After working out with Yoko Ono’s lawyer and crossing the street outside the Imperial Palace, Roger Cohen is ready to tell us what he thinks of Japan: a sad place where the only way to have fun is develop unhealthy obsession with cartoons:
My sense is that four factors have contributed to [over-the-top hobbyism and high-tech obsession in Japan]: wealth, postmodernism, conformism and despair. Japan is rich enough, bored enough with national ambition, strait-jacketed enough and gloomy enough to find immense attraction in playful escapism and quirky obsession.
As Tokyo Reporter noted in comments in my last post, Cohen uses some ridiculous examples to make what is ultimately a pretty valid point. There is a definite “ennui” here that, like much of the world, leads people to pursue escapism. Where I differ with Cohen the most is that I don’t think Japan is any more advanced in its escapism than America, just different. Here was my comment to the nytimes.com site that focused mainly on the silly parts of his column:
In common usage, “otaku” usually refers not to “geek-like obsession” but to actual obsessed geeks, which make up a pretty small proportion of Japan’s population (probably not much higher than the ratio of Americans who obsess over their hobbies). I would agree that “we’re all going a little otaku” as you defined it but that statement applies equally to most Japanese as it does to Americans.
I would also like to point out that Yoko Ono’s lawyer gave you some bad information. Unless you were using some new model of treadmill I am unaware of, those pictures tell you how many calories you are burning, as you suspected. It’s a neat feature I think American runners would like as well.
Sure, Japanese attention to detail, cuteness, and what have you are obvious to any outside visitor, but what does that have to do with Japan’s international standing? Does a lack of cute images on American treadmills signify the decline of the American superpower?
One bonus nitpick that I didn’t tell the Times: that area in front of the Imperial Palace is closed to traffic so they can open it up to bicycles. The traffic guards are there to make sure no one is run over by an out of control tourist. All the same, I think anyone who has been there will agree the old men directing traffic (who work for a travel agency) are extremely power-drunk and over-earnest in making sure no one jaywalks.