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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

THE ZEIT GIST

Japan zines: Never mind the bloggers

Gianni Simone offers an insider's view of the underground DIY publishing scene


By GIANNI SIMONE

Koenji is a nice, quiet place in the suburbs, but venturing along its Kitanaka Street one weekend last March, you could not have missed the commotion coming out of Shirouto no Ran No. 12. Crammed inside this small rental space, dozens of people were poring over, discussing and exchanging piles upon piles of booklets bursting with eye-catching imagery and color. The get-together was the biggest yet for Japanese "zinedom": the 4th Tokyo Zinester Gathering, a two-day event devoted to making, trading and selling zines.

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Confused? If so, that's probably because zinedom is a mostly underground world that exists below the radar of the mainstream media. Nowadays everybody is familiar with blogs, but relatively few people know that a long time before the Internet, there was a whole community of independent publishers who more or less did the same thing bloggers do today, but on paper. Even today, in the age of the blogosphere, zine-making remains a global phenomenon with thousands of practitioners. Try a simple online search for "zines" and you'll end up with millions of hits.

Born around the mid-1800s, when the first small home-printing machines allowed people to produce their own journals on the cheap, zines are unadulterated, unfiltered purveyors of creative ideas and honest opinions. Even today, most zines are cheap, independently published booklets, generally created by a single person, either in the classic cut-and-glue style typical of zinedom's DIY philosophy, or with the help of a computer. The zine-maker is responsible for the whole production process, from providing all the content to actually photocopying, folding, stapling and distributing each copy.

While the West abounds in zines, Japan is relatively underrepresented. In this country there are comparatively few publications, and even those few are quite hard to track down.

On the other hand, one phenomenon unique to Japan is the huge dojinshi movement. Dojinshi are underground self-published comics that, at least in spirit, are close to the zine ethic. Nowadays they typically take characters from established comics and famous novels and movies and place them in new stories, alternative couplings or parallel worlds. Some of them sell thousands of copies. They clearly infringe copyright laws, but publishers seldom sue because they play an important role in creating a faithful fan base.

The Japan Times recently talked with some of the main players in the local zine scene, both Japanese and foreign.

Keisuke Narita (or Kei-san, as everybody calls him), one of the organizers of the Zine Gathering, is a very mellow guy in his early 30s whom you can find most days at Irregular Rhythm Asylum (IRA), a tiny radical "info-shop" in Shinjuku. Though hardly charismatic at first sight, he has almost single- handedly managed to attract some of the best minds in the Japanese angura (underground) scene to his events, and has been instrumental in helping local DIY culture to flourish.

"About 20 years ago I was into punk. I couldn't play any instruments but I wanted to express myself in some way because there were some things I couldn't accept like war, politics and mainstream media," explains Narita. "So I created my first zine, Expansion of Life, that I still make even though it's currently on hiatus. This way I met many interesting people.

"The next step was to start an online store — a so-called 'distro' — through which we could trade and distribute all those people's zines and music," he recalls.

"Then a friend of mine offered me to share a space, so I opened IRA in 2004. The best thing in all this is that IRA has become a pole of attraction for many people in the activist/DIY scene, and we are still growing. We are also reaching out to zinesters and other creative types abroad."

Kei-san doesn't make a living through zines. He's a Web designer, but his job allows him enough free time to pursue his passions.

"For several years we were in the red. Recently we have reached a point in which the stuff we sell through the shop and distro more or less covers our expenses. But I don't care about money. What I want to support is people's autonomy and creativity, not the market, and I feel the alternative scene is finally growing in Japan too."

If you manage to navigate the maze of back streets and track down the cramped IRA headquarters, you will find CDs (mostly punk), clothes, badges, new and old books (e.g., anarchist literature) and, of course, zines. Most are in Japanese, but there are plenty in English as well.

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Welcome to our world: Nagoya resident Adam Pasion (self-portrait) produces Sundogs single-handedly based on daily journal entries.

"But as I said," Kei-san is eager to add, "IRA is first and foremost a meeting point. You can come here, relax on the sofa, have a nice cup of coffee while chatting with other interesting people, and spend as much time as you want. We also organize events, concerts and movie viewings, both here and in other venues. On Thursdays, for instance, we have a clothes-making circle — I actually graduated from a fashion college."

If you find IRA's Japanese Web site too intimidating, then Wasabi Distro is the place to go. New Yorker Andrea Hope, 36, is the brave expat who a few years ago started this online catalog in order to showcase (mostly, but not only) English zines made in Japan, and sell foreign stuff cheaply to the zine-starved expat community.

"My experience with zines came through indie comics and punk music," says Hope. "When I first came to Japan, I became friends with Mia Ellis and wrote articles for her zine Pearshaped. She got me into perzines — short for personal zines; zines that focus on their author's personal life — and introduced me to the awesome Exile Osaka, done by Matt Exile, who lives in Kansai.

"I mainly started Wasabi Distro because I couldn't find the zines I liked here. I used to buy English zines at Tower Records in Shibuya, but when they went bankrupt they changed distributors and stopped carrying them. So I started mail-ordering them from the U.S. and Europe, and realized that for only a little more money, I could order some extra copies and distro them here, so that's when I started."

Hope makes her own minizine, Japan Random, which focuses on the often-bizarre things she stumbles upon in her life here.

Expat zinesters, of course, can be found outside Tokyo as well. One of the most active is Nagoya resident Adam Pasion, 27, born in California but whose family originally hails from the Philippines. Pasion's comic art has recently been featured in such mainstream publications as Japanzine, but his beginnings are firmly rooted in DIY culture.

"Coming from San Francisco, zines and minicomics were so accessible that I completely took them for granted," says Pasion. "It wasn't until moving to Japan and being cut off from that scene that I began to be more proactive about zines. I had to make new connections — real connections. I went in and actually had conversations with the zine shop owners, I searched out distros, and the apparently complete lack of zines in Japan made me really scour to find them. The extra effort has made all the difference for me.

"For the first time since I started making zines, I have made some truly deep connections with several people both here and abroad. I have become so actively involved in trading, which is a constant inspiration for me to keep trying to improve my product. I have been collaborating more and trying to reach out and make stronger connections internationally, and I never would have done that if it hadn't been for the isolation imposed on me by Japan's mostly hidden zine scene."

Pasion admits that getting access to the local zine community was far from easy.

"I do believe that Japan's zine scene is sort of divided into small parts of other subcultures. I've seen plenty of Japanese punk/hardcore zines, but they are only sold at crusty punk record stores and live houses. Other publications like art or poetry zines can be found at independent galleries and indie book stores, but these two genres never seem to mix, and I think that is characteristic of Japan's scene. Without the strong history that comes along with American or European zines, the local scene is not so united.

"The hardest thing to crack into is the world of underground comics in Japan, not because they are hard to find but because there is so much it's almost impossible to find a point of entry. There are tons of stores selling dojinshi but, without exaggerating, 90 percent of it is either porno or parody — or parody-porno. As cool as it is to see Darth Vader having sex with Luke Skywalker, I really wish I could find more substantial stories. There are only so many naked Harry Potter pictures you can see before you just lose interest."

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The first edition of Orga{ni}sm, brain child of the mysterious Spider.

An acute observer of life in Japan, Pasion is best known in the network for his quarterly comic diary Sundogs, in which he daily chronicles his big and small (mis)adventures in Nagoya and all the head-scratching weirdness a foreigner encounters in Japan.

"So far I haven't ever missed my deadline, and as far as I know I have only missed one day of journaling in two years," he boasts.

Zines in Japan are as diverse as the individuals who produce them, a point perhaps best illustrated by Organ{ni}sm, which operates in a realm beyond the journal-style perzine world of Pasion's Sundogs and Hope's Japan Random.

Produced in the Kanto area, Orga{ni}sm is the brain child of the rather mysterious SpiderWeb Prods. The man behind this project wouldn't say his real name. We only know he is 46 and comes from Europe.

"Actually, relatively few people keep making zines in their 40s," he wrote in an e-mail. "This is an eminently 20-something thing, even though many people in their 30s keep putting out their stuff."

The Spider, as he prefers to be called, came to zines through mail art, another huge international network of independent creative people whose history spans nearly 50 years.

"I joined the mail art network in 1997 and published my first zine in 2000. Orga{ni}sm was born a couple of years later. It is subtitled, 'A personal guide to Tokyo and all things Japanese.' I've lived here for the last 17 years, and for a long time I thought it would be nice to produce something on this subject. In Orga{ni}sm I try to explain to foreign readers what it is like to live in this city. If you live here, my stories will sound familiar, but people who live in Europe and America still have a distorted and basically false view of Japan. That's one of the reasons why I decided to make Orga{ni}sm."

The latest issue is entirely devoted to prisons and the justice system in Japan.

"I used to be a member of Amnesty International Japan, and have done extended research on the subject," says the Spider. "Life abroad has many ups and downs, and Japan is no exception, but what scares me the most here is the apparent arbitrariness with which so-called justice is imparted in this country. If you are unlucky enough to end up in a Japanese prison, God only knows what can happen to you."

What many people have a hard time understanding is why, in the age of the Internet, someone would spend a lot of time, energy and money to do something that could be achieved with a computer.

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Keisuke Narita sits in his Irregular Rhythm Asylum "distro," a Tokyo hub for zine culture.

"People might consider us old-fashioned, but there still are many people who prefer the good old ways," is the Spider's reply. "Maybe it's a generation thing. The Internet is fast and cheap, but nothing can replace the surprise and pleasure of receiving every day unexpected gifts in the mail box. Because at the end of the day zines, like mail art, are part of a gift culture in which people make things without thinking about money or personal gain. It's all about communication, collaboration and friendship."

Italian teacher and freelance journalist Gianni Simone has been into zines and mail art for the last 13 years. He also lays out Orga{ni}sm using content provided by the Spider. To learn more about his zines, e-mail jb64jp@yahoo.co.jp. Send comments to community@japantimes.co.jp


Enter the zine scene

•Adam Pasion: www.biguglyrobot.net/

• SpiderWeb Prods: exciting_doc@yahoo.co.jp

•Wasabi Distro: www.wasabi-distro.com/

•Except via Wasabi Distro, hunting for zines in Japan is not easy, especially if you cannot read the local language, but both IRA's Kei-san and lilmag's Momo Nonaka speak good English and will be happy to help you. IRA's site is at a.sanpal.co.jp/irregular/ and lilmag's is here: lilmag.org/?mode=f5

• The main publications devoted to reviewing zines are in the U.S. (Zine World at www.undergroundpress.org/ and Xerography Debt at www.leekinginc.com/xeroxdebt/ ) and Canada (Broken Pencil — www.brokenpencil.com/ ). Zine World reviews more than 400 zines in every issue, and that's just the tip of the iceberg.




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