WHAT 21st CENTURY JAPAN TEACHES US ABOUT CONTEMPORARY FAITH
Any serious discussion of the big issues of human existence such as God, meaning, life and death are seemingly off the list of acceptable discussion points in the conversational life of the hip 21st century person. This makes having and sharing faith a difficult proposition for the believer. Understanding the Japanese concept of superflat is key in understanding the context we find ourselves discussing our faith.
TOYS FOR ADULTS
Because my office is located in neighbourhood with a large Asian migrant presence, there are several Japanese animation stores within short walking distance. One of these is located beneath my office. It’s windows are filled with what could be accurately described as toys and figurines from various Japanese Manga comics, Anime movies and TV series. You would think that such a stores predominant clientele would be children. However these stores are child free zones. Almost always the stores are filled with mostly men and some women in their late twenties and early thirties who browse the latest arrivals with a quiet intensity.
As I stop to look into the window of the store I am greeted with a sea of strange plastic creatures looking back at me. Strange super cute cats and dogs, monsters that look like Godzilla’s long lost cousin, futuristic Robots, sexualized School girls with giant eyes, and of course the obligatory Astro-boy figures. As I walk by each day these characters stare at me with their almost creepy smiles and giant eyes. These characters are part of the strange form that Japanese culture has taken since World War Two. The Japanese artist Takashi Murakami has labelled this culture Superflat.
Superflat is world obsessed with cartoons and animation. A culture in which obsessed animation fans (Otaku) live a kind of arrested adolescence into their adulthood; which worships the idea of cute (Kawaii) to the point where even police and the military are portrayed in recruitment advertisements as cute deformed characters. A culture in which more and more young people choose a form of social suicide (Hikikomori) in which they lock themselves in their room only communicating with the outside world through the internet. (Social scientist Tamaki Saito estimates that up to one million Japanese young people now live in such self imposed isolation.) A world where more and young people are shunning human relationships; instead choosing to have romantic and sexual relationships with specially designed computer programs featuring their favourite Anime or Manga characters. The reason that Murakami has labelled Japanese popular youth culture superflat, is because it lacks any kind of depth. It’s visually stimulating but spiritually shallow. Japanese young people are presented with a abundance of consumer choices and technological advancements but they are experiencing what Murakami calls “empty happiness”, a sort of cute, cuddly and naïve hell. In a lecture describing the superflat phenomenon the Japanese cultural critic Hiroki Azuma says of Japanese culture “our society is little by little losing the value of “Depth”, the value of something behind the visible or perceptible things we are confronted with in our daily lives” Japanese young people are craving spiritual depth, answers to the big questions of life, but instead they walk out their door and are confronted with a super cute, super loud, super stimulating, super bright, but ultimately superflat world.
When I was ministering in a downtown urban church a number of Japanese backpackers started attending our services, asking me all kinds of questions about Christianity in broken English. I began to notice a pattern in their spiritual questioning, a common theme in their existential dilemma. They had grown up in the Japanese post-war economic miracle; they lived in mega cities, which provided them with a kind of constant sensory overload. After High School or University they would decide to go on an adventure, they would come to Australia, hire a car and drive out into the utter desolation of the Australian outback desert, where one can drive for days and see nothing. Deprived of stimulation, outside of their superflat world, they would have a spiritual and existential breakdown. By the time they arrived on our church’s doorstep, the superflat distraction was de-toxed out of their system and the big questions of life, God, human existence and death were now at the forefront of their mind.
A CUTE ESCAPE
Interestingly when I later spoke in Tokyo at a ministry conference, almost all of the Japanese young people I met had come to faith while working or studying overseas. It was almost like the superflat culture of Japan disabled their ability to question reality with any depth. Takashi Murakami blames the superflat culture upon the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan at the end of the war, this event has plunged Japan into a kind of post-traumatic stress reaction, in which any serious topic is to be avoided and instead a culture of denial and distraction has grown up. “Japanese are seeking a spiritual peace and an escape from brutal reality through cute things,“ notes Tomoyuki Sugiyama the author of Cool Japan.
THE SUPERFLAT WEST
However superflat culture does not just exist in Japan. In many ways Western culture has become just as superflat. Sure we may not have the garish, cuteness of 21st century Tokyo, but in the West our world view has been flattened. Often I find this flatness as I am forced to introduce myself to people who are not Christians, everything normally goes well until they ask me what I do for a Job, to which I reply “I am a speaker and writer who explores popular culture from a Christian perspective” Most people through politeness then attempt to engage me in conversation about my work, but almost always they are lost, unable to engage in anyway intelligently about issues of faith. I remember one guy, he was intelligent and university educated; we had been chatting about various social and political issues, he then asked me what I did, as I explained, he just froze, his mouth was grabbing for words, but nothing came out, his eyes darted as he searched for some way to continue the conversation but he had no language or ability to discuss spiritual issues. He just stood there mouth ajar, looking lost in more ways than one. As a culture our spiritual muscles have atrophied due to lack of use. We are offered a culture that is a million miles wide in terms of opportunities, freedoms and consumer choice, yet that is spiritually an inch deep. Our spiritual voice is being strangled.
Our culture is spiritually superflat because of three main reasons that I can discern. Firstly, in our culture any serious discussion about the big spiritual and existential issues of life are off the agenda in the public sphere. Secondly, western culture is a spiritually flat culture in which, our need for mystery, transcendence, revelation, and a sense of the other is repressed. And thirdly our culture is a culture in which everything in life is viewed through a lens of suspicion. The combination of these factors present us with never before experienced missional challenges, they also behind the reason so many Christian young adults are choosing to leave active faith. But more on all of that next time……
 Saitō, Tamaki. ( 1998 ) Shakaiteki Hikikomori (Social Withdrawal). Tokyo: PHP kenkyuujyo.
 originally lectured at the MOCA gallery at the Pacific design Center, West Hollywood, on 5 April 2001 http://www.hirokiazuma.com/en/texts/superflat_en2.html
 Quoted in the Washington Post Wednesday, June 14, 2006 online edition http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/06/14/AR2006061401122.html