I haven’t updated in a while, and while people are partying below my apartment and I can’t concentrate of studying, I might as well do it now.
(the following text features some spoilers of Sakurasou no Pet na Kanojo and Bakuman)
I have a love-hate relationship with the Japanese work ethic. Don’t get me wrong. I know next to nothing about the reality of the Japanese working life, but as far as one can observe ideology in its purest in TV productions, the Japanese work ethic appears to be quite the extreme form of ideology. It is impossible not to be familiar with it if you’ve been watching anime, where it is repeated endlessly as the carrying thematic of the show. It doesn’t even seem to matter what genre we’re talking about. It’s everywhere. From sports anime to slice-of-life to even yaoi (the characters in Sekai-ichi Hatsukoi burn themselves up trying to meet deadlines in their shoujo manga editor office).
Why do I have a love-hate relationship to the propagating of hard work, discipline, dedication and self-improvement? Is this not opposed to the lazy consumerism so characteristic of our late capitalist societies? Better dedicate your life to your own benefit, self-improvement and success than to go with the drift and lead your life as an apathetic consumer. Better to choose your own life, work hard to achieve your goals and take responsibility for your actions, than to resign to a passive lifestyle, devoid of any initiative of your own. Is it not impossible to achieve happiness without putting some effort into it?
And why not? Take Karl Marx who, far from condemning labour as such as a form of alienation produced by capitalism, actually saw labour as a form of self-expression and freedom. It is only in capitalism and other historical forms of production where labour appears as alienated, as external labour forced on the working subject. The names of these forms of alienated labour are slave-labour, serf-labour and, most recently in capitalism, wage-labour. Curiously, Marx characterizes free labour as hard work in Grundrisse: “Really free working, e.g. composing, is at the same time precisely the most damned seriousness, the most intense exertion.”
Anyone who has seen anime such as Chihayafuru, Bakuman or even the slice-of-life comedy-drama Sakurasou no Pet na Kanojo knows exactly what Marx’s sentence is about. In all of these shows the protagonists are fully dedicated to achieving their goals in whatever field they’re working. In Chihayafuru we have a high school girl, Chihaya, aiming to be the best karuta player in Japan (and the world, as the game is barely played competitively elsewhere). Although the series plays heavily with themes of team work and friendship, even hinting towards romance, it all comes down to karuta, to which everything about Chihaya’s life is subordinated. Even her personal relationships are somehow entangled in her pursuit to become to best karuta player in the world.
In Bakuman the protagonists choose to purify their life of any content other than writing manga at the age of 14 in the hopes of one day achieving enough commercial success to have one of their manga turned into an anime. Ofcourse, as the show is a shonen series, the protagonist is awarded with a cute girl in the end should he finally achieve his goal. It would be wrong to say that all the bullshit about writing manga somehow worked as a plot device, a screen to cover the basic plot of producing a romantic couple in the end. On the contrary, halfway through the series the protagonist is actually forced to make a choice between writing manga and the girl – and he chooses the former.
In Sakurasou we have a bunch of extraordinary high school students living in the same dorm. They are each young geniuses of their fields, such as painting, animation and programming. The protagonist, as usual, is depicted as a rather ordinary guy tossed in the middle of these peculiar characters. As the story unfolds our protagonist, observing his friends with both awe and envy, decides to put an end to the aimlessness of his life and dedicate his efforts to becoming a game developer. Curiously, the show features some controversial topics (controversial from the perspective of the value of individual efforts): what point is there in working hard when you just don’t have the same level of natural talent as others?
What appears to be pure madness on the outside, is something totally other on the inside. What appears as self-abusive discipline and exhausting hard work is, from the point of view of the characters themselves, the freest form of self-expression. How else to interpret the occasional moments of euphoria Chihaya goes through in her most intense karuta matches? How else to understand the hilariously exaggerated cheers expressed by the characters of Bakuman when their manga chapters get high ratings? Only in Sakurasou are there excessive feelings of defeat, namely when the protag’s game idea gets rejected by the company he applied to and when the girl wanting to become a voice actress fails her audition. However, these issues get resolved in the end and the characters remain as dedicated to their goals as ever.
But don’t we actually reach a kind of self-criticism in Sakurasou when the protag gets the letter of rejection, proving to him that all his hard work has been in vain? To rub some salt into his wounds, the company sent a letter to one of his friends in the dorm, who helped him by drawing some pictures for his presentations, offering her work as an illustrator. The girl, a natural talent and genius painter, got noticed by a mere coincidence while the protagonist, in spite of all the work he had put into his game idea and presentations, got rejected. Does this not go against the ideal basis of the work ethic, that you can achieve everything if you just work hard enough? Isn’t it unfair that someone, who does not really even try, gets all the fame while you work your ass off without any prize?
This same theme was played in another peculiar anime series Hyouka. There’s a segment, or a side-plot, on a girl who draws manga and puts all her heart into her work. But, unlike in Bakuman where this dedication is rewarded, she only seems to be capable of producing mediocre works. Why is this a problem? Not only because she’s disappointed in herself but also because the author of her favorite doujinshi, which she describes as a masterpiece, was actually written on a whim by an amateur. How is it fair that she, who actually puts feeling and effort into her work, is of average capability while someone, who dosn’t seriously even care about manga, is capable of producing such a beautiful piece of work?
What this shows is that the work ethic, based on hard work and equal opportunities of success alone, actually rests on natural inequality between various levels of natural talent. Thus all the hard work put into achieving one’s goals become devalued and the feelings of despair, caused by failure, justified. The imposition of work ethic on individuals appears here as an oppressive command, an impossible demand, which puts an enormous mental strain on its subjects. However, far from being subversive of the ideology of work ethic, I think this possibility of failure serves the polar opposite end: failure is a part of the work ethic itself. The important thing is not to succeed but to try your best, to get back on in the wagon if you fall. This is how the feelings of despair after failure are usually resolved in anime. The characters go through a period of crushing defeat only to rise again stronger and even more dedicated to their goals, like a phoenix from the ashes.
Is this then liberating? It is demanded of you to choose your goals and work hard to achieve them but, on the other hand, it is also okay if you fail, for you can always try again, better and stronger. So where’s the problem? I claim the impossible demand imposed on the working subject is inscribed twice in the work ethic: you are not only demanded to set impossible goals for yourself, but also you’re not allowed to resign, to reject this command to work to exhaustion to achieve impossible goals, if you fail. Whether you keep working hard towards your goals with success or whether you fail, you are always guilty. It is precisely this demand never to resign, never to accept defeat, that puts the mental strain on the working subject.
The gesture proper here would be not to celebrate despair but to reject the demand itself. Renata Salecl provides the best formula to do this in her work on the ideology of choice. As she points out in this brilliant little animated lecture, the work ethic that celebrates individual achievement and responsibility is inscribed in the spirit of today’s capitalism. What this means is that the defeats experienced by working people are always experienced as caused by the individual him or herself, not as caused by external social forces outside the individual’s control. So, if you get fired you blame yourself, not the company that fired you. Another example comes from David Harvey who points out in one of his speeches that the people evicted from their homes during the mortgage crisis blamed themselves, not the speculative financial sector or the capitalist system actually responsible for the evictions.
And here we get back to Marx again. As we saw above, Marx celebrates hard work but only when it’s free labour as opposed to alienated labour. On the next page Marx lays down the conditions of free labour: “The work of material production can achieve this character only (1) when its social character is posited, (2) when it is of a scientific and at the same time general character, not merely human exertion as a specifically harnessed natural force, but exertion as subject, which appears in the production process not in a merely natural, spontaneous form, but as an activity regulating all the forces of nature.” What Marx is saying here is that, in order to be free, labour has to set its own conditions of work, to choose its own character etc., and not be merely externally forced on the working subject for purposes independent of him (as in slave-labour). This is the ideal of the anime above. Chihaya is not playing karuta in order to fulfill someone else’s desires or purely in order to make a living, she is doing it for her own sake, she’s the one who posited it for herself.
I will close with a critique of Bakuman, which is ofcourse not so much a critique of the series itself but the ideology of work ethic it propagates. As mentioned above, Marx characterizes wage-labour as a form of alienated (not free) labour. In capitalism, according to Marx, workers enter into wage-labour not to express their individuality freely but to earn a living, as they are forced to do. Alienation is then the violent separation of the unity of the worker and his work. The worker’s labour capacity is turned into a commodity to be bought and sold in the labour market, all of which has very little to do with the worker’s own wishes and desires or the content of the work. What we have in Bakuman is the impossible combination of the two: capitalism without alienation.
How is this achieved? Bakuman aims to combine the work ethic of free labour with the capitalist logic of private profits. On the one hand our protagonists are on their own personal journey to become professional mangaka, during the course of which their labour capacity is put to a serious test as they work literally to exhaustion. None of this matters, ofcourse, as it is merely a condition of their freedom. And do they not get what they wanted in the end when their manga finally gets turned into an anime? Subordinating almost everything in their lives to write a successfull manga finally proves worth it.
On the other hand the show obeys a purely commercial logic: the scene consists of a bunch of individuals working for a private company. Not only do they dedicate their lives to producing the best-selling product (literally – the most excitement we get from the show is from achieving high popularity ratings in consumer surveys), they also meet each other as equal competitors in the market, motivating each other in a friendly rival-like way, like loyal followers of Adam Smith. While these people happily work themselves to death in very precarious working conditions (their ratings could drop down any moment) the company reaps profits from their work.
In this fantastic utopian vision of the coexistence of capitalism and the work ethic of free labour there is no sight of the structural inequality existing in this kind of ruthless competition. Jodi Dean has crystallized the problem in her book The Communist Horizon. She describes how capitalism exploits our commons through competition:
Now, rather than having a right to the proceeds of one’s labor by virtue of a contract, ever more of us win or lose such that remuneration is treated like a prize. In academia, art, writing, architecture, entertainment, design, and increasing number of fields, people not only feel fortunate to get work, to get hired, to get paid, but ever more tasks and projects are conducted as competitions, which means that those doing the work are not paid unless they win. They work but only for a chance at pay.
From the field of competitors “the one” emerges and he or she is the only one earning an income. The question is, ofcourse, what happens to the losers? And moreover, what the do with the problem that there will always be a vast number of these losers per each winner? Incredibly enough, there are some depictions of these losers in Bakuman. The protagonist’s uncle actually worked himself to death, literally, as the ratings of his manga dropped, but even this was somehow subsumed under the glories of hard work and dreams of success.
What’s the lesson of this all? If a society commanding you to succeed in your career, economic and social life, at the same time suspends your opportunities, perhaps it would only be rational for you to choose not to participate, to isolate yourself from the society, to turn into a social recluse? Or alternatively you could choose the route proposed by Salecl: instead of dedicating your hard work to reach an impossible goal, perhaps political resistance and social critique would be a better channel into which to pour your efforts?