Japan would like to be known for its temples, shrines, natural beauty, onsen, kimonos, and amazing food. Instead, it’s mostly known abroad for inscrutable anime and game shows where people are flung naked out of toilets without warning or screaming girls’ heads are placed into cages with lizards.
Japan seems to have something of a “wacky” problem. It’s odd, because Japanese people are probably the least wacky on Earth. It’s really just that the wackiest stuff makes it abroad.
Foreigners are the really wacky side of this dynamic: Americans (aka the rest of the world) love Japan’s extreme game shows and weird video games, while the Japanese love cripplingly boring cooking shows, how-to books, and listening to Michael Jackson.
The Frenzied Pursuit of Paperwork
Sianne Ngai, an English professor at Stanford University, is the author of the forthcoming Our Aesthetic Categories, which analyzes what we mean by “cute,” “interesting,” and “zany.”
By understanding “zaniness,” we can see why the niche subcultures that form the image of “wacky Japan” abroad are so satisfying.
The dictionary defines “a zany” (noun) as “a ludicrous, buffoonish character in old comedies who attempts feebly to mimic the tricks of the clown.” Ngai explains zaniness through Atari 2600 video game characters: Picture the hamburger clerk running between hamburger stations trying desperately to keep up with “orders” as they come in.
Ngai says zaniness is, specifically, a reaction to the anxieties of work. A talented clown is paid to entertain us, and succeeds. A zany clown tries really hard to entertain us but fails. The zany clown is an idiot.
That’s the weirdly racist role the “Wacky Japanese” stereotype plays in the West: We watch some “wacky Japan” YouTube video and we say “WTF” because it’s failing to connect with us. Outside of embracing the lunacy of it – reading it as a Monty Python sketch – we’re actually entertained by Japan’s failure to entertain us. When we laugh at the screaming lizard girls, we are also laughing at the idea that it’s being presented as entertainment.
If we agree with Ngai – and maybe you don’t – then that whole lizard fiasco is funny because we hate our jobs.
Bear with me here: What’s so satisfying about frenzied insanity in Japanese game shows or extreme anime is that it’s a release from stress, specifically, work stress. The Burger Time chef is a satisfying character because we’re playing at doing his job instead of doing it.
Watch enough “wacky Japan” stuff and you start to see how none of it makes sense in any other Western context: We pretend to care about work, and we pretend to be entertained.
Real Japan plays into it: There’s a lot of frantic running around. Women run across the office for no reason, employees never stop moving or cleaning, people stand outside of shops screaming nonsense into bull horns with tremendous enthusiasm.
All of this is a frenzy, and all of it is fake, and all of it is the satisfaction of watching a spectacular failure.
The Broken Promises of Happiness
In Japan, people pretend they are busy while at work. To relax, they often end up pretending they’re having fun. All that simulated energy – the clerks shouting through bull horns at the shop – is intended to be fun, when it’s actually sort of nuts.
Zaniness is “hyperfun,” a striving for fun that intensifies into desperation and then surrender. Zany fun is a reaction to meaningless incitements to be entertained. Zany fun has nothing to do with enjoying yourself. Zany fun is about the appearance of fun, often at the expense of fun. And that’s what makes Japanese culture so “weird” when seen from abroad.
I hate faking fun, because being inauthentic feels like work. I don’t want to be told to have fun, and I especially resent being pressured into faking it. It’s work disguised at leisure.
Heckling these lame events is a safe little stand-in for telling off my boss – I get the emotional satisfaction of calling out a bit of bullshit. I want the fun-production machinery to break down so I can stop being the work-version of myself and actually become myself.
I’ve worked in American retail. I’ve seen plenty of failing clowns disguised as regional managers as they made dumb efforts at forcing me to have a good time while under constant threat of layoffs, and I’ve taken pride in my resistance.
The people who go along with it are suckers: The guy who takes office morale-boosting activities too seriously, wears a clown wig on casual Fridays, gets really excited about productivity contests.
He’s ignoring completely what Adorno calls “the perpetually broken promises of happiness” whereas I – the annoying workplace hipster – am wallowing in it. I don’t think it’s preferable, per se, but the hipster position requires a sense of entitlement to something better, a sense that someday, I’d leave this dead-end job. It takes a healthy dose of hope to be that cynical, while the zany sucker has resigned himself to the place he’s ended up.
This, I find, is the same as my role in Japan.
The Tyranny of the Zanies
Japan holds no grudge against the “perpetually broken promise of happiness.” Japan jumps 100 percent into interoffice softball leagues and corporate retreats. The difference between real fun and pretend fun – “ironic detachment” – is tiny, if it exists at all.
The appearance of things is considered, more or less, to be the reality of things.
The Japanese have words for this concept: Honne and tatemae. Your real feeling is honne, but the mask is tatemae. The literal translation of tatemae is “facade,” but the cultural nuance has it more in line with “pretense.”
The truth can be revealed through the pretense of tatemae – so long as both people know the truth, they can talk in circles around that truth without ever landing on it directly.
It’s not lying, it’s just… not honesty.
The pretense of “fun” and the pretense of “work” are, more or less, the same. People are constantly shuffling paperwork around, staying late with nothing to do, cultivating the pretense of hard work. If you look like a good worker, pretend to be attentive, dress properly, etc – basically, “preserve social harmony” – then you are a good worker, regardless of what you actually do.
The same can be said of having fun. You should keep the pretense of having fun at all costs. The Japanese don’t see it as zany, it’s just a kind of social grace.
This dedication to the pretense of fun is maddening to me, because I have a darker emotional disposition. Not sharing in the collective embrace of surface appearances often leaves me feeling alienated and isolated. It’s slowly developed into chronic low-level social anxiety.
The politeness, the cultivated appearance of agreement, preserving perfect surfaces, and the refusal to tell the truth (and to do it, maddeningly, “without lying”): All of it is profoundly Japanese, and cracks in that surface are rare (see Karaoke).
Sometimes other Westerners in Japan take on these habits and begin to value social and “professional” appearance over reality. Fake it till you make it. Those interactions are psychologically disorienting for me to the point of total cultural vertigo. A foreigner following tatemae is not only profoundly pretentious, but also has no excuse: Japan may not have a word for “lies of omission,” but the West does.
There’s nothing more annoying than expats who forget that, and try to sever their ties to reality to float around in a profoundly meaningless socially constructed sky. Zaniness, I think, goes a long way toward explain the tensions between “assimilated” and “unassimilated” expatriates in Japan.
Falseness with Good Conscience
Say what you want about Nietzsche, but he hated that shit, too. Social masks were example ichiban of the drift from reality sweeping modern man. Here, he describes the encroaching theatricality of the Western world, but his description of actors might as well be a critique of tatemae:
“Falseness with a good conscience; the delight in simulation exploding as a power that pushes aside one’s so-called ‘character,’ flooding it and at times extinguishing it; the inner craving for a role and mask, for appearance; an excess of the capacity for all kinds of adaptations that can no longer be satisfied in the service of the most immediate and narrowest utility.”
Americans spend a lot of time thinking about intentions and being true to ourselves, arguing that if we look out for ourselves first, then we will find our rightful place in the world. In Japan, you find your rightful place, and then bring your inner self into alignment with it.
The Japanese have a very specific way of doing practically everything, and if you follow those rules, everyone seems pretty happy.
So people pretend to have fun when they are “supposed” to be having fun. Sitting and complaining that you’re bored is annoying in any culture, but because of honne and tatemae, I have no idea if people are actually having fun, or merely refusing to acknowledge that they aren’t.
This can seem two-faced, or dishonest. But I don’t think it’s as cynical as that among the Japanese. There’s just a social pressure to make sure everyone else is having a good time, which means pretending to have a good time. Telling the truth in these situations is selfish, because you express a truth that affects others negatively.
(A note to the generality police: Of course, plenty of Japanese people have plenty of authentic fun in Japan. What I’m talking about is how people react when they “should be” having fun, but aren’t).
Putting the “FU” into Fun
Japan’s zany stereotype comes from its subcultures, but foreign audiences don’t actually enjoy these “wacky” video games, soft drinks, or game shows, we enjoy that they are presented as entertainment that fails to entertain.
The failure of entertainment to entertain an audience can be called “zany” under Ngai’s definition, and Ngai says that “zaniness” is a reaction to shattering the illusions of work. But inside Japan, there’s nothing particularly “zany” about it, because the illusions of work and play are universally understood and accepted: Masks are a kind of social grace, not a barrier to authenticity.
So, the culture being produced and exported from Japan is profoundly zany when seen through a foreign lens – but mostly, it’s ignored within Japanese borders.
But this leaves us with a question: Do the Japanese have fun?
They never adopted the word, which suggests that the “fun” concept is a clumsy fit into Japanese culture. They have “hobbies” they do alone and they “play” with friends. “Let’s enjoy!” is more understood than “let’s have fun!” Fun requires leisure, and leisure is selfish.
This is where true zaniness makes its appearance in Japan. Those subcultures are obviously reflecting a mirror on Japanese society, and that is it’s unusual embrace of the work ethic.
Leisure here is only acceptable if it looks like work. The Japanese put intense effort into their recreational activities (see: Bowling). People spend free time in Japan with stressful efforts or highly repetitive tasks. It’s spent in productivity and competition. Shooting an arrow, running, or playing guitar isn’t fun, it’s menial labor disguised as fun.
If there is a sense of the “perpetually broken promise of happiness” in Japan, that feeling is replaced with a frantic dedication to achieving insane degrees of technical skill. This might be a perfectly logical sublimation of that despair, but it also looks a little crazy.
That craziness is a fertile place for critique by artists on the fringes of Japanese culture, and that’s the stuff that ends up exported abroad.
Case in point, this scene from the “WTF Japan” classic, Funky Forest – this, basically, sums up leisure time in Japan:
The public display of authenticity is a Western affectation, for better or for worse. If we look at the Japanese and see a zany expression of assembly line anxiety, I wonder what kind of terms they’d apply to the zany existential hysteria of the Western world.
If you LOVE Zany, Quirky, Wacky WTF!? Japan stereotypes (WOW!!!), you might kind of “like” This Japanese Life on Facebook.