I would like to start this short essay with the words of Eikou Ikui’s essay entitled ‘Natures’ of Tokyo [1] to be found in the book of Kathy HalbreichAgainst Nature: Japanese Art in the Eighties”: “Japanese pop singers are very young and in particular those singers who are called “idols” exploit their literal doll-like faces and small bodies as their “charm points”: it is what sells them. And in the commuter trains well-dressed businessmen immerse themselves in comic books, which they keep in their attaché cases. But the inner life of these people, it would seem to me, is surely shaped by and reflects the experience of the preceding generation who laid the foundation of Japan’s economic prosperity by means of the dissolution of their national and personal identity. Thus the younger generations understand, instinctively and in self-defense, that keeping themselves in a state of childish innocence is the only way to protect their identity from further erosion.”

I have been thinking for long time now about, what could be the reason (or the reasons) why so many Japanese people feel their identities are at risk. Why do they feel threatened? Why and how do they aim to protect their own perceived reality? What attracts my attention is also which could be the reason why a Japanese author would have the need to point out the issue. Is it a call for help? In western countries, we often assume that cultural stereotypes work as litmus paper. We may assume that by looking at the way a certain culture represents itself through the mass media, via the web 2.0, and looking at how the entertainment industry shapes its products, we could actually get the gist of that cultural environment.

Another hint could come from the way “they” depict other cultural clusters; we might understand their worldview, at least, we hope to spot out their idiosyncrasies. Could it also be said for Japan? Being aware of the need to be more specific, I limit my survey to the field of new media art.


I spent almost three years working and studying in Japan; new media Japanese art was the subject of my first book “Japanese Spell in Electronic Art” and it is now the topic of my PhD (http://www.solent.ac.uk/home.aspx). How does new media art stand in the cultural landscape of Japan? Is new media art playing an active role in keeping Japanese people in a state of childish innocence as a way to protect their identity from further erosion? What is the role of the authors who are active in the field? I have been lucky enough to have the chance to ask them directly.

To answer to some of the questions, I started my interview series with Kodama Kanazawa, Chief Curator at the Kawasaki City Museum in Japan from May 2006 to Aug 2013. Kanazawa was an intern at the Japan Society as a trainee of the Agency of Cultural Affairs (Japanese Government) in 2011. She is now enrolled at the Royal College of Art United Kingdom (MA – Curating Contemporary Art).

Mauro Arrighi: What is your opinion about the current situation in Japan, concerning social trends and the industry?

Kodama Kanazawa: Japan is on the forefront of new social trends growth in several areas such as logistics, services, and electronics. However, it is not that good in all areas. For example: we fall behind, in comparison with other nations, in the internet environment, and we do not play a significant role in the globalized society.

Mauro Arrighi: The entertainment industry and the media art are shaping from within the collective imagination and the collective identity of the country?

Kodama Kanazawa: Most of the media-art works come from the imagination and uniqueness of each artist, the individual author is at the center of the process. In contrast, most part of the entertainment industry products are shaped from within the collective desire, I feel. For example, the mark of AKB48 (an idols group) is collective, rather than shaped from the uniqueness of the individual.

Mauro Arrighi: Do you think then that the roots can be traced back in ancient traditions?

Kodama Kanazawa: Since the notion of “individual” or “uniqueness” formed after modernization (around 1900), in that way, it can be said that the “group thinking” exists from old age. However, it is not indigenous to Japan alone, I believe; other countries also have had a similar situation earlier or later.


Mauro Arrighi: I think that everybody in Japan (not only artists) are using to some extent their creative power to escape from the “real world”. To put it in other words: my idea is that making artworks, drawing manga, creating applications for pc/smartphone is a way to create new reality, or conversely it is a system to go to a “different” reality (psychologically more safe). And nowadays professionals and non-professionals are involved in the “creation of reality” and in the process of “escaping from reality”.

Kodama Kanazawa: Yeah, I agree with you to some extent. However, this situation is not only in Japan, isn’t it? What do you think?

Mauro Arrighi: I think that the basic issue has to do with the relationship between the so-called “real world” and the “fantasy-world”. I think that, within the western culture, the distinction between fantasy and reality is perceived as clear-cut. Usually “we” (Europeans and Americans) believe that childhood is a period devoted to fantasy, while when we enter adulthood: we should not play. Fantasy, imagination is “used” in art, but then western art is very often quite aggressive both in content and technique; with a strong flavor, so to say, filled with political and social issues, struggles… An art as act against the system. Do you think that nowadays in Japan we are facing a massive phenomenon of “identity displacements” (loss of identity, fictitious identities, creation of aliases, schizophrenia) through imaginative power?

Kodama Kanazawa: Do you mean that using avatars as well? Except a few particular cases, almost all people distinguish the virtual imaginary world and real world clearly. Therefore, we are not facing such a phenomenon of “identity displacements”. However, those people who call themselves “Otaku” tend to prefer to talk about “identity displacements”. They also carry out ordinary lives without problems, so, it can be said that they just enjoy traveling back and forth between the imaginary and real worlds.


Mauro Arrighi: It can be a tool to relieve the pressure coming from the contemporary cityscape?

Kodama Kanazawa: For example, female “Otaku” enjoy pairing about every kind of things, like pairing of two male characters in a videogame, a key and a keyhole, or Italy and France… I might say that this is an imaginary activity done for pleasure. We could see it as being thought to work as a tool for stress avoidance. However, the stress comes from feudalism, rather than from the contemporary city life.

Mauro Arrighi:You are talking about the female “Otaku” and the “pairing issue”: could you tell me more about this? And you mentioned that “the stress comes from feudalism, rather than the contemporary city life”, could you tell me more about this point?

Kodama Kanazawa: Have you ever heard the word “slash”? People who come to comic/anime convention (Otaku) often make/buy/read fanzines “slash”, depicting love stories of same-sex. This phenomenon is occurring not only in Japan. However, it is a very peculiar and strong trait of popular culture in Japan. It is now showing its true extension; people even draw sexual relationship between real things such as a key and a key hole, or conceptual things such as countries, or everything. There are some theories, which try to explain this phenomenon on a psychological basis, nonetheless… I think this is the strongest: people want to enjoy imaginary freedom of love in this strict country, Japan. You will see an example of this in Hetalia, a country slash, for your interest. The act of “traveling back and forth between the imaginary and real world” functions as a stress-avoidance tool; escaping from the real world to some extent.


Mauro Arrighi: Talking about the relationship between otherworldly forces, high-tech and contemporary Japanese art (an issue that I explored in my book Japanese Spell in Electronic Art and in the essays previously published in Digicult): I ask Kanazawa about her opinion regarding the way new-media Japanese artists are operating.

Kodama Kanazawa: Sometimes, I feel that kind of desire, coming from some media-art works. But we should remember that most of artists can use everything in order to get their inspirations. They actually can get ideas from nature, human beings behaviors, and products.


[1] Kathy Halbreich “Against Nature: Japanese Art in the Eighties”, Massachusetts Institute Technology, June 1989. Page 44