Toshiya Ueno is a Japanese sociologist, media theorist and critic. In May 1990, when I was introduced to Toshiya in Tokyo during my first visit to Japan, I could not quite make out who he was. His English was poor and so was my Japanese. I had heard about his institutional involvement and his career as a popular columnist for fashion, design and computer magazines. In 1992, when he came to Amsterdam for the first time we slowly got to know each other and by the mid-nineties our friendship was established. He kept coming back to Europe and became a regular visitor of the Ars Electronica festival, reporting for Japanese magazines. At that point Toshiya’s English skills increased dramatically and a fierce dialogue about media theory issues and the state of new media culture worldwide started between us. A few times a years Toshiya would stay in the tiny guest room of my former Amsterdam house. He gradually left the official Japanese new media business and started to investigate Amsterdam’s free media scene, drugs culture and the (Goa) techno trance scene in particular. Through the lively refugee tribes from former Yugoslavia based in Amsterdam Toshiya came in contact with techno-trance rave scenes in Croatia where he made his debut as a DJ and TJ (text jockey), a passion he would continue in Japan. Our collaboration would take us from Internet conferences in Europe, a annual five years long teaching project at Osaka’s Inter Media Institute (IMI), a common trip to Taipei to co-producing a television show about Amsterdam’s subculture. In this e-mail exchange we have focussed only on a few aspects of Toshiya’s work: the notions of urban tribes and digital diaspora, the use of technology in subcultures and the need in Japan to cross boundaries and start a dialogue and exchange between various scenes.
GL: In retrospect, how would you describe the nineties in Japan? It seems such a strange period, where not that much seems to have happened. It more looked like a never-ending mild recession. A sweet stagnation without brutal Thatcherism. No crucial decisions were made. No drastic cuts. No equivalent of the fall of the Berlin wall. No uprisings. There weren’t even dramatic political and economic changes following the 1997 Asian financial crisis and countless bank scandals. The cultural climate seemed dominated by a ongoing consumerism, yet in a less ecstatic way compared to the bubble years of the mid-late eighties. A sophisticated numbness and joyful innocence could be found amongst youngsters. How could this odd mix of technological speed and pop fashion admits an ongoing recession result in such an amazing soft stagnation? Please tell me if I am wrong. If this model is running out now do you see any signs of discontent or even protest?
TU: Your description may be right until mid 90s, the days just after the collapse of the speculative and ‘bubble’ economy. But around 1999 a drastic storm of ‘neo-liberalism’ set in. Ordinary people were seemingly not aware of this crisis in their everyday life. However, if you turned your eyes to the micro level you could find lots of symptoms of a collapsing corporate welfare state. There have been many lay-offs, ‘restructuring’ of businesses and various cases of ‘privatization’ of the public sector such as museums, institutions and state universities. Until 1995 people did not feel these measures and were by and large unaware of the coming crisis. Since 3 or 4 years however we are facing a ‘second hand’ version of ‘populism’ in the UK-style. Politicians have been quite influential in this process. It did not matter whether his/her political stand point were left or right, liberal or conservative, global thinking or nationalistic. These days novelists and TV stars are capable of winning an election and become president of a local prefecture or win a seat in the national parliament. Some of them are significant figures in Japanese subculture. During the recession the cultural or expressive sector of society was deeply damaged. It has become difficult to find a publishing house for books that have a theoretical or political content. I was saddened with the absence of uprisings or riots, yes. But I also have to say there have been numerous revolutions, even though most of them came from conservative and reactionary side. ‘Revolution’ is the very nature of neo-liberalism. Japanese society is following the same process which the UK and US experienced earlier. On the other hand one has to see the singularity of the Japanese 90’s. We could for instance point at the transversality (a notion of Deleuze/Guattari) and singularity of the economical, cultural and even political crisis.
GL: Is it useful to integrate the notions of subculture and media as developed by UK cultural studies into your research about Japan?
TU: Cultural studies UK-style and its versions in other Asian regions are of importance to me. I do not want to reduce cultural studies to political and theoretical reflections on Japan’s imperial and colonial past, neither to a sociology of popular culture. In the UK, cultural studies has also been tactical criticism and a theoretical weapon against populist neo-liberal politics within the everyday life. Cultural studies were not just an analytical tool, it was also related to real micro and cultural politics against the populism sprouting of neo-liberalism. I am referring here to do-it-yourself, Rock Against Racism, the movement against Criminal Justice Act and so on. Until recently I have also been thinking why we did not have protest movements in Japan. But now I am more interested in doing something real and respond to the seemingly invisible and intangible crisis. We can make something happen in this situation. Although neo-liberalism is really shit, it is also true that it can also generate forms of resistance against itself. A few years ago, in Germany and Amsterdam, I came across the rave party phenomena. I discovered music-based subcultures even though rock had long been a part of my life. Rave culture has got something for me. Rave is based on hedonistic desire and fun, but at the same time it can also be connected with environmental awareness. It is a movement in itself with its own anarchist politics.
For instance pirate radio is often used these days to broadcast from rave parties. In the early 90’s I used to be a critic of contemporary art, music, film and all kinds of expressive cultures. Those were the so-called postmodern days. At that time the Japanese economy was still a powerful force. The speculative ‘bubble’ economy needed, even preferred, ‘speculative’ essays and articles. Under those circumstances I wrote a lot of papers and essays for a myriad of magazines. However, when I came across rave I realized that music was the most important thing for me and my critical interpretive ability was most suitable for the music and its cultural and political implications. That’s when I stopped writing about other fields such as new media theory and the arts. Within the rave movement I found a lot of elements I was interested in and involved with before, for instance, free radio, techno music, ecology movement, quasi-squat activities, anarchism, dissident politics, and also visual designs of party gear–decorations which are related to contemporary and electronic arts. All the elements I had been interested in so far were coming together in rave. I started to elaborate my own theory based on everyday experiences.
GL: Do you think that techno culture is part of the leisure industry to forget daily boredom?
TU: A party is not a festival or carnival to forget the routine of the everyday life. A party is a critical part within the everyday. Sometimes people think of a rave as a unusual event which is opposite to the everyday life as a ‘temporary autonomous zone’ (Hakim Bey). For some scholars raves are conceived and interpreted as disorder, chaos, a marginal experience, frequently depending on communitas and liminality arguments as developed by Victor Turner. Theoretically speaking these arguments are rather banal. Raves or parties are not liminal or marginal. One can bring in elements such as the gift economy, open minded communication, abandoning the sexual ‘picking up,’ environmental consciousness and so on. Even though it seems that rave and party can occur beyond the everyday life, beyond the border between order and disorder, the usual and unusual. Because of my involvement in rave culture people in liberal and leftist academic circles in Japan have started to criticize me. They say: ‘Toshiya changed a lot. He abandoned social movements, cyber cultures and media politics.’ But that’s not true. These days I am much more involved in cultural politics, the politics of the everyday life than ever before. Through rave culture I am encountering a variety of urban tribes.
GL: Aren’t you overestimating the political dimension of the rave phenomena?
TU: Most of the ravers are apolitical and lack consciousness about political issues. For instance, they don’t care about Japan’s colonial and imperial past. On the other hand it is very interesting that some of young trance tribes are negotiating with capital or globalization in their own way when they have to manufacture fashion gear. They don’t have a political agenda but they somehow have tactics to survive or to make money in their relationship with Japan’s former colonies such as Korea and Taiwan. They don’t deny their eventual political agency concerning topics such as ecology and the pirate (gift) economy. As a dissident sociologist I would like to construct a political practice with these urban rave tribes in order to develop tribal solidarity in Inter-East connections through various subcultures and build bridges between Japan, Korea, Taiwan and even China. In other words, rather than being crazy about a reflection and redemptive consciousness on the Japanese colonial and imperial past, I would like to create something positive together with ravers, urban tribes and also youths and people in ex-(or post) colonial Asia. I have to say that the leftist ‘authentic’ and ‘liberal’ position in Japanese academia is failing to grasp such alternative possibilities. They tend to be too ‘moralistic’ by seeing history and past only in a regrettable way. I am sure that there is a similar pattern in former Yugoslavia. If the Croats for instance insist on their ‘most-victim status’ then you can not invent something positive or productive in tribal solidarity with others, for example with Bosnians or Serbs.
GL: What do you think of the current I-mode fashion in Japan? Is there any reason for Westerners to be excited or even jealous about the Japanese wireless craze and DoCoMo in particular?
TU: Certainly all of my students and the party tribes are all using mobile phones to communicate, make appointments and sometimes to get a bit of info. But I can’t find any reason why westerners should be jealous about their Japanese counterparts. Concerning tactical use of mobile gear I can point to more interesting and crazy usage in Europe. Nowadays even for most dissident punks and squatters handies are really helpful technological tools. Some DJs and organizers in Japan started to distribute tracks via wireless networks. At the same time they are also are thinking about how to hook up mobile phones with MIDI instruments. Even though all this supports capitalist telecom corporations, these experiments could be really revolutionary.
GL: How would you describe Internet use amongst young people in Japan? It is being said that they’re not so interested. They are much more crazy about wireless applications and more protected, intimate BBS systems. Is the English language an obstacle to communicate? Cybercafes and public terminals aren’t that popular compared to for instance Australia, Asia or Latin America.
TU: Japanese youth are not so crazy about Internet, as far as I see, certainly not my students and the tribes around me. The aim and the way of using the Internet are quite different. They are all the time net-surfing but mainly visit Japanese sites. They are also quite skillful using computers to edit sounds and moving pictures. The web design scene is also powerful but always lacks content, especially political and theoretical one. So relatively it is true that they prefer ‘stand alone using computers’ over the Internet. There are only very few students who visit English based sites. Language is still an obstacle, also for me. There are not so much cybercafes in Japan because most of the people already have their own computers in the office or at home. Of course tribes in the party scene are more active on the Net in order to organize parties, wary of local authorities and police to find out.
GL: Where does the ‘urban tribe’ concept come from? Don’t you see it as a set back to go back to such an anthropological term, so close to ethnicity where there no longer is any ethnicity? Why would rave cultures be best described as ‘urban tribes’?
TU: The term ‘tribe’ was not invented by myself. For this I have to go back to Japan of 1955. One author published a novel titled Season of the Sun. It was a bestseller. It told the story of hedonistic subculture youth and caused a sensation in those days. A film was based on the novel. Increasingly that type of youth style out of the novel could be found everywhere because youth were trying to imitate the style and fashion described in Season of the Sun. Of course, this novel was inspired by the real youth of these days. And then a term was invented: ‘sun tribe’. People used to call the dissident, hedonistic youth during the fifties the sun tribe (taiyo-zoku). After that in each period, 60s, 70s, 80s, mainstream press and parent cultures always used the term zoku to describe unknown youth subcultures. For example otaku-zoku, crystal-tribes (Japanese yuppies in 80s) or the speed bike tribes. Japanese are crazy about the generation gap phenomena, perhaps because we don’t have visible markers amongst people. 5 or 6 years difference is already important for people. Japanese youth are very sensitive about age. Since the 90s this symptom is slowly changing. Maybe the otaki-zoku was the last tribe in Japan. Because people tried to use another term, kei, it is very difficult to translate – system or series. So, for instance, Shibuya-kei, Shibuya-series in English. Shibuya is the name of the district of Tokyo, one of youth centers in the city. So people would like to call the music genre and some fashion based on the youth in Shibuya, Shibuya-kei. Nobody these days is using the term ‘tribe’ anymore. But at the same time there are a lot using the term tribe or tribal in flyers for club and rave party to connote new types of music genres and specific atmosphere. Another interesting point is that the author of the Season of the Sun later became a politician in the parliament in the LDP – the dominant liberal-democratic party. He is now governor of the Tokyo metropolis and perhaps the only mayor who rejected to give the human rights to gay people or to give rights to foreigners to be able to vote. He’s a real fascist or at least can be called a fanatic nationalist and historical revisionist. He is constantly denying Japan’s colonial violent past. He once called Asians ‘third people’. Japanese would be first, Americans and the westerners second. According to him people from other Asian countries such as migrant workers or students should be discriminated. This is a really crazy situation. Why did this man become so powerful? Because people supported him. In that way zoku and the story of tribes is not only based on sub-cultural studies, it is deeply related to Japanese politics.
Recently the son of Prime Minister Koizumi, who is also populist, neo-liberal, started appearing as an actor. Despite of the poor result, he gave an audition with the title ’21st century Yujiro’ (Ishihara’s dead brother). Such phenomena are interesting, ironical and crucial for Japanese populism and conservative cultural politics. In Japan the term ‘tribe’ has had a specific meaning. In the late 40’s in Osaka, the second biggest city in Japan, there were squat villages, squat towns of Korean residents. They were very much discriminated. In those villages there was a lot of scrap of steel underground. They tried to dig up this scrap and get money by selling it. But this scrap was the national property of Japanese national government. And then the conflict between the police and the Korean residents started. It made a sensation in those days. These Korean residents called themselves the ‘Apache tribe.’ They compared their position with native-American. Numerous authors and novelists wrote the novel featuring this ‘Apache tribe.’ One of them was an SF called Japanese Apache Tribe, written by Sakyo Komatsu, in which Apache tribe appeared as a mutant having iron body something like cyborg or T-1000 in Terminator 2. It is a well-known fact that this novel influenced the underground cult movie Testuo. I am sure that some SF freaks or club techno tribes regard this film as a legendary piece.
GL: You have been working with the ‘digital diaspora’ concept. Could you explain this? To what extend would you support a withdrawal into the Net? Could we speak of productive monads and where does this inward looking become eccentric and obsessive otaku-ism? You have been critical of the figure of the otaku and the Western fascination for this so-called typical Japanese obsessive behavior of the ‘otaku’ data collector. Where does a sub-culture in Japan have possibilities for resistance, and at what point do ‘temporary autonomous zones’ transform into consumer-driven lifestyles?
TU: By using the term digital diaspora I don’t mean the disappearance of human lives and bodies into the Net. Rather, I use it to talk about a diaspora within the Net (or generated through the Net). Historically diaspora cultures can be found around the world. Some theoreticians working on the diaspora topic have used the term of web or network. The term ‘diaspora web’ was introduced by Paul Gilroy. These days this terminology is no longer a mere metaphor but rather a sort of allegory for the reality itself to which we are faced up. We are now faced with broader cyberspaces through network technology. Not only due to computers but also via radio or telephones the information ‘seas’ have been expanding. Not only through the power of Internet, actually some refugees and people in diaspora began to keep their lives in diaspora through video distributions or computer networks and other electronic technologies. One could mention refugee communities in Perth (Australia) coming from Croatia or Macedonia. They are using VCR technology to maintain the relationship to their original place. And also one can put as example, some independent media in Amsterdam to support people coming from ex-Yugoslavia, (as described in Dona Kolar-Panov, Video, War and the Diasporic Imagination, Routledge,1997).
Information technology and telecommunications are developing the diaspora notion into new directions. Diaspora in general is connected to moving and migration forced by some power relations including economic, political, religious and so on. To describe the things and the cultural elements moved, like dreadlocks, T-shirts, and music etc, one can appropriate the term cultural diaspora to interpret such a circulation. Certainly diaspora is a sort of cultural traveling and causes traveling theory, but it should not be confused with globalization in general or postmodern pastiche eclecticism which is based on the ‘anything goes’ parameter. But on the other hand it is becoming difficult to maintain the dichotomy between real refugees, illegal migrants, asylum people, ‘suffered diaspora,’ ravers, hooligans, travelers, tourists and the ‘cultural diaspora.’ It is becoming difficult to distinguish forced settlement and voluntary migration, dwelling and traveling in a rigid way. We, I mean critic or intellectuals in the ‘first world’, are in between the ‘suffered’ and the ‘observer’. Diaspora is crucial tactical tool and even medium or space to analyze this situation.
GL: What does the diaspora condition got to do with the specific Japanese ‘otaku’ phenomena, the manic collectors of instance records, magazines and games?
TU: In the past I have criticized the term otaku but not the otaku people themselves. I am criticizing the cultural condition of otaku and its political context. I myself am an otaku of sorts, being crazy about Japanese animations and psychedelic trance techno. I am skeptical about Japanese art based on otaku-ism. Western people are fascinated by otaku culture and that’s why it can be marketable. Some even try to emphasize the cultural traditions and history of otaku. They say Japanese culture has always been dominated by collectors infomania. For them Japanese history has been postmodern and eclectic right from the start.
GL: Where does the difficulty to communicate between scenes, movements and disciplines within Japan come from? It is striking to see how many useless frictions and anxieties there are, between artists, scholars, institutions, activists. This makes it rather difficult, I suppose, to set up networks in Japan. The only communication which seem to work are the very private, intimate channels on certain bulletin board systems (BBS). There seems to be a form of competition, not related to work, money or income. This fact has made it difficult to set up a half-way independent and interesting new media arts scene in Japan. Japanese we get to meet in the West do not collaborate in Japan. It seems much easier for them to meet in New York, Amsterdam or Paris then in their own country. Do you believe that this is simply cultural (as a ‘second nature’) and therefore next to impossible to change? Isn’t it interesting that this overdose of communication devices hasn’t had a significant impact on this specific aspect of Japanese society? Or should we view this observation as yet another culturalism?
TU: Well, I don’t want to say that there is particular inability to communicate in Japan. I am actually highly skeptical about any form of culturalism or cultural essentialism. But to be honest, I have also have felt the useless frictions amongst the different urban tribes in Japan on numerous occasions. I am fed up with that situation. That is the reason why I am frequently staying in Europe. Maybe others also feel like that. For instance, in Japan, media artists are generally not interested in politics and especially not in Japanese politics. On the other hand, most of the leftist intellectuals have never heard of media art or media activism. Tetsuo Kogawa and Toshimaru Ogura are great exceptions of course. The former was founder of free radio movement in Japan and still very active for experiments of streaming and developing critical media theory. The latter is radical media activist and theorist organizing anti-wiretap and anti-echelon movement. In fact, I myself have not met them since long time. Tokyo is too huge to see each other. Toshimaru is living far away from Tokyo. There is a deep gap. Of course this gap is both cultural and political. Cultural studies is recently becoming popular in leftist and liberal academic circles. But most scholars reduce cultural studies to a method for criticizing the notion of the nation state. Their arguments have never reached younger generations or urban subcultural tribes on the streets or scenes such as hip hop or rave, even though they could easily be against the nation state and its cultural hegemony.
Take the example of LETS (local trading system) in Japan. That’s a popular concept at the moment amongst critical intellectuals. Koujin Karatani and partly Akira Asada, who always prefers the ‘safety zone’ rather than the real ‘critical space,’ are at the moment involved in organizing NAM, the New Associatist Movement, which is a network of LETS in Japan. I support LETS, its theory and especially its practices. Being one of the ravers and organizers of small illegal parties I respect every form of gift-economy style and reciprocal symbolic economy. So why don’t I join NAM? Despite of Akira and Koujin’s nasty and cynical gestures towards social movements during 80’s, it is good to see what they are doing. But there is an old type of politics at work within NAM. Karatani and others are putting out the theory, and then people can do LETS activities according to the theorists’ system. Volunteers work within the structure elaborated by intellectuals and theoreticians. This in my opinion points at an outdated and unnecessary contrast between theory and practice. Their classifications on some parts in the movement are very ironic. They call their small groups ‘kei’ meaning series or system, in contrast to tribe. So you have bunka-kei (culture series), lilon-kei (theory series), undou-kei (movement series) and so on. It sounds like a bad joke to the subcultural urban tribes. Karatani and Asada’s take on social movements is to ignore and neglect the organic and transversal relationships amongst different scenes. What I am trying to do is setting up small pirate radio stations and flea market activities during open air raves. Indeed, there is a difference in understanding between tribes such as rave and punk and hip-hop. But that’s a much better situation than the classic binary opposition between theory and practice. Karatani labeled NAM as a new type of communism. Probably that’s right. But he does not think about the people’s reaction. By using the term communism NAM is losing interesting people and tribes. Their way of communication is using classic leftist language in an almost tragic-comic way. I am familiar with it but most people are not. I wished NAM and various urban tribes and subcultural scenes would shake hands and build an affective and effective alliance. For that vision a cultural politics would be crucial, a politics which communicates within the scenes rather than mere political rhetoric. It can be called cultural politics. Technology can change the way of communication in each cultural and political context. That is why I restarted the pirate mini FM free radio idea during open air parties. I would like create hybrids amongst different urban tribes such as techno, punk, eco, anarcho, rave, new age, otaku, the left and other dissidents.
GL: What is the current level of media theory in Japan? We don’t hear much about it. I can’t think of any Japanese contemporary theory being translated. We actually only hear about theory import into Japan, not the other way round. Is this because there’s nothing going on? This can hardy be the case. Is the produced theory only of local interest? What’s reason for this theory deficit?
TU: There are a few tendencies within Japanese media theory. The first is mainly developed in academic field and is called media studies. There are some layers and spectrum goes from audience research to more positivist methodologies. Basically researchers don’t want to go outside of universities and academic circles. Most of them are not enthusiastic to use media technology themselves. There are a few translations or papers available in English. The second tendency would be a form of criticism to be found within new media art, connected to the Internet hype and early-mid 90s media technologies. That is why it used to have financial support from big corporations but that’s fading away. Unfortunately new media arts lacks the vision on the broader political economy of its own field. That is why corporations can safely speculate their money into ‘speculative’ media theory . The third tendency would be the activist ‘tactical’ media. But that stream is very micro and weak in Japan. As I mentioned, Tetsuo and Toshimaru are active in both theory and action. They are paying attention to the economy and politics of the media and Internet. I am not that satisfied with the theoretical level of the three currents. For most of the time I have been moving between the three and taken difficult in-between positions. What is crucial in this context is how we can build bridges between the different media tribes.
GL: Over the last few years you have been going to a wide range of raves, from illegal parties in German forests, squatters parties in Amsterdam, raves in Zagreb to solar eclipse parties in Hungary and Zambia. You also attend a variety of raves in Japan, from expensive Tokyo club events to informal events in parks and in the mountains. Do you see yourself as a modern anthropologist studying rave culture? Have you encountered any problems with this form of ‘participatory research’?
TU: There is a ‘belonging without identity’ as described by Gorgio Agamben and Lawrence Grossberg which goes beyond the usual definition of community as a social entity with shared values. Without identification on fixed and stable positions it is possible to belong to a tribe. Tribal formation are not one. Within one tribe we can find diverse styles, differences in taste and even conflicts over how to live ones life. When subculturalists say ‘ (s)he is tribal’ it means that there is an open group-minded feeling, a solidarity and tolerance for other tribes and different styles. It point at a consciousness against the mainstream of this civilization and its globalization. For example, tribal cultures within the rave scene show respect for so-called traditional tribal or quasi-premodern cultures and their ‘indigenous’ way of living. This respect is so distant from the way in which journalism and political science talk about ‘tribal wars.’ The position of the DJ in all this is highly significant. The DJ functions as a mediator and catalyst to both inform and transform people how to enter other dimensions of the world. They could be considered the shamans of the cyber age. But this shaman is at the same time an ‘organic intellectual’ in a Gramscian sense, organizing people to get to other horizons of society through ‘partying.’ Becoming a DJ has influenced my way of writing in many ways. Both positions, the sociologist and the DJ consist of a cut’n’mix of materials produced by others. Usually a DJ does not compose or create the music tracks him or herself. The DJ cut’n’mix is ‘(re)inventing’ and (re)elaborating already existing sounds. The same can be said about the work of the sociologist or theoretician as a TJ (text jockey).
We can no longer pretend to create ‘theory’ out of the blue. We always first collect material, texts and resources and then start quoting, editing and appropriating passages from past works. That is do-it-yourself within theoretical practice. Kodwo Eshun’s notion of ‘remixology’ is quite suggestive. Sometimes I am asking myself: am I a sociologist or just a tribal raver? It is a really difficult question to answer. I don’t want to merely celebrate rave culture. There are a lot of problems such as hedonism, consumerism, drug issues, frictions amongst tribes and organizers, negotiations with local authority and police have to made, etc. I never face any problem during my ‘participatory observation’ or fieldwork research. Maybe this is because of my enthusiasm to join the party. The difficulty is lying somewhere else. I do not have the proper language yet to talk to both academic circles and party tribes. It might even be impossible. I would like to invent a different way to theorize everyday life.
[Toshiya Ueno is an associate professor at the Expressive Cultures Department at Wako University, Tokyo. Several of his papers in English are available in the Nettime archive. He is preparing a book titled “Urban Tribal Studies” with the Amsterdam-based Croatian sociologist Benjamin Perasovic. His published books, in Japanese, amongst others, are “Situation, Cultural Politics of Rock and Pop (Sakuhinsha, 1996), “Artificial Nature, On Cyborg Politics” (Keisoshobo, 1996), “Thinking Diaspora” (Chikuma Shobo, 1999) and “Cultural Studies, an Introduction” (With Joshi Mori, Chikuma Shobo, 2000, vol.2 coming up).]