Japan’s new digital revolution fuses the old and the new

Cherry blossoms bloom in front of a stock quotation board outside a brokerage in Tokyo March 31, 2010. Japan's Nikkei average hit an 18-month intraday high before paring gains on Wednesday, the final day of the financial year, but further gains were expected in the new quarter as a global economic recovery picks up strength.   REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon (JAPAN - Tags: BUSINESS)

Japan's digital revolution is unique due to the constant fusion of tradition with modern day life Image: REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

Esperanza Miyake
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Popular fascination with Japan often begins with a vision of a country existing between two realms. On the one hand, we have the traditional “old world” of temples, tea ceremonies and calligraphic cherry blossoms. On the other hand, there shines a futuristic “new” world of bullet trains, AI dogs and funky gaming consoles.

Mixing this together into one addictive, fun-house concoction for the West has been Japanese pop culture in the shape of manga/anime, games like Pokemon Go!, film and even snack foods (maccha KitKat, anyone?).

Whether it is futuristic mecha-bots stomping on the ancient slopes of Mount Fuji or J-Pop stars shimmering like plastic dolls in silk kimonos, we indulge in the guilty (or not-so-guilty) consumption of Japan like electronic sushi: something traditional repackaged within the innovative, creating that perfect old/new bite.

But what do we really know about Japan today beyond kawaii (cuteness), ninjas and that mysterious savoury taste sensation umami?

Inhabiting 2D and 3D worlds

In the true Japanese style that loves being “in-between” (old/new, East/West, salty/sweet), 2.5 Dimensional Theatre is a digital-technological art form that exists between the worlds of 2D and 3D. Initially, a fan-based phenomenon, it has become an established industry and institution in its own right within the last decade. 2.5 Dimension productions bring to life the 2D world of manga, anime and video-games on a 3D stage using the latest digital technologies and communications platforms.

The use of social networking sites, smartphones and other technologies such as subtitle glasses (spectacles that project subtitles for the individual user) enrich the audience experience by increasing participation and interaction that goes beyond the stage. Emerging from a country with a longstanding history of artistic stage productions – from noh and bunraku to kabuki – 2.5 Dimensional Theatre is a perfect example of various Japanese creative industries, old and new, coming together through the digital to create entirely new experiences.

Such digital phenomena point towards society’s increasing need to inhabit an augmented reality. Products and services encourage users to constantly seek ways to make realities more real through digital technologies. Digitising ourselves is now the norm (as we see when people generate bio-data through fitbits) and our lives are frequently personalised mini-2.5 Dimensional stages.

For example, helping users to create their own “in-between” reality is the Ricoh THETA SC, a virtual camera that takes 360-degree images. At the end of this month, a limited edition “Hatsune Miku” type will be released: users can now “exist” alongside the popular virtual singer in any environment of their choice.

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Robots and digital currency

Shinzo Abe, the Japanese prime minister, has been investing a significant amount of resources “to make robots a major pillar of our economic growth strategy”, in time to showcase during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Hailed as the “fourth arrow” of Abenomics, Tokyo 2020 seems to have indeed provided a governmental incentive to boost Japanese “soft” power (who can forget Abe as Super Mario during the Olympic closing ceremony in Rio 2016?) and strengthen the country’s position as a global force. Here again, the digital hails the way.

Japanese banks have announced plans to introduce digital currency. Their aim is to have the J Coin in full circulation in Japan by 2020 – part of making Tokyo a financial centre once again.

Similarly, one of the biggest sponsors for Tokyo 2020, Toyota, is working on self-driving cars to be used near the sporting venues during the Olympics. The Japanese government is also mapping the country’s road network to provide a digital infrastructure.

Despite all the hi-tech, it is also intriguing how certain major digital platforms like Uber and AirBnB are actually failing in Japan for legal, social and cultural reasons. In many ways, this highlights the pressure Japan faces in maintaining the Western and self-projected image of a country in between worlds. Wrapped in its own contradictory tensions, is it possible for Japan to be both old and new at the same time?

Japan may well be at the forefront of a kind of digital revolution. But if any of these innovations go global they will still bear the stamp of that inherent Japanese character that makes the country so unique.

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