During our roundtable on YKK, TCJ‘s Dirk Deppey took exception to the uncoordinated lukewarm feelings we have for the book. Fair enough, but I still disagree with this:

“So I fail to see how a reasonable person can describe Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou as reactionary.”

If I want to be precise, I should’ve said “So I didn’t see anthing resembling reactionary sentiments in Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou.” You never know — some argument here could change my mind, I suppose.

Both quotes are his, from this comments thread. I introduced the term, then wondered if it was accurate. Dirk defined it in that same thread as “an attempt to roll back some aspect of recent political or cultural change to which the author has objections.”

That’s what YKK is. Here are two reasons, three points:

1.The Park

Google Maps satellite image of the area around Minato Mirai 21, the building complex shown in the art from my first post. On the left, a shot of a part of metro Tokyo that runs uninterrupted to Yokohama. (It’s 30 minutes on the Japan Rail Yokosuka line from Tokyo Station to Yokohama Station.) Click to enlarge; the “A” is the building. Play with it in Google Earth for a while and see how many Manhattans you can fit in metro Tokyo.

In the scene, Ashinano puts Alpha on a picturesque hill by the tallest Minato Mirai building. I’ve been to Yokohama a couple of times, and the two crummy parks I know would be underwater. She might be at the park on top of the International Port Terminal, but it’s mostly twisted metal and boardwalk. Maybe the boards composted.

So there’s no green space in reality but YKK shows some. So what?

There used to be green space, but Japan’s government-mandated construction policies erased it. They have a one-party democracy whose main voting block is the construction industry. In fact, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is so intertwined with builders that they call it “the construction state” (????), and a main policy platform in the post-Bubble years (90s to now) has been construction subsidy. Thousands of small towns rely on construction of needless roads and monuments for jobs, and fiscal policy ensures that houses don’t gain value as they age. This ensures that the construction state can step in, tear down the “old” houses like Legos, and throw up new ones in a couple of weeks. (A friend of mine bought a plot of land in order to restore the 200-year old farmhouse on it; he had to negotiate hard for the seller not to tear down the house, because the land was worth less with the house on it. Even then the seller thought he was nuts.)

Everyone I’ve talked to about it, from friends to acquaintances, just throw up their hands. There are moments when community groups have blocked a few of the most ridiculous construction projects, but not very many.

(Lately, the Democratic Party of Japan has made some inroads and there’s talk the LDP’s days are numbered. DPJ’s head is an old LDP bruiser, and they both seem to be owned by the guy who runs the Yomiuri newspaper, or whoever owns him. I’ll believe change when I see it– because PM Aso’s stimulus package will be full of construction projects.)

Given this reality, when I see a work of fantasy hit “Reset” to avoid dealing with the present reality– and all works of speculative fantasy deal at heart with their present reality– I call that reactionary, “an attempt to roll back some aspect of recent political or cultural change to which the author has objections.” New Engineering deals with the construction state in an imaginative, ironic way; YKK pretends it never happened.

2. Shopping Street

In YKK vol. 1, the only shopping trip takes Alpha to an old-fashioned shopping street. The stores are like the ones currently dying in all cities and many towns, mom-and-pops where the owners know you by name. It’s like the street markets found throughout Asia, embattled by Western models of efficiency and scale.

The American-style supermarket has taken off in Japan, putting pressure on small family operations, like the two excellent hole-in-the-wall sushi bars shuttered in a one-year span in the town where I lived. Both owners cited the fact that supermarket sushi was just too cheap to compete with. In fact, they survived longer than should have been expected, and you can still buy Panasonic goods in downtown shops as big as a closet. This is a political issue, as the mom-and-pops have enjoyed protections that drive foreign economists nuts. If all that matters is the numbers, they make no sense, but identity and webs of relationships matter here. This is especially true in agriculture, as Japan has fought liberalization of the rice trade for years, even though farmers have a median age in the 900s. As far as I can tell, the core’s Japanese identity. Rice is life is Japan, and our rice tastes different than Thai rice or California rice. I guess eating that stuff throws local identity too much into question, even though coffee shops like Alpha’s probably serve 30 kinds of bread.

While I support a farm subsidy for a variety of reasons, the ag policy’s meaningless unless it addresses wholesale rural depopulation. Some manga, like Iou Kuroda’s Nasu, toy with the idea in a playful, satisfying way. Ashinano hits reset again, rolling back the last 60 years with a convenient apocalypse that kills all the economists but not the supply lines to coffee-growing lands, all while turning tarmac into healthy loam.

Maybe everybody’s dying off with great poignancy and there’s a spaceship towards the end– I’ll find out now that I’ve committed to read later volumes– but under normal circumstances I wouldn’t get that far for all the corn being served up in the first one. Comfy old-fashioned shopping streets and wizened leathery farmers with huge crops of watermelons and no drinking problems. I know it’s a gentle vision, any sins surely vestal, and it does remind me of Miyzazaki’s works, the best compliment I can pay. His works, however, are defiantly pastoral, always furiously engaged with the present. In his script for Whisper of the Heart, the unbelievably romantic ending, an eye-roller for the jaded among us, came as a riposte to what he saw as the failure of the younger generations to commit to much of anything. YKK‘s shares more with unending pop waves of uncomplicated nostaglia, most recently for the 1950s as shown in works like the manga/movie Always: Sunset on Third Street. When you can make the “good old days” the poverty & destruction of the postwar, that’s some doing.


“Reactionary” here I think is more cultural than political, though it’s a reaction against a political reality. And while it mirrors the tendency I see in left-wing Western environmentalists like Derrick Jensen and the Peak Oil cheerleaders, who seem to pray to Ma Nature every night that Western industrialism collapses because then we’ll all surely go back to the ecovillage, and the conservatism of those on the Western Right who pretend Real America lives in dying small towns though half the world lives in cities, while it mirrors those, I think trying to connect the “reactionary” I’ve argued for in YKK to any kind of Western political “reactionary” is a stretch to say the least. Not as much of a stretch as Amity Shales’ creative writing project in WaPo, but a stretch nonetheless.

So I’d say I used the right word with too much brevity, and let the associations it carried get away from my original point. I still have the reasoned view that YKK‘s picture of the world is reactionary, while admitting that someone without knowledge of what I outlined above or the same care for it I have will likely take another view.

To close, I’m reminded of the movie Amélie, which I liked well enough and which was universally praised in the French press on its release. Then Serge Kaganski chewed out Amélie’s throat in Libération, and Frédéric Bonnaud summed up the controversy that followed in Film Comment:

the so-called poetry that trickles through Amélie depends on a profoundly reactionary impulse – the reinstatement of a cliché snapshot image of France in order to reaffirm its enduring value.

Switch France & Japan: while YKK is not like Amélie in scale– there’s no tsunami of fois gras and Renoirs– it is in kind.

That’s it.


Footnote books in English for further reading, if like me you find this kind of thing interesting:

Alex Kerr, Dogs & Demons.
A breezy rant, it’s not great, and FOTB Westerners discover it and overquote it when they’re frustrated that Japan doesn’t flatter their expectations. It’s a poorly-written, or at least translated, book. Kerr wrote it in Japanese, which might explain why the research is so thin. He relies almost entirely on Japanese newspaper sources, which do little investigative journalism and are ruled by press clubs that restrict access to information. I picked up the book hoping for research on par with Robert Jackall’s Moral Mazes. It’s more like a 200-page blog screed with lots of links to nothing but Yahoo News. Still, it’s the English book that will give you some idea of what I’m talking about.

Gavan McCormack, The Emptiness of Japanese Affluence. This is academic version I was looking for.

Or you can just go to The Economist and do a search for “LDP” and “construction.” You’ll get 81 articles, an afternoon’s reading and a sick feeling in your stomach.

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