Tokyo Damage Report

Yamamoto and artisan vs. hustle

Reading the book INSIDE THE KAISHA, and its explanation of kata (the formalized but often unspoken "one correct way" to do things at a particular company) , reminded me of another book:   A while back I translated ACTOR, the autobiography of Ryuuji Yamamoto, Japan's most famous scat-o-phile.
Section One of Mr. Yamamoto’s book deals largely with the state of the Japanese film business in the ‘60s . . . and when it comes to Japanese attitudes towards business, what the book DOESN’T say is almost more interesting than what it DOES say.

Specifically, he talks at length about the business troubles of the big three Kyoto studios who specialized in samurai films, and the increasingly desperate steps they took to stay in business.

“Oh no our studio is losing money! We have to rent our equipment and actors to other studios to make ends meet! We have to sell our property!” 

But not one mention of, “Maybe we should stop making the same exact samurai film over and over. Maybe we could ask people what they want to see, on the assumption that more people might pay us for such a movie.”

Apparently, actually making films that people wanted to see was not an option.

To me, this is a great example of how Japanese peoples’ thinking is influenced by their artisinal roots. An artisan is a medival term for someone with a skill at creating necessary objects –shoes, cloth, barrels, pottery, and so on. No matter which countries, artisans have to go through long and humiliating periods of apprentice-ship, so there’s a big resistance to change what you spent so long learning. An artisan might think like this:

 “I trained for 10 years on how to make clay pots. I know every detail of clay pots to perfection. If people want clay pots I will make clay pots. If people do not want clay pots, I will make fucking clay pots.  I will make them the best way I know how – the important thing is strict adherence to the kata (form). A pot-maker is who I am, and that’s all that I am. Profit is like, if it happens, it happens.”

When you take this medieval menatality and put it into the modern world, things get wonky.

Sometimes it works great:  foreign companies from all over come to Japan for raw materials like iron girders, specialty fabrics, and stuff, because the detail and the workmanship is second to none. Likewise, most of those factories in China are using Japanese precision-made machinery to make their final products. 

But when you apply this ‘artisinal mentality’ to EVERYTHING, sometimes it doesn’t fit: you get that classic Japanese inflexibility, un-adaptability. You get movie studios that are unable to break out of samurai dramas even as they are going bankrupt. You get small-business owners with empty bars that still insist on a 500 yen cover charge.  You get domestic rice, grown ‘traditionally’, that costs like 4 times as much as the exact same variety of rice grown in Thailand. . . .And eventually you get this kind of (here he goes again!) sort of commie-style planned economy that has to use huge tariffs and subsidies to keep local businesses in business, because “This is the way things are supposed to be done, dammit. Someone somewhere decided it!”

And here it might be instructive to compare Japan to China. I’m aware that this is a minefield – Japan and China don’t like each other, and plus I’m white, and have never lived in China. OK. But still, if I only ever compare Japan to America, ignoring other countries that are more similar to Japan, then THAT’S ALSO a sort of racism (only America is important! Other countries don’t count!).

So keeping that in mind, I’ll proceed: Japan and China both are very hard-working, and both have thousands of years of traditions. Both are influenced by Confucius, and both are crazy for education. So why is Japan struggling with its artisinal legacy while China can go from commie to the world’s #2 economy in a few decades?

My answer: Japanese are more into technique, and Chinese are more into hustle.

In contrast to our hypothetical Japanese pot-maker. . . .if a Chinese lady is making pots and pot sales fall by like 25%, that lady sells her potting wheel and next day she’s out selling shoes. If people don’t want shoes, she’s gonna be on the sidewalk next week with a fuckin’ ironing board and an iron. Chinese people know how to hustle: living by wits, seizing opportunities, changing fast, improvising solutions instead of obsessing about kata.

But the bad part of hustle is: a lack of artisan-ship. Like the infamous lead-paint toys. Or the  merkin crabs. You ain’t heard of merkin crabs? Seems there is a species of famous and expensive delicious crabs from this one lake that have a certain seaweed growing on their shell. Well, who wants to drive all the way to that lake? Just take some crappy bullshit crab and pay a serf to glue a little seaweed merkin to his back and THEN sell him to some sucker-ass restaraunt. I’m serious. That is a whole  industry over there. That’s hustle!  

So it’s not a question of, is China better or Japan? Of course both systems have good points and bad. I’m just saying the notion of “technique vs. hustle” is a handy way of looking at the differences.
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7 Comments so far

  1. James July 3rd, 2011 12:43 am

    Speaking as someone who HAS lived in the People's Republic for a number of years, I would say you're spot on with the "technique vs. hustle" concept.

    Generally speaking, I'd say the downside of the "hustle" is more than just the tainted product news makers (certainly an outcome of this though), but the complete and utter lack of anyone who really gives a damn about what they're doing. Total lack of pride in one's work.
    There is a particular expression for this. The term "差不多/chàbuduō" which means nearly, or just good enough. This applies to so many things over here, from building engineering to education to elastic bands. Mind you it's all changing rapidly and in my time here, many things have gotten better (and some have gotten worse).
    I've always been intrigued how China and Japan are so closely related, but are polar opposites when it comes to how they operate nowadays. Man If you're ever in Shanghai I'd like to buy you a beer.

  2. James July 3rd, 2011 5:52 am

    On another related note, this whole thing falls into a paradox I simply don't understand about Japan.
    Why is it that Japan has these artisans and their companies who have their formalized ways of doing things (not to mention the rote learning system) while they also have some of the most creative arts people, designers, architects and fashionistas around?
    Where the hell did all those people come from and how did they get so good at what they do? Especially considering the framework from which they extract themselves.

  3. gingersoll July 3rd, 2011 10:08 pm

    James, I would say most of Japan's major artists and breakthrough talents are actually still working within the frame work of the artisan tradition.  What separates them is their flexibility.  They know how to bend certain rules and how to combine separate genre/traditions, but by and large they are still very much in step with their roots. 
    Then again, I maybe you can say that about anyone from any society who really comes along and rocks the boat.  If what they do is totally random and without connection to any previously established form, they probably go unnoticed because their work seems as garbled noise.  If however, they bend and stretch forms society understands, they can be recognized as genius.

  4. admin July 3rd, 2011 11:25 pm

    @exactly! That contradiction is what makes this country so special and endlessly interesting. Of course, even PhDs don’t have an answer to that question, but here’s my two cents: Japan’s world-famous pop culture comes from a) an emphasis on having good techniques, and b) a tradition of taking foreign concepts or images , Japan-ifying them (discarding their underlying contexts and philosophies) and collaging or layering them over one another to produce really complex artworks, thus giving Japanese creators an unmached treasure-trove of source material and a universally-recognizable brand at the same time.

  5. François July 17th, 2011 6:02 am

    Dee-amn, you hit hard on the "japanifying" process, dontcha?
    Gotta admit the truth in it, though. Never saw a hippy or a punk or an office worker looking more the part than here, and at the same time:
    – J-hippies do shower but don't smoke weed
    – J-punks are… well, reading your reviews will be better than my two cents on this.
    – salarymen take all the elegance out of the suit, plus even people that never ever meet customers still have to have a suit & tie in their over-ACed offices, sitting their butt in front of a computer all day. WTF.

  6. AnokPanda July 26th, 2011 2:18 pm

    art versus artisans is a huge conversation, I'll just say i have pet peeve towards everyone thinking they are an artist no matter what they are doing ie subway "sandwich artists" I think my only real worth while addition to the discussion is that I've heard, and the argument I heard made sense, that china is home to a remarkable amount of child prodigy artists due to an early in life scripted regiment of drilling and copying master works of the past. they kick ass in famous forgeries! It seems japan has some similar ideals/practices. famous post relevant thought: manga….a studio of artists work at meth speed copying the style of the sensei, and if lucky go on to solo careers making a hundred other mangas that exactly the fucking same.

  7. […] Ceci fait, nous pouvons procéder à l’analyse pure. Pourquoi ment-t-on ? Pour assurer soit sa réputation, soit sa fortune (évidemment). Les attitudes des sociétés envers ces deux commodités forment deux continuum. Afin de rendre mon explication plus claire, j’ai construit un schéma fondé sur les champs de force bordieusiens. L a partie aristocratique/révolutionnaire j’ai inventé moi-même, la partie marchand/artisan, j’ai volé d’ici :  […]

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