matsumoto) Yet, there still is some kind of ideological basis for all this. Asked about the problem that demonstrations might annoy other people, both Matsumoto and Higuchi argued that life in society is necessarily a burden on other people, and urged the audience to start to cause other people more trouble and communicate individual ideas and desires more openly. Here, I wonder what happens if this turns into the dominant ideology and what happens if such individual expression/lifestyle causes others harm.
At this point, I think Shirōto no ran has had a valuable influence on the Japanese political landscape and the demographics of its actors, at least of variety of age and opinions is the measure. Part of their appeal and potential stems from the fact that they show others that an alternative life and public expressions of political opinions are possible. In their refusal to force their ideas on other people, they at least seem to accept a position as one way among many and do neither claim superiority over other ideological positions, nor demand recognition of their knowledge and expertise. Could they be heading towards a kind of amateur utopia close to that envisioned by Adam Roberts in his New Model Army?

Dissociative Identity Artists

After resisting the temptation for quite some time, I finally decided to give it a try. AKB48. Artists of the year at the 26th Japan Gold Disk Awards in January 2012. On stage every day. Even more present in all kinds of TV commercials. A planned, exploitive and devastating blow against Japanese music culture, according to David Morris and his comparison of the group with the Wu-Tang Clan. Although I agree with David in many ways, I have to admit that I almost admire the producer Akimoto for creating something far too forceful to ignore.
As David says, AKB goes one step further. As far as I can tell, Akimoto has created his own charts within J-Pop, a self-contained world staged as an internal, never ceasing adaptation of “Popstars.” Because the group can draw on 48 carefully selected girls who, in combination with their various outfits, are able to answer to a wide variety of female and male, old and young preferences and desires, AKB48 never fails to stay novel and attractive, at least for those who conceive of these terms as a set which is based on appearance. No question, there are many victims of this production, and, mocking such sacrifices, they are incorporated into a narrative that depicts the group as heroines who overcame many tough struggles in the past, as the lately released second “documentary” of their making, “Show must go on”, with the Japanese subtitle saying something like “while getting hurt, the girls withstand the pain and hold on to (or pursue) their dream” shows. (See) But this kind of exploitation, in combination with a large pool of dreaming girls, also allows Akimoto to create a kind of on-going game, in which the front girl is repeatedly selected in various ways. The two most striking examples of this I know of are the general election in June, in which fans could vote to determine the leading member for the next single, and the second “rock paper scissors tournament” in September 2011, where the members competed against each other for the pole position in the next single. To me it seems quite cynical that, with many 100000 votes in the election, and, if I remember correctly from the many TV news reports about the event, between 10000 and 15000 fans visiting the tournament, AKB48 may be said to draw more participation than the anti-nuclear protests in Tokyo, most of which were reported to draw together some 10000 demonstrators. Combining “the people's voice” and “luck” in this way and making both huge media events, to me seems like an intriguing new way of producing idols, that goes way beyond “old-fashioned” TV formats like Popstars and other similar shows.
In his observations on television, Adorno somewhere said that creating statistically “average” idols is the most sophisticated way the culture industry employs to uphold the belief that everybody can be a star, which, inquired with the same statistical methods, turns out to be no more than an illusory, minimal chance. The production of AKB48 adds to this initial selection process two new elements I am in my cynicism tempted to call participatory culture and explicit randomness, which seem to contradict each other but both share the intension to replace the common “experts” selecting the winners by some universal criteria. The winner of the latter event, shortly afterwards, had a TV commercial advertising a candy of some kind as the secret to her success in the tournament, with the ad ending with herself crying „lier!“ It might be interesting, maybe crucial, to ask what the intentional strategy behind this ad was. But not now. I'd rather finish this section with a toast to Akimoto, who seems to have taken the culture industry to a new level, and managed to develop a group mostly known among Japanese otaku or extreme fans of manga, anime, idols, etc., into a country-wide popular brand. Is this the dawn of participatory culture-industrial randomness?
This is not the only interesting thing about AKB48 and their sister groups (lately, JKB48 was born as an Indonesian copy of AKB, also produced by Akimoto). Although I do not think that there is anything to say about the music, I would like to mention two of the various interesting effects and side-effects of the concept. First, AKB48 can be anywhere. That is, since neither TV appearances nor live performances have to include all members (or are capable of holding them all, for example in the case of small TV studios, etc.) they technically are able to appear in different places at the same time. Furthermore, if for example 6 members have contracts for TV commercials (I haven't counted, but there are a lot of spots with AKB 48), you might end up seeing them ten, twenty times within 1 or 2 hours. This practice is, of course, not limited to media appearance, but may also be applied to stage performances. Arguably, AKB48 bends the limits of time and space.
But this is only possible, because they do away with any (traditional? Old-fashioned?) notion of the “group” or “band” as one more or less coherent unit of artists with some kind of “image” shared by the fans. In order to address many different audiences, AKB 48 members not only represent very different types of “girl,” they also are placed into very different contexts. Thus, AKB at more or less the same time promotes a chain of convenience stores, a chain of lunchbox stores (at both of which you can buy lunch), a chain of real-estate agencies, but they also advertise insulting web-services like AKBabywhere members of the AKB web-services (1480 Yen or 15 Euro per month) can create “virtual babies” with the AKB members by uploading a picture of themselves, in an even more ridiculous ad. This clip, in my view, seems to nurish associations with sex ads (“Would you like to make a baby with me?”), but the idea also mocks all those who really want to have children but are unable to do so. While drastic expression has always been an important part of literary fiction and its critical potential, and is particularly vivid in Japanese anime and manga, this clip is so disturbing because it depicts real people, namely an AKB member and a real child which she pseudo-breastfeeds smiling into the camera. I may be very old-fashioned, but I do believe that there is a line which many people are not willing to cross, but which is crossed here. But I'd be happy to hear other opinions on this clip.
To return to the earlier discussion, it seems as if AKB48 has many faces and very differing appearances according to the respective context. They could even be called dissociative identity artists. In times of “patch-work identity, contemporary psychologists emphasize the importance of the work the individual puts into making this patchwork coherent as crucial for her or his well-being. At the moment, the seeming incoherence of AKB48 may be met by a similar incoherence of the fans and of their distinct media consumption patterns. But in the age of the internet and youtube, it will be for the fans to decide how long AKB48 (and other similar groups) can manage to maintain this coherence in incoherence. Or maybe the fans have already reacted to this problem by developing not only preferences of specific members, but also consumption patterns by which they are able to ignore the unlikable aspects and focus on the likable ones, something like an art of dissociative consumption.

Lounging in CHAOS

Some time ago, I had the chance to visit the art exhibition CHAOS*EXILE in Akihabara (Tokyo), which was part of the FESTIVAL/TOKYO, a performing arts festival organized in various Japanese cities.

CHAOS*EXILE is described by it's creators, the artist group CHAOS*LOUNGE, as a collection of deliberate efforts to create new art style in our postmodern, animalistic times—a reference to Azuma Hiroki's 2001 book on the otaku culture in Japan. The artists of CHAOS*LOUNGE acknowledge that they cannot but draw on their own, contemporary culture, which is strongly influenced by the otaku culture with its manga, anime, figures, concentrated in places like the electric town around Akihabara station. At the same time, CHAOS*LOUNGE explicitly aims at inquiring the critical potential of this same subculture, which they criticize for its partly apolitical, apathetic reaction to the the events of March 11. “After 3.11 what has become clear is that there are aspects of the otaku that will not change even after the catastrophe, a rather regretful part of digital Japan where an indigenous system becomes simply peer pressure. […] We must make inquiries. What are the possibilities for art after the era of “animalization”? In the midst of this “animalized” world, the opportunity for constructing relations between society and the individual, and chief of all for the function seemingly possessed by “art”, can only be discovered in subcultures.” (

The exhibition consisted of two stages, the first of which was publicly accessible and free of charge. Here, the visitor was confronted with a room full of ufo catchers, which she could play endlessly. Instead of the usual prices (plush toys, etc), these cases were filled with various items equipped with a wire loop to grab, which could be exchanged for a ticket to the second stage. Whoever didn't have time to play or failed to catch one of the wires could also buy a ticket for 500 yen (about 5 euro). The second stage was located on two floors of a small building in a side street, almost hidden from the eyes, and could only be found with the help of a map printed on the back of the ticket.

Although I was not able to make any photographs, I will try to describe the exhibition a little. The first stage, with its ufo catchers, helium filled balloons, and a great variety of distorted figures known from anime and manga, which were attached to the walls and—together with stacks of books—filled the inside of the ufo catchers, could be read as an apocalyptic environment ruled by chaos. While there were no direct references to any specific manga or anime, the whole idea of free play might refer to “playfulness” as a way of entering (exile?) today. But it could as well be understood as an allegory on the mechanism through which effort or skill can be short-circuited with money, which granted equal access to the second stage.

The second stage consisted of three rooms on two floors. All walls consisted of wooden boards, all surfaces in the first room were filled with collages of different styles. The website may give an impression of parts of this room. The second room was dark and only contained a monitor which showed a video art work, containing of an endless walk through a labyrinth of website screenshots. The third room had a plastic tent in it, with all kinds of tools and entertainment goods scattered on the floor. The impression was chaotic and reminded of the video footage from the refugee camps after March 11. Without this element, to be honest, I wouldn't have found any explicit reference to March 11 or the situation afterwards.
With it, however, in particular through the combination of all three rooms, the second stage seemed to express and criticize the chaos in the aftermath of 3/11, and the impossibility and inability to cope with the situation. The aimless run through the labyrinth in the video art work at least did not suggest any direction, neither gave hope for finding a way out. Maybe the artists have not yet found, what they are inquiring for. Or maybe I couldn't detect it. Speculating a bit further, the pop cultural collage in the first room, read from the chaos in the tend, might even be read as a critique towards the apolitical disorder of Japanese popular culture in general.

Yet, maybe it is my own pessimism that prevented me from detecting much hope in the second stage—or maybe my ignorance towards the field of contemporary art. If anybody who had the chance to visit the exhibition or is familiar with other works of CHAOS*LOUNGE, I would be very interested in other impressions In any case, the activities of CHAOS*LOUNGE are rather sincere and might be worth following in the future.