The DIY Spirit in Japanese Popular Culture

Yoshitaka Mori of the Tokyo University of the Arts at Asia Society's DiY symposium in New York on November 14, 2010. (Asia Society)
Yoshitaka Mori of the Tokyo University of the Arts at Asia Society's DiY symposium in New York on November 14, 2010. (Asia Society)

NEW YORK, November 14, 2010 -  Do-it-Yourself (DiY) isn't merely an artistic mode, but a lifestyle and ethos as well, according to independent scholar Reiko Tomii, at an Asia Society symposium on DiY and collectivity in Japanese art and culture.

"Creativity through DiY can be a way out ... of depression, either economic or psychological," said Tomii. Indeed, the architect Shigeru Ban, whose work has been both monumental (Centre Pompidou in Metz, Germany) and extremely basic (shelters for refugees made from found objects), explained how the DiY movement partly inspired his work in Haiti. In helping build temporary shelters, he saw his work as an architect not merely a designer but also a teacher. "It's vital to work with the local people," he said of his shelters, built simply from locally sourced paper chip and beer crates, "so that they learn to build these themselves."

Miwako Tezuka, Associate Curator at Asia Society Museum, remarked that Ban's work in the recovering communities of Haiti is somewhat reminiscent of the work of Yoshitomo Nara's collaborative team YNG, in particular their "A to Z" project in Hirosaki, Japan. That elaborate, community- and volunteer-driven exhibition drew 80,000 people to the small, out-of-the-way town, "gathering people with the spirit of community."

Tracing the history of artist collectives of Japan back to the introduction of Western art in the 19th century, Tomii defined collectivism in art as "strategic alliances to seek out alternative modes of expression and alternative sites of operation."

Yoshitaka Mori, a professor at Tokyo University of the Arts, similarly showed the development and roots of DiY in music and pop culture. He located the development of a DiY mode of operation as resulting both from new technologies and from revolutionary stances. Mori says that over the decades the core principles of DiY have shifted "from philosophy and ideology, to lifestyle, music and art."

Thomas Looser, of New York University, spoke about DiY in the framework of Japanese subcultures and "tribes," or zoku, such as the bosozoku motorcycle gangs. In many cases, he stated, these subcultures may not have much capacity to enact truly transformative social change, as they become "closer to a genre, pre-fabricated but ultimately controlled by the culture industry." Looser also said that DiY is contingent on the existence of mass culture, which DiY takes as its necessary foil.

The symposium was moderated by Yukio Lippitt of Harvard University, who noted that Nara's work effectively bridges two DiY cultures—that of the 1970s "here's-three-chords-now-start-a-band" DiY punk era, and the post-Bubble 1990s. "With Nara, it's not just DiY—it's a state of mind," Lippitt said.

Much of the conversation revolved around DiY in relation to mass culture, whether as a symptom thereof or a reaction against. Though the consensus was that DiY is for the most part a productive development in artistic and community-based endeavors, in a wider social context some manifestations of DiY are negative. Looser noted that in certain otaku subcultures life-sized dolls are "taking the place of real women ... the ultimate DIY."

As Lippitt concluded, defining a specifically Japanese DiY paradigm is particularly challenging, but in general the Japanese inflection of DiY and the communities that result from it are particularly diverse and rich—whether in music and art or lifestyle and fashion.

Reported by Natalie Hegert