On Saturday, August 29th, Joi Ito and I gave an impromptu talk at O’Reilly’s Foo Camp about Japanese otaku culture and how it relates to hacking and Zen Buddhism. The talk wasn’t recorded so we don’t have an exact transcript, but here’s the gist of it:
We started by showing several photos that portray otaku obsessions—rows of figurines on a store shelf, cat cafes, itasha, body pillow covers, a man with his body pillow girlfriend, and a maid cafe bento box with a bunny rabbit drawn on the lid. We also showed some non-otaku photos, like a perfectly designed plate of cooked vegetables at the restaurant Daigo and Yoichiro Kawaguchi’s futuristic sea creatures lined up in front of a Yushima Seido temple. The obsessiveness of otaku culture, we said, can be seen even in more traditional and non-otaku Japanese aesthetic, from food presentation to religious display. And it’s this obsessiveness—which clearly goes beyond economical or functional rationale—that enables the precision manufacturing, cleanliness, punctuality, and politeness that we think of as stereotypically Japanese.
Joi noted that the caste system of Japan probably plays a role in this obsessiveness. For generations, people have been taught to be happy perfecting their role in society, without necessarily viewing social or financial gain as a measurement of their success—it’s the shokunin culture in which focusing on one job allows one to obsess with abandon until they reach perfection on a very local level. As examples, we mentioned waiters working for no tip and the guy at Narita airport whose only job is to tell people that their checked-in bags are on the revolving belt. As an example of obsession reaching a perfected end, Joi mentioned ukiyo-e, a type of woodblock printing that was popular during the Edo period. According to Professor Mitsuhiro Takemura, a media design scholar at Sapporo City University, the art form was essentially made more simple and abstract through rapid iterations until it reached obsessive perfection, and that was where innovation in this genre ended. (The actual end of ukiyo-e is attributed to the Meiji Restoration.)