In Wednesday’s Guardian, Charlie Brooker continues his series of articles on his trip to Japan, and in the same tone: where he started his first article with a long paragraph that combines toilet humour and assertions about the kookiness of Japan, this article starts with a description of a computer game about bouncing turds, and finishes the introduction with

Unfathomable, futuristic madness: that’s what made me want to visit Japan.

So, in case you weren’t sure from the first article, Japan is strange and fascinated with toilets and poo.

Except, really, it’s Brooker who is fascinated with poo. He seems quite taken with the abject, if his first article was anything to go by. But once again, after he’s got the obligatory toilet humour and stereotyping of Japan’s “futuristic madness” out of the way, he carries on with a valid observation about this place:

it’s a place where being a geek (or otaku) is comfortably mainstream. Former Prime Minister Taro Aso is an enthusiastic manga-collecting otaku, the TV ad breaks heave with glossy commercials for collectible card games, and multi-storey games arcades are commonplace.

This is very true. Of course, he immediately follows this important observation with another example of drawing the wrong conclusion due to limited data:

the subway is eerily silent: thanks to a strong underground signal, everyone’s staring at their smartphones, texting, playing games, or reading. Only after a fortnight did it strike me: not once did I hear a single person actually speaking into their phone on the Tokyo subway. Everyone – and I mean everyone – seemed to be perpetually tapping and swiping in silence. Unnerving to many: to a geek like me, it felt strangely comforting.

This, Charlie, is not because everyone is madly playing some game or other. You might actually have noticed a lot of people reading these things called “books.” But the reason they’re not talking into their phones is because there are signs and announcements asking people not to. It is considered very poor manners in Japan to talk on your phone in restaurants, cafes, bars or trains. i.e. in public. And people in Japan follow these rules. If it’s “unnerving to many,” this is because that’s another one of those things about the west that don’t make sense once you haven’t lived there for a while. Those people you saw on the subway being quiet aren’t doing so because they are obssessed with a game; they’re doing so because they are refraining from offending others. That’s not “strangely comforting,” it’s perfectly ordinarily comforting.

The rest of the article consists of a fairly nice description of one of Japan’s bigger game arcades, from the perspective of someone who is familiar with what should be going on but can’t understand it because he is in a foreign land. Again, though, he pushes the unfathomable nature of the thing too far, and again reminds us that Japan is exotic and incomprehensible:

a roomful of sombre youths vying for individual supremacy using some form of networked arcade strategy game that uses collectible cards. Imagine witnessing a game of bridge being played in the Cabinet War Rooms in the year 2072 AD … whatever the theme, the nature of the action is absolutely impenetrable to the casual onlooker.

Charlie, here’s a real-life hint for you: to people outside the nerd world, this kind of stuff is absolutely impenetrable in their own language. Now that you don’t speak the language, you can be reminded of how people feel when they watch you at your normal hobby. Eye opening, isn’t it?

Other than this, the article struck me as a missed opportunity. There’s a photo of an “otaku girl” at the top of the article but she doesn’t look otaku to me, and (probably because he hasn’t had time to notice), Brooker hasn’t mentioned how different gender relations are amongst nerds in Japan compared to the West. To wit: in Japan, being a nerd is not only more acceptable, but it’s especially more acceptable for girls. There are adverts on the trains targeting Wii at old people, and the latest computer games (like Mario Land and Monster Hunter) at young women. There is an advert for a trading card game in which a member of a currently-popular boy band goes to a game shop and plays the card game with the lonely kid in the corner; there are adverts for a new trading card game where some of the cards are based on members of a famous boy band (Exile, I think). In Ikebukuro there is a whole series of shops devoted to targeting pornographic manga at women. This is a hobby world that is not just mainstream, but mainstream for both genders – and this is why Wii was invented in Japan, not the USA. It’s a shame that Brooker didn’t find a way to comment on this, and on how much easier that makes being a nerd in this country. He also didn’t find any opportunities to talk about the darker side of the nerd world in Japan: pachinko, or AKB48. Instead, he just took a last chance to remind us that Japan is crazy and incomprehensible. Just in case we didn’t know that.

I wonder what his next article will tell us? Feel free to put your predictions in the comments …

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