Being Japanese/Being Universal
- Japanese Contemporary Media Artists and the Presence of Cultural Heritage -




Machiko Kusahara
Kobe University


On the field of contemporary media art interactive art has been considered a particularly international phenomenon. The artists engaged in creating experiences involving audiences in simultaneously emotional, intellectual and physical interactions or "dialogues" with their artworks often seem real cosmopolitans. They spend their time travelling and working in labs in Japan, Europe or the USA. They often show their works at exhibitions and conferences in almost any part of the world. Information about their achievements is spread by international word-of-mouth or via the Internet. Successful interactive artists have become well known figures, at least in media and techo cultural circles. The established art world still seems to have some reservations towards them, but that is likely to change little by little.

In recent years Japan has produced an impressive number of contributions to this expanding field. Japanese artists have not only shown their works in their homeland; they have been active wherever something seems to be happening. Consulting the most recent catalogues of Siggraph or Ars Electronica is enough to provide ample evidence. Japanese media artists have tackled with many of the same issues as their occidental colleagues. Often, however, people seem to observe a certain "surplus" in their works, something that gives them a very distinctive mark. Whether we label it "Japanness" or something else, trying to define its character remains an exciting and -- someone might say --- next to impossible task. What is "Japanness" anyway? How do we distinguish it from features we might label as "international"? The following notes about the works of some prominent contemporary Japanese media artists should be taken as a first step towards answering these questions.

Masaki Fujihata has no doubt been one of the most versatile Japanese media artists in recent years. He first became internationally known with his computer graphics in the early 80s. Digital art was still in its infancy at that time, and computer graphics was practically the most experimental medium for representing an imaginative world by an artist. In his animation works or still images Fujihata depicted subjects such as mandalas or Japanese soup bowls and chopsticks twisted in 3D spaces. The images unmistakably referred to Asian traditions, but what Fujihata represented was not necessarily meant to be culturally specific. Rather, such culturally charged objects provided him with a playful and free-floating means to explore and extend the dimensions of the then brand new digital realms.

Today Fujihata is mostly known for the highly conceptual interactive networked installations he has created at the ZKM in Karlsruhe, Germany and in Japan. In the Mt. Fuji Project (1993) Fujihata took as his starting point a highly charged cultural icon, the Japanese sacred mountain. However, instead of elaborating on its national connotations Fujihata took a surprising approach: he wanted to "draw" a digital map of the mountain by climbing it successively from different sides and recording the trails by means of GPS equipment carried by the climbers. This "performance" resulted in a kind of subjective mapping of the mountain, which was in the actual installation made available for the users to explore interactively. By doing so Fujihata distanced his project from the national meanings associated with Mt. Fuji and used the mountain as a kind of medium to a subjective measuring of space. Simultaneously he experimented with state-of-the-art technology to explore the ways in which it changes the temporal-spatial continuum. The emphasis was both personal and global.

In later pieces, like the different versions of the "Global Interior Project", the visitors/participants become the interface to communicate with a virtual realm. The relationship between the real and the virtual, and the role of our mind as an active interpreter of that relation, are central issues in these works. Visitors travel in the virtual worlds and meet others as avatars. Fujihata has also looked for suitable metaphors for global communication, such as small (physical!) doors opening and closing in relation with network activity. These might evoke those coin locker doors one often encounters in Japan (in public baths, for example), yet here again Fujihata's goals are mainly internationally oriented. Fujihata aims at abstracting the real world and projecting these abstractions to virtual worlds. When a door opens, the visitor sees a a Lego model of the virtual world currently being visited. The online activity is visualized in conceptual and rather complex ways which are not always easy to understand at first, but gradually lead to a deepening understanding of the issues at stake.

Seiko Mikami, based in New York, is another artist who has developed an original approach that distances itself from the Japanese cultural heritage. Her works deal with issues of genetics and the body. She has shown interest in the physiological processes taking place inside biological bodies. By amplifying and modifying these digitally she has created impressive and evocative environments. In her "Molecular Clinic" Mikami created a system to manipulate the genetic code of a virtual spider on the Web, while in the installation "World, Membrane and the Dismembered Body" a visitor was invited to enter a darkened, absolutely sound proof space and listen to the amplified soundscape of one's own body.


On the other hand, Toshio Iwai has also been very active internationally -- he won the prestigious Golden Nica award at Ars Electronica in Linz, Austria in 1997 together with the composer Ryuichi Sakamoto -- and yet his approach and attitude towards art (and media, as well as entertainment) retains many traces of the Japanese culture. This, in fact, is clearly one of the reasons why his works have been considered so new and refreshing outside Japan.

It may not be internationally known, however, that Iwai brought a major change to Japanese children's TV programming in the early 90s. By that time he was already known for his creative way of mixing digital technology with much older moving image technologies (such as zoetropes and flip-books) in his installation works. "Time Stratum II", for example, consists of kind of large-scale three-dimensional zoetropes. To produce a sophisticated-looking animation effect Iwai cleverly used the flickering of a normal monitor instead of more specialized strobo lights. When asked to direct a TV program in which children and virtual characters would interact in real-time, he not only created and designed the characters but also developed an ingenious low-cost system to manipulate them in real-time. He did this by connecting personal computers and modified Nintendo game controllers to the high-end production system of the TV studio. Since then applying such low-cost systems to TV production has become popular in Japan.

The continuities between art and entertainment, artwork and commercial work, high-tech and low-tech, specialized tools and everyday equipment are important features of Iwai's work. Iwai respects old and intuitive devices, but applies state-of-the-art technology to bring their underlying ideas into innovative and surprising new contexts. A case in point, the inspiration for his highly acclaimed interactive installation "Piano as Image Media" and the subsequent performance series in which it was used as a multimedia instrument on stage, "Music plays Images, Images Play Music" (the winner of the Golden Nica), came originally from a simple old children's music box. Iwai has also been inspired by video games - he even designed a "art-game" cartridge for the Nintendo Famicom console (it was never released by Nintendo, obviously as too experimental; later part of it has been made available as SimTunes). The sense of playfulness so evident in all his works is closely related to the nature of interactivity. Yet it is also something very typically Japanese; in Japanese creativity no combinations seem impossible. In design as well as industrial production, the spirit of playfulness prevails. Recently Iwai published "Bikkuri Mouse", a software for collaborative painting for Sony's Playstation 2, in collaboration with the illustrators duo Uruma Derubi. While the commercial package is highly educational, publishing a piece of "application software" for a game platform would be considered as an almost impossible move from the Western point of view for, for a highly regarded artist like Iwai.


The absense of border between art, entertainment and applied products -- so evident in Iwai's work -- is also closely connected to Japanese history of art. While a distinction between fine ant and applied art was historically established in the West, it never really came to make sense in Japan. It is a known fact, for example, that the best paintings were often realized on screens and other pieces of furniture; designing ceramics was considered one of the most elaborate practices of art. An interesting outcome of such a way of thinking is the work of Kazuhiko Hachiya.

Hachiya, a media artist belonging to a younger generation, is known for works such as the "InterDiscommunication Machine", which has been widely exhibited both in Japan and abroad, including Ars Electronica 95. To experience this work, two participants are wearing customary HMD -like helmets.
A CCD video camera and a microphone have been installed on each helmet, so that each participant can only see the screen in front of his eyes and hear the sound emitted from the headset. However, what he/she sees and hears are the images and sounds sent from the camera and the microphone attached on the other person's HMD. The two participants literally exchange their sight and sound, seeing the world from the other person's point of view. The participants have to communicate and collaborate in order to find one's own location in the real world. Giving rise to a system for communication via an "inter-discommunication" system is the aim of this work.

What is seen behind Hachiya's approach toward communication is the notion of identity or self in Japanese cultural tradition. In his earlier network project "Mega Diary", 100 participants on the net exchange their diary for 100 days to virtually share their life without meeting in the real space. In his interactive installation work "Seeing is Believing" which is based on Mega Diary, visitors can read others' diary through an optical coding/decoding system the artist developed.
In Japan, however, Hachiya is the most widely known to the public as well as in the industry as the inventor of "PostPet", the best selling playful e-mail software in Japan. "PostPet" is a playful a-life based email software where a pet that lives on one's desktop delivers email to friends. But the pet has its own life and mood. It would not come back from its errand immediately which means that the user cannot send another email until it comes back, or would even start sending email by itself. PostPet is different from the concept of agent or avatar. The fun is in giving up the position of being the master of the pet and admitting its life and character as it is. One can relate PostPet to other alife entertainment products from Japan such as Tamagotchi and Pocket Monsters, which also reflect Japanese traditional relationship between human beings and animals or other form of lives. By combining such tradition with his continuous approach on creating an arena of communication through digital technology, Hachiya realized an extremely successful commercial product based on his artistic concept.

The recent international success stories of Japanese electronic games, manga comics and anime films have raised both expectations and an increasing awareness of the role the Japanese culture may play on the fields of contemporary visual arts and entertainment.
In contemporary art too, Japanese artists have been attracting an international attention with the way they deal with the contemporary media culture, often in visually striking manners. Artists like Takashi Murakami, Kenji Yanobe and Mariko Mori have already translated the influence of the Japanese popular culture into contemporary art.
While the themes of the artworks by the media artists discussed in this article are essentially universal -- and that is one of the reasons why their works are highly appreciated internationally -- the approaches that these artists have taken often show certain unique features that their Western colleagues would not have thought about.
Also, their approaches and the manner of representing their ideas go beyond the Western notion of art. Fusion of art, entertainment and commercial application takes place.

The way Japanese media artists use digital technology in their art making reflects the major role of the technology in Japanese culture both historically and contemporary. New technology has been, and is used, in discovering new form of entertainment and to promote communication through it. Art, entertainment and everyday life are continuous both in terms of concept and visual design. Notion of life and body is different from that of the West, reflecting Japanese tradition in which theologically critical borders did not exist between body and mind, human and animals (or other entities), or even between the real and the image. In a sense, Japanese media culture has a strong Post Modern nature in it, reflecting its history in which the Japanese has introduced different cultural elements from various countries, always mixing them and reinventing them within the traditional framework.

The works of Japanese artists I have discussed have something unique that can be regarded as the mixture of their own ideas and concepts as artists with the contemporary notion of art, and the conscious or unconscious reflection of Japanese tradition which makes their works more interesting. Their ways of using embedded cultural traditions and references can certainly enrich both media art and the more general field of contemporary culture. As digital media become everyday tools for artmaking, particularly artists belonging to the younger generations seem to be able to adopt a more relaxed attitude towards locating and using features of Japanese cultural traditions. For them the process of mixing old and new into ever new combinations seems to be a rich source of creativity.



(Originally published in Art, Asia Pacific, 2000. This is a new version, 2001, to be published in Poland in 2002)

BACK