Monday, October 20, 2014

Moshi Moshi Nippon

Japan is a country of systems. Everything, everything has a system and its important to realize that, because these systems are so culturally unquestioned that chances are no one will ever think to tell you about them. Don't worry about it too much, most are pretty obvious and as long as you're paying attention to your surroundings they're easy enough to notice and slip into. Unfortunately any sense of authority these systems may command is completely undermined by the fact that many of them are frequently and completely ignored by everyone else. It's pretty funny actually, watch what happens when one person goes the wrong direction down a one-way walkway; all bets are off, chaos ensues and everyone rushes to join them in the mayhem. And they all look thoroughly uncomfortable doing it.

Even after a month in the country I'm still surprised by just how deep into Japanese society these systems go. Some of them make sense, like train doors that align perfectly with designated waiting spots on the platforms or Japan's terrifyingly efficient refuse collection system that seems designed to single handedly save the world while also fucking with foreigners' heads. Some of them are just totally random though; like having different counting systems just for the sake of it, or inventing an entire symbolic alphabet to pronounce foreign words that are usually just spelled in English anyway. 'Futari' means two people, 'futatsu' means two things, and while the difference seems small, telling a waiter that you are 'two things' as you enter a restaurant tends to draw extended glares of bewilderment.

A few weeks ago I attended a festival called Moshi Moshi Nippon, and discovered yet again that there is no end to the systems that this country will devote itself to and rely on. Moshi Moshi Nippon was billed as a festival to promote Japanese pop culture and as such, entry was free for foreigners. The line up was pretty damn impressive, featuring some of the most popular idol groups of the moment such as Dempagumi INC., Silent Siren and headlining the whole event was global J-pop superstar Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. This was a really big deal for everyone else. Not for me though. Me and Kyary go way back.

As I arrived at the Tokyo Taiikukan, with two Japanese friends in tow, I was immediately impressed with what I saw. Merch stalls were, rather ingeniously, set up outside the venue to catch people on their way in and out, and the DJ booth, manned by a cross dressing DJ in a school girl uniform and two-tone bob wig, had drawn a massive amount of people absolutely losing their shit to some Japanese metal. There were gothic lolitas, harajuku fashionistas and waves and waves and waves of idol groups just standing around waving and smiling as far as I could see and this was outside the actual venue at like 2 o'clock in the afternoon. I couldn't wait to get inside and see, you know, the actual festival.

Unfortunately my entrance was impeded by yet another Japanese system. Japanese natives had to buy tickets to this event, whereas foreigners just had to register online for a free QR code which would be scanned on the day. Strangely, when we enquired at the door about this we were told that foreigners had to go queue at the "foreigner registration desk" (which brought up all kinds of republican eugenic feelings that I didn't totally understand) around the corner, while my Japanese companions were free to go inside with their tickets. So now they had to wait for me. Even in an effort to include foreigners the Japanese organizers just couldn't resist ostracizing them a little. But hey, it was still free right? Sure it was strange and inconvenient, but thirty minutes in a queue isn't such a big price to pay for a day of non-stop live J-pop.

After my foreign registration was complete, we decided that hunger was priority number one and ventured into the food stalls to see what we could rustle up. Excited to try some authentic yakisoba, I failed to notice my Japanese companions enter into confused, inquisitive conversation that, although incomprehensible, seemed somehow important. Turns out, the festival food stalls only accepted these strange little tokens that you had to buy at a smaller stall.

To reiterate, we had to queue and use money to buy special festival money so that we could then queue and use that festival money to buy food. Ignoring the financial implications of actually manufacturing those special coin token things, the question must still be asked. Why. On. Earth.

Japan. That's why.

The festival itself was amazing. The Taikukkan was laid out like a massive indoor market with cosmetic companies, fashion labels and independent designers selling their wares, which were all displayed between the live music via spectacularly produced catwalk shows. As for the music, well, J-pop is my thing. I dig it. So I had a great time. Even the idol groups, the many, many, many idol groups are interesting from a social perspective to me (and also a musical one) so there was very little I didn't love about the main stage or the second stage to the side, which honestly might as well have been called the idol group stage, because that's literally all you'd have seen there. As enjoyable as the whole thing was though, what really caught my attention was yet another unexpected, but rather brilliant, Japanese social system.

See, Japanese people need these systems. Not through some bizarre genetic quirk, just because that's how things just are here. So if you take that away, everyone's a little unsure what to do. The attitude isn't so much, "we need systems or we'll all die!". It's more "this would probably work better with a system so let's make one. ...and tell no one else about it". This even extends into Japanese concerts. Every J-pop song has a unique dance that goes with it, and while it might look to outsiders like just another cute trait of the genre, this in itself is another system for Japanese people. These dance moves are basically instructional videos on how to enjoy the concert. At concerts, Japan is a nation full of Will Ferrel in Talladega Nights; no one knows what to do with their hands. So everyone just does what the singer is doing. Because that's why she's doing it.

The other thing is, at concerts I'm Will Ferrel in Talladega Nights. I never know what to do with my hands. So seeing everyone just copy Kyary, and in turn copying her myself, freed me up to just enjoy my surroundings. I wasn't thinking about the fact that my tragically Irish sensibilities render me incapable of dancing or looking attractive while enjoying myself, I was just doing what I was told. We all were. And there was something strangely liberating about it.

The Japanese have a few different ways to say everything, especially "Hello". 'Moshi Moshi' is "Hello" for the phone. Literally. It means 'hello', but it's only used on the telephone. Mad right?

I got the train back from the festival with a bag full of souvenirs, some paid for and some handed to me for free by various vendors. It was the first genuinely social thing I'd done since I'd arrived and it had given me a first hand peek into the pop culture that I've admired from a far for so long. I threw my bags on the floor when I got home and, as per my skinny jeans removal ritual, emptied my pockets. Among the change and lint was a coin I didn't recognize.

Moshi Moshi Nippon. Moshi Moshi, Nippon, indeed.

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