AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

So pointless it’s comical

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, July 1, 2009

ONE MEANS by which the opposition Democratic Party of Japan promises to finance some of the extravagant spending promises in its platform is to eliminate government waste, fraud, and abuse. That’s plausible on the surface, because waste, fraud, and abuse is the hallmark of governments (and large organizations) everywhere. Even the ruling Liberal Democratic Party has formed a project team to ferret out and eliminate waste in government.

A Satonaka work of media art

A Satonaka work of media art

Earlier this month, the LDP team called for the elimination of a government plan to build what was described as a national media and arts center that would collect and exhibit comics, cartoons, and video games.

The plan was contained in the FY 2009 supplementary budget passed at the end of May, which allocated JPY 11.7 billion (about $US 122,500,000) for the center. Some ruling party MPs were opposed from the start, but their opposition went for naught.

Explained a bureaucrat:

“As a content industry, (this industry) has a role in supporting the Japanese economy. There is meaning is pursuing this as a national policy.”

The Agency of Cultural Affairs calls this “world-renowned ‘media art’” and hopes it “creates a whirlwind of new art originating from Japan.”

To his credit, DPJ President Hatoyama Yukio has repeatedly criticized the project. During a debate with Aso Taro in the Diet, he said:

“I know the Prime Minister likes comics and cartoons, but is it necessary to spend 11.7 billion yen to create a giant state-run comic book coffee shop and further enrich an independent administrative agency?”

Replied the prime minister:

“I think it is important now to create an international center for the media arts, referred to as the Japanese Cool, for cartoons, comics, and games. It will be a core institution for promoting Japanese culture. The new National Media Arts Center will be established as part of the Independent Administrative Institution, National Museum of Art, but the management and operation of the center will be outsourced and the funds it requires will be self-generated.”

Is that the stench of amakudari—cushy second jobs for retired bureaucrats—wafting through your monitor? And who really believes this center will be financially self-supporting?

Some also criticize the project for lacking originality. A panel of experts produced a lackluster report that proposes the center be housed in a four-or-five story building in Tokyo with exhibition rooms and a hall for screening films. They’ve yet to offer suggestions for the content to be displayed.

The lack of clear standards for the content troubles more than a few people. Perhaps the panel of experts would exclude items that many would find objectionable. (Or perhaps they wouldn’t, if the controversy of the public funding to exhibit Piss Christ in the United States is anything to go by.) The unanswered question is who knows where they would draw the line. One can almost guarantee it: The wrong place.

The panel of experts initially consisted of seven people, to which another seven were added. They are primarily from academia and the related industries. One of them is University of Tokyo Professor Hamano Yasuki, a specialist in Media Environment in the Department of Human and Engineered Environmental Studies. He has written several books, one of which is called Media as an Ideology.

Another is cartoonist Satonaka Machiko. Golly, what do you suppose she thinks of the project? On her blog, she says it is too easily misunderstood, and adds:

“Unless Japan is recognized overseas, there will still be a tendency to look down on Japanese culture. This must not be allowed to continue forever. We need a center to promote the country and say, ‘Here’s how wonderful the Japanese media arts are!’”

What Ms. Satonaka doesn’t seem to realize is that if any people overseas do look down on Japanese culture (and there aren’t many, rather than it being a tendency), their disregard is more likely caused by those who want to pretend that comic books and cartoons have serious artistic value. Why not just admit that the project is designed to attract the cash of the people attracted to chewing gum culture and be done with it?

Project team member Kono Taro of the LDP told reporters the project should be halted immediately because insufficient consideration was given to the taxpayer’s liability and the selection of the items to be exhibited.

When Mr. Kono was asked why he voted to approve the budget, he replied:

“The ruling party must also accept the responsibility.”

After speaking to the media, Mr. Kono briefed the chair of the project team and the Diet members aligned with the Education Ministry (the so-called tribal MPs), which is also involved with cultural affairs. Are the dots starting to connect yet?

The Cultural Affairs Agency plans to acquire land for the center this year and open the doors sometime in FY 2011. They haven’t stopped work, the project team’s objections notwithstanding. The preparatory committee plans to meet on 2 July and formulate the standards for the content to be displayed later this month.

Ms. Satonaka claims the annual Japan Media Arts Festival is insufficient to promote the industry. The 13th festival begins in mid-July and continues until mid-September; here’s their website. Take a look and see if you think a permanent government-financed home for all that is worth an investment of more than 120 million dollars.

Let’s be clear about this: This project is a perfect illustration of what people mean when they say they want to smash the Kasumigaseki bureaucracy. Japan’s infamous Iron Triangle still exists. The three legs of the triangle are the bureaucracy, the legislature, and industry, and they’ve formed a unit for their mutual enrichment at the expense of the taxpayers. People usually associate the Iron Triangle with public works projects, including highways and bridges to nowhere, but this plan demonstrates there is no limit to the imagination of bureaucrats with nearly unlimited public funds at their disposal.

It’s time to cut out the nonsense, admit that former Prime Minister Koizumi, Takenaka Heizo, and their allies were right, and maintain the fight against this expensive foolishness. It’s not possible to say, “end it once and for all”, because this fight never ends, anywhere. Mr. Hatoyama may be on the side of the angels in this battle, but he’s just as anxious to stop the privatization of Japan Post as he is to stop this project. Just as there’s no reason for the government to fund a comic book museum, there’s also no reason for the government to operate a retail financial institution, life insurance company, resort chain—or even deliver the mail.

Maintaining this fight requires the vigilance of the mass media, but they’re unreliable allies because they often pay attention to the wrong things. They require ratings and consumers, and that means pandering to the popular imagination. For example, they’ve filed few stories about this issue over the past month, yet found plenty of time and space to cover a flu epidemic that will infect very few in Japan and kill even fewer.

I stumbled across this story by accident in Akahata, the house organ of the Japanese Communist Party. That the controversy was semi-buried in the mainstream media speaks volumes about their priorities. Their failure to cover the debate despite their knowledge of it makes them just as culpable for producing this barrel of pork as the bureaucrats and the self-serving “media arts” content producers.

Afterwords:

One of the winners in the Manga Division of the 2008 Media Arts Festival was a comic called Real Clothes. Here is the summary from the MAF website:

Kinue, a woman of 27, works for a major department store in Shinjuku, a very competitive environment. Unexpectedly, she is transferred from the bedding floor, where she loves to work, to the women’s clothes floor. This is the story of her search for meaning in dressing, working, and living, and also of her personal development through her work and dealings with devious new coworkers.

Here is the reason given for the award:

I was not only captivated by the artist’s outstanding drawing skill and sharp, effective lines, but also by the clever storytelling, and healthy elegance and liveliness of the heroine, who almost seemed as though she were coming out of the picture. Although the same can be said of her other works, the exhaustive research into the thematic subject matter is amazing. This story is set on a women’s clothes floor, one of the topliner sections in a department store. She lives positively and energetically. However, her romance begins to hinder her work, and she must choose between them! It is the sort of life-changing turning point that all working women have to face once in their lives. The artist faces this matter squarely, portraying the naked soul of humanity. The heroine eventually chooses her work, and breaks up with her beloved boyfriend. The expression of her intense feeling of loss is strongly conveyed and the reader cannot help but feel deep compassion. This modern heroine’s way of life is very interesting, and I hope that women currently facing similar decisions in the workplace have the opportunity to open the pages of this manga.

Another award was given to the comic Shiori to Shimiko. The creator was asked about his motivation. He said:

“With regard to Shiori to Shimiko, my main intention was to produce a horror manga for girls.”

Taxpayers might consider this: You’ve spent at least 12 years of study to graduate from high school, and many of you have devoted an additional four or more years to university study. You’ve hopped through all the hurdles to find employment, and now spend the better part of the day five days a week to provide for yourself and your family.

But instead getting to spend the money you earn on your priorities, a band of brigands in Tokyo (it makes no difference that they wear business suits instead of masks and work in offices instead of hiding in caves) has decided to confiscate part of your income to create a comic book/cartoon/gameboy museum. One of their excuses is that some people overseas still don’t take Japanese culture seriously.

Who’s serving whom here? Is the government (including both the legislature and civil servants) serving you? Or are you shackled in servitude to them?

To conclude, Japanese readers should not misunderstand. This isn’t about Japan; it’s simply a Japanese example of what goes on every day, everywhere else. The United States, where I come from, is just as bad, if not worse. It’s just that I pay taxes to the Japanese government now instead of the American one.

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13 Responses to “So pointless it’s comical”

  1. rw said

    hi!

    the funding of cultural events or institutions is a core point in national budgets
    with the reason being to educate citizens and to povide for meaningful (noncommercial) entertainment.

    this usually covers support for the “high cultural”, like opera houses or traditional history museums.

    now whats wrong with looking at culture and saying that as a society
    “we don’t just value opers houses, but also see manga museums as a representative (and presentative) cultural feature?

    of course the taxpayer has to pay for it, but the taxpayer also pays for lots of other stuff,
    including things that might be of less value to a society.

    cheers

  2. RMilner said

    I don’t think any major museums anywhere in the world are financially self-supporting. Even major privately owned museums depend on trust fund income rather than gate receipts.

    Nearly all London’s major museums offer free entry, and only charge for special exhibitions. They rely on government grants for their core funding.

    Overall the UK gains because the museums are a huge draw for tourism as well as an important educational resource.

    Could Japan gain equally from a media arts museum?

  3. ampontan said

    rw: Your argument is very logical. I just disagree with the premise:

    the funding of cultural events or institutions is a core point in national budgets with the reason being to educate citizens and to povide for meaningful (noncommercial) entertainment.

    If it is a core point, it certainly shouldn’t be. Follow that reasoning to its ultimate conclusion and we wind up with the government paying for everything. The reason there are governments is not to provide entertainment, meaningful or otherwise, to the citizens. Or are we back to bread and the games?

    That also calls into question what is meaningful. There are no shortage of the types who serve on these commissions who will argue that no one appreciated Picasso when he started out, so you have to pay for whatever we tell you is good.

    I also do not think it is logical to conclude that museums would disappear if the government didn’t fund them. I suspect that most would still exist, funded by private interests. (Take a look at the site of the Bridgestone Museum on the right sidebar.)

    Private interests are responsible for operating the major league baseball teams in Japan. They’re all owned by large corporations.

    I think it’s reasonable to conclude that more large companies do not get involved in these activities is because they know the government will. Remove the government participation and that would likely change.

  4. St John said

    Hi,

    First of all I really enjoy reading your articles. I’m English and was married to my wife Ryoko in Kobe in May. Although I’ve visited Japan many times and love the country my language skills aren’t that great. Your insights into Japanese politics are very enlightening and help me understand why my highly educated, multi-lingual wife is so scornful of the subject!

    The point I want to make about this post is that I don’t think westerners have a poor opinion of Japanese culture. On the contrary most who have any opinion at all think of Japan as a very cultured place with very cultured people. And youngsters know all about manga, computer games etc from Japan and think it’s ‘cool’.

    Whatever the rights and wrongs of the issue I don’t think people should use the fallacy that foreigners have a poor perception of Japanese culture as a reason for this project.

  5. mac said

    Kyoto is having another such edifice inserted into it … the ‘to be’ largest aquarium in Japan. Even bigger than the Osaka Kaiyukan Aquarium just half an hour down the railway line.

    One big concern I have over these development, right down to local public parks, is the utter lack of public consultation in the process.

    It is hard not to be with Alex Kerr on this issue. Japan is slowly dying around the edges, contracting. A lot of it looks like real shit without even the post-industrial charm of the rust belt in the US. And yet the politicians and their construction company cronies go about sticking up these great big and expensive monuments.

    Of many of the galleries, exhibition and performance spaces I have seen, it is as if they do not really get it, get what it is all about. Albeit many are beautiful or stunning, (see Sendai Mediatheque) they are underused, understocked and largely irrelevant to the society about them … and prone to banal censorship. They don’t really actually do anything, and certainly nothing to actually promote the development of the arts and creativity.

    Kyoto already has some kind of manga museum (and its mini “national art gallery” is a national shame. The manga museum looks like a nice books shop with a coffee shop attached, it is no where even as big as your average Borders. How long with the comics last with sticky fingered geeks flicking through them? If manga has cultural significance, which it probably has to some degree, don’t they belong in a national library?

    Then again, they are pulp. It would be a bit like collating every software tech manual ever produced through the 80s and 90s … remember when your floppy disks used to come with a telephone book sized manual?

  6. ampontan said

    SJ: Thanks for the kind words and congratulations on your marriage!

  7. rw said

    thanks for getting back with me, ampotan.

    “If it is a core point, it certainly shouldn’t be. Follow that reasoning to its ultimate conclusion and we wind up with the government paying for everything.”

    1. A government isn’t able to pay for everything unless it taxes 100% on everything, which would be communism.
    2. There is no democratic will to have a government “pay for everything”, hence pursuing this would keep goverments from getting reelected.

    “I also do not think it is logical to conclude that museums would disappear if the government didn’t fund them. I suspect that most would still exist, funded by private interests.”

    The problem with private funding is that it requires profits. History museums for example usually don’t make profits. In contrast to movie theatres their exhibitions seldomly change so you go to one like once every couple of years, instead of once a month. Still i would argue that it’s good to have them because they have educational value. Another problem with private funding is that private interest can influence what is being exhibited, to which some areas can be quite sensitive.

    I however like the point that people should have a greater say in these decisions. This would require an open discourse in the Japanese media, in which citizens would speak out.

    Still patiently waiting for that one.

  8. Jake Was Here said

    St. John: Whatever the rights and wrongs of the issue I don’t think people should use the fallacy that foreigners have a poor perception of Japanese culture as a reason for this project.

    I think the high muckety-mucks are worried that Japan’s “low” culture, not its “high” culture (so to speak), is what’s getting the most media attention from the rest of the world. Naturally certain figures would like to raise this stuff to the status of “high” culture, as it would embarrass them less. (Why they’re getting Kazuhiro Public to pay for them is another matter.)

    Others scorn this proposition; they would like foreigners to get the impression that manga and video games are somehow less representative of the “real Japan”. They ignore the basic truth that all culture, high and low, is one. (To be honest, I sympathize with that view to a certain degree — I cringe to think that the world’s mental images of the U.S. come mainly out of Hollywood, possibly the most bizarre city in America with the exception of Washington.)

  9. mac said

    A working truth could be that all culture is two, seminal and derivative, and the purpose of the publicly funded museums is to preserve the seminal for the benefit of all society (to educate and inspire) rather than allow it to fall into the commercial galleries and disappear into exclusive unseen ownership.

    To that degree, some manga would be seminal and of cultural importance. Which ones are for the critics, curators and adherents to argue over. There chances of getting it right … medium to low but getting better.

    As with other Asian, or pre-Modern, nations, does Japan have working artist, critic, curator and adherent communities? Its getting better. I think there was a time, and still in many places, where they just did not get it. They saw the external, thought it was just about the look, but when they replicated ‘the look’ nigh “perfectly”, it turned out wrong and empty, and no one was interested. It had no significance.

    … I am someone who thinks the de rigueur tea ‘ceremony by numbers’ approach is utterly empty and meaningless. Not even a good emptiness.

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