This last summer I took classes in Tokyo, Japan through the excellent Sophia University.
For a normal, chemically balanced individual, a trip to Japan is an amazing opportunity to be immersed in a foreign culture.
For a State Certified Nerdosopher such as myself, it’s a pilgrimage to the holy land itself. Just about every level of modern geek culture in the West has been directly influenced by Japanese pop culture.
In the video game industry, Nintendo revived the home console market with the Nintendo Entertainment System and continues to dominate the market. In comic books, the mid-90s saw a number of artists like Joe Maduriera draw inspiration from manga, which shaped the modern look of super hero comics.
Pigeon dating simulators? Those only exist in Japan because the human species can only handle so much point blank insanity.
That said, it’s one thing to read about a mystical land that worships hyper sexualized illustrations of 14-year-olds and another to actually see that culture in person.
Here are some of the weirdest things I learned while staying in downtown Tokyo.
Firstly, Miku Hatsune is the punch line to the music industry.
Miku Hatsune is a Japanese pop idol. She has sold thousands of CDs, has her face plastered on ads all over the city, has starred in dozens of movies, has her own video game series and has performed in concerts all over the world.
She also isn’t real. Miku is a green-haired anime character that was designed as a kind of mascot for singing synthesizer software Vocaloid 2, a program that simulates a human voice through combinations of Japanese phonemes.
Miku, somehow, became popular enough to be considered a celebrity, to the point where fans will pay money to see a hologram in concert. Think Tupac at Coachella.
I knew about Miku before I arrived in Japan, but the fact that people will obsess over her on the same level as a real human musician threw me into an existential crisis. I just can’t understand the appeal of Miku.
Her music isn’t terrible. It just sounds like a computer trying to sing on key and almost succeeding. Some of her faster songs sound like what I imagine Siri goes through when she has a seizure.
Despite this, just about every geek and non-geek loves Miku. I will never understand why.
Another weird thing is that in Japan, cute is a form of social protest.
Cute is absolutely everywhere in Japan. Everything has a cute mascot, even buildings. Women’s magazines give detailed descriptions on how to be cute every moment a woman is alive, including at a funeral or during an affair.
All of the local police departments have cute mascots. The Japanese Self-Defense Forces, the closest thing the country has to a military, have cute little characters that encourage recruitment.
The strange thing is that the cute obsession is an unintentional form of social protest. Japan had student protests in the 60s where entire college campuses were taken over by the students.
These protests failed miserably, which led to increased feelings of resentment toward the already firmly established social norm. If you’re a man, you work at a company until the day you die. If you’re a woman, you can work at an office or almost anywhere until you get married.
Women who aren’t married by the time they hit 30 are called something that roughly translates to “loser dog.”
As a result, young people began to view adulthood as a crushing grind of tedium. They began obsessing over cute trinkets and “Hello Kitty” as a way of holding onto their childhood.
When they actually reached maturity, they still held onto and adored cute characters as a way of saying, “hey, forget your stupid adult world! I’m going to wear 4,000 “Hello Kitty” cell phone charms and fall in love with girls who intentionally act clumsy and childishly ignorant!”
The rest of Japan responded by slowly changing to resemble a 12-year-old girl’s brain.
Finally, cat cafés exist.
During my stay, I went to a cat café, a place where you can pay about $5 and pet cats or kittens for half an hour. They also have bunny cafés and dog cafés. You can pay almost nothing to play with an animal while drinking a latté.
If that alone hasn’t convinced you to call the Study Abroad office to study in Japan immediately, then congratulations! You do not exist.
Published Sept. 19, 2012