On Cultural Differences

I was reading through Japanese artist Masamune Shirow’s graphic novel Appleseed last week, and I noticed something interesting about the bleak near-future of the world in his story which I’ve also seen in other Manga and Anime series – something which reflects a unique cultural stance of the Japanese…

Appleseed is a sort of cyberpunk-mecha fusion thing set in a future post-WWIII utopia, which is not that uncommon for these sorts of things. Here’s what struck me, though – in this high-technology world of bioengineering, human cloning, artificial intelligences, and advanced cybernetics today’s armies can only dream about, people seem to spend half their time repairing or tinkering with their high-tech tools and machines. What’s up with that? Olympus has mastered anti-gravity, but can’t make a mass-damper that doesn’t go out of alignment when you look at it funny?

You see this sort of thing in just about every Manga or Anime set in “the present” or the future – whether it’s people constantly tinkering with their motorbikes, or constantly having to repair their “landmates” or other robotic exoskeletons, or forever performing maintenance on their car, truck, plane, or tank, the Japanese seem to have this fascination with fixing stuff.

You could argue this is an intentional act, to appeal to their audience – mainly teenage boys, who, regardless of nationality, like to take stuff apart and put it back together again. I don’t think that’s true, however – and here’s why: cameras.

Japanese companies produce – or have produced – some truly amazing cameras over the years – but they’ve never stood the test of time nearly as well as their, say, German-made counterparts. Your typical Japanese camera – be it a Canon, Yashica, Nikon, or whatever – will work fine for a decade, maybe a little longer – then completely die, and need to be repaired. This is fine, because – I think – the Japanese have some kind of deep-seated cultural need to service and perform maintenance on their equipment regularly.

By contrast, German-made cameras (hell, German-made just-about-anything) typically run fine for forty to sixty years, after which they begin to – not fail – but finally start operation outside of tolerances as a few tiny bits of dirt have worked their way in, or the lubricants have, finally, started to gum up. A basic bit of servicing, and they’re good for another half-century…

German engineering is, of course, world-reknown, and rightly so. If 22nd-century Germany built battlemechs, exoskeletons, armored combat suits, and all the other things folks in Manga are always tinkering with – well, let’s face it, the would-be tinkerers of the future would be demoted to buffers and polishers.

Don’t get me wrong; the Japanese must-constantly-tinker-with-things approach isn’t really inferior to the German built-it-and-forget-about-it view… and both are vastly preferable to the American throw-it-away-once-it-breaks-or-gets-old stance. I mean, look, if America were in charge of things in the 24th century, the armored exoskeletons of young boy’s cyberpunk wet-dreams would come with 90-day warranties, not have spare parts available, be prominently plastered with “Warning: Do Not Open; No User-Serviceable Parts” stickers… and more than likely run on fossil fuels.

“I’m sorry, sir” the fully-human (of course, thanks to their no-cyborg hiring policies) clerk at the 24th-century WalMart will say, “our diagnostics show nothing wrong with any of the diodes on your droid’s left side, and it’s out of warranty. Perhaps you’d like to purchase the latest QXV-Delta-17-Mod-4? Only 1.95 million Petrodollars, plus taxes, licenses, and applicable fees, less if you have one of our discount cards. Oh, and have you heard about our 180-day extended warranty? For only a few hundred dollars per day…”

Because, let’s face it, some things are never going to change…

Published in: Geekiness, General | on March 22nd, 2008| Comments Off on On Cultural Differences

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