Shopping and art

This may sound strange for a Marxist, but I love shopping. Long ago, I got over my guilt and realized that the spectacle serves three important purposes. First, it lets us survive in this world through a partial escape from it. Two, that escape provides a blurry, mirror-upon-mirror image of what a world freed of exploitation could look like: hedonism, the pure fulfillment of the senses. Three, it gives new insights into how capitalism works. I like the aesthetics of shopping, I like analyzing how an item’s uses are wrapped in a monstrous exchange process that mines the past for content and presents it in new ways. Postmodernism is endlessly inventive.


The older I get, the less time I have for those who denounce their fellow workers as consumer-slaves, for two reasons. First, capitalism is not a system of consumption, but of production. We could all stop shopping tomorrow and the system would adapt; if we all stopped working tomorrow, it would die. Second, the denouncers are usually people standing outside the labour process, who have the privileged of seeing ‘the truth’ of capitalism because they don’t have to hack at its coal face daily. Those who emerge covered in soot and photocopier dust know better than the critics how awful capitalism is: that’s what makes temporary escape so important. The end of the spectacle is not revolution but immobility and despair. The axis of boredom and anxiety that the work day pivots on cannot be broken through critique; it will be overcome through the self-activity of the masses. No self-activity in your neighbourhood? No time to join a co-op? Got a deep, yearning need for self-expression and groceries? Welcome to shopping.

IMG_2377 IMG_2400

I think this is a more honest position than the anti-consumptionists, or those who think trade can be made fair. The constant tension that individual rebellion needs isn’t sustainable under the pressures of work or unemployment. It either gets resolved into dropping out – a dead-end solution which is not only personally taxing but does nothing to address the root of the problem – or reproducing small-scale capitalism.

IMG_2401 IMG_2403

Shopping will not change the world. Only class struggle will do that. If you’d rather spin clay pots to feel better, then do it. But don’t judge those for whom the act of consumption, potential or real, holds some aesthetic, sociological or even psychological purpose.

IMG_2693 IMG_2695

From Shopping to Art

Just like spending all your time building model trains can give you bad skin and thick glasses, too much shopping can erode my sense of what the repackaged and resold signs mean altogether. I feel empty and crave meaning. I want something that can’t be sold, or something antique which was sold once, but which has been commodified in a new way. That’s the appeal of vintage: it represents a distance from the circuit of consumption. At least it feels that way. A used good – or, in Japan, a logoed good with no discernable purpose – allows me to attach my own meaning to objects, rather than the meaning the commodity was originally intended for.

Angry vegetable men from Japan.

Shopping = hobbies = art

This post does not mark my slide into Marxism Today-style anti-environmentalism. I recognize that shopping is a contradiction. However, I don’t think it’s the main one, and I think those who denounce it are unwittingly targeting coping, not selfishness. Think of it this way: consumption is an escape from alienation that ultimately binds you closer to capitalism – not through spending (individual consumption is a tiny part of the circuit of capital) but through giving you the strength to cope with one more day at work.

I’m reading Monsters of the Market, which has a wonderful quote about the role of fetish objects in pre-colonial, pre-capitalist (but not pre-market) Africa. These “were not societies which subordinated all aspects of socio-economic life to regulation by the market, which is why non-commodifiable goods were a permanent feature of social life.” (209) Shopping, hobbies and art are all distinct activities, but they share a common thread: a pursuit of a non-commodifiable good, one that ultimately allows you to maintain yourself in exploitation/dimly imagine a better world. It’s impossible to separate those two.

Art, Specifically


That said, sometimes I’m overwhelmed by the exchange-value of consumption, its celebration of inequality and ephemera, and I want to see things that are outside consumption completely, like an art gallery. Art (to be precise, an art object) is very good at representing that drive towards the inalienable. It’s much less good at representing the drudgery and turmoil of the work most people spend most of their lives enduring. That’s either because artists don’t come from the working class. Or they do and the experience of work is so traumatic they use their art to try and escape. Art is transcendent; work is concrete, which is painful when you land on it.

For those of us who aren’t collectors, art can only have use-value: I appreciate the artist’s intent and social context, and whether she melded and represented those two successfully. And even if I don’t like the art, I can still appreciate its existence outside of the circuit of consumption. (I’m not a connoisseur; I’m drawn to bright colours put neatly inside lines, like a mod-parakeet.)

An art piece is pure use-value, not meant to accumulate capital, even if that’s the purpose it eventually serves. It’s a personal statement of identity, a way of the artist saying ‘I exist, my thoughts and feelings are here regardless of whether they are sold or not.’ For that reason alone, I’m drawn to art, and I suspect most people are as well, whether they articulate it in that fashion. Like shopping, art is something outside work, and the endless struggle to accumulate and/or survive, and therefore art is good.

This is good art.

But lately that sense of relief I get seeing art, the feeling of being able to dive into a piece, inhabit an artist’s worldview or imaginary, however briefly, has been compromised. Partly by my return to wage-labour, which makes it hard to concentrate, but mostly by jealousy. I see their work and think, ‘How did you have the time and energy to do that while I, and most people, have to work non-creative jobs to get by?’ Worse, when designers make goods for rich people, I think, ‘You’re actively ignoring the misery of the vast majority to make the lives of the privileged even more comfortable.’


I should celebrate – or at least, learn from – every manifestation of the human drive for creativity, no matter how partial. But how can I, when I know that my own and many other people’s dreams of creative, fulfilling endeavor get crushed =? Capitalism is littered with the broken dreams of people forced under the grinding wheel of accumulation. Three examples from fiction (where else are they going to be?)

1) Any film by Ozu, whose characters embody quiet desperation and unfulfilled hopes better than anyone else:

A good act (Late Autumn) Plain discontent (Late Autumn)From Late Autumn.

Killer of Sheep, about a man who hates his job and life so much he can’t sleep, while his son fights the realization that growing up means being as trapped as his father:

And for good measure, The Onion, which argues “Find The Thing You’re Most Passionate About, Then Do It On Nights And Weekends For The Rest Of Your Life”. There are countless other examples.

Lisa depressed

Faced with that, I’m having trouble finding patience for art. Which in a way, is handing a final victory to capitalism. It’s like saying, ‘I’m so conscious of the system’s ability to alienate us from our essential drives that I’ve lost my own ability to appreciate those who, through luck of birth or sheer hard work, manage to create.’ I don’t mean to celebrate the beauty of hard work, which is so easily co-opted for capitalist or Stalinist ends. I mean the beauty of people whose drive to create is so strong that they have to, regardless of circumstance.

Haemil is an artist who dropped out of high school, and works a job she hated because she needed money. At nights she paints. Lest that sounds romantic, she makes very clear that her life was, and is pain: work, poverty and loneliness conspire to stifle her self-expression. Unsurprisingly, class society holds very little appeal: “If someone is living a life in which they get a little more different―a little privilege, I believe that that does not belong to them.” This suffering hasn’t silenced her – nor has it spurred her into a wonderful new life. She paints ants, who create order and society despite being tiny and in danger of being crushed. She survives to create:

These days, she works all day at her office and all night at her studio. She sleeps huddled up in the cold studio and goes straight to work in the morning. I asked her if she was lonely, and she said that loneliness was essential, and smiled.

In the face of unemployment, underemployment and crap jobs, how you assuage your alienation – shopping, hobbies, art or a combination of all three – is, ultimately, unimportant. What is important that you express yourself creatively, and work together for social justice, en route to ending capitalist exploitation.


The problem with open source, Part II

To continue from yesterday, where we were discussing how corporations benefit from Linux:

Q: So, if I understand you correctly, Linux is a tool for battling the monopoly power of the big players – at least, the failed monopolists hope so? That’s really interesting, and a breath of fresh air after so much utopian Linux-promotion (or just plain old libertarian ‘no corporation will tell me what to do’ Linux-promotion.)

A: Yeah, the perception that ‘free software’ is the preserve of brilliant but withdrawn twenty-somethings working in their mother’s basement is quite mistaken. A high proportion of Linux kernel developers, for instance, are employed by large commercial concerns, and I think this is down to a recognition that completely closed standards (such as the old MS Office file formats) but also conflicting-if-otherwise-open technical standards (such as were manifest during the ‘UNIX wars’ of the mid-1980s onwards) led, in one way or another, to Microsoft’s de facto software monopoly.

I love machines (Ghost in the Shell)

Free software is politically interesting in that it isn’t reducible to a mere ethic of almsgiving (or a socialism of consumption alone), since it permits (or in the case of copyleft licences, semi-compels) code to be redistributed in a form that allows anyone to modify and incorporate it for their own ends. Undoubtedly, it’s fostered the adoption of open, non-patented technical standards to an extent that would have seemed unthinkable twenty years ago, and in consequence Microsoft, which had hitherto dubbed copylefted free software a ‘cancer’ and ‘communism’, now offers users of its Windows Server software – under a comprehensive system of technical support – the possibility of running virtualised versions of Linux.

The political price of having so much code held in common in this way, however, is that while HP and IBM might not directly control the direction of the development of, say, the Linux kernel project, the software developers employed by HP and IBM to work on Linux are ultimately beholden to their employer’s strategic interests, so in a roundabout way Linux development ultimately serves commercial rather than technical ends (a point sometimes made by OpenBSD developers concerning the quality of Linux code in general, and the Linux project’s relatively lax attitude toward security matters in particular). Perhaps we could say – although this should hardly come as news – that the importance of free software lies in the politically instructive nature of its failure: where for Richard Stallman in the ’80s free software seemed to promise something akin to the free development of each through the free development of all (albeit strictly within the sphere of software-coding), today it’s recognised by industry analysts as an integral part of the corporate IT ecosystem.

That notwithstanding, the history of free software remains almost completely unexplored by researchers of a Marxist bent, perhaps intimidated by some of the technical and legal aspects, or bemused by the sometimes seemingly right-libertarian, sometimes utopian-socialist political stance of Richard Stallman. There are exceptions, though: for some years Toni Prug has been applying Žižekian considerations to the question of intellectual property.

Corporate competition (Ghost in the Shell)

Q: Did you ever publish anything on this? I’d be interested in reading it.

A: I’ve occasionally pointed out the incoherencies of free software ideology on the relevant websites and mailing lists (leading on one occasion to a summary ban from a self-styled ‘benevolent dictator for life’) but haven’t written about ‘FLOSS’ at any length. The story of how the movement for code held and maintained in common impinged on the IT industry while ultimately proving of limited political consequence is a cautionary tale worth telling, however, and I think its outline is something like the following:

(i) IT multinationals (HP, IBM, SGI and DEC, for instance), with a huge strategic investment in developing their own versions of the UNIX operating system, find that the mutual incompatibilities these introduce is at odds with UNIX’s rationale, i.e. the benefits to gained through a common software-development interface;

(ii) Microsoft steps into the breach with its own, de facto common programming- and user interface and achieves a relative monopoly both on the desktop and in ‘backroom’, IT-infrastructure operating systems;

(iii) thus partially edged out of the server operating-system market, and realising that competition in the field of their key software products is actually bad for (their) overall business, vendors of proprietary UNIX, while not exactly relinquishing those products, nevertheless invest resources in the development of the Linux operating system, development which they can influence (through the code they are willing to donate) but not fully control;

(iv) in the field of server operating systems (although not on the desktop, where Microsoft still retains its OEM monopoly) Linux encroaches on areas where MS Windows had hitherto been strong, to such an extent that Microsoft recognises the challenge by entering into a pact with the second-largest Linux vendor, Novell, in 2006.

Spectre of capitalism (Ghost in the Shell)

I haven’t been able to research these things at the same level of depth as your own work on use-value oriented agriculture, and wonder whether I might have underestimated some of the complexities – such as failing to distinguish largesse on the part of groups of individuals within a corporation (for example DEC’s Jon Hall, who facilitated Torvalds’s use of the resources that allowed Linux to be ported to Digital’s Alpha hardware) from a strategic commitment to the development of Linux on the part of entire corporations (such as IBM’s decision to donate millions of lines of pre-existing code to the Linux 2.6 kernel, contributions which definitively consolidated Linux’s reputation as a world-class ‘enterprise-grade’ operating system).

To anyone interested in researching these questions, though, a useful place to begin might be The Daemon, the GNU & the Penguin (serialised in an earlier draft here) by Peter Salus.

The problem with open source, part I

Since my first interview, I’ve learned something very important about blogs: you can outsource content-generation… I mean, provide a platform for co-thinkers with innovative ideas. And that’s what I’m doing today, with an anonymous contributor. Ever since my horrible experience with Linux while travelling last year, I’ve grown suspicious of claims that an open-source operating system could subvert corporate monopolies and make information free. Okay, I had those suspicions beforehand, as I don’t believe there’s any technical fix to capitalist ownership. The drive of capital to expand means that even the most utopian DIY project will be excluded if it’s a threat to monopoly, or appropriated if it’s got some marketable potential.

This discussion does get technical, but I dont know anywhere else where you can get this kind of analysis, and I think it’s an important corrective to some of the stronger claims of DIY software enthusiasts. I’m including photos to break up the text, not to minimize the subject matter. My contributor knows far more about this than I do and, best of all, he backs up my irrational prejudices with hard facts. So I’ll turn the floor over to him, suitably edited to make me sound more erudite than I actually am.sophisticated homer

We began innocently enough. He had sent me revisions for an article I wrote, and I couldn’t see them. I was using Preview on a Mac. He explained that:

The only freeware, apart from Adobe’s own, that can consistently ‘see’ the mark-ups inserted using Adobe Reader is Okular (a Linux application). But unfortunately it can’t edit the mark-ups or insert its own. My guess would be that the mark-up feature is a proprietary connivance, built on top of the Portable Document Format’s non-proprietary open standard, which, for reasons unknown, software developers aren’t especially keen to explore.

Q: It makes sense that a corporation would attempt monopoly control over a technology, to the extent of suing others for attempting to develop/distribute alternatives. But for something so minor as being able to hover over mark-ups and read inserted text? It shouldn’t surprise me that capitalism is deep as well as broad.

We next discussed the Sklyarov case, in which Adobe backed the prosecution of a Russian for developing the means to modify e-books. This was legal in Russia, but not in the US – they nabbed him when he was at an American conference.

A: If Adobe are willing to prosecute a non-US national for activities otherwise quite legal under their own country’s jurisdiction, what chance, say, a US national who distributes a program that inadvertently implements an Adobe patent?

Q: Yeah, they’ll err on the side of caution rather than get sued. And this kind of chill effect seems to spread. Nothing gets in the way of patented data!

A: While the actual abolition of software patents in the US isn’t on the cards, reform of the system probably is, because when royalty-bearing patents were more or less the exclusive preserve of industry oligopolists, a corporation’s willingness to sue a competitor would be held in check by considerations of their own potential exposure to patent suits. Today, however, there are companies (dubbed ‘non-practising entities’) whose function isn’t to sell products but to buy up patents and sue the likes of Apple, Microsoft and Motorola for whatever they can get.

A free software application might find itself in violation of a software patent either way, of course, and if you’ve ever used a commercial variant of Linux (or a version that officially serves the development of a commercial variant) you’ll immediately notice how various elements are hobbled: mp3 support (Fraunhofer Institute), plus the other proprietary codecs; font rendering (Apple, Microsoft); reverse-engineered versions of Silverlight (Microsoft’s answer to Adobe Flash)… It’s been suggested that distributing programs by source code alone would circumvent patents, since distributing what are, in effect, the instructions for creating software would be no more problematic than distributing the patent document itself — which is fine, until you realise that compiling the source code for your PC’s operating system and software applications would take the better part of a working week!

Homer asleep over book

Q: That’s a very good point you make: individuals are supposed to make up for the (externally imposed?) limitations of open-source. I struggled with Linux for a few months last summer and I grew to appreciate the clunky but fully-functioning evil that is Windows… because my laptop was designed for it. Oligopoly indeed. Unfortunately the response of advocates has been voluntaristic: you dont want to hang around for a week for the programs that you use on a daily basis to finish compiling? What kind of libertarian are you? 🙂

A: What never quite fails to amuse with – most – free software advocates (and, in the interests of full disclosure, I’ve been running Linux and FreeBSD to the exclusion of MS Windows since 2006) is their total failure to countenance specifically political obligations, notwithstanding, say, the General Public License’s commitment, via the source code, to freely redistributable and freely modifiable software as a political desideratum.

In fact, in 2007 there was an attempt by key Linux kernel developers, ‘The Linux Driver Project’, to make non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) with manufacturers their default arrangement. NDAs  effectively make the notion of ‘freely modifiable software’ a nonsense, since, in the absence of so-called ‘register level programming’ information, only those party to the NDA can meaningfully modify (which is to say, improve) the very software that permits your laptop to work correctly with its video card, sound card, and power-management system. But free software advocates by and large thought it was a terrific idea, because it would allow more PC hardware to be supported under a (nominally) free software license!

Q: I don’t understand all the technical language, but restricting the hardware for which developers can write code starts a monopoly by any other name. I personally think it’s a weakness of the libertarian streak among open source programmers: so focused on individual freedom from monopoly, they’re willing to countenance freedom to make a profit without considering how those actions will affect others. But not to pick on open source, there’s a lack of understanding of political obligations in many communities, free or not 🙂 It’s really important you can critique that from the inside.

Homer in court

A: Among advocates of ‘copyleft’ software licences – that’s to say, licenses which legally oblige one to feed any alterations to the code back into the public realm under the same contractual terms – there’s very little open recognition of these matters, and for various reasons.

Copylefted code (unlike the support services provided around it) is well-nigh impossible to directly monetise, which has made it popular among the majority of large IT corporations with the important exception of Microsoft. Or, more to the point, it’s become popular among failed monopolists, who from the outset have been happy to support the development of the Linux kernel project, even where they market their own proprietary versions of UNIX – Linux having originally been developed by Linus Torvalds as a reverse-engineered version of UNIX.

That these corporations are willing to invest so much in something the appeal of which is the fact that their principal competitor is effectively excluded from profiting from it (at least according to its business model as a vendor of actual software) is taken by the more excitable copyleft-inclined free software activists as a sign of impending world domination. Given the wantonly simplistic nature of their advocacy (I was once told not to ask awkward questions of political principle, as it wasn’t advancing ‘Linux evangelism’) they’re happy to restrict their demands to more code released under their preferred licence.

Money and power

Needless to say, not everyone in free software is quite that obtuse, but the more perceptive critics come from some unexpected quarters. The principal alternative to copyleft among free software licences is the Berkeley Software Distribution licence, which in effect is a public domain licence qualified by an obligation to respect the moral rights of the author. Unlike copylefted code, BSD-licensed code can be proprietised and incorporated into proprietary code, not least because, unlike as with copyleft, there’s no obligation to distribute any changes one might make to it in the form of source code.

But paradoxically, it’s the very fact that one can directly monetise BSD-licenced code by withholding its source code which has meant its (relative) neglect among software developers working for IT oligopolies. Mindful perhaps that ‘world domination’ isn’t within their gift, rival BSD-licensed free operating system projects such as OpenBSD have been very vocal critics of the moral and political chicanery involved in the corporate patronage of Linux.

Please return for part II…

Tokyo – Thursday, May 30, 2013 – Shibuya and Harajuku

It was my last full day in Tokyo and I was determined to make the most of it. I began by wandering through the residential neighbourhood near my hostel. The streets were quiet, flat, straight and the houses were close together. It was a comfortable mix of living quarters and small businesses, but unlike Korea, nobody was shouting across the road to each other. (My girlfriend says that Japan and Korea are the England and France of Asia; I see the resemblance, except that, of course, the English are nowhere near as quiet as the Japanese.) Anyhow, I liked this temple for its abandoned quality. It clearly was in use, the paint was fresh, but no one had cut the grass:IMG_2833

Look, it’s the yogurt man!IMG_2835

In Shibuya I began heavy shopping at 109 Men’s and wasn’t that impressed. I was expecting crazy, glittery things but it looked like (and cost like) clubwear I’d see anywhere. I was deeply let down by the following, which turned out to be just a few t-shirts and cardigans:


Moving further afield, I went into a ‘bookshop’ that sold more expensive toys than books. Why, Japan, why?


Some of the other men’s shops were nice, but so expensive, and I soon turned my attention to nearby Harajuku, on the way passing a toilet so important it had its own expert:


I preferred Harajuku for its fashion-forwardness. Among the vintage shops, I found (and tried on) vintage kimonos, and similar-looking attire with different names and purposes. The thick 1960s fabric was beautiful, but I looked like a complete berk. Further along, I saw more Simpsons, but look closely and you’ll see these are neither golden-period nor Zombie Simpsons but reprints of quite early images, from around 1990. It struck me that, if pop culture waits 20 years to recycle images – 50s revival in the 70s, 70s revival in the 90s, etc. – then 2013 is high time for a classic Simpsons revival. Which is just terrifying.IMG_2847 IMG_2848

I found a sample sale and had to resist spending $500 on gorgeous Japanese and French clothing. I could’ve walked out with an asymmetrical canvas blazer, a heavy black linen cowboy shirt, and a whale-bone button trench coat, but I restricted myself to essentials. It was so hard.

Travelling alone I tend to start exploring in the hopes of finding something. In this case I was looking for a supermarket in which to buy some scotch (since the selection is amazing and about a third the price of Korea), which led me to the Prada store…


A rather creepy wedding shop…


This guy, whose gorgeous design is compromised by safty.


One of my favourite photos of the trip, a gas station outlined in the evening light. The tree, lights and colours just work:


And the gorgeous gift shop of the Museum of Contemporary Art.IMG_2854

Japanese John Berger!IMG_2816

I had a pint at a pop-up craft brewery housed in a shipping container:IMG_2853

Then I found scotch and some men’s hair product, and finally, reluctantly, made my way back to the hostel. Along the way I saw an alien:IMG_2856

Tokyo was big and confusing, and I don’t think I’d go back without more local knowledge. But I saw some beautiful things. I was actually happy to be returning to noisy, hilly Seoul, where the subways work and dinner is cheap. I still miss the sushi.

Tokyo – Wednesday, May 29, 2013 – Vintage Japan

I began my day at the National Art Centre, this lovely flowing building:IMG_2814

The inside managed to flow in completely different directions:IMG_2815

I saw an exhibit on California modernism, 1930-1965. Sorry, no photos were allowed. This left me more time to look at the pieces, which included utilitarian curvy things like chairs, crockery and dresses that looked like they’d be sculpted by airplane mechanics – which in many cases they had been. The items were beautiful, no question. I don’t know enough about design to characterise different periods, but I’d always associated post-war America with sickly greens and beiges and spindly furniture. These selections were robust and  colourful. My favourite items were the album covers and board games inspired by the threat of nuclear war – I never imagined the threat of apocalypse could induce creativity, but there it was.

My least favourite was the write-up. There was plenty of material on how designers created items either for, or at least inspired by, the working class fuelling the American boom. There was little on the class conflicts of the age. The section on modular houses, in particular, focused on how cool they were. Nothing about the creation of suburbia as a strategy to sell more cars, and to destroy tight-knit communities through spatial segregation in suburban sprawl. The curators were too close to their subject: enamoured by the pretty things, they failed to grasp the underlying conflicts that drove design for capitalism. I wrote a long note saying so in the comments box.

I walked to nearby embassy row to get my work visa, passing a charming statue of a girl in a red dress. The inscription was less charming:IMG_2817IMG_2818

I was with them until the last line. How does a mother thinking her daughter is fine, when her daughter is in fact dead in an orphanage, a symbol of anything other than tragedy, and horrible Christian missionaries?

IMG_4926Look, a new Miyazaki movie!

That afternoon I went back to Shimo-Kitazawa, to see the shops hidden on the sidestreets. There were dozens; unlike Koreans, who hate used clothes, the Japanese make a point of assembling quality items and selling them at exorbitant prices. The design of the shops is incredible. Here’s Package One, tucked into an alley off a sidestreet:


Inside was a tightly packed, meticulously organized pink explosion:IMG_2824

I also found the outfitters for the rockabilly dancers of Yoyogi Park: two shops selling everything 1950s for men. Gorgeous cloth caps, thick denim jeans, motorcycle boots, all for hundreds of dollars.

Here’s an inappropriately-named shoe-shop:IMG_2829

But my main goal of the evening was a vintage shop we had seen the previous Friday. It was distinguished by the most incredible selection of toys, kitchenware, furniture and memorabilia I’d ever seen. IMG_4917

The shop is small but so laden with vintage items that I spent an hour going over each shelf. Look, clocks shaped like a flying saucer on a stick! Everything in beautiful red, orange or green plastic:

IMG_4916  IMG_4914 IMG_4913

And reasonably priced too. Had I not been afraid of breakage during the flight home I would’ve left laden down with gewgaws, but I kept myself to buying a scarf with a map of the 1970 Osaka World’s Fair, and these fine vinyl items, each $3:


Yes, that’s Paul McCartney giving Ireland back to the Irish, and Chicago in their incredible anti-war anthem, back before they sucked, dressed like soldiers. I’m of a generation where anything with Japanese writing on it instantly looks cool to me, and these passed muster.

I ended the evening at a crimson-red biker-themed bar, where the impossibly cool long-haired bartender apologised for how expensive his beer was.

Sushi in Tokyo

As a vegetarian of 19 years, I’ve had to modify my strict no-fish rule in Asia. Korea is nowhere near as meat-heavy as Russia, but I just accept that there will be fish broth in soups, kimchi and rice rolls. Japan is even harder for vegetarians – at least for those without local knowledge – so I became a pescetarian for a week and decided to eat sushi. It quickly became an addiction. I don’t like cooked fish, and the taste of raw fish flesh is a little stomach-churning. But soaked in soy sauce and wasabi, accompanied by seaweed and rice, it’s soft, chewy, salty and spicy. As a vegetarian I have nothing to compare it to, except maybe faux-sushi.

Real Japanese sushi slides around on a conveyer belt, with the chefs standing in the middle. They’re required to shout greetings when you walk in, which is rather nice after a hard day’s touring. You can pluck what’s sliding past, or you can ask them to make you something from the menu by pointing at it. Plates are colour-coded by price, and the closer to major shopping areas you get, the higher they are. But there was no difference in quality between a 160 ($1.60) yen plate in classy Harajuku and a 100 yen plate in seedy Shibuya. This shop, in Shimo-Kitazawa, started at 120 a plate – you can see the colour-coded ovals in the middle – and stood out for me for its plain, 1980s decor:

IMG_2827 IMG_2828

I was digging the marbled turquoise pleather and faux-granite tiling, but mainly I was digging the food. I got addicted: I could have had pizza, pasta, even Thai food, but about 8pm every night I began craving raw fish. My waistline got pudgier, but I couldn’t stop.

IMG_2811 IMG_2758

When I saw Life of Pi here in Seoul, and the main character apologised to the fish for killing it, the audience laughed. I remember being mildly offended. But after a week in Tokyo, all thoughts of apology had fled – I wanted raw salmon and tuna. They say bacon is the vegetarian-killer, but I tried it in Russia and wasn’t that impressed. Sushi, on the other hand, is worth depleting the oceans for.


Tokyo – Tuesday, May 28, 2013 – The Monorail, Tokyo Character Street and creepy Akihabara

As a big fan of Japanese poster art, I was looking forward to the Ad Museum Tokyo; alas, when I got there it was temporarily closed. So I enjoyed the giant Shimodome complex, which had so many levels that it managed to be indoors and outdoors at the same time:IMG_2765


Nestled in the complex was the Panasonic Centre (at least, I think it was that one. Panasonic has at least three different offices in the neighbourhood.) I wandered through the immaculate showrooms featuring beautiful appliances in impossibly large apartments. The tech was gorgeous of course, but what really caught my eye was what appeared to be an electric saddle, like the kind featured in western-themed strip bars, and what turned out to be… an electric saddle, or joba:


Apparently horse-riding is great for your core muscles. I asked for a pamphlet, which featured such purely-exercise-themed images as this:

I think Panasonic may have gotten confused between the otakus who want to see horse-riding women, and women who may actually want to ride a horse.

Trying to get a visual sense of what appeared to be a giant square block of building, complete with overhead walkways and monorail, I found the post office at the heart of the district – here’s what it looked like originally:


And here’s what it looks like now:IMG_4830

In fact, the Japanese seem to specialize in sprouting giant skyscrapers from modernist palaces – this was a few blocks away, in Ginza:


I spent a few frustrating hours wandering around Ginza, finding the fish market and the Sony showroom, which featured giant TVs and 3D headsets but which all looked a little naff, frankly. This was the first time I considered that Japan is not the centre of hi-tech I knew it to be – that’s been globalized, or at least regionalized to most of east Asia.

My next tourist destination was the Yurikamome Line, a rubber-wheeled driverless train that snakes around Tokyo harbour. For once I got a good transit deal by paying for a single-stop trip… which I got off at, after travelling the length of the route. Later I regretted my thriftiness when I learned that one of the stops was Divercity Tokyo, featuring Gundam Front Tokyo, a theme park for giant robots. But the surrounding buildings were also impressive – these aren’t particularly stunning photos, but they give a sense of the massive scale.IMG_4868IMG_4904IMG_4885

I particularly like this shot – something about the cranes seems like they’re framing the sky and building site:IMG_4887 IMG_4889 IMG_4891 IMG_4893  IMG_4909

My next stop was Tokyo Character Street, a useful centralization of all the Japanese TV networks’ mascot merchandise shops into one handy, underground mall beneath Tokyo station:IMG_2782 IMG_2780

I have a theory on why TV networks in particular, and Japan culture in general, likes mascots so much. Talismans – spiritually significant totems – are an integral part of Taoism and also exist in Shintoism. It makes sense that capitalism, never shy about appropriating existing traditions to make a profit, would take the Japanese focus on words and images with independent power and remake it. Maybe this is a common insight in cultural studies and therefore not nearly as profound as I gave myself credit for. But wandering the crowded stores of Character Street, I was impressed by the completeness each TV network tried to immerse its fans in. Each store was a complete world, where every possible marketing item for different characters was available to purchase:

IMG_2783 IMG_2784 IMG_2785

This one is about Imoto, a schoolgirl with big eyebrows who explores the world:IMG_2787 IMG_2788

Hello Kitty has been successfully exported to the west, but it was a comparatively tame offering next to the other shops – it wasn’t even crowded:IMG_2789 IMG_2791 IMG_2792

I found the shop of my favourite corporate logo, Domo-Kun. But I was getting overwhelmed by all the cuteness and passed up an opportunity to drop $20 on a sock-puppet Domo. Instead I went two stops north to Akihibara, the otaku paradise.


Electronics shops abutted multi-story anime and sex shops, and sometimes a combination of all three. Here’s (Yumi?) Tamura trying to make it big by dancing with furries:


A friend had warned me this part of town was creepy, and indeed it was. But I appreciated its honesty, unlike Panasonic’s sexy joba-marketing. Here there was no doubt what was being sold. How many girls shilling for maid cafes can you spot in this picture? I count six and, next to Colonel Sanders, the kind of men who frequent them. Wikipedia says cafes are now for couples, tourists and women, but I only saw men on their own.

IMG_2802   IMG_2806 IMG_2809 IMG_2810

After officially prudish Korea, I was ready for prurient Japan, so I visited the biggest sex shop I could find and dodged eye contact with uncomfortable foreigners. This sign caught my eye, so I snapped a surreptitious photo: men could visit the women’s floor, but women couldn’t visit the men’s. Hey Tokyo, it’s a sex-y shop, not a sexist shop. OK, it seemed wittier at the time.


From there I went back to the Tsujiki fish market for some late night alleyway sushi, and then I was out of energy.