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Objects in Japanese Pop Culture

The recent theft of costumes and props from an AKB48 set highlights an interesting behavioral pattern. Viewed in a harsh light, it might be seen as a kind of voodoo, a ritual shamanism: obtaining relics of important people so as to be nearer to them and draw upon their power.

Mainichi Japan concludes its article on the incident with a tell-tale quote: “We intended to sell the items after getting tired of looking at them.” At once the frivolity of the exercise is laid bare: having no practical use for girls’ clothing or specially made signboards, all the boys really could do is look at the objects.

Historically, in Japanese culture a preoccupation with money was often considered the mark of an inferior mind. The story of the Edo-era monk Gessen, who produced masterful paintings for exorbitant fees, demonstrates how even geisha would show contempt for one who too openly pursued gold. Unlike Gessen, who purportedly amassed money to help alleviate a famine in his home province, no mention is made of a higher purpose for the AKB48 thefts. Any connection between possession of the “relics” of AKB48 and benefit to the boys exists solely in their minds.

And yet, what higher purpose is there in anime? “Catch them all,” we are told. “Collect figurines.” “Rare cards give you better chances to win.” Whether it’s Pokemon, Yu-gi-oh, Beyblade, Pretty Cure or even shows such as K-On that do not directly allude to collecting, without a doubt, the entire purpose of the exercise is to sell merchandise. Sekirei goes so far as to subvert this by suggesting that men collect women like trading cards, in order to draw upon the different advantages each can offer – surely an absurd exercise, and yet one accepted as a simple extension of the same “anime logic.”

International fandom is hardly exempt: while gaijin have not been entering winning bids on Haruhi footage, pushing up the sales of Japanese phone models seen on K-On, or paying tens of thousands of yen to sponsor Touhou videos, nevertheless DVD and memorabilia sales tie the overseas fan to the market. It is a tie that is zealously enforced by industry and reviewers alike, with the former issuing DMCA takedown notices and the latter issuing repeated admonitions to support the industry.

Viewed in a strictly economic sense, this is all rational. Artists must be paid, even if, in an unfortunate twist on Gessen, an animation artist’s pay is insufficient to keep anyone from starving. But perhaps it’s time we cracked the beast open and looked at its guts. The acquisition of objects is done with happiness as the ultimate aim. However, happiness gained in this manner cannot last. The fact that the teens planned for the obsolescence of these relics – and planned to dispose of them once they were done – is very telling. Is it meaningful to love something so much that you break the law to attain it, all the while knowing that you will eventually grow tired of it and discard it when it ceases to thrill you? If we were to speak of a romantic pursuit in these terms, surely that would seem like a very familiar cruelty, a pointless exercise.

What is the resolution here? Who benefits from this nonproductive pattern of behavior? Planned obsolescence economically favors the producers: rather than a $250 watch that lasts 50 years, a watchmaker would prefer to sell you a $50 watch every 5 years, making more money overall. Recontextualizing objects sustains the industry: an arbitrary piece of fabric is not worth tens of thousands of yen, but if it’s some hard-to-find dakimakura, that might be an acceptable price. What you are buying is not the object, but its associations: the dreams, fears, and hopes you cannot help but think of when you hold it.

What the three Japanese boys truly sought was not the physical reality of signboards and girls’ clothing, but the illusion of AKB48.

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