a conversation with Sawaragi Noi and Norimizu Ameya
AUM AND JAPANESE SUBCULTURE
by Krystian Woznicki
a conversation with Sawaragi Noi and Norimizu Ameya
909, Anomally II, a group show (Roentgen Kunst Institut, March/95) curated by Sawaragi Noi features Technocrat, an artist group adressing environmental issues in their work, the hyper pop duo Complesso Plastico, Takashi Nemoto, a manga artist and Yamatsuke Eye, the Boredoms member who contributed wall paintings and 'objects' to this exhibition. On two nights Heino Keiji, Masaya Nakahara (Violent Onsen Geisha) and Yoshihide Otomo performed within the huge gallery space. This show is conceived to discuss the contemporary situation of pop in Japan; 909 being the phenomena Sawaragi views as indicating its parameters. Could you explain briefly that phenomena you call 909?
Sawaragi Noi: 909 is the mirror reverse image of POP. If pop art
is an American thing, then Japanese pop is a delayed and altered imitation
of it. This delayed version has positive and negative connotations.
The conventional idea is to take something American and improve, upgrade
it. Technically the quality can be improved, but it cannot be surpassed.
The idea of making something better is of course false: you can take
a Fender guitar and decide to make that guitar in Japan, but it won't sound
better because the environment is different. The process of bringing
something over involves a delay. Japanese are always sensitive about behind
However thinking of this lag, - visible in film, music or fine art- as something distinctive Japanese, you could use it in a positive way. And that is part of the concept for 909: that gap is not a delay, but something central to the originality of Japanese pop. And it is not an originality deriving from Japanese history, but something foreign that has been processed into its 'own' thing. Take Yamatsuke Eye as an example. He was confronted with the problem of making rock music in Japan. To sing in Japanese wouldn't have worked because the rythm and sounds don't match the language. To sing in English would have embarassed people. Therefore his words are not in any langugage. They are screams and shouts. But that screaming is not a positive expression. It comes from the negative fact that he wasn't able to use either, Japanese nor English: he had no choice but to shout.The notion of taking a weak point and turning it into something positive is a fundamental process for 909.
Let's look at the choice of artists: all of them are exceptional within their fields. By combing them in a show one could associate it with one of those -best of- productions, in which regardless of genre and discipline Japan's cultural elite comes together. Take the Geisha Girls album as a recent example! A project combining the comedian duo Downtown, Riyuichi Sakamoto, Towa Tei, Arto Lindsay and the Boredoms.
SN: Well you know, sinceWWII a disolution of borderlines between genres set in. There has been an incredible mixture and cross current among the arts. The lesson to be learned from that is that we can bring out the positive nature of this randomness and apply it to an international scale. The breakdown of genres and the destruction of high and low cultures is another concern of the show. Rather than thinking of the artists as working in seperate fields, it is attempted to discover their similarities and to expand on that.
The immediate post war era was distinguished by various controversies. With the defeat and the occupation forces imposing a so called democracy upon Japan a second highly paradoxical reopening of Japan set in. Although a new social value system went into effect, the political leaders of the wartime goverment went back to running the country. Especially the issue of digesting the wartime attrocities was an immense problem and contributed to a distancing from wartime, and thereby from world history. Japan began to create an enclosed environment but was at the same time relying on the communication with America. We can understand this distancing from history as setting the basis for that empty sapce after WWII . Which effects did this have on Japan's interiority?
SN: Rather than thinking of history as a vertical construct you could see it as expanding horizontally over an area that spreads in different directions. That lateral expansion - which these artists are certainly a product of- is based, or rather grounded on that empty space after WWII. You could pick whatever you wanted.
Most of it came from America...
SN:... yeah, even during the 50's and 60's people were more concerned with that gap between the West and how they were behind, rather than with their historical identity. Japanese have always been critisized for having no sense of history. But in the sixties there were student demonstrations, where people tried to reaquire history, using violence for political gains. They failed. When they realized that nothing had changed a general apathy set in and they decided not to get involved anymore. In the 70's constant comparisons with America began slowly to disappear, probably due to economical expansion Then in the eighties self confidence grew, since Japan entered the "bubble" era. Still, it didn't have much effect on people's live on a deeper level. At this time we started to question whether we had an culture on our own. As it became apparant that there was no "real" Japanese culture that vacuum came to its head and even unbearable, since people cannot live in this state. There was no escape because Japan was to powerful at this moment to regress. This is when Japan's relations to the States gained a new dimension and everything turned upside down.
SN: At that point people decided not to go on comparing themselves with the West, but to create something that is originally Japanese. However, we had to realize that it wasn't possible to bring out something originally Japanese. It wasn't in us to begin with, since we had been born after WWII and raised in a society, that was completely based on American culture...
Norimizu Ameya: In the mid eighties a Kayokyoku group called Onyanko club gained popularity which seemed to make perfect sense at that time..
SN:..which aslo touches on that aspect of 909...
NA: Yeah, you could think of it as relating to that subject; that phenomena of their popularity. But let me talk about how it came about. Up to that point pop music was copying Western styles, they were trying to sound like Americans. The Onyanku club implied a remarkable statement: We are not good and that's OK. Just letting them sing with all their might was probably in fact better than producing these powerful vocalists who tried to sound blacker than black. The Onyaku club was a direct response to this inferiority complex towards the West. However, the Onyanku Club was something produced and packaged. There was an innocense about them. A few years later girls would get in front of people and say openly that they were bad at singing and apologize for it: "I'm bad at singing but if you want to continue listening to it, then please do." Then there was this woman, Moritaka Chisato, who was very popular especially among Otaku. That was around '88. She had a fanatic following. The Onyanku club was not self realized, but Moritaka Chisato came out on her own with a debut big hit: "The Anti-Ability Proclamation". This song which celebrated a total lack of capability has also a historical analogy. It reminds me of "The Human Proclamation" which the Emperor made after WWII. Before the end of WWII the Japanese Emperor was not only a powerful head of state, but also considered a descendent of deities. He led the Japanese army through the war. It was only after Japan was defeated it did become apparant that our actions had been aggressions. It was at this time that he made "The Human Proclamation" denouncing all capabilities as Japan's leader. By throwing away his powerpeople could say that they were deceived by the Emperor. At this moment the notion of "anti-ability" began to apply to culture. When I first saw Aum Shinrikyo's election cars, with Japanese girls on the top of it, singing and dancing I was amazed. No other political party would do that. It was reminisent of Kayokyoku and its use of idols.
THE ECONOMIC MIRACLE, APOCALYPTIC PROPHECIES AND THE UNDIGESTED PAST
Talking about cute/guiltfree girls and Aum Shinrikyo many associate Asahara Shoko with Charles Manson and his era . He twisted that notion of love, peace and freedom around into satan worship. On the surface level there are some parallels: Just as Manson, Asahara played the guitar, both identified with Christ, Armageddon can be seen as Helter Skelter, even the use of psychedelic drugs is similar. Still, crucial situations are different. As Matsui Midori pointed out in 1994: "The expenditure practised in the States during the sixties far exceeds the scale of consumerism during the eighties, the years of Japanese 'bubble economy'. While in America, especially in the years of its capitalistic expansion, conspicious consumption was not irrelevant to the national ideals of the American dream, in Japan, consumption has always been accompanied by a sense of guilt. That guilt was not prompted by a rational, ethical reflection, but by the nostalgia for the "spirituality" forgotten in the process of overrapid modernization. That sense of guilt , in turn, produced the "myths of spirituality" and a tendency to rediscover Japan's ethnological origions, which, unleashed in the late 60's and 70's , came in the 80's to a climax ." The antiquity boom of the 70's was also fired by novelists , particulary Seicho Matsumoto, a well-known mystery writer with a passion for Japan's ancient past with its many unknowns. Around 1980 , an NHK (Japan Broacasting Corporation) television series covered massively on the archeological remains of the Silk Road and discoveries of major sites in Japan. In the 1980's Akira with its apocalyptic future vision appeared and in 1984 Shoko Asahara started his activities forming Aum, running a book publishing firm and yoga training centers. How did you experience the beginnings of this time ?
SN: In the 1970's when I was just at elementary school I read a lot about Nostradamus and his prophecies. There was an obsession at time with psychic phenomena which was massively promoted by mass media. This fascination with Armageddon appeared first with the end of the student demonstrations when a sort of ideological vacuum was felt. People were depolitisized and removed from history. In the 70's even art took a turn towards Zen: the motto was going back to nothingness. Psychic powers and prophecies fit in perfectly in this scenario. A surprising number of people believed that the end of the world would be in 1999.
I see this date also in relation to the Great Kanto Earthquake (1924) that killed 140.000 people, laid to waist two-thirds of Tokyo and flattened neighbouring Yokohama. Relying on historical knowledge -monstrous earthquakes have pummelled Kanto with clockwork regularity, once every 69 years on average- but also due to scientific prognosis Tokyo is expected to be hit by that earthquake before the decade is out,- and the ground shakes here almost everyday. Even looking at the nature and pace of city planning in Tokyo. It is not surprising to acknowledge a missing tangibility concerning ones environment.There is at least a sub concious effect on people.. But also the atomic bomb must have had some consequences, besides negative reminisences towards America.
SN: Of course, the idea of Armageddon goes also back to Hiroshima.There has always been a pattern of destruction and reconstruction in Japanese history eg. the Meiji Restoration was brought by the arrival of the "kurofune" (black ships): whatever we had built so far has been destroyed. This notion is omnipresent in people's minds. In the eighties the image of Armageddon was popular in Manga etc. It came to be called Japanese Cyberpunk which is actually quite different from Cyberpunk in the States. It generated out of this vacuum, that we have been talking about before, hence it has a different symbolisism.
NA: If Cyberpunk is supposed to be a vision of the near future, the Japanese Cyperpunk is more of nostalgic reference to the past. I have always felt that Japanese Cyberpunk is more about the end of WWII.
SN: And there is a need to analyze that. Otherwise it would be superficially passed as another clichee of Japan.
NA: Even talking about Blade Runner, I have to say that for me those are images of the past; and in Tetsuo I saw reflections of the poverty after WWII. Blade Runner reminded me so much of Akihabara and the bombed Dome of Hiroshima. You know, the electronics section of Akihabara used to be barracks at the end of WWII. It was a temporary structure that later became a high-tech image for the West. In the same way Blade Runner wasn't a story about the future for me, but reminisent of the past; bearing something very familiar and sympathetic.
PARASITARY VS. OPPOSING. POTENTIAL AND DANGER
To return once again to the issue of spirituality, I would like
out the role of Nakazawa Shinichi in this context. A religious
and postmodern philosopher of the new academist movement in Japan,
Nakazawa enjoys pop star status in this country. In 1990 he made
interviews with Asahara for the popular magazines SPA and Brutus,
spreading a rather ambigious and controversial attitude towards
thinking and vision. Frequent meetings between Asahara and other
intellectuals gradually expanded the public perception of the
which, at that time, was mainly distinguished by a negative attitude
supported by suspicions of Aum's involvement in the mysterious
disappearance of a lawyer who represented parents of Aum followers.
Nakazawa and Asada Akira had a debate in Shokun(July 95) on Aum
Shinrikyo. Their criticism was focused to dismantle Aum Shinrikyo's
approach as incompatible (and therefore unrealistic and wrong)
exsisting standards and structures. Beyond that, and probably
important, they repeatedly emphasize the misinterpretation of
a set of
contemporary philosophical thoughts based on Buddhist and Hindu
eventually encouraging Aum to pursue a '360-degree-change', proving
itself not only as a fruitless point of departure, but as a dangerous
stance. Their critical concern is, to a certain degreee, interlaced
personal irritation: more than 80% of Aum followers had read Nakazawa's
works, e.g. the popular bestseller "Mozart in Tibet"
(1984) in which the
Tibetan Buddhist concept of "shuke" (losening ones social
society) is of importance. One probably has to see these contradictions
in context with the postmodern debate in Japan which reached in
summit. The discomfort felt with postmodern currents in Japan
was not, as
the critic Karatani Kojim points out, "because the observations
postmodern theorists did not fit Japan, but because they fit
closely. There was a subtle difference in the Japanese situation.
than maintaining an awareness of the ineluctable nature of modernity,
Japanese postmodernism transcended modernity in a single stroke.
not difficult to reject Japanese modernity, for its history is
short." He further expressed his strong misgivings about
"anti-rational" theories of "deconstruction"
and "postmodernism" into a
society in which the lack of structural rationality itself has
constituted the matrix of Japanese totalitarian sentiment and
"structurelessness", in turn, was nurtured by contemporary
It was recoginzed by Sawaragi Noi that Japanese art should exploit and practise a critique of commodity oriented consummer culture from within. A strategy , in harsh contrast to the Japanese avantgarde, that uses the concept of political opposition. It consequently takes an isolated outsider position within Japanese society also bears a sense of incommunicability. What the politically active music critic Gen Hirai describes in " A Personal and Provisional Report of an Orientation of Japanese Art=Politics in the 80's" as the emergence of a new relational field between art and politics in the late 70's" represents only an exceptional minority. "In the 80's, more than one hundred musicians, actors, dramatists, performers, cineasts and so on, started to connect themselves with the struggles of daily laborers living in Sanya, [ a slum area in Tokyo].." .
SN: I wonder about the "real" political value of their work, or rather its political influence on society. Isn't it rather somekind of protest? What are the consequences? The old fashioned notion of left and right , and politically conscious art being necessarily leftish, is not applicable anymore. For me contemporary political art should analyze the common basis of left and right, which motivates society.
How about Eye?
SN: Yamatsuke Eye is not even to be seen in the conventional context of avantgrade and leftish politics. Eye is not experimental. His ability and know how has been taken and popularized: his work is sellable. Yoshihide Otomo on the contrary, is still using the concept of avantgarde. The political nature lies in the method. And that's why Yamatsuke Eye is more interesting for me than Otomo.
In the introduction text of the catalogue for Anomaly I (1993),
elaborates on the origin of current coordinates for modern art
calling it latteraly written, as opposed to the vertical Japanese
system. He recognizes the present condition of Japan's identity
after decades of Internationalism and Orientalism in a state of
the outside an ideal mirror to reflect its image. "The latterally
written Japanese modern art [...] complies the "modern art"
stutters, in the language of "pop" [...] the best model
for [this, is] in
the thinkings of Gilles Deleuze: where he takes literal styles
stutters of native language. And this logic of sense is deeply
the senses of the artists here; who have chosen strange names
Kenji Yanobe in katakana, Gabin Ito [Yamatsuke Eye and probably
including himself:Sawaragi Noi], sounding too comical to be Japnese
names. There is no doubt that these strange names will spoil the
aesthetics-fostered by the landscape of modernity- of this country
seems that for some people these theories -one cannot deny their
currency- almost function as a religion. But maybe it is a natural
, a matter of different opinions and views, that seperates those
others. However, I would like to talk about the issue of groupism
cult in contemporary Japanese youth culture. An issue surely not
discuss after Aum and with somebody, whose work might suffer
misinterpretation and/or undergo legitimate critique. But before
the conversation back to Norimizu Ameya I would like to mention
The formation of cult like groups around one star came to its climax also during the eighties. Pop stars on the one hand are not rarely distinguished by a pool of loyal fans, who as in the case of Okada Yukiko follow their idol even into death. (The idol singer Okada Yukiko died in 1987, which triggered some 50 youths suicide). Musicians, such as Heino Keiji on the other side, with a stronger affirmation to sub cultural ethics attract an audience, not less loyal, but distinctively more isolated: to be part of the fan audience is not only a matter of commitment but also a question of being initiated or not: a phenomena probably most clearly observable in the career of Les Rallizes des Nudes, a Japanese band which appears only once in a year in public, with flyers promoting their gig which resemble pamphlets announcing a secret conspiracy. In 1994 they played in front of an audience and in the same concert hall as George Clinton with Bootsy Collins did a few months earlier.
Looking at the work of Technocrat in a broader context, and taking his audience into account one cannot deny the presence of slightly cultic elements. You involve the audience in your projects at times. In " Coming out, HIV" you needed 200 people to contribute their blood, in order to realize this project. Would it have been possible without a cult following?
NA: Well, first of all I cannot agree with you that I have a cult following. When I started with theatre in the early eighties, people kept on coming again and our theatre group became popular. Not that I was that immensely famous, but when I decided to turn towards art, I had accquired already a certain recognition.
People often describe you as charismatik. After all you are the leader of Technocrat. Do you have authority?
NA: Technocrat is an art group, but it doesn't have a stable core of members or organized structure. Members change with each project and the people who join are specialists in their fields e.g. sound engineers, computer programmers, medicians,etc. They contribute their specific knowledge.
Which role does religion play in your work?
NA: I see religion as having two different aspects. First there is the awe-inspiring absolutism of worship. Then there is also a finer system of beliefs and thoughts which we each apply to our daily lives. We can selectively take things from this system that we feel will lead us closer to redemption. In this way religion, in a sense, becomes a set of facts and information to be benefitted from. And at that point, I don't think it even has to be called religion anymore. Science, for instance, is the same thing. Take for example, the concept of the food chain. One animal is devoured by another, and death essentially becomes the source of nourishment and life for the predator. Buddhism speaks of the same thing through reincarnation. And if you consider DNA and hereditary genes, you can see a similiar precept. We are born from our parents genes and will pass them on through our children in an eternal chain. When Aum first came out, they appeared to merge religion and science. People couldn't understand this connection. For me it was interesting and comprehensive. But it quickly became apparant that it was not science, but rather "science fiction" based solely on mysticism and prophecy .
The idea of deconstructing social patterns and obsolete conventions in society e.g. getttig rid of the familiy structure, is central to Aum as well as central to Technocrat's work.
NA: Taking the concept of family, and simply destroying it is
What we focus on is a process of sorting out the positive and
sides. Things that are supposed to have tradition are actually
old. Traditional Japanese notions mostly derive from the time
Meiji Restauration; they are merely 100 years old and highly artificial.
You have to analyze it.
[ Translation by Kim Marohn ] [ Images: Technocrat ] [ Thanks to Shikata Yukiko and Matthew Rosin ]
[ part of this interview has been published by SPEX ]
SAWARAGI Noi and Krystian Woznicki are part of Ulrike Gabriel's VIEWS project
SAWARAGI Noi was born in Chichibu, Saitama Prefecture in 1962. After receiving a B.A. in Philosofhy from Doshisha University in 1986, he was on the editorial staff of Bijutsu Techo until 1990. His publications include Simyureshonizumu(Simulationis, 1991) and Shihon-shugi notakitsubo(Waterfall Basin of Capitalism, 1993).
Krystian Woznicki was born in Glatz/Poland. Formed ZUCK SHOW, an agency for visual and audio arts, with Klaas Glenewinkel in Hannover, 1991. Established a ZUCK SHOW office in Tokyo, 1992.
Projects (selected): 1992 >Tokyo Scene< a TV Special with Nest, Demi Semi Quaver, Shojono Tomo and others in collaboration with TTParty [Fukushima Teruhiko, Akita Takaaki] @Et Cetera, SDR Germany , 1992 >Tokyo Underground< a Japanese Filmseries with works by: Kurosawa Jun, Kato Itaru, Kuroiwa Toshiya and others in collaboration with TTParty @ Cinevideo 5, Tollhaus/Karlsruhe , 1993 >Tokyo Angel Hospital< a Multimedia Performance with works by: Kurosawa Jun, Fukui Mikari in collaboration with Willem Velthoven, TTParty @ Roxy, Amsterdam , 1993 >Tokyo Underground< a Japanese Filmtour with works by: Fukui Shojin, Kurosawa Jun in collaboration with: Ian Kerkhov, Inka Guertler, Jacinta Hin, TTParty @ 13 cinemas in W/NEurope , 1995 >Some Japanese Films of the 90's< a library @Superball Homepage