Japan: Interview with Sasaki Toshinao by g86

There is no lack of mystery surrounding the Japanese cyberspace. From the conspicuous number of Japanese blog posts, to the contradiction of rabid anonymous flaming and conformist humble giants, to the overwhelming popularity of TV celebrities, Japan's net culture is a challenge to characterize, to say the least.

There is, however, a history to the Japanese Internet, one that in part explains and ties together its seemingly contradictory elements. A major theme in this history is Japan's so-called lost generation, those people currently in their late-20s and 30s who joined the work force just after the bubble economy burst in the early 1990s. Coincidentally, this was right around the same time that the Internet was making its first appearance in Japan.

In an interview last month, well-known writer and freelance journalist Sasaki Toshinao (佐々木俊尚), formerly of Mainichi newspaper, presented his own interpretation of this history. Sasaki's area of specialization is IT, a topic about which he has written extensively in numerous articles as well as many books, most recently “The Flat Revolution” (2007). The interview was conducted by a group of four third year architecture students at the Tokyo Institute of Technology who call themselves g86, referring to their shared year of birth, 1986.

In their shared blog, which they call “space journal” [ja], g86 conduct face-to-face interviews with, in their words, “people active in Tokyo with a broad view of urban space and life”. The interview with Sasaki starts with him explaining the factors leading to the emergence of Japan's lost generation:


Sasaki: Speaking about generations, in Japan in the mid 1990s, in 1991 when the bubble burst, during that period employment became very difficult. When people speak about the bubble era, they usually mean the mid-1980s, and this lasted up until around 1992. When I joined the Mainichi newspaper co. in 1988, about 100 people joined at the same time. By '91 or '92, there were 150 or 200, but by '93 there was a complete change, it started to drop suddenly down to 10 people or so, and people who started job hunting during that period couldn't find employment anywhere. On top of this, the number of working poor — people able only to find temporary employment, who became the “freeters” — had increased a great deal; this was the “lost generation”, in short, the first generation of people in Japan since the war to be poorer than their parents. So these are people who are about 35 years old now, people who were born around 1970.


This lost generation appeared at just about the same time as the Internet made its arrival. The business climate turned sour right around '93, and the Internet started becoming popular in Japan around '95. The Internet entered the scene following a two year lag, and although the lost generation was facing a terrible situation in society, this [period] overlapped with them also using the Internet to initiate a new [kind of] communication, and with the origin of a confrontation between, [on the one hand,] mass media as the expression space of a discussion space for old men, and [on the other] the Internet as an expression space a discussion space with the lost generation at its axis.


For example, this became the most vivid two years ago, in 2005. In that year, there was the Livedoor scandal as well as Koizumi's dissolution of the postal system [postal reform]. While the mass media was unanimously critical of Livedoor and Koizumi, on the net there were more than a few voices defending Horie and Livedoor, and the same for the Koizumi administration. It was here that the difference between generations became clear, and at this point bloggers — in other words the lost generation — recognized very clearly that the mass media was not media that acted on their behalf. In other words, the fact that there was a discontinuity between generations was brought out in visual terms. And then on top of this, Koizumi's Liberal Democratic Party ended up winning, and the hope was born that the views of Internet users, up until then doing their little thing in the corner, could actually change the times. So 2005 was a monumental year for expression on the Internet.


After this, the mass media would for example write that those guys typing away at their mobile phones on the train are stupid, while the reading of books on the train, which had always happened, was treated as just [a form of] expression media; in other words, although only the device had changed, [the mass media] wrote [these things] because they knew they would be popular with old men. But these people [in the mass media] in fact knew nothing about what was happening in the expression discussion space of the Internet. They didn't read blogs. The world of blogs was not a portal. In other words, it was impossible to “read this and understand everything”. Therefore for outsiders, those unaccustomed and with poor literacy, it was hard to enter [this world], and they had absolutely no contact [with it].


On the other hand, people from the lost generation would look at television and newspapers and just think, how stupid [are these people]? Watching commentators on the morning talk shows, there was almost nothing to strike a chord. Looking at blogs, conversely, many found points that made sense, and that they could agree with. There again, a complete subdivision of the space of expression occurred, and with them circumstances of mutual incompatibility.

Later in the interview, Sasaki uses the Japanese concepts of “seken” (世間) and “kuuki” (空気) to explain changes in Japanese society and the nature of the Japanese blogosphere:


Sasaki: Recently, I have been paying attention to the keyword “kuukikan” (“sense of air”). This “kuukikan” on the Internet is visible only to people who are inside it. The problem that I think is then very important is the question of how those outside this circle of people can begin to visualize [the “kuukikan”]. Blogs, I have a feeling, are [places] where to a certain degree this is being visualized. Using emoticons all from the form of text, this is one more step. Creating things which seep through the lines of text — they can be words or symbols, or whatever — but there is the possibility of something being visualized through them. What is important I think is how to visualize the atmosphere that hangs in these places, not only blogs but precisely these kinds of spaces, metaverses and so on. I think it would be fantastic if only it became possible to search the “kuukikan”.


g86: That's so interesting!


Kamatani: The “seken” that was once in Japanese society has disappeared, and it has shifted to “kuuki”, this is what I'm thinking. For example, expressions like “KY (kuuki ga yomenai / can't read the air)” have recently crossed generations and established themselves, and I think you could say that this thing called “kuuki” (“air”) has become a keyword in modern society.


Sasaki: What is called “seken” is an economic growth model, and in an age in which everybody shared a common foundation, “kuuki” was referred to as “seken”. But nowadays, people do not all share the same common foundation, so the “kuuki” is being segmented, and growing smaller. These are just the little “kuuki” inside each “seken”. Whether there can be a common “kuuki” between all of them, and whether one small segment can easily communicate with the neighboring segment, these various issues have come up, and this is the state of affairs we have come to over these past ten years. In the '80s, everybody had the same shared foundation; it was of course '97 that became the dividing line, and after that it became necessary to construct a new model, but as it stands today, this [new model] is not yet a reliable foundation. What happened in '97 was that Yamaichi Securities went bankrupt, and this sparked a currency crisis.


g86: I see.


Sasaki: That was the year that the post-war economic framework ceased to exist. In '93, a few years earlier, the Liberal Democratic Party became the opposition party, and this was the demise of the economic growth model. So I think one could say that '97 was the dividing line, [the point] when “seken” became “kuuki”. What became the extremely essential issue was the question of how this new society would formulate a kind of permanence for the younger generation. So the reason that things like “The Dignity of the Nation” could sell was I think that everyone had feelings of nostalgia. “Always – Sanchōme no Yūhi” as well.


Kobayashi: In this age, where the infrastructure has changed so dramatically, what is your stance as a journalist, and what kind of things are you aiming for?


Sasaki: That would be the “kuukikan” I just mentioned. What is the “kuukikan” trying to do, what is it aiming at, how is it being built up — the people within the “kuuki” (“air”) are not self-conscious of these things. The work they are actually doing is that of fixing the “kuuki” in the form of printed words. This is what they think of as their work. For me, what is called journalism is the continuous attempt to somehow fix in words the “kuuki” of the era.


Kobayashi: There are many new things being born from the generations of people younger than you, so I'm wondering, are there any inter-generational changes in values, and so on, that you struggle to understand?


Sasaki: I am now 46 years old. Of people active on the net, there's almost nobody in their 40s. So from the start, I do not have the same sense of generation. I don't really think about that kind of thing. It comes down to being able to analyze calmly, I think. I cover right now keitai shosetsu [short stories on mobile phone], but I don't particularly like them (LOL). Something becomes visible from analyzing what people think when writing and reading keitai shosetsu. The difference between middle and high-school students absorbed in keitai shosetsu, and myself, is that while their strength is that they have experienced first-hand the “kuukikan”, they have no sense of history or sense of society. In my case I have these. So based on these, I attempt to analyze why these kinds of things exist. This is precisely what journalism is.


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