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Monday, December 10, 2012

Geeky-Girly Innovation: A Japanese Subculturalist's Guide to Technology and Design

Geeky-Girly Innovation: A Japanese Subculturalist's Guide to Technology and Design
Hardback: 296 pages
Publisher: Stone Bridge Press (July 24, 2012)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1611720028
Author: Morinosuke Kawaguchi

First published in Japanese in 2007, Geeky-Girly Innovation is marketed as a how-to-innovate guide applicable to any country, the main point being 'just add subculture!'. Given that Kawaguchi spends almost all his time detailing his ten "rules" of Japanese technological design, which, he posits, are an outgrowth of the otaku (geek) and gal (girly) subcultures peculiar to Japan, this is a dubious claim. Nevertheless, such a focus on Japan alone is intriguing enough, and, at their best, the book's rules - really more like synoptic observations - provide real insights into the origins of well-known Japanese innovations such as Japan's washlet toilets and more obscure items like a calorie-free cure for stomach growls.

It is a pity, then, that two factors work against the book's success for the Western reader: the repetitious nature of Kawaguchi's circumlocutory zuihitsu essay style, which admittedly is itself a feature of the culture it portrays; and the passage of time. The first point could have been addressed by more ruthless editing of the original to suit the straighter English style without obscuring the points, but the second calls for more substantial revision. The English edition has not been updated for the 2010s, save for one fleeting reference to the Fukushima meltdown of 2011. Thus the cited cultural exemplars are half a decade behind: Madonna, Morning Musume and cellphones rather than Lady Gaga, AKB48 and smartphones. However much the tactility of the physical cellphone keyboard may have been a Japanese innovation reflecting a "compulsion to touch", extolling its virtues in preference to the touchscreen seems 'out of touch' in the current tablet era. Perhaps that explains why Japan is now playing catch-up to the U.S. in this technological realm.

One could argue that there is also a whiff of the outdated in the extreme gender polarisation that informs the author's characterisation of modern Japan, casting as it does young, sexualised females as the object of attention of geeky guys, who together somehow synthesise Japanese innovation. He praises moe anthropomorphism - the personification of an inanimate object as a sexy, girlish 'image character' - for helping produce Japan's advanced interactive technologies, but much later tut-tuts at unspecified "discriminatory or sexist" attitudes in society. Though Kawaguchi does not care to identify it as such, perhaps an example of such attitudes can be found on the "cover of the manga version of the 2005 White Paper on Defense" which "shows a girl holding down a lightly billowing skirt to hide her panties", an 'image character' that citizens of Okinawa living near US military bases might have something to say about.

There are several examples of such eyebrow-raising contradictions in the text. Some amount to paradoxes that bespeak an essential feature of Japanese society: "Perhaps the true self-indulgence is consideration for others, because of the feelings of satisfaction and happiness it engenders." Some, like the above blindness to the downside of sexism, are simply counterproductive, and perhaps betray Kawaguchi's age.

Geeky-Girly Innovation is most compelling when it focuses on the compulsive aspects of the national character - its inner geek, if you will - and how they have contributed to Japan's product innovation. This does not mean the author is necessarily avoiding gender issues at such points, but rather using them to see Japanese society as a whole rather than a sexualised dichotomy. One of the best parallels drawn is between Heian-period women's written kana phonetic characters and how gal subculture encourages us to read 'between the lines' in innovative modes of communication such as the complex emoticons that decorate their emails.

Such a nuanced, "subtitled" approach to communication is one reason for the sophisticated nature of Japanese interactions, and, by extension, increasingly personalisable products and appliances. Perhaps subtlety is the softly whispered watchword of Japanese society, and, despite its anachronisms of content and approach, Geeky-Girly Innovation succeeds in conveying this trait in its various, and sometimes contradictory, facets.

Richard Donovan

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Geeky-Girly Innovation: A Japanese Subculturalist's Guide to Technology and Design
Guide Books on Tokyo & Japan
Keywords
Otaku
Gal
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