Shiny balls of Mud: William Gibson Looks at Japanese Pursuits of Perfection

Essay on minimalism, otaku, and hikikomori as esthetic choices reflecting an obsessive focus on perfection of a single activity, exemplified by the unusual sculpture form dorodango (hand-rolling mud into colorful spheres).
criticism, sociology, anime, design, insight-porn
by: William Gibson 2012-04-202019-01-26 finished certainty: log importance: 5

Tran­script pre­pared from a scan of the orig­i­nal pub­li­ca­tion; the final quote comes from Gib­son’s post­script to the piece col­lected in his 2012 anthol­ogy Dis­trust That Par­tic­u­lar Fla­vor (EISBN 9781101559413). All links & foot­notes are my inser­tion.

Shiny balls of Mud: William Gibson Looks at Japanese Pursuits of Perfection

by , , pg 108, issue 1, September/October 2002

From bot­tom to top: how to make hikaru doro­dango, shiny balls of mud. Cour­tesy Asso­ci­a­tion of Nip­pon Doro­dango Sci­ence, Japan.

Japan, 1996: has­n’t been doing well in school. He goes into his room one evening and closes the door.

He only leaves his room when he’s cer­tain that his mother and father are either absent or sleep­ing.

His mother stands silently before his door for hours, wait­ing for him to emerge.

He uses the kitchen when he’s sure of his par­ents’ absence, or the liv­ing room, watch­ing tele­vi­sion there, or using the com­put­er. He uses the bath­room as well, emp­ty­ing what­ever con­tain­ers he keeps for this pur­pose.

She con­tin­ues to slip his weekly allowance under the door, and assumes that he buys food and other sup­plies in all-night con­ve­nience stores, and from the ubiq­ui­tous vend­ing machines.

He’s 25 years old now.

She has­n’t seen him for six years.

When I first vis­ited the branch of , I was look­ing for a par­tic­u­lar kind of Japan­ese sink-stop­per: a per­fectly plain black sphere of rub­ber, slightly larger than a golf ball and quite a bit heav­ier, on a length of heavy-duty stain­less-s­teel bal­l-chain.1

A Van­cou­ver archi­tect had shown me one. He admired the design for its sim­plic­ity and func­tion­al­i­ty: it found the drain on its own, seat­ing itself. I was going to for the first time, so he drew a map to enable me to find Tokyu Hands, a store he said he could­n’t quite describe, except that they had these stop­pers and much more.

At first I mis­un­der­stood the name as Tokyu Hands, but once there I learned that the store was a branch of the . There’s a faux-ar­chaic spire atop the Shibuya store, with a trade­mark green hand, and I learned to nav­i­gate by that, find­ing my way from .

As the of my father’s day was to the well-heeled sport fish­er­man or hunter of game, Tokyu Hands is to the ama­teur car­pen­ter, or to peo­ple who take excep­tion­ally good care of their shoes, or to those who con­struct work­ing brass mod­els of Vic­to­rian steam trac­tors.

Tokyu Hands assumes that the cus­tomers is very seri­ous about some­thing. If that hap­pens to be shin­ing a , and the cus­tomer is suffi­ciently seri­ous about it, he or she may need the very best Ger­man edge-e­namel avail­able for the muse­um-grade weekly restora­tion of the sides of the soles.

My own delight at this place, an entire depart­ment store radi­at­ing obses­sive-com­pul­sive desire, was imme­di­ate and intense. I had stum­bled, I felt, upon some core aspect of Japan­ese cul­ture, and every­thing I’ve learned since has only con­firmed this.

Amer­ica or Eng­land might some­day pro­duce a spe­cial­ist depart­ment store com­bin­ing DIY home­-re­pair with less prac­ti­cal crafts, but it would­n’t be Tokyu Hands.

Lat­er, I would dis­cover Kyoichi Tsuzuk­i’s pho­tographs of the inte­ri­ors of Japan­ese apart­ments: ‘cock­pit liv­ing’2. Every­thing you own directly before you, con­stantly avail­able to your gaze. The plea­sures of a lit­tered cozi­ness of what to West­ern eyes seem impos­si­bly tiny spaces, like liv­ing in a box that’s been through a mild earth­quake (and likely it has). Delib­er­ate yet gra­tu­itous col­lec­tions of things: a bach­e­lor’s apart­ment wall, stacked floor-to-ceil­ing with unopened plas­tic of mil­i­tary vehi­cles.3

I sus­pected that these pho­tographs brought me closer to grasp­ing the mys­tery of the heart of Tokyu Hands, but still it remained just out of cul­tural reach.

As many as one mil­lion Japan­ese, the major­ity of them young males, have now retreated into their rooms, some for as lit­tle as six months, oth­ers for as long as ten years. Forty-one per cent of them with­draw for from one to five years, yet rel­a­tively few of them dis­play symp­toms of ago­ra­pho­bia, depres­sion or any other con­di­tion that would ordi­nar­ily be expected to account for such behav­iour.

A Japan­ese par­ent will not enter a child’s room with­out per­mis­sion.

Vend­ing machines in Tokyo con­sti­tute a secret city of soli­tude. Lim­it­ing one­self to pur­chases from vend­ing machi­nes, it is pos­si­ble to spend entire days in Tokyo with­out hav­ing to make eye con­tact with another sen­tient being.

The para­dox­i­cal soli­tude and omnipo­tence of the , the new cen­tu­ry’s ulti­mate enthu­si­ast: the glory and ter­ror inher­ent of the absolute nar­row­ing of per­sonal band­width.

Hikaru —shiny balls of mud.

Pro­fes­sor Fumio Kayo of first encoun­tered these enig­mat­ic, glis­ten­ing spheres in a nurs­ery school in in 1999.

The doro­dango, balls of mud com­pressed with the hands and painstak­ingly formed into per­fect spheres, became the object of con­sid­er­able media atten­tion.

The silent young men who must some­times appear, blink­ing, in the unac­cus­tomed glare of a Tokyo 7-114 at three in the morn­ing, stock­ing up on white foam bowls of instant ramen, in their unlaun­dered, curi­ously out­moded cloth­ing, are them­selves engaged in the cre­ation of doro­dango, their cho­sen mate­r­ial exis­tence itself.

About three inches in diam­e­ter, the sur­face of a com­pleted doro­dango glis­tens with an illu­sion of depth not unlike that seen in tra­di­tional Japan­ese pot­tery glazes. A doro­dango becomes its mak­er’s great­est trea­sure.

Pro­fes­sor Kayo has invented a scale for record­ing a doro­dango’s lus­tre, with the shini­est rat­ing a ‘five’. It took him 200 attempts and analy­sis with an elec­tron micro­scope to dupli­cate the chil­dren’s results and pro­duce an ade­quately lus­trous doro­dango.

The gen­e­sis of the mak­ing of hikaru doro­dango remains an absolute mys­tery.

The floors of Tokyu Hands are haunted for me now with the mys­te­ri­ous, all-en­com­pass­ing pres­ence of the hikaru doro­dango, an arte­fact of such utter sim­plic­ity and per­fec­tion that it seems it must be either the first object or the last, some­thing that either insti­gated the Big Bang or awaits the final pre­cip­i­tous descent into uni­ver­sal silence. At the very end of things waits the hikaru doro­dango, a per­fect three­-inch sphere of mud. At its heart: the unthink­able.

The secret of Tokyu Hands is that every­thing on offer there incli­nes, ulti­mate­ly, to the sta­tus, if not the per­fec­tion, of hikaru doro­dango. The brogues, shined lov­ingly enough, for long enough, with those metic­u­lously imported shoe-care prod­ucts, must ulti­mately become a uni­verse unto them­selves, a con­cep­tual sphere of lus­trous and infi­nite depth.

Just as a life, lived silently enough, in suffi­cient soli­tude, becomes a differ­ent sort of sphere, no less per­fect.

Writ­ing for the Tate’s own mag­a­zine some­how pro­vided an unusual sense of secu­ri­ty, almost of pri­va­cy. With the result that I wish this were a nov­el, some­how.

  1. Gib­son appar­ently did not find it. Spher­i­cal drain plugs are quite unusual and it’s unclear how this design would be use­ful in a kitchen sink, so I was unsure what spe­cific item this was until Gib­son tweeted in 2012 about refind­ing the Bar­tok design Co.’s ofuro (hot tub) ball drain plugs (photo), which is a more log­i­cal use. —Ed­i­tor↩︎

  2. , 1993/1997. —Ed­i­tor.↩︎

  3. See also . —Ed­i­tor.↩︎

  4. The Japan­ese 7-11 chain is not quite what Amer­i­cans will think of by “7-11”; see the dis­cus­sion & image in Takashi Murakami’s 2005 “Earth In My Win­dow”. –Ed­i­tor↩︎