The Smile Trade
What our fascination with weird tales from Japan says about us
A few weeks back, a newspaper editor reached out to ask if I had any ideas for a story. I pitched an essay about the Western media’s fixation with kooky individuals of all sorts in Japan, and how covering them triggered cascades of copycat reporting that resulted in the appearances of trends where none actually existed. And I had plenty of receipts.
Over the last decade we’ve seen fixations on bizarro Japanese microtrends such as the marrying of cartoon characters and “bagel head” body modifications (do not click this if you have a weak stomach). We’ve seen obsessions with oddball businesses ranging from used-panty vending machines to “rent-a-friends,” actors who are hired by the lonely to role-play buddies or family members. And just a last week, we had “smile coaches,” which gave me the idea for the essay in the first place.
This is all fantastically, kinetically “clicky” stuff, the sort of content that makes readers smile and more importantly share — the currency of journalism in the online era. The only problem is, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone in Japan who’d even heard of these things. They are psuedo-events: newsworthy only by virtue of being reported upon.
Pitching this kind of criticism to the same sort of outlet that runs this content might sound like a stunt, but I honestly wasn’t trying to be a smart-ass (or any more than usual). I really am fascinated by the ways in which the West covers Japan and the Orient more broadly, and how the stories often say more about us than they do anyone in Asia. Perhaps predictably, the editor decided not to touch it with a ten-foot pole. No worries. I ended up running it over at BoingBoing instead, where you can read it now.
I should note that I have no interest in “outing” anyone, not the subjects of the reports, nor the journalists who covered them. On the list of the sins of the press, wacky Japan reporting, grating though it can be to those who know better, barely registers. And as a writer of non-fiction with a lot of bylines at major outlets, I’m a de-facto colleague if not a card-carrying journalist myself. I am painfully aware of what it means to work and write in an “attention economy,” where clicks trump content. Which is why for a while there Trump-clicks were practically the entirety of online content.
Journalists write (or, more often than you might think, are asked or compelled to write) about zany outliers because readers react to stories about them. And thanks to the internet, publishers have the cold, hard data to prove it. So this isn’t a problem of the press so much as it is a problem of human nature. I harbor no illusions that my little essay is going to change that script anytime soon, but perhaps it can shed a little light on why the West is so enamored of the weird when it comes to Japan.
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