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I recently read The Otaku Encyclopedia: An Insider’s Guide to the Subculture of Cool Japan, by Patrick W. Galbraith.  I can’t remember ever reading an encyclopedia before – not the entire thing.  I’ve read most of an encyclopedia on Star Wars.  I’ve read some of an encyclopedia on financial terms and a few others.  But this book is quite different.  It reads well – well, like a real book.

I posted the review in Goodreads.com, but here it is below.

The Otaku Encyclopedia: An Insider's Guide to the Subculture of Cool JapanThe Otaku Encyclopedia: An Insider’s Guide to the Subculture of Cool Japan by Patrick W. Galbraith

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Otaku Encyclopedia; is exactly as advertised, an encyclopedia devoted to all things otaku. While the word “otaku” has not become mainstream vernacular, for people who are well versed in things originating in Japan or in global subculture, the word is familiar and, interestingly, becoming quite “cool.” It is interesting because the term, in Japanese, conveys quite the opposite of cool; even if the obsessive pursuits of seriously devoted fans of a complex and, often, slightly deranged medium become popular, it is the slightly disapproving public perception of the pursuit that separates the otaku from a mere fan. For every fan of games, anime, manga, idols, dolls, and related hobbies, only the devoted otaku transcend from a passive consumer to active participant.

Patrick Galbraith’s book is, no doubt, an encyclopedia. It provides an alphabetical dictionary to all things otaku. But unlike most other encyclopedia’s, it is one that is actually quite readable in its entirety, from A to Z. Not only for its short interviews with a handful of some of the people noted for their contributions to otaku history and culture, but the definitions themselves provide a great deal of information for those who are trying to understand contemporary Japan and, particularly, the Cool Japan movements that are being promoted by the Japanese government and many others.

Even though the subject matter may seem juvenile, risque, and somewhat frivolous to some, it is very informative and useful for any student of contemporary Japan. Even if you are not interested in otaku pursuits, some understanding of these phenomenon is critical to knowing modern Japan and planning the way forward.

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On its website, Japanese company Maywa Denki is “an art unit produced by Nobumichi Tosa”.  I suppose their description is as good as anything, because it is extremely difficult to describe what the company is.

Opening page to Meiwa Denki Website

The opening page to Maywa Denki Website

It was once a typical Japanese SME, a small manufacturer of electronic products, started by Nobumichi’s father, Sakaichi Tosa.  The company originally was a subcontracting firm to large corporations such as Toshiba and Matsushita.  However, the company went into bankruptcy in 1979.  The company was revived in 1993 by Sakaichi’s two sons, Masamichi and Nobumichi Tosa.

The company’s second president was Nobumichi’s elder brother, Masamichi, with whom Nobumichi made its most successful product to date, the Na-cord, and transformed the company to an art/performance/music/toy company.

The Na-cord

The "Na-cord" a fish skeleton shaped extension cord.

The Na-cord was probably successful only because of its interesting shape, converting a completely utilitarian object into something whimsical and entertaining.  But its shape, really, is instructive, even if only to the subconscious mind.  The skeleton serves as a reminder of the (dangerous) power of electricity, bringing to mind cartoons in which a victim is electrocuted and transformed momentarily to a skeletal form.  The media were quick to take up the story, probably for its novelty, but the product won several awards and interest in the company grew.

Maywa Denki had already started to promote itself as an art unit, with a strong focus on music and new experimental musical instruments.  Their inventions and performances started minimally, with Nobumichi’s “Pachi-Moku” and Masamichi’s “Koi-Beat”.  While their first exhibition in 1993 drew interest, it was limited to the two instruments and one “song”.  Later that year, they extended their products and performance, with gadgets such as Na-Uchi-Bou and Harisen-bomb.  During the performance, one of the instruments short-circuited, starting a fire.  The small frenzy that ensued probably led to some of the growing interest in Maywa Denki, their products, and performances.

Instruments by Maywa Denki

Instruments used by Maywa Denki, circa 1996

1996, when the Na-cord was released, coincided with Maywa Denki’s first national performance tour.  It was a perfect way to showcase their crazy and creative instruments, innovative toys, and strange otaku expression to the entire nation, which was really just starting to feel the pinch of the growing recession after the bursting of the so-called Bubble Economy.  For the kids that were starting to become Maywa Denki’s fans, these nerdy heroes were cool because (and not in spite) of their extremely uncool look, preoccupation with electronics and other weird and unpopular gadgets, and their cute but vacuous pop music. Maywa Denki was helping the kids of Japan‘s lost generation – who saw their prospects for the future to appear bleak – feel good about their bland geekiness.

Maywa Denki’s third and current president is, of course, Nobumichi Tosa.  After taking over from his retired older brother in 2001, the company has become an iconic legend.  I think that it has become an art unit, using the company’s own description, as it has become a good representation of what Japan “means” culturally, to many in the world.  There are aspects of Meiwa Denki that somehow ring true when you think of other icons of Japanese culture of the past 25 years, including people and things such as Sakamoto Ryuichi, manga and anime, Towa Tei, Nintendo, Ultraman, Hello Kitty, and Shinkansen.

Maywa Denki has made a huge impact, I believe, on the remaking of a cool image of Japan in the 21st Century.  For that, I think that Nobumichi is owed the greatest credit.

Maywa Denki

Maywa Denki, dressed to perform (photograph from Flickr used with Some rights reserved by Ars Electronica)

The company’s performances have become more than just strangely eclectic, but art.  I’ve yet to see them perform live, save for a brief encounter at a trade show and another time at (I think) Tower Records Shibuya in the late 90s) but I find – mostly through YouTube – their music to be quite compelling.  And, though I have yet to purchase any of their products, I am fond of both their Na-cord and one of their more recent products, “Otamatone Jumbo“.  This is a musical instrument, played by squeezing the head of the instrument with one hand while sliding the other along the Stem Switch on its neck.  In the photograph at left, Nobumichi is at the center, holding a Otamatone Jumbo.

Otamatone advertisement

English ad for Otamatone

Most of their musical instruments, unfortunately, are not for sale.  The instruments are generally for performance only.  They occasionally display the instruments at exhibitions, under the banner “Tsukuba Series”.  For the most part, they are based on “real” musical instruments, but have been modified to be played electronically using a series of motors and mechanical parts, or are powered at 100 volts.  The series of instruments is named after a proposed building design for the Tsukuba Electric Town, where one of Japan’s major scientific research centers is based, as well as the technical Tsukuba University where Nobumichi graduated from.

Tsukuba Denki Town design

Tsukuba Denki Town building design

The most convincing thing about the strange beauty and bonafide ingenuity of the Otamatone is in the following video from YouTube.  In it Nobumichi plays the instrument, with a wailing riff of The Star Spangled Banner.

Another more J-Pop endorsement comes from “Nut” a cute idol group, in a collaboration between Maywa Denki and YGA, an entertainment company associated with Yoshimoto Kogyo, the legendary Kansai-based entertainment powerhouse with a stronghold on stand-up comedy in Japan.

Well, to paraphrase the Monkees (RIP recently deceased Davy Jones), “I’m a Believer”.  Hope that you’ll find fun in Maywa Denki too!

Maywa Denki

Maywa Denki

It used to be commonplace to sing songs full of joy and beauty.  It was easier then to wear LOVE on your sleeve, to proclaim clearly and loudly that you are happy to be alive, feeling the warm and bright light of the sun.

I grew up in a time when I think people were less jaded and felt that such open communication through music was cool.  It may be just my imagination – wishful thinking – but I can’t help thinking that there was a bit more Dancing in the Street for Everyday People.

It was probably even more true in the distant past.  Perhaps Mozart and Bach were composing the “love and peace” songs of their time.  In my imagination, those are clearly some of the topics that they tried to present honestly, directly, and intelligently in their music. The Beatles, in their own pop way, tried to directly speak of love and joy in their music, particularly their early works.  “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” “She Loves You,” “If I Fell” and many others still ring out loud and true to lovers everywhere.

Then, the flower children and the hippies took the power of love to a whole nuther dimension.  Scott McKenzie‘s version of “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” was, arguably, the seminal anthem of the Flower Power movement.

If you’re going to San Francisco,
be sure to wear some flowers in your hair…
If you come to San Francisco,
Summertime will be a love-in there.

Joy to the World“, by Three Dog Night (but written by Hoyt Axton) was another hugely popular song that featured lyrics that were incredibly simple and honestly joyous.

Joy to the world
All the boys and girls now
Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea
Joy to you and me

So what happened since the early 70’s to make music that speaks directly of love, peace, and joy seem so childish and unpopular?  I’m not sure, but I am happy that I have found great popular and hip music in Japan that is as direct, simple, honest, and joyous as the Beatles, Scott McKenzie, or any flower child.

Enter Theatre Brook, a hugely successful indie music artist in Japan during the 1st major “indies” boom of the late 80’s and early 90’s.  Led by Taiji Sato(vocals & electric guitar), the band is known for its funk rock music, with an occasional Latin-tinged sound.  They’ve recorded at least 14 albums with several different changes in group members and have a modest following overseas, including in the United States.

While many other popular artists in Japan record songs that are simple and direct about love, for me, Theatre Brook’s Aritttake no Ai (ありったけの愛, or Whole Lotta Love) is really very special. It is, for me, packed with Hippiedom!

その上の太陽は ありったけの愛だけで
出来てると思いませんか?
ありったけの愛だけで あの太陽は
ありったけの愛だけで あの太陽は

My translation:

The sun overhead is just filled with Love
Don’t you think so too?
Whole lotta love, Whole lots of lovin’
Whole lotta love, Whole lots of lovin’

You can hear Theatre Brook perform their original recording in this YouTube video below.  But the best way to hear it is in a live performance, which I’ve embedded below the original.  Enjoy!

島人ぬ宝

The title of this song, “Shimanchu nu Takara”, in the dialect of the people of Okinawa, means “Treasures of the Island People”.  Sung by the Japanese band, BEGIN, the song tells a wonderful story of youth leaving Okinawa to forge a new life on the mainland, but for whom the distinctive culture and language of the islands is important.  It is, no doubt, a song that is based on the bands own experience, having started to achieve national acclaim when the song was released in 2002.

Shimanchu nu Takara is one of my favorite Japanese songs, because it is one that not only celebrates local cultures and cultural heritage, but also for its eloquent portrayal of someone who has chosen to leave his homeland and yet maintains strong bonds to his upbringing.  For me, it echoes in both ears.  I left my own upbringing in California, where I still call home.  On the other hand, I came to Japan in 1987 to discover the roots of my ancestors and, in that sense, my cultural heritage.  I feel like someone who is caught between two islands, both of which are home and where I have cultural and linguistic roots.

The lyrics to the song are followed, line by line, with a brief translation.

Boku ga umareta kono shima no sora o  (Looking up at the sky of the Islands here where I was born)
Boku wa dore kurai shite iru n darou  (and I wonder how much I know about the sky)
Kagayaku hoshi mo nagareru kumo mo  (shining stars and billowing clouds)
Namae o hikaretemo wakaranai  (I have no idea what they are called…)
Demo dare yori dare yori mo shitte iru  (Still, I know more than anybody else)
Kanashii toki mo ureshii toki mo  (in sadness and in happiness)
Nando mo miagete ita kono sora o  (the sky I’ve looked up upon so many times)
Kyoukashou ni kaite aru koto dake ja wakaranai  (There is no way to comprehend by just reading textbooks)
Taisetsu na mono ga kitto koko ni aru hazu sa  (There must be something invaluable here)
Sore ga shimanchu nu takara  (That is the Treasure of the Island People)
Boku ga umareta kono shima no umi o  (Looking below at the oceans of the islands here where I was born)
Boku wa dore kurai shitte iru n darou  (and I wonder how much I know about the ocean)
Yogereteku sango mo hette yuku sakana mo  (the dirty coral and the disappearing fish populations)
Doushitara ii noka wakaranai  (I have no idea what to do about that)
Demo dare yori dare yori mo shitte iru  (Still, I know more than anyone)
Suna ni mamirete nami ni yurarete  (covered in sand and rocked by waves)
Sukoshi zutsukawatte yuku kono umi o  (the ocean that is slowly changing)
Terebi de wa utsusenai rajio demo nagasenai  (It cannot be shown on television or heard on the radio)
Taisetsu na mono ga kitto koko ni aru hazu sa  (There must be something invaluable here)
Sore ga shimanchu nu takara  (That is the Treasure of the Island People)
Boku ga umareta kono shima no uta o  (The music of the Islands here where I was born)
Boku wa dore kurai shitte iru n darou  (How much do I know them?)
Tubarama mo densaa bushi mo  (Tubarama and densaa bushi)
Kotoba no imi sae wakaranai  (I have no idea even what the words mean)
Demo dare yori dare yori mo shitte iru  (Still, I know more than anyone)
Iwai no yoru mo matsuri no asa mo  (the night of celebrations and the morning of festivals)
Doko kara ga kikoete kuru kono uta o  (the songs that can be heard everywhere)
Itsu no hi ka kono shima o hanareteku sono hi made  (until that day – someday – when I must leave the Islands)
Taisetsu na mono motto fukaku shite itai  (I want to really know and understand deeply the important things)
Sore ga shimanchu nu takara  (these are the Treasures of the Island People)

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