Petri Dish

A number of surprises had been incubating during the Spring confinement.

Z. looks at the short lived marriage between idol culture and art institutions while S. comment on a news story that revealed how both high and subcultures don’t deny themselves acts of pettiness.

Asai Takashi, founder and president of Uplink, a film theater and distribution company founded in 1987, was accused of power harassment by five former employees who brought a lawsuit against him and his business practice. Here is an example that speaks to conflicting forces found in a late 20th century model of indie culture in Tokyo. To one side we find a glorious history: Asai fought Japanese law relentlessly as he challenged them over what constituted obscenity and pornography in the field of art when championing the work of Robert Mapplethorpe after returning from America with a catalogue of the artist’s work which he planned to sell in Japan. He would go on to win his case. Uplink also published a journal, DICE, which included essays, interviews and reviews of auteur films, experimental cinema, and occasional media works. It also became involved in exemplary collaborations, as with its commitment to the cinema of Derek Jarman. Uplink Theater, which moved to a couple of different locations in Shibuya, never far from Bunkamura and love hotels, held a number of important film retrospectives over the years with both Japanese and international directors on hand, some organized with care, others nothing less than a shamble. All this spoke to the presence and personality of Asai who appeared as a force of nature.

The flip side, found in other companies as well over a similar period of time, many of which did not enjoy the same longevity as Uplink, is a toxic mix of Japanese Bucho culture, the manager abusing and shaming his subordinates, and the notion that working within the spheres of culture, especially within a structure that has an ‘aura’, is already considered a privilege; discussion of salary and schedule lessen the purpose.

Asai has since posted an apology, announcing the measures he plans to take to correct both his behavior and that of the work environment, an urgent task as two other branches had been opened in recent months, one in the Kichijoji area of Tokyo and another in Kyoto. The business arguments raised in explaining how this led to such a crisis are not immediately convincing:

Uplink is a self-initiated company and bears all the financial risks. I still have a lot of debt, and I am the only guarantor. Under such circumstances, it is difficult to get someone to serve as president. When I myself leave the company, I lose uplink and leave the current employee on the road. We will transform ourselves and the company to become a company without harassment and to carry out meaningful and unique activities in the film culture and film industry more than ever.

Arguments against this abound and speak to a hybrid fusion of managerial rigidity and fluid counterculture. Thirty three years would have allowed envisioning, preparing and training someone who could have shared responsibilities but also placed in a position to pursue the unique role Uplink has played in Tokyo’s cultural history, especially in an area such as Shibuya. Believing that this culture & power model could continue to allow such behavior was however clearly not visionary.


Here, in Japanese, the claim by the workers.

In June, Yomiuri Online (the online edition of the Yomiuri Shimbun, one of Japan’s five daily papers) and the Japan Association of Art Museums started a new project 美術館女子(Museum Girls) in which they published photo collections of young female idols in art museums, as a way to promote public interest in art and art museums. Due to widespread criticism, the project came to a sudden halt two weeks after its first round of pictures taken at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo came out, featuring a  girl from the idol group AKB48. About 150 other museums around the country were scheduled to participate in the project as originally planned.

As many critics have pointed out, the pictures, which have now been removed from the official website, are typical idol photos focusing largely on the idol herself with careful makeup and cute posts, taking the artworks and the museum merely as a background. There is hardly any respect or appreciation of art, not even the attempt to understand the context, which made the project another objectification of young women, good-looking and ignorant. Oddly (in the global context) yet predictably (in Japan), such a proposal was brought up and able to move forward without enough objection during the planning stage. Once again, it reminds us of how gender unbalanced  Japanese art institutions are (and Japan in general). Women that do manage to reach an elevated position in the male-centered forest, are often apt to play by the patriarchal rules and become accomplices in the game.

Some debated as to whether it is legitimate for museums to seek promotion on instagram or with instagram-like pictures to attract a larger audience. However, the crucial issue here should be how—to embrace new media is not the issue at stake, the problem is what is conveyed through the media. In the Yomiuri pictures, the museum and the artworks are reduced to a backdrop, replaceable by any other nice-looking setting. How can art be promoted when it only occupies the edge of the frame? There are many ways to bring art out of the intimidating shrine and closer to the public, without trampling on the possibility of knowledge, inspiration, aura, transcendence. Unless the museums became so desperate during the covid-19 period that people are now welcomed to come to take great pictures of themselves without glancing much at what’s being exhibited, as long as they can cover the entrance fee.



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