Naoshima, Goro and Gundam

IMG_0469Meiji dori, Harajuku on a drizzly morning. It is, of course, a queue. But you can’t see either the end or the beginning of it. The end is 100 metres along from what is visible. The beginning turns a corner and runs another 100 metres and stops here, at a shop in Omote Sando with no signage. This may be incidental, but Omote Sando contains the most expensive real estate in Tokyo which is to say Japan which could be to say the world.IMG_0470Every day except Wednesday when the shop doesn’t open it is the same, and this has been the case for six years.

We know this because after getting tantalising but not quite intelligible responses from a member of the queue (who was just about to turn into Omote Sando and was distracted and very anxious about his prospects of getting into the shop) we accosted a statuesque young woman with a clipboard and a pen, the buffer from which the queue emanated. ‘What’s happening?’ I said. ‘It’s me dad’s shop’, she said in an accent that could easily have been Australian. ‘It’s like this every day.’ When I asked her where her accent came from, she said all over the place.

She was issuing wrist bands which allowed you to get in, but not to everyone, because Goro’s chooses its customers. Goro Takahashi makes the silver jewellery that you can see on many of the people in the queue (if you are using a computer and you click on the photo). It’s a lottery to get in, and then only four at a time. No one new comes in till all four leave. After you’ve made your choice, even then the staff might not sell you the piece you’ve chosen because you haven’t got Goro style. They will make that decision. Our first contact had a Goro necklace and wrist band but wasn’t sure that that would be enough to make the cut even if he got in.

Six years. Every day but Wednesday. You need to be there no later than 8 in the morning for a good chance. They open at 1.00. You mightn’t get to the front of the queue. You mightn’t be allowed in. You mightn’t be allowed to buy. Still they queue. 

imagesThis is Goro. His background is misty but he certainly spent some time in America with a group of Navaho. Native American is the defining influence of his product. Social media thinks he may be dead and may not really be producing the silverware being sold. His story is embellished in print. a0283003_15173527

This is the sort of thing he makes.2013-08-15_1376585394

If you want that, queue up.

This is Gundam.IMG_0415

I wanted to decrease the size of this photo, but it would be wrong. He’s big. Enormous really. On show here at Diver City Tokyo Plaza on the reclaimed land at Odaiba.

How big is Gundam? Huge. The International Gundam Society is the first ever academic institution based on an animated TV series. Gundam figures make up four of the top five anime models sold in Japan. So? Gundam earns its source, Gunpla (Gundam Plastic Model Company), around ¥20billion annually. That would be AUD235million or USD200million. Gunpla has 90 percent of the Japanese plastic model market.

What is he? It? A ‘mobile suit’, a large bipedal humanoid-shaped vehicle controlled by a human from what might be called the cockpit or, if you prefer, the codpiece. It began life as ‘Freedom Fighter Gunboy’ which became ‘Gunboy’ then ‘Gundom’ (from Gunboy Freedom) and then ‘Gundam’ to suggest a unit with a gun big enough to hold back powerful enemies like a dam holds back water.

And why is he needed? The Minovsky particle pervasive in Universal Century interferes with radar-guided long-distance cruise missiles, anti-aircraft guns, missiles and early warning systems, with weapons systems having to rely on human eyes. The space-based Principality of Zeon rebels against Earth Federation, requiring a weapons system that can function in zero and normal gravity and be able to open and close air locks, plant demolition charges, and engage with enemy tanks and planes. Obviously.

In 2015 a clip showing that the Japan Self-Defence Forces were already equipped with several Gundam was included in a report on Japan’s military capabilities aired on China Central Television. Chinese social media responded to this news by saying with Gundam ranged against it China will certainly lose any armed conflict. The clip was actually from an ad for Nissin Cup Noodles.


We’re talking about marketing here. It should never cease to fascinate us because it keeps burrowing into the heart of human motivation. Further and further. The pay-offs, commercial and otherwise, can be enormous. What is Goro’s playing at? Participation in the creation of scarcity and exclusion. Be part of our tiny gang. You pay quite heavily, and only in cash, for the privilege. To follow a theme, join our gated community.

The strategy with Gundam might be the antithesis. Find your market: boys. What are they interested in? Robots. War. Spread your media as widely as possible. Games, toys, movies, TV series, media appearances. Build a constituency beyond boys. Make the ‘creature’ possibly loveable. Make it important. Make it save your world. Enlist it for your armed struggle in the real world.

La Forêt is a shop of shops within a couple of hundred metres of Goro’s. It opens a very large window onto the heart of Japanese women’s clothing soul. I was absorbed. If you’re under 40, you can buy clothes like these.IMG_0472

But on this rack are clothes that 75 percent of Japanese women would be happy to wear.IMG_0479 They are readily accessible, reasonably priced and no one will stop you buying them.

So here is another strategy which describes perfectly the continuum between fashion leadership — the out there stuff, the exclusives, the Comme des Garcons and Vivien Westwoods — and another form of commerce, where you let popular opinion and choices drive your activity. Who cares if it’s rubbish — and the clothes above are not rubbish — as long as it sells?

Right here we have run into a fundamental issue, so fundamental it guides all public choices. Democracy or benevolent dictatorship for example? Should we care about scientific investigation or just go with what we think? I recently read a long article in a thoughtful leftist publication praising Lee Kwan Yew and his contribution to Singapore to the skies. He was not a democrat. But let’s move to something more local to our interests here.


After we finished our walk we caught the ferry for Naoshima, one of the countless islands in the Inland Sea, distinguished by massive investment to draw tourists to its art exhibitions.

If you Google Naoshima you are bound to get an image of one of Yayoi Kasuma’s pumpkins. (That link is definitely worth a look a propos of what follows.) But Naoshima has several identities. Conceptually and practically, its 14 square kilometres are divided into three: Mitsubishi smelter and materials processing plant takes up the north; the middle slice is where the locals live; the south is mostly the Benesse Art Site, although there is a nice little set of holiday villas on the beach the other side of security.

It also has a history. Like many of the Inland Sea islands it has/had an ageing population once sustained by a fishing industry that has now relocated. The Benesse Corporation whose fortunes are built on educational testing and text book publishing provided the seed money for some significant buildings designed by Japanese architectural giant Tadao Ando. One of these houses some of the private collection of Tetsuhiko Fukutake, the founder and chair of that company, who wanted ‘to provide a place where children from all over the world could gather’. The initiative was also strongly supported by Chikatsugu Miyake, then mayor of Naoshima, who seems to be a person of great vision and long-sightedness.

The goals: ‘Our fundamental aim is to create significant spaces by bringing contemporary art and architecture in resonance with the pristine nature of the Seto Inland Sea, a landscape with a rich cultural and historical fabric. 
‘Through contacts with art and nature, sceneries and inhabitants of the Seto Inland Sea region, we seek to inspire visitors to reflect on the meaning of Benesse’s motto – Well-Being.
‘In all our ongoing activities, we are committed to foster a relationship of mutual growth between art and the region, aiming to make a positive contribution to the local communities.’ You’d be pretty mean to argue with that, wouldn’t you!

And this was the view from our room, looking over to Shikoku as it happens.IMG_0118You would be a curmudgeon to complain wouldn’t you. Well I’m torn about this but here I go.

We paid approximately a zillion dollars to stay at Benesse House. The meal, a very good meal and we didn’t stint, in very nice surroundings with attentively brisk service, consumed one-eighth of what we took to spend in Japan in 30 days. That sort of zillion. The men at the front desk were grumpy and helpful in a ‘here you are you idiot’ sort of way. We left early after our second night, having to catch the ferry before breakfast was accessible. We’d paid about $110 for breakfast. No refund. Not a hint of a refund. The women were far more pleasant.

IMG_0264But the art. That’s what we were there for.

There are three sites in the Benesse area. We walked to the Lee Ufan Museum (2010), a Tadao Ando concrete bunker built into the side of a hill with a sheet of slightly bent steel, two rocks, one room each, one with projections, six paintings of a type and a room where we were invited to take our shoes off and meditate and read about the artist. IMG_0269I listened to the girl, one of the several, underground, tell us that and thought she’s had to say that three hundred times today and that’s her only job. That suggests I didn’t have my mind on the job. I also thought how did they get that rock in here? They must have built around it. And that’s when I thought the art here is embalmed in concrete 40cms thick. You can’t change it. Lee Ufan Museum is only going to be changed by a calamity of immense proportions.

We moved on to ‘Ando’s masterpiece’, Chichu Art Museum (2004), which as its name suggests is built in its entirety into the top of a hill with a series of basic geometric shapes the only evidence of its existence.
chichu_topThree artists — James Turrell, Walter de Maria and Claude Monet. Ten things to look at. Expensive. Built in. No change since 2004 except perhaps for dusting. I watched Turrell’s sky for a while but refused to take my shoes off to walk into his Blue Room. De Maria’s offering was a (very) big shiny ball of marble in a big room attended by variations on the theme of cricket stumps. And then the Monets. Well. I had to take my shoes off again to worship at the altar of someone I believe to cling to the lower rungs of Impressionism. I won’t go on about this but I have seen the waterlilies MOMA in New York holds (a solid 6/10), and I’ve seen the Rouen Cathedral series in the Musée d’Orsay (a confident and exhilarating 7.9/10) but Christ knows what I was looking at here.IMG_0272

There seems to be a general and very good rule that you aren’t allowed to take photos in Japanese art galleries, (waived at the artist’s request by Yasumasa Morimura in Osaka) so you are looking at the consequences of an illegal act. It can only hint at the carelessness and lack of artifice of the big painting which was surrounded by sketches someone had got out of the dumpster after Monet had left for work (1.2/10).

Here are the toilets. (Stainless steel!)IMG_0275

Here’s the corridor of the gallery.IMG_0276

Here’s the corridor of our Ando-designed hotel.IMG_0285

Barracks, bunker, gaol. And, for someone so passionate about the environment, inorganic to the point of being well into the spectrum. But very clean.

The Benesse Museum itself was much more fun. Lots of good things to look at. But reading through reviews of Naoshima I realise there had been only two or three changes in what was on display in the last ten years. They’re looking after the hotel and the shuttered concrete (someone said they were thrilled with the dots, well… try any building site), but no one is looking after the art. I couldn’t help comparing it with the Hakone sculpture park which had been so overwhelmingly, thrillingly impressive. 

Ando is famous for his slits, his framing of nature and environmental surrounds, and yes for sure, extremely clever and interesting. This one was on everybody’s way to eat, framing a moss garden complemented most successfully with a long thin vertical sculpture.IMG_5861

The suspended member would weigh 45 tonnes. (A wild guess, but it’s about 15m x 2.4m x 0.5m. Ha! If it is it weighs 43.2 tonnes!) The junction is cracking. Art criticism at its finest.IMG_0305

We visited the two towns Honmura and Miyanoura to find more art as promised. Paid a lot to see exceptionally little. Turrell’s dark room, ‘The Backside of the Moon’, gets pumped up, but truly really it’s a one trick pony with the best thing about it being its name.

What else are you supposed to love? The environment. If you’d spent the last few days in Tokyo or Kyoto you might appreciate the big slice of low level greenery you get, set into the gorgeous backdrop of the Inland Sea. You might like the car-lessness of the tourist’s version of the island. Its very narrow streets might be deemed charming and picturesque. But we’d been walking in monumental forest studded with azaleas, camellias and rhododendrons, with views to the edge of the world. We had seen not one of Kasuma’s pumpkins but scores, and better. So maybe that’s the problem. Sorry.

The project for the Island(s)? Terrific idea. I’m glad we spent money there and offered our oblique support. And I bet there’s times like the Setouchi Triennial where the whole island lights up like Port Fairy at Folky-time (and nothing lights up quite like that) and there is art galore — new art, mobile art, art that isn’t locked up inside concrete boxes.


Let’s go back. Marketing. We heard about Naoshima, from five or six years ago, through friends and relations who had been there and loved it. We felt we had to go given the opportunity. I had a crisis with the booking and thought we had missed out. That upset me greatly. Where had my expectations come from? Marketing.

I read six or eight reviews before we went. Trip Advisor, Japan Travel, American newspapers, blogs. Sober affairs. I’m always interested to see just what it is people like about a place. They like being out of Tokyo. Naoshima is sort of quaint and unquestionably worthy. [Digression: we ate at a very good izakaya in Matsumoto. It came in very high on Trip Advisor ratings and delivered every single thing promised — friendly service, picture menu, very satisfactory food — and a clientele of people entirely composed of people who read Trip Advisor ratings! Us!! Might as well have stayed at home. When you want to go, it’s name is Sakura, 1-20-26 Chuo, and you’ll think it’s not there but it is.]

I went back and read the reviews again, especially the detailed ones. Here’s what I thought. I’m an American journalist. Someone pays me to go to a very pleasant Japanese island to look at its transformation through good works to attract tourists via art. I am fed outstanding food, both French and Japanese. The view out my window is amazing and I get to my room via a six-seat funicular. No private cars are allowed in my part of the island. The built environment I’ve come to look at is dominated by Japan’s contribution to world architecture, Tadao Ando, and this is some of his finest work. The construction and clever features of Chichu are extraordinary. But even if they were shit I wouldn’t say so. I’d write a review like this one.


Let’s go back again. Marketing is not concerned with honesty. Marketing is concerned with achieving its most immediate goals — selling jewellery, selling toys, selling clothes, selling tourist sites. 

It can also be used to sell ideas. When I was working in Aboriginal education I decided after ten years of painful experience that hard rational approaches were useless. To succeed, to convince Aboriginal kids that it might be good idea to go to school for example, you needed to agree rationally to try something other than rationality; and that the best advice would probably come from marketers, people who know and work on the idea that, ‘We are not won by arguments that we can analyse, but by tone and temper.’ An observation from US Supreme Court judge Louis Brandeis. Try as I might, I could convince no one who mattered in the echelons above me where the money lived of the value of that idea. And yet they themselves got very excited about contact with Aboriginal celebrities.

Where does the public good belong in this process? Does it have a place defined by populism? Should 48 percent of Britons make their own exit from the EU? [Hmm got that wrong didn’t I! But not by much. The result rather emphasises my point. Should this ever have been put to a popular vote?!] Should there be a popular vote about the legality of gay marriage? I can imagine being gay and having a partner I want to marry and saying most emphatically it’s none of your goddam business. 

Let me leave you thinking about that.