Saturday, October 25, 2014

nation brading omotenashi redux


Japan is a brand in search of a nation.

"Branding" is like the things we do to define ourselves as a certain kind of person.  Teenagers often choose their clothes and shoes and music and hairstyle and language to identify with a certain group.  Does he want to be a "Jock"?  Or a "Geek"?  Or a "Rebel"?  Or, if "he" is a "she" --is it Barbie?

But  "branding" is not quite the same as identity.  If you are a "Geek" by nature, you may never be accepted as a "Jock"-- much less Barbie.  And your attempts will just be laughed at.

The best course is just to be who you are--in terms of your abilities and interests--rather than modeling yourself on others or on manufactured stereotypes.

Mirrors: Do the Japanese Care?

The problem is that this authenticity requires a degree of self-honesty that almost nobody has --we need other people as mirrors--to provide a degree of slightly more objective -- shall we say, "trans-subjective" evaluation 

A good mirror is true.  The people that we choose as mirrors must be similarly honest -- otherwise -- we are little emperors without clothes, waiting for a child or crazy person to cry out and tell us that we are naked.

"Cool" Japan is distinctly "Un-Cool".  Does the rest of the world care ?  Are they simply too polite to tell the Japanese that they are making asses of themselves?   Do they want to cash in on flowing out of Tokyo?   Do they just enjoy the joke? 

In any case, do the Japanese really care? 

They don't listen to the world criticism of whaling or Fukushima or their refusal to take responsibility for World War Two atrocities and aggression. 

The Branding Mix: Zombie Traditions

No... and also yes.

It appears that the Abe People do realize on some primal political level that new national symbol should not be a pair of pink panties with Hello Kitty embroidered on them -- so they also seek to redefine Japanese "Soft Power" in terms of traditional culture --rather than just the pubescent sexual confusion of ad company manufactured crypto youth culture. 


Recently we get images of Tea Ceremony everywhere -- people in kimono, sipping green mud and starting and looking serious and  (One of the points of chanyu is, of course,  not to think.)  

How very Japanese right?

There is clearly a tie-in here to Japan's uncritical obsession with costume play and  ritual behavior --but disinterred zombie traditions aren't  really going to help the Japanese image abroad.

Culture as Teenage Angst

The basic issue arises again.

Like any adolescent, Japan doesn't really know what it is or what it wants to be.  So, it is experimenting -- copying other countries, such as Britain -- trying to be 'in' --but, at the same time,  trying be somehow 'unique'.  

Looking to the past -- to what molded  you --  in cultural terms -- tradition and history -- is reassuringly "safe".  Authentic self-definition,  however,  requires the risk of looking forward to be what you had not imagined you could be.  And uniqueness -- originality-- is what real branding and real identity are all about.

In Japan, the brand comes first -- identity - -personal or national -- derives from that -- rather like a new restaurant putting up a sign and logo to attract customers -- and then setting about creating menus, hiring cooks and staff and doing the interior decor.  

There is a certain a logic to this -- yet, it might be nice to know whether you will offer French or Italian or whatever first -- and how your restaurant will be different from the zillion other French and Italian restaurants in town.

Putting that caveat aside -- where does branding come from?

Tea Ceremony Traditions Reinvented:

Fossil Words

Japanese national branding focuses on aspects of both contemporary and traditional culture -- which is nominally a good way to go -- if you actually knew something about your own culture.

The Japanese are not actually pushing Tea Ceremony -- but rather the concept of "omotenashi", which comes from this tradition.
"Omote" derives from the Japanese verb mote (thing); "nashi"  -nasu  (do) -- to serve.   This is a service meme, transliterated to mean "hospitality"

Until recently,  few people really connected "omotenashi" to Tea Ceremony -- just as in English  we do not consider the origins of words like "shrift" as in "short shrift" to a rushed religious sacrament or "run amok" to the Malay concept of sudden madness.   We use "fossil words" -- all the time without thinking of their origins.

But suddenly, good old ordinary hospitality is suddenly special, Japanesey, magical hospitality  -- real comfort -- plus alpha.

Yes, a humdrum daily concept is attached to zen, geisha, samurai, yakuza, seppuku, -- honor, service, unfathomable rituals going back centuries -- in fact, just about anything an ad writer can imagine.

Have you not seen Karate Kid?  You have?  Good.  You "get' the whole tradition thing can become mystical and trendy at the same time.

All Vaginas Shall Be Pixelated

The Japanese are skillful at blending the modern and the traditional -- perhaps because they actually have a very poor sense of history.  It is easier to mix things, if you don't really care what they are or what they mean.

As we said, the Abe people needed something to balance the juvenile sexuality of "Cool Japan".  They want respect -- and so we get omotenashi --which is seen to be hugely useful in getting foreigners to support the Olympics in Tokyo and spend lots of money.

Yes, there is a lot of ambivalence here. A lot of contradictions. Which the rest of the world gets off on. There is method in the madness.

Japan:  austere traditions -- and  Penis' 'r Us.

(All vaginas shall be pixelated) 

Sexing Up Tea Ceremony

Let us go back to "tradition" for a moment.  As I said, the ad companies are not really pushing Tea Ceremony, which is frankly un-sexy.  

Obviously chubby middle-aged ladies in nondescript service kimonos don't really sell.  

The sticky fingered old / young guys at the ad agencies had an answer!   Yes,  "omotenashi" tie-ins with Tits.   

The Omotenashi ("True Heart") Bra

Hopefully, there are Omotenashi panties too. 

Omotenashi condoms? A Dildo in every hotel room?  One can only hope. 

In Cool Japan, anything can be sexed up.And "omotenashi" is perfect for this since nobody really thinks about where it came from -- or want to know

In fact, "omotenashi" is predatory hospitality -- you have to pay for it -- "service" in Japan is also a word used for some kind of vague add-on charge, like a "happy ending" after the massage.

The Olympics is a money thing; therefore, so too "omotenashi".     

The ordinary people of Japan will get no benefit  from the Olympics – only the big Developers and ad companies – the same guys who gave us the Tokyo Bay development and Shiodome -- now scheduled to be largely underwater by 2035!

 Very good for those  who really wanted some waterfront property but live uptown. 

Tokyo Underwater

If national identity derives from branding, then what Japan is communicating is zaibatsu mercantilism. 


Zaibatsu-ism:  Omotenashi As A Fig Leaf

The important point:

The Olympics are coming! The Olympics are coming! Banzai! 

Nation branding is often just hoopla.  But afterwards there just a big empty arena filled with trash.  

A teenage kid holds a party so he can be "in". Afterwards the house is a mess and he has to clean up all by himself.  The house is empty. He is empty. And the next day, nobody says hello.

Yes, the Olympics are coming. 

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Japanese

Rich people always need to make more and more bundles of cash  -- which they can pile up in the basements with old newspapers -- even as Japan cuts social services and pensions, and the economy gets flushed.   

When the national toilet backs up, the rich can just move to some other country.   Who cares if Fukushima glows in the dark?  Or Tokyo is underwater?  Or a few million children die?
One function of  branding trickery like "Omotenashi" is to distract.   Japanese national branding  provides cover --a fig leaf for all sorts of unpleasantness -- rather like "patriotism" itself.

 Japan, for example,  is among other things famously tourist-unfriendly – an insular, mono-lingual, conformist society that is not really comfortable with people who look different and act differently.       

So, "omotenashi" and the "kawaii" culture cover that up nicely -- more pixelations.

Every big company contributes.

Let's see how JAL sells "omotenashi".....


Omotenashi -- JALishly


The Soul of Japan

Renowned for his influence on chanoyu, the ‘way of tea’, Sen no Rikyū established guidelines for taking care of guests. He espoused that only through dedication with a pure heart can you share a special moment with your guest. With this, Sen no Rikyū established the foundations of Japanese omotenashi.

Omotenashi is hard to define. Often translated into English as ‘hospitality’, omotenashi is much more. It’s a completely selfless approach to receiving guests, where a perfect balance of attentive care and unobtrusiveness is achieved to create an intimate environment of trust, relaxation and respect between those sharing the moment.

Tightly woven into the fabric of Japanese culture for centuries, the spirit of omotenashi can be felt and enjoyed everywhere. This unique brand of Japanese hospitality is sure to capture your heart and leave an ever-lasting impression.

Right! -- a tradition from the 16th Century.  

But sounds ever so 21st Century:  completely "selfless" service, the "soul" of Japan --"Share the moment", get intimate. Relax. 

I must remember all this the next time, I check into a hotel, paying exorbitant rates for a tiny room, a tiny bed, bad air-conditioning.  Plus, sneaking my girlfriend in to avoid paying the extra charge. And getting kicked out at 10 or 11 the next morning, with a very charge added to the bill for non-existent "service".

Service= you pay extra.


Fuck You Very Much -- Sir

Sen no Rikyu?   

The guy  was forced to commit seppuku in 1591.  In  one of those "selfless"  moments the Japanese are famous for --showing the “dedication of a pure heart” -- or at least a pure bowel -- he first cut out a chunk of his intestine and wrapped carefully it  -- yes, with “attentive care”-- so it could be given to his patron, that particularly nasty piece of work, the Shogun Hideyoshi.  

Question:  does "omotenashi" also mean screw you?

In fact, all to often omotenashi means exactly that:  fuck you very much, Okyaku-san.  And don't ever ask for a little leeway.  

Just try complaining about something to a Japanese service person.   He or she will apologize abjectly -- but tell you "there are rules".  No compromises.   Sorry -- fuck you very much. And if you fly JAL and want a little leeway on your carry-on luggage -- forget it.

There is another minor problem.

Is Omotenashi Really Japanese?

Now, your average modern Japanese has as little understanding of the Tea Ceremony in Hideyoshi’s time in the context of the culture – as Americans do of the causes of the Revolutionary War.     Japan's writing system  -- and tea itself -- and much of its tradition of manners -- were imported  from Korea and China, along with the Imperial family.
The Japanese of course --famously-- do not dwell on history..... Or facts either.Which is why vaginas should be not quite seen.

Add to this the fact that -- if the ancient version of omotenashi is as much Korea and Chinese and Japanese --  the modern version owes something to the good old US of A --as we will see  in a moment. 

Suffice to say, that no culture is pure:  all cultures evolving through adaptation to the challenge of other cultures and the import of new technologies and memes, benefiting immensely from cross-fertilization. 

Kanebo-ishly Omotenashi

You will find that there as many interpretations of "omotenashi"as there are companies. Which was not the case in  Sen no Rikyu's day--in that  rigidly hierarchical society where samurai could chop down common folk for spilling tea (a big incentive in getting the tea ceremony right!). Things then were very black and white and bloody red.  

Translated simply, Omotenashi means the Japanese way of treating a guest. It blends a welcoming spirit with warmth, understanding, and above all respect. The concept is all encompassing.

Etymologically, Omotenashi is a hybrid of “omote” (surface) and “nashi” (less), concepts that translate together into “single-hearted.” From the perspective of a host, this is the rendering of service without expectation of favor or reward.
Kanebo's interpretation ties in with the "Omotenashi" bra.  The kanji on the bra' say "magokoro":  "true" or "single"  heart -- which is hidden since you can only see the girl's nipples   if you remove the surface covering -- the "omote". 

No "omote" (omote-nashi) = nipples = "single-hearted".  Got that?  (There will be a test next week). 

Interestingly, the Japanese language makes no distinction between ‘guest’ and ‘customer.’ In English, the concept of ‘service’ suggests a hierarchy between the ‘server’ and the ‘customer.’ The Japanese Omotenashi, however, is based on a non-dominant relationship between equals – between the person offering the service (the host) and the person receiving it (the guest or customer).

Wow! Equality.... How democratic.

Also: every customer is a guest? And every guest is a customer? this an "I-Thou" relationship? 

Hipsterism on a cultural level?

The Powerless Guest

Of course, the server and the servee are not equals-- the consumer  has no power here -- they always have to toe the line --getting the worst of all possible worlds.  They are 'customers'-- but as 'guests' they must always remember they are in someone else's home.    

Be nice!  Follow the rules.  Put the toilet seat down. Use a coaster. Most of all -- don't overstay your welcome.

If you are so rude as to complain about something -- don't expect any satisfaction. 
To practice Omotenashi, the host pays close attention to detail and is committed to anticipating the needs of the guest, smiling sincerely and setting a happy, relaxed mood. When authentic, Japanese hospitality and service exceed the expectations of the guests. At its most exquisite, Omotenashi offers a guest a once-in-a-life-time experience. The idea resonates with Ichigo-ichie, the tea master’s belief that every encounter is single and unique.
It is the "host"  who decides what you need -- not necessarily what you ask for or want.

Kanebo's explanation is basic propaganda -- "spinning" the facts of Japanese consumer service attitudes in a form they think is palatable to foreigners -- equality, transparency, selflessness, ya-de, ya-de, ya-de.

Once upon a time, starting with Jimmy Carter, American presidents started holding meetings with national leaders in informal attire.  No neckties.  Nowadays, Japanese PMs imitate. See: we're sociable and open.  What you see is what you get.

Ura nashi?  We're up front.   Not exactly.  Remove the outer covering of an onion. And you get layers and layers inside.

"Omotenashi" as Kanebo characterizes it -- doesn't really exist -- it is misdirection -- classic propaganda.   

Ditto: "ichigo ichie", to which we turn next.

Tea Ceremony and Ichigo Ichie

Sen no Rikyu would not have understood the present day buzzword Ichigo-ichie at all -- since it  was coined 300 years after he died.

The old man instead spoke of  "ichigo ni ichido" --  a one time experience-- subtly different from Kanebo's "once in a lifetime" experience, which somehow suggests a "peak", spiritual experience, yielding some form of enlightenment.  

The Shogun of Sen no Rikyu's time liked to use the Tea Ceremony  to bring together violent men who would normally kill each other -- but had been ordered to negotiate.    They left their swords -- and their needs and wants, resentments and anger outside the tea room -- and allowed the Tea Ceremony master to lead them through an austere  ritual whose point was its emptiness -- sitting side by side, uncomfortably on their knees, in a bare room, drinking tasteless tea.   

Once that was over, it was time for real food, lots of booze and hot sex. 

After tea -- sex!

Then, finally, came negotiation.

Dudes -- here's the Deal...

Equality?  That was counter-intuitive in the Tokugawa Period, when somebody always had to be in control.  Anyway, the tea ceremony was definitely not for the Great Unwashed.

In the Tea Ceremony room ,the Tea Master ran the show  But, in reality, he was a puppet of the Shogan --as was clear when Hideyoshi ordered Sen No Rikyu to disembowel himself, some say because Old Sen demurred at letting his Boss schtup is daughter. 

Tea Ceremony = control.  

Call it what you will - this was the beginning of what we now know as subtle authoritarianism or inverted totalitarianism, the Japanese one-party state.

In Tokugawan times, Tea Ceremony was a one-time experience - butrepeated-- again and again and again.   

Most big companies'  "explanations" of "omotenashi" are  bunk,  twisting of history and tradition.

The Un-Historical Japanese: Ichigo Ichie

What is ichigo ichie really?

It is a Meiji Period zen thing --a  unique moment – a bubble outside of time -- a break with established pattern. No Tick-tock -- it is the space between tick and tock, an emptiness in which everything is possible and nothing.

It is also a  great pickup line in coffee shops – and a favorite concept in hentai comics where some drooling middle-aged man abducts a 13 year old girl, and rapes her repeatedly.  

Once again, we enter the realm of the adolescent imagination, and the conflicts between dependency and freedom, control and surrender. Such conflicts are among the reasons that teenagers -- from 14 to 60 -- want to "live in the moment".

Um...ichigo ichie!   And then 40 years of crushing student debt.

In hentai--arguably the coolest product of "Cool Japan"--ichigo ichie is timeout for those chubby little salarymen with their balding pates and greasy glasses.

It is  timeout from bullying at the office, boredom, and a wife and kids the salaryman rarely sees or wants to see.  Timeout for the sex he actually isn’t capable of -- for sexual domination of young girls  who surrender to hm completely.   


Remember: the  Japanese don’t really have any idea of who Sen no Rikyū was or his history – and what the various zen terms and concepts like ichigo-ichie mean  -- or their own history and tradition.   

Remember: they don't really care.  

Visit Tokyo. Unlike other cities in the world, there are almost no buildings over 50 years old.  New is good. Old is just old, like your parents who you can't wait to move into an Institution.

Tradition? --that's just what everybody else is doing.  

And, "ichigoe ichie' just means getting completely wasted every now and again.


Sorry -- the Real Japan is different from advertising.


Omotenashi As Predatory Hospitality

Hospitality usually implies substantive generosity or charity or heartfelt warmth.  There is really not much of that in "omotenashi" as practiced by corporate Japan.

Warmth” is not part of it.  Nor is “open-heartedness” or “communication”, or “relaxation”.     

Sincere smiles?  The “sincerity” is an affectation –manners -- not emotion. 

In Zen there is neither warmth nor cold.  It is about surrender -- acceptance that you are nothing in the vastness of the cosmos.

16th Century Party Gear (See: Cosplay)
Surrender or die.  What you are is just a mask.


Nothing Personal

Remember: in the tea ceremony room – nothing is “personal”.  

If Omotenashi is about “selflessness” – it is the kind that erases personal identity or self – especially yours – reducing you to a role.  

As we said,  kneeling painfully and drinking crappy tea, for a couple of hours, was a form of social torture designed to enforce compliance.    

 Here is the ultimate achievement of social indoctrination – to make the meaningless meaningful. 

Sen no Rikyu:  Colon Sashimi
This is the function of social ritual.

Everything-- form – everything prepared – every movement, deliberate.  And no talking!

As have seen, Omotenashi  nothing to do with  omote or ura  but if it did, it would mean the normal public self -- one's normal  "omote" would be  absent, replaced by a role dictated by convention   -- with the "ura" also -- the private self -- rage, anger, hatred, love, generosity, charity, passion, intention  also erased.

This is not the case -- the public self is dominant in Japan-- controlled by convention.  As I have also just said -- you are your mask.

If You Have A Hammer, Everyone Is A Nail

What omotenashi therefore expresses is the regimentation of Japanese society.

To achieve the kind of social harmony that Japan aims at  everything has to be predictable. Every thing completely prepared so there are no surprises.  Every movement preordained, expected, empty or purpose beyond itself.  

Do not question.  If a mistake has been made: do not point it out -- repeat it.

We see this in all areas of society. In business, especially.

The modern businessman in Japan must endure, as a passive participants, hoping to get really drunk at the dinner.  Mixing sake, wine, beer, whiskey. 

WTF!  Ichigo ichie.   You won't remember anything -- just the hangover.

Want to Know About Japan?   Ask a Gaijin

Yes, a brand in search of a nation.

The Japanese don't really know who they are or what they are.  That view, unfortunately, can only come from outside.  And the Japanese are loath to let you in. 

But if you want to learn about Japan -- don't ask a Japanese -- ask a foreigner. 

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