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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

This post by Craig Hill reminded me that WatchJapan shouldn’t be concerned only with what is good about Japan. Having permanent resident status has enabled me to avoid the immigration department for years. I’d nearly forgotten how cumbersome and occasionally perturbing the experience of border security and other procedures have been.
I also realize the extent to which Japan has embraced technological accoutrements to border security. I have the 2nd generation “Alien Registration”, which is to be supplanted by a 3rd. The local ward office people have been by my house recently to explain procedures and the rationale for the high tech fingerprinting, but I’ve not been in when they made their visit. They do this door-to-door for residents, apparently, probably because it is something not a lot of foreign residents have been all that enthusiastic about. It is rather difficult to accept the need to be fingerprinted and recorded in a national database, much as convicts are in other nations.
In Japan, this is purportedly for our own security. I can attest that makes me feel quite insecure, that in order to protect my personal well being, the immigration department (and police, of course) need to know my identity here and in my country of origin.
But Craig’s post makes me feel even less secure. If the purported reason for their border control technology can be so easily breached by extremely low-technology, available anywhere in the world, then the systems are designed to only be useful where they are unnecessary. Hmmm.
Which makes me wonder. If the 45 million dollar biometric systems can be foiled so easily, what is it really designed for?
I’m not Richard Nixon, but, “I am not a crook.” Maybe I need to keep a roll of Scotch tape with me the next time I visit the immigration office…

Craig Hill Training Services

So much for biometrics and immigration security. A South Korean woman managed to fool a million-dollar fingerprint reading machine in Japanese border controls using a simple piece of tape stuck to her fingers.

It happened at Tokyo airport. The woman has repeatedly entered Japan using the same trick without anybody noticing. Japanese officials say that they suspect many others have been doing the same things, demonstrating that the biometric systems they installed in 30 airports in 2007, costing $45 million, are completely useless. The woman was deported in July 2007 for illegally staying in Japan as a bar hostess in Nagano, but she entered again with the system, using the tape and a fake passport allegedly provided by a South Korean broker.

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The TOTO Toilet Motorcycle

TOTO Toilet Motorcycle

I call it the Toto-cycle, though it is officially known as the “Toilet Bike NEO“, according to the TOTO official site.  Despite what it looks like, let’s get one thing straight, it does not run on human waste, nor does the real toilet used in the bike work.  The toilet used in the motorcycle is a real toilet, made by the cycle’s developer, TOTO, Japan’s leading toilet manufacturer.  The toilet used in the motorcycle is a retrofitted version of its Neorest toilet, hence its official name.

The bike was made to promote TOTO’s environmental work and does run on biogas.  However, the biogas it uses is not made using human waste, but biogas fuel (fertilized, purified and compressed livestock waste and household wastewater) provided by Shika-oi Town in Hokkaido and Kobe city.  As CSR, though, the Toto-cycle is quite a phenomenon.  It was featured last year in a popular TV commercial:

Since then, the bike continues to be used in commercials showcasing the company’s ecological commitment, TOTO Green Challenge.  This commitment is to reduce 50% of CO2 emissions in Japan’s toilets by 2017 from emissions in 1990.

As a ecological commitment, the TOTO Green Challenge is ambitious and promising.  As a thought provoking concept, the Toto-cycle is fantastic design.  But what makes it so noteworthy is that the whole idea is fun and socially open.  The company has chosen to embrace open networks, using Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to promote and to source ideas for new things to do.  The Twitter account may only have 1141 followers, including me, but it is following more than 1000 people.

You can feel the fun that is part of the bike’s development and promotions.  That, ultimately, to me, should be what makes people embrace ecological and socially responsible behaviors.

And fun, my friends, is what makes the best things cool!

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