Japan has, at least since the 1980’s, been associated with the future. Ridley Scott based the set of his sci-fi classic Blade Runner partly on Osaka. Likewise, William Gibson’s Neuromancer (and a number of his other novels), the book that popularized the term cyberspace along with the cyberpunk genre, was set in partly in Tokyo. Both artists appreciated the hyper-consumerist, apocalyptic atmosphere saturating those cities. The overflow of concrete facades fixed with neon lights screaming shop names at potential customers crowding the streets: millions of ants swarming a discarded six-pack of coke. Those artists, and many others, recognized that testament to ugliness, concrete, and shopping, as a sublime message from the future.
In the last 150 years Japan has undergone two periods of dislocating, rapid modernization. The arrival of Commodore Perry and the Meiji Era, during which the culture received “a near-lethal dose of futurity” from the West; and the period starting with the end of WWII, when it received a very lethal dose of atom bomb, was occupied by America, and then rebuilt itself into an economic superpower. Modernizing, like farting, is an invisible verb noticeable only by the nouns it produces. You hear something (maybe), smell something (definitely), and only know what happened afterward. With modernization the evidence is much more varied but usually no less offensive.
Junkspace by Rem Koolhaas
So what is this evidence? One term, coined by architect and urban theorist Rem Koolhaas, is junkspace. Koolhaas, who is currently building a 230 meter anti-skyscraper headquarters for China’s state television, first came onto the radar in the 1970’s with his book Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto. Since then he’s published three books filled with quirky data, ill displays of Photoshop prowess, and influential essays. His latest book, Content, published in 2004, contains a 7,500 word, unparagraphed essay that would make John D’Agata drool, where Koolhaas explains what modernization sounds and smells like. He calls it junkspace.
The series of acerbic epigrams that constitutes the essay describes junkspace as, in the abstract sense, “what coagulates while modernization is in progress, its fallout;” and in the concrete sense, as a shopping mall, the “product of air conditioning and escalators.” The connect-the-dots feel of the prose is loose enough that one can apply it with equal ease to America (the fat, slovenly, fast food-loving superpower that invented the modern shopping mall), the emirate of Dubai (the oil-drunk, Arab dictatorship that builds islands in the shape of starfish and malls containing ski slopes), and Japan (inventor of karaoke).
The calculus of junkspace has as some of its variables: the host country’s size, population, GNP, rate of modernization, and length of time since modernization began. In the case of America these factors resulted in a “country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between.” Arizona and New Mexico, for example, look as if the settlers, right after slaughtering the Native Americans, erected tombstones for them stretching out to the horizon in the form of cookie-cutter gated communities and strip-malls. Only a truly modern sensibility could have produced this architectural sequence: Wal-Mart, Starbucks, Greenway, Costco, McDonald’s, Barnes & Noble, Wal-mart, Greenway, Costco, Starbucks, Starbucks, Wal-mart, McDonald’s, etc., ad infinitum, a capitalist Pi in three dimensions.Japanese Junkspace is a tacky stew of vending machines, hair salons, love hotels, karaoke… Click To Tweet
Japan’s variables have different values, which have naturally led to a quite different expression. Japan’s population is about half that of America’s, at a still large 125 million. Those people are squeezed into a basically unarable landmass roughly the size of California. The start and the rate of modernization, which have already been mentioned, are both tied to getting nuked. The resultant late (compared to the West), violent, rapid modernization spawned a junkspace so rabid it is consuming all artifacts of the traditional culture (except the unrepentant male chauvinism and blatant xenophobia which are a part of so many traditional cultures). The vector of junkspace in Japan follows the trajectory of the toilet’s evolution: from squat to space age.
Japanese Junkspace is a tacky stew of vending machines, hair salons, love hotels, karaoke equipment and pachinko parlors in a “coagulate” of gray concrete. Vending machines that propagate the banalities of Japanese culture: “Samuidesune! Nanmaekiteruno?” before dispensing liter-bottles of cheap gin. Elaborate Disneyland or Christmas-themed love hotels: Dress like Mickey Mouse! Fuck while crucified! Vending machines that provide white button-down shirts and power ties to salarymen who drink bottles of shochu, puke on themselves, sleep in parks. The depressing odor of stale cigarettes and old people filling multi-story, baroque buildings dedicated to the most vulgar, degenerate activities—playing pachinko. Karaoke bars with dragons or giant crabs moulded to their façades, full of people that think they’re participating in a legitimate social activity. Electronics stores that sell VHS tapes, DVDs, and memory cards, all featuring “School Girl Rape 13 with Bukkake.” The sculptural hairstyles of hostesses, the mini-skirts of schoolgirls—both of which defy the known laws of physics. The phalanxes of “freeters” that march the streets, arms at acute angles, bearing the weight of dozens of shopping bags stuffed with designer goods. Love hotels renting video cameras that feed into closed-circuit TV systems. The millions of kilowatts of electricity used to make a street full of ramen shops, low-end love hotels, hair salons, and talking vending machines, shine brighter than Times Square. Going to the only cornball club in town and meeting a nurse, a dental assistant, an OL, and an elderly-care worker, and having them all say that their hobby is shopping. Taking them to love hotels and dressing them in a rented schoolgirl uniforms; double-penetrating with the Hello Kitty vibrator and the Pokemon anal-beads, torturing with the Moomin nipple-clamps, capturing it all with the keitai’s 45 second movie feature. Junior high school students burning through their ennui by using their arms as ashtrays. Elementary school students stabbing each other with scissors. The generic skyscrapers like Fukuoka Tower, erected solely—as the publisher of this magazine put it—to sell postcards to vulgar tourists. Schoolgirls prostituting themselves to crusty salarymen in order to pay phone bills. Gullible perverts buying schoolgirls’ used underwear on keitai auctions. And so on…Until?
Anyone who has watched or read sci-fi knows that the Future is a shitty place. The corollary to this is that, since the Future is always the Now, it is always going to be kind of shitty. When we look at the Future as represented in art, it seems appallingly shitty because of all the unfamiliar junkspace depicted. This is what is meant by “future shock.” We need time to acclimate to new forms of it. To inoculate against the Future, we need maximum exposure to its weakened form, the Now. Junkspace is the “residue” of what in the West was once called Progress. It is as natural for humans to Progress as it is for them to fart; similarly, sometimes the results are funny, other times offensive, occasionally they are dangerous. Our racial instinct is an express train speeding us towards some exciting destination, and our car is populated with farting salarymen and ass-grabbing chikan. Make the best of it. Breathe deep and grab yourself some ass—you can’t get off the train.