There's a dotted line between geekdom and Japan -- some of us call ourselves "otaku;" we follow Japanese technology companies; we look to Japanese culture as a beacon of our tech-obsessed future; we dream of visiting Tokyo. And yet we love to criticize Japanese culture, as if to say, "Well, sure, they make cool stuff, but they sure are messed up."
I'm no expert on Japanese culture. While my visits to the island nation number in the double digits and I'm married to a citizen, I'm not about to claim any sort of authority on matters of Japan.
However, I'm pretty sure they're not as weird as we like to say they are. And if they are, we're just as off-kilter.
We love reading about how bizarre they are: pop stars dress like tarts and shave their heads; teenagers engage in self-destructive behavior; city centers explode with uncharted consumerism. We love the spectacle -- we love to amaze at their uniqueness, criticize and feel better about ourselves.
But didn't we invent pop culture's manic spectacle? Don't we enable an obsession with technology that sometimes brings about uncalled-for results?
It's as if our pop stars have never shaved their heads and acted out in unsavory ways.
In fact, we invented it.
So why the obsession with the "weirdness" of Japanese culture, especially in the halls of nerd storytelling?
Some examples: They create extreme science fiction that challenges social norms. They love novelists who make us uncomfortable. They smoke and drink. They're messed up.
Just like us. They keep a worshipful eye on technology, look for the next thing and fear a simpler past when things didn't plug in. They idolize pop artists that harness the latest technologies and trends, pushing the limits of music and movies and art and gaming. They are hungry for the absurd.
They are exactly like us.
I remember the first time I ever went to Japan. It was 1998. After landing in Narita, I took a shuttle bus straight to Shibuya where I knew I'd find the epicenter of all that defined what I thought I would find. Stepping out into Dogenzaka Crossing -- the busiest intersection in the world -- I was tweaked awake by a thousand new sights and sounds. Shrill female voices sold mobile phones that weighed next to nothing. A Starbucks coffee house reminded me of my American roots. Thousands of people dressed exactly alike reminded me that I wasn't in Kansas anymore.
And yet I felt completely at home. These were people who had things to do, jobs to get to, people to meet, friends to see. They weren't selling their undergarments in vending machines or wielding katana for fights to the finish. They weren't ninjas and samurai. No, they were just a modern society who had accepted technology as their collective lord and savior.
Again, exactly like us.
We can point out examples that make us think they are off their rockers -- perverted anime series, wacky pop stars, a moody economy -- but you know what? We have every single one of those things, and we do them just as well, if not better.
I'm not a cultural critic. I'm not an expert on Japanese or American culture. But I have read a thing or two about cultural relativity and I'm pretty sure that we need to chill on the criticism of all things Japanese before we lose sight of ourselves.
Perhaps the reason that we look to Japanese culture as an icon of the measurably bizarre is because, well, it's a reflection of ourselves and a very accurate vision of our future. Back in 1998, I remember marveling at high school students choosing to text one another rather than make phone calls, updating their friends with their "status" and even taking pictures with their mobile phones. Sound familiar?
So the next time you are tempted to say, "You know what they do in Japan?!" Ask yourself this: Is this something we're about to do?
Chances are you'll answer either "Yes" or "Not yet, but I wouldn't be surprised."
Joshua Fruhlinger is the former Editorial Director for Engadget and current contributor to both Engadget and the Wall Street Journal. You can find him on Twitter at @fruhlinger.