On December 29, 1989, the Nikkei stock index of Japan reportedly reached an all-time high of 38,957.44, having grown six fold in only 10 years. However, in the quiet hours of the night before, the index may have reached a high of 3,456,789.10 for about 15 seconds, with evidence suggesting that within those 15 seconds the index tended to infinity for an infinitesimal moment. This project explores the ever more vertiginous years preceding this 15 second big bang of capital, and then tries to piece together an extrapolated account of the bubble era.
Reviews for Surface Tension
"4 incomplete and unrelated chapters purport to explain something about the Japanese bubble, but I can't help but feel it's all just a silly joke"
~ Respected Person in The Field(s)
"His grasp of historic research is as firm as that of worn out Velcro, his writing style is as bland and listless as worn out Velcro, his ideas are about as useful as worn out Velcro."
~ Japan Velcro Industrial Council
"This writer has clearly never been to Japan, his claim that the Earth's rotation places him within Japanese airspace once a day makes a mockery of airspace regulation before breakfast"
~ Japan Civil Aviation Bureau
"The assumptions, extrapolations and overall abuse of reason and logic made in this project has prompted us to begin the production of a new volume of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders"
~ American Psychiatric Association
I was walking to my car in a very large multi-storey car park, when I noticed about 200m away WA deliberately avoiding eye contact with me, I never knew you could avoid eye contact at that sort of distance.
A Brief History of the Bubble Era
Japan was thought by many as on its way to become the world's largest economy, some even thought that the world's economy would shrink to the size of Japan, some even thought that Japan's economy would shrink to the size of the World, many people at that time did not think anything and wanted to enjoy their double-bill of Columbo without being asked about the Japanese economy by strangers in their home.
Asset values in the Japanese Nikkei Stock index tripled between 1985 and 1989 to comprise 25% of the world's global market, the other 75% of the market was largely tied up in a down payment for a Volvo where the dealer accidentally missed a decimal point on the credit agreement. The liquid tentacles of this turbo capitalist bubble seemed to touch everything, many major US corporations were in some sort of acquisition talks with a Japanese conglomerate, the CEO of Toshiba wanted to acquire the NFL and relocate it to his daughter's wardrobe (there was enough space, it was a walk-in), Ezaki Glico was in talks to purchase Exxon Mobil and convert every fuel station and oil rig into a vending machine serving nothing but chocolate coated pretzel sticks, the Oriental Land Company were even briefly considering purchasing the entire reserve of US Dollars to use as play money at Disneyland Tokyo.
The Japanese way of doing business was seen as a world leading standard, the source of many self help books and Sean Connery movie characters. One prominent business practice was the 'Gyaki Produsa' where an upper-middle-middle-upper-middle manager would purr loudly in the middle of the office and then slowly walk backwards while sucking air inwards, all of their subordinates would then have to work backwards, deleting any reports or asking people on the phone to forget any recent phone calls, sometimes this would extend to the point where workers would have to retrieve their waste from the toilet, although this only happened at very high performing departments. Bowing was also of course heavily used in business etiquette, to the point that entry-middle-entry-intern-upper level staff would have an operational electronic stock ticker installed on their back so that the person would be able to provide stock information to their colleagues as they bow.
The standard of manufacturing was also famous, the Japanese had pioneered a 'Just In Time' supply chain system where often the product was only fully assembled after the customer had taken the product home, if you see any images of Japanese houses at the time you would see many hand sized holes in the walls, this is so a customer can hold up their product to the hole and factory workers can screw the final components on without entering the home, as this would mean wasting precious time taking off their shoes. These bubble holed walls weren't the only manifestation of the bubble economy in Japanese homes, the high disposable income of households meant an abundance of gadgets. At the peak of the bubble, a typical family house would have 70% of its floorspace devoted to Hi-Fi equipment, and the other 30% devoted to Hi-Fi equipment manuals. This is all the more staggering given the massively inflated land values, a square metre of land in Ginza would cost around $750,000, the land value was in fact so high that some land owners would simply stuff pieces of their carpet in their wallet and use it as legal tender to purchase goods and services, an executive at Toyota reportedly bought the Hungarian National Philharmonic with a loose bathroom tile.
Despite the workaholic image many have of Japan, leisure was rife throughout the bubble era. Staples of free time included whiskey and golf. To save time, golf holes would be chilled to sub zero temperatures, and after a successful putt, golf balls would then double up as whiskey coolers. Golf course construction was of course prodigious, and an urban myth spread about being able to traverse all the islands of Japan and touch nothing but golf courses, however no-one made a score card long enough so no one tried. Of course, karaoke was the most popular leisure activity, where salarymen and women would perform immaculate renditions of their favourite popular music, the attention to detail of such performances would often cause the karaoke singers to spend weeks afterwards convinced they are the song they sang, making the regular digestion of food challenging. Other popular pastimes included high-tension power cable spotting, smiling in a room on your own, smiling in a room with others but not letting them see you smile and smiling in a room with others who can see you but you can't see them.
Oftentimes with hindsight economic bubbles are seen as results of overabundant optimism, excessive speculation and greed, but there was something somewhat extra-natural occurring towards the peak that standard economic record keeping could not see. As the peak of the bubble grew closer, there are anecdotes of Japanese people leaving their house to throw out the rubbish, only to return to a house that had doubled in size and suddenly had a view of the New York skyline from the windowless basement. Another story was of a clerk at a tyre company who had attempted to calculate a sale price for a batch of rain tyres but the calculator would keep adding 20% to the value until it said 80085, which the clerk didn't understand, the tyres then inflated accordingly, before exploding into 100 useless pieces and therefore growing 100 times in value.
In the very last days of the bubble, effects became even more violent, the excessive liquidity of credit and loan agreements somehow seeped into buildings, causing entire floors to swap with other buildings hundreds of miles away at random, tampon warehouses slid inside Buddhist shrines. Department stores would often have customers come in, immediately pay Millions of yen and promptly leave without having actually bought anything, cackling all the way back to their Mercedes. The majority of postal envelopes being sent contained nothing but another empty stamped envelope with a return address. Companies would hold press conferences announcing that they had merged with themselves.
A mass delerium which no-one remembers, but everyone does. Remember.
We had finished a late night tour of a brick factory when we found out the trains had stopped running. We eventually walked to a 24hr TESCO superstore down the road and sat in the café to wait for the trains to start running again, as we were waiting we saw a line of people eagerly making their way to the back. And one of them looked me in the eye as they passed, and said to me, "We're not walking in a line, we are just walking in the same direction". Curious and bored and horny, we followed the line to the back of the TESCO, where we saw them open a refrigerated storage locker door. Then we heard a giant joyous, jovial shout from inside the locker as they went in, they shouted. "DON'T SHUT THE.... (Then the door closed) DOOOOR"
The load cheering continued, we all looked at each other, scrunching our eyebrows so violently until we started to bleed out of our eyes. We decided to open the door and see what was going on: I opened the door and then suddenly I saw that 30 people were huddled in the storage locker, they all started to shout; "DON'T SHUT THEEEEEEEEEEE..." We watched them hold that word for over 30 seconds until we realised we had to close the door in order for them to finish the sentence. However, my friend decided to swing the door in and out without actually closing it, causing the people to go, "THEEE DDDDDD THEEEEE DDDDDDD THEEEEE DDDDDDD"
They were all in very visible pain and I finally shut the door, and then they shouted "DOOOOR" and then someone asked us. "Are you in this club?" they then turned their hat back to front. And then we asked "No, what club?" And they explained, they were at a 'Don't close the door' club, for fans of scenes in television shows that involve characters being stuck behind a door that locks when it closes, the club met bi-semi-weekly. My friend asked "how do you get out?" They all laughed, apparently they say an internal door that locks when it closes is no longer acceptable from a health and safety standpoint and that the locker door is by law openable from the inside. We asked if we could observe
They said yes and did their roll call which involved one person asking every other person one by one if they were in the club, and every person replying with; yes I am in the club' and turning their hat back. They were performing a classic 'door lock' scene, from a 1980s Japanese television show called 'The 7th floor' which was about the 7th floor of a residential building that decided to start inserting itself into other buildings around Tokyo and becoming their new 7th floor. You may feel this is bizarre in a Japanese way but remember this was in the middle of a massive economic bubble where buildings were willingly swapping floors all over the country, people could easily wake up 100 miles from where they went to sleep, which is why they built the bullet train to take that vast random relocation into account.
So in this sitcom the 7th floor forces itself into a mixed use shopping and office building in Roppongi Hills, but the residents of the floor discover that the connecting door to the communal laundry room is the wrong way around and locks when it closes and cannot be opened from the inside. It was performed by the club in Japanese, with a google translate running in the background: Here is the script they read after it was translated:
Ai: I think we are restricted to remain in the same room. Bi: I think we are restricted, yes, restricted, yes, restricted. Ai: But I have a date with a secretary from a prominent Industrial Banking corporation Bi: You always have a date with a secretary from a prominent Industrial Banking corporation, there are about 500 of them in this neighbourhood alone. Ai: You are very accurate; it is at this point it is proper to raise a toast to the miracle of Japanese economic progress. Bi: I toast, yes, I toast, yes I toast Ai: When do you think the next person will come to arrive and open the door. Bi: It's normally Sei Ai: Oh no, doesn't she slam the door habitually wherever she goes? Bi: Yes, this she does, this she does, yes Ai: Oftentimes this habit is good as it ensures that the structure of the building remains invigorated and awake Bi: But now of course, it is a significantly problematic issue Ai: Significantly so a problem Bi: I have a solution that I would think to propose. Ai: Really? You are most virile and my ability to make eye contact with you improves with every passing moment. Bi: I have a Roland SH-201 synthesiser in my sock pocket, we can formulate a strong post-modern punk anthem which she will hear through the door, reminding her politely to consider not slamming the door habitually due to extenuating circumstances Ai: I concur with a large portion of my spirit with this proposal. Bi: I feel this spirit, and I am compelled to raise another toast to the miracle of Japanese economic progress. Ai: Okay so what should our chorus be? STAGE DIRECTION: SEI WALKS IN AND STARTLES THEM Ai and Bi: DON'T SHUT THE STAGE DIRECTION: DOOR CLOSES Ai and Bi: DOOR Sei: Oh no, is it locked? Ai and Bi: Yes, locked, yes, locked, yes, locked Sei: I apologise, my door slamming ways have become a burden at this episode of time. Ai: Who will be the next person who comes? Bi: I am afraid everyone else on our floor is at work now, supporting the growth of their respective companies. Sei: This is true, this compells me to toast to the miracle of Japanese economic progress. Bi: We need not worry, the bank of 45 vending machines adjacent to the washing machines shall provide adequate food, reading material, condoms, drinks, toilet facilities, freshly baked pizza, pornographical torture videos, reinforced concrete and depleted uranium. Ai: Yes, we need not worry, we need only to toast the miracle of Japanese economic progress.
And that was the end of the performance.
Here we see an insight into an under reported phenomenon in the months preceding the bumu, the violent nightly reconfigurations of various building structures across Japan, as tremendous market forces whipped corner shops into hospital operating theatres, removed screens out of cinemas and forced them to act as the wallpaper to executive washrooms and moved wings of the imperial palace into brothels. It was perhaps one of the more visible elements of a potent and most virile property market.
An obvious way to get at the heart of how the market and society intersected in Japan at the time was to watch the television adverts.
If the economy was the blood and society the flesh, then the adverts were the multitudes of rashes, pus growths and scarring that would occasionally appear on the flesh. I wanted to press a cold glass tumbler against the flesh and see what these rashes looked like.
I had searched for videos in archives and internet channels, trying to hone in on the days preceding the 15 second boom. But it was hard to find anything specific enough, I would email and message the Japanese collectors of television adverts from 1989, insisting that wanted to press my cold glass tumbler against December 1989. They would say they don't know what I am talking about; I spent one afternoon semi-deliberately holding up a bank queue talking to a teller about this, they suggested my tumbler analogy was lukewarm garbage and that I should ask directly if they had TV adverts from December 1989. I then tilted my head excessively, occasionally remarking to the queue behind me that I was doubting the teller's idea was any good.
After I was finally escorted out of the bank by staff I tried the doomed direct approach, just so I can tell the teller it didn't work, but one archivist finally replied, 'I can show you these videos, I know what you mean by pressing a glass tumbler against flesh'. I smiled while shaking my head, I was right and wrong at the same time, the direct approach worked, but they also understood the tumbler concept. I didn't know how I would tell the teller now, how would I tilt my head to show doubt and also tilt my head to admit they were right? Would I hurt my neck in the process, should I warm up first, I should block out some diary time in case I got injured?
I finally got an encrypted download link for the videos, and I went to an attic (but not necessarily my own attic, nor that I necessarily owned one, nor are they typical of my local area's architecture). I reached over a row of boxes to pick up an old Sony Trinitron cathode ray tube television with a built in VCR player, memory chapter system and quad reading head with double failsafe circuitry based on declassified nuclear missile control systems.
I decided I needed to see these videos in their natural form and converted the files onto videotape.
One tape is shown below, translated by a native Japanese who swore on the twin peaks of Mount Fuji that the translations were genuine
The second tape compliation caught fire in self-protest at my brave investigatory research so here are my observational notes on them: Toyota Trueno advert- A cinematic swooping helicopter shot of the car in open rural roads, narration describing sentiments of freedom and power descending into paradoxically constructed sentences. "Please violate all traffic laws in a safe and respectful manner" "Harmful Tailpipe emissions from your car can be conveniently connected to all hospital air conditioning systems" "Opening the doors of your car at full speed on the highway will slow your car down in an economical manner, please use your brakes as recommended in your manual"
Pioneer Private Hi-Fi system- A large empty warehouse with bright white soft lights, a woman sits in the center by the hi-fi system, there is no music playing. Her face, pale and shrunken barely shifts, as if the air around her cannot even bring itself to touch her. "Get away from the world, Pioneer Private Hi-Fi system"
A Yamaha motorbike races through a sun dappled forest road, ably managing the corners and it's 4 stroke engine singing confidently, just making it in time to reach a small river ferry, the rider takes their helmet off, he is a westerner, he runs a hand through his hair, a close up of the soft and moisturized hair shuffling between his fingers, a woman glances at him through the wing mirror of her car with a smile, we see her Kose Cosmetics lipstick, an earthy autumnal red, the man takes out a pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes, he slips one in his mouth and lifts the corners of his mouth subtly, she joins him and they sit on the hood of her Honda Accord, she takes out a bottle of Suntory reserve whiskey and they enjoy it neat as they gaze off the sunset coloured river. There are no words or slogans, no narration, the advert ends without a clear product being promoted.
It appears this is the apex, where consumerism and capitalism became so thick and whipped that television marketing had become congealed into one super-foam that contained every brand and image and aspirational lifestyle at once.
So instead of pressing a glass tumbler against the skin of Japanese society, I scooped up this super-foam into the cup, this super-foam that oozed out of every pore. This super-foam was the first clear evidence that something different was about to happen.
A Distracted Person's Guide to Nagoya
Needless to say, through the 80s the world watched Japan's ascendancy and thought there would be no end to the growth, everyone assuming the economy would grow to the size of a thing that you could not see the edges of no matter how you twisted your economically inferior neck. Many visited Japan to try and learn about the essence of the success, including the renowned (and previously nowned) academic Fahsbahg Aghsbahg, who had written their account of a visit to Nagoya...
"They say Nagoya's urban layout is a near perfect example of the essential Japanese city. I was near Sakurayama Junior High School when I noticed some rather low lying electricity cables, I wondered whether the electricity in Nagoya was also an example of the essential Japanese electricity. I fortuitously had with me about 20 meters of industrial grade pylon power transmission cables, so I hurled it above me onto a nearby power transmission line while holding on. The shock of electricity gave me a cardiac arrest which I can unreservedly say was the near perfect example of the essential Japanese electric shock.
I have used many intercoms throughout my life. You could say you can't get through a door without them sometimes. I mainly used them to get recipes, I find this is the only thing you can ask on a stranger's intercom without them getting annoyed. This morning I asked someone in Matsukazecho for a Spanish omelette recipe, before shoving 20 meters of industrial grade pylon power transmission cable into the intercom. The shock of electricity gave me a cardiac arrest which I can unreservedly say was the near perfect example of the essential Japanese electric shock.
There are some great parks in Nagoya, like the one near the science museum, a woman on the bench, standing on the bench, told me she bet that the tree over there was more than 70 years old, and I scoffed at her quite visibly, then spat at her, "Are you serious? This would have been rice farms 70 years ago, let alone the width of the trunk suggests it is no older than 40 years". And so obviously to settle our dispute I got my 20 meters of industrial grade pylon power transmission cable out and used it to slowly cut the tree down. After looking into the trunk, we realised that the tree was not 70 years old, or under 40 years old, but it was a disguised mobile phone transmission antenna. The shock of electricity from the antenna gave me a cardiac arrest which I can unreservedly say was the near perfect example of the essential Japanese electric shock.
I love trainers, I have a large collection that I carry with me. I went to the Nike store near Sakae station, when I saw a nice purple pair of trainers, I asked if they had it in my size, when the assistant quietly said that it wasn't available in that size. I asked it was a pretty usual size why not? She said they were women's trainers. I gnawed on my fist for a while, letting her hear my teeth scrape knuckle bone, before I said, I like this style so just give me the largest ones you have. And I put them on, and my god they didn't fit.
As soon as I put them on, while seated in a seemingly stable position I started to trip out of my chair and out past the assistant, out into the street, down the stairs into the subway, and I was going to trip off the platform onto the rail. As we all know, Nagoya subway, like all subways, has a 3rd rail with a strong electric current powering the trains So I got my 20 meters of industrial grade pylon power transmission cable and attached it onto the vending machine on the opposite platform, like a Spiderman I swung clear of the electrified rails and landed on the other platform safely, where the vending machine's shock of electricity gave me a cardiac arrest which I can unreservedly say was the near perfect example of the essential Japanese electric shock.
After a long standing ovation from the passengers at the station, I got on the train back to my hotel where I found a plug fixture in my room where the screw went loose, I screwed the panel back on with a travel screwdriver and phoned the room service warning them of the dangers of exposed plug sockets.
Fahsbahg seemed to be quite distracted by the constant electrical injuries incurred to really get at the essence of a Japanese city, but there is a nonetheless salvageable insight. Fahsbahg had in face been conducting this research up to an hour before the Nikkei stock index exploded 88 times in size for an infinitesimal second. The relative ease in which Fahsbahg could electrocute themselves was indicative of the latent crackles of sheer energy and power that was streaking through the landscape as the exponential explosion was gathering pace.
So there was a strange energy coarsing through the land in the hours before the 'bumu', but why? And how did it manifest in an 88 fold explosion in the stock market value? There have been theories put forward by various people who appear smarter than me, but they aren't, because I will put those theories backward.
One theory by Gurgulagong Gubigabigah surmised that a oblate eccentric Enneadecahedron is rotating within the Earth's core, and roughly every 14,000 years one of the vertices would drag against the tender bottom of the crust. Gurgulagong hypothesises that the Enneadecahedron's corner rubbed against Japan for about 15 years, slowly accelerating economic progress, with the final big bumu coinciding with the vertex actually poking through the ground up in to the sky. Gurgulagong even sells 'geodynamic' magnets to national governments, claiming these magnets could attract an Enneadecahedron vertex towards their country and giving their economy a boost.
The issue with this is that all of this is absolute nonsense in the first place, there is no foundation whatsoever in the fundemental concept of the geodynamic magnet's ability to attract the corner of the Enneadecahedron, and it is well established in geogeometric circles (or 19 sided polygons) that the Enneadecahedron does not bring economic growth when it rubs against the crust, it brings a sort of semi-melancholic cosiness, a fungible sense of generic nostalgia, a hot tear drifting down one cheek. Therefore that theory goes back, I put it back.
Haapwap Stinfling proposed that there is such a thing as economic gravity, and as a black hole sucks up matter, the Japanese economy sucked ever more captial until it hit a sort of singularity. Hoopwap explains this near instant collapse of this spike was due to a slight abberation caused by a sneeze-type event somewhere in Tochigi Prefecture, perhaps a farmer who had just thrown down some hay.
This is a much more plausible concept, and Haapwap has a lot more charisma than me, which means they appear to be more right. But there are some inconsistencies in the theory. First, economic gravity should exist everywhere, and no such singularities have happened anywhere else any other time. Second, while it is true cash has some gravitational pull, this is not true for fiat based currencies. Third, I have seen Haapwap at a McDonalds ordering only barbeque sauce pots, and then licking dozens of them to a spotless clean in the car park outside. So I put that theory back, as well as the image of Haapwap frog licking barbeque sauce in the McDonalds car park, I put that back too.
After my own research, I do not see any promise in looking to geophysics or deliberate malicious actors. I look at this from the human perspective. I think if everyone in a room agreed that something was true, then it may as well be. Everyone in Japan agreed economy strong, so it may as well be. Everyone agreed economy very strong, then stock market grows 88 times. Someone stopped believing economy strong, so economing not strong anymore. You don't need evidence for that, not all science is about evidence. Go away now.