This weekend has been marked by constant contrasts between dream, reality, and their interface. We spend most of our time in that liminal space, walking the line between our dreams and our reality, trying to keep a footing on the slippery thread stretched between illusion and delusion.
Yesterday I went to Hyper Japan, an extravaganzical three-day event at the Truman Brewery in London’s Brick Lane. I walked along the cobbled street between Georgian and Victorian buildings, now Asian restaurants and sweet shops, saturated with the odours of the UK’s most renowned curry venue. Three guys in anime t-shirts and a Goth-Loli girl were just ahead of me. The contrasts, and the changes they imply, fit Brick Lane perfectly.
Brick Lane is one of London’s old places, embedded in layers of almost-forgotten history. It was originally called Whitechapel Lane, but the ‘new’ name was established by the brick earth beneath it and the brick and tile factories that sprang up there from the 15th century. With industry in constant need of labour, and accommodation in industrial areas staying cheap, it became a magnet for successive waves of immigrants, from the French Protestant refugees who spilled over from Spitalfields in the 17th century to the Irish fleeing famine, the Ashkenazi Jews and, most recently, Bangladeshis looking for a more secure life than their flood-ravaged, famine-scoured nation offered. This flood of cheap, hungry labour led to the growth of other industries on Brick Lane, especially the cloth and garment trade.
If the ghosts of long-dead weavers and piece-workers were casting professional eyes over the outfits parading down the Lane this weekend, they might have been gratified to see the passion for detail and ornament the cosplayers and stylers brought to their outfits. Just as their work did long ago, cosplay injects the spirit of other nations and other creativities into British street life. Today art and fashion students, graffiti artists and music-makers gravitate to Brick Lane. Costume, comics and cult TV fit right in to its craft traditions and its centuries of marginal minority culture.
The venue for Hyper Japan, the Truman Brewery, is a relic of another ancient Brick Lane tradition. Those brick earths supported deep wells of pure, clean water. Joseph Truman is recorded as brewing there in 1683. I don’t know what he would have made of Asahi Super Dry and sake, but he would surely have supported the principle that visitors to his family’s hostelry should have plenty to drink. At Hyper Japan that wasn’t a problem. There were sake stands, beers on tap, Japanese soft drinks with improbable names, all supported by a range of Japanese street food from the familiar sushi to takoyaki – fried octopus balls – and dorayaki, sweet filled pancakes.
It’s unusual for a festival of Japanese pop culture to start outside fan culture, but Hyper Japan was originated and run by a food company. Eat-Japan imports and distributes Japanese food and utensils. Maybe this is why the event had a more inclusive, broader vibe than a more, well, conventional British convention. There was a wider spread of stalls and of customers. Families bringing young children and older food and drink connoisseurs and Asian culture fans may have been less visible in the halls than the bright-plumaged cosplayers, but they were there in good numbers.
That’s encouraging for anyone who wants to see Japanese culture and industry thriving in the UK. A teenage audience is, by its nature, self-limiting. People’s tastes change as they get older. The majority of self-defined otaku will move on to other interests, taking their money with them. A few will remain anime and manga fans. If some of the deserters can be persuaded to transfer their interest and their income to Japanese film, food, drink, art, fashion or travel, Japan plc can maintain a healthy balance of trade and earn enough to keep itself afloat.
That’s especially important for a rapidly ageing nation. The dark yet delicious irony of the planet’s best-known and most effective exporter of youth culture is that it’s also the fastest ageing nation on Earth. Already, thanks to great longevity genes and a broadly healthy lifestyle, more than two in every ten Japanese are over 65 years old. By 2030 over-65s will make up more than 25% of Japan’s population. Many Japanese elders carry on working into old age, but they are also increasingly expensive to maintain, especially given that traditional family structures are undergoing radical change or complete breakdown in urban areas. (Britain, another ageing nation with radically changing family structures, should be watching Japan and taking notes.)
So ‘Cool Japan’ has to become a broader, more inclusive brand that attracts and retains older buyers as well as young ones. Luckily, people in every age group appreciate quality. It’s simply a matter of reaching them. Hyper Japan, with its broader focus, is a useful step in that direction. Bringing in Japanese food-lovers or those who want to know more about sake and crafts is a sensible move. Beneath the frills and furbelows and J-pop, there is far more to Japan than its self-chosen promotional labels. People just need a gateway to other areas of its contemporary culture.
The majority of Britain may still be stuck on the fantasy of ‘Cool Japan’, the idea of a cyberland where trains always run on time, robots serve your every whim and all girls, deadly ninja assassins included, are improbably cute and improbably co-operative. Earlier generations were stuck on the myths of kimono and cherry blossom and tea ceremonies. But the reality is different, and much more interesting. Real Britain, meet real Japan, the Japan that eats noodles and drinks beer, lace and bonnets and comics optional. You’ve got a lot in common. I think you’ll get on.