On Sunday, my friend and classmate Noriko and I visited the Japan Society on Manhattan’s East Side to see an intriguing and thought-provoking art exhibit entitled, Little Boy, The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture”. Created and curated by world-renowned Japanese artist, Takashi Murakami, the show explores the impact of Japan’s otaku or “geek” subcultures in art, film, television, books, magazines and ties to the commercialism of Japan’s burgeoning consumer society.
The Japan Society sits just underneath the gleaming and sleek black Trump Tower condominiums at 333 East 47th Street and across from a concrete plaza of benches crowded east sider’s enjoying a coffee, reading the news, walking their dogs and generally enjoying a gorgeous, warm spring day.
To the right, just inside the entrance, stood a wall of Japanese Pachinko machines, which are a hybrid of a slot machine and a pinball machine. Like a slot machine, Pachinko machines stand upright in the same vein as Las Vegas or Atlantic City slot machines. The difference is the player controls the velocity of hundreds of small steel balls shot into play using a knob located at the bottom right of the machine (See video added to this post on 2/23/2020 above). The further clockwise you turn the knob, the more balls shoot out at a higher rate of speed and distance. Turning the knob counterclockwise slows their velocity and distance, enabling you to plot the course of your balls more precisely so they fall through a set of gates. Once through the gates, the balls are distributed in all directions down into the playing area of the machine, where they are knocked around pin-ball-like, and either disappear or are captured by special holes. After a certain number of balls land in the holes, the slot machine’s wheel activates and like in U.S. slots, if you get 3 of a kind you win a prize.
Japan’s Pachinko parlors can be found across the country. Although gambling is technically illegal in Japan, the parlors circumvent the law by awarding you merchandise that you can exchange for cash at a shop just outside each parlor.
Noriko was surprised to see the machines. I could tell they reminded her of home. She was quick to explain what they were and how they worked. It’s the first time I’d ever seen one and I was amazed at the combination of games and wondered why they wouldn’t work here. I’ve never seen them in Atlantic City, but they must have them in Las Vegas.
After playing with the machines for a bit, we made our way up one flight of stairs into the gallery area of the building and walked through the exhibit; an interesting mix consisting of paintings and sculptures alongside merchandise from Japan’s consumer culture. For example, the Miss Kitty display contained hundreds of Miss Kitty merchandise of various shapes and sizes. From large dolls to tiny figurines, just standing in front of all of it gave you an idea of Miss Kitty’s impact on the Japanese youth. In fact, I found out that the lack of long limbs or even a mouth for Miss Kitty was a way to promote a non-threating toy to Japanese children, who live in a culture promoting homogeny of adherence to the team values over the individual.
I was struck by many of the artists use of violence, war, fire and futuristic imagery to convey the horror of “Little Boy”, the name of one of the Atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end our war with Japan and its impact on Japanese society and the transformation Japan still struggles with to this day.
A paragraph from Japan’s constitution states that it shall never be a war-mongering state, but 50+ post-war years later, is that still a realistic expectation in Japanese society. Should the country continue to be beholden to the U.S. for its protection, or should it transform itself into a new Japan facing down enemies on its own?
It is clearly a compelling exhibit, which together gives you the sense of Japan’s constant struggle with war and its aftermath and the catharsis Japan’s otaku subculture hope to turn Japan towards a new future while remembering its past.
I highly recommend it.
For more information on all Cool Japan: Otaku Strikes! Programs see the Japanese Society Calendar of Events and website: http://www.japansociety.org.