Monday, September 17, 2007

Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto

"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts." -- Mark Twain

Mrs. Overclock (a.k.a. Dr. Overclock, Medicine Woman) and I just returned from nearly three weeks in Japan. Five days of it were spent attending Nippon 2007, the 65th World Science Fiction Convention, in Yokohama. Nine days were spent with a group of over two dozen fans from the convention, travelling around Japan seeing the sights, having a grand time, and just generally making a nuisance of ourselves being henna gaijin. The remaining time Mrs. Overclock and I spent making a careful survey of the extensive and wonderful Tokyo subway systems, gawking like the small town rubes we really are.

First, the convention. The location of the World Science Fiction Convention is chosen by voting members of the WorldCon two years in advance from among the bidding locations. The WorldCon is completely fan-run. The most senior committee members may receive some compensation since for them it is very much a full time job, but for every one else it is a labor of love. For a convention that pulls anywhere from 2000 to 8000 attendees, the fact that it is a volunteer effort alone makes it a remarkable undertaking.

Nippon 2007 had about 2200 attendees, of which about 800 were from outside of Japan. While many WorldCons are held outside of the U.S., this was the first to be held in Japan, and hence the first to be run by Japanese fans. If my own experience is any indication, it was a complete success. The Japanese fans deserve a big domo arigato goziamas from this henna gaijin. Well done.

For many of us from the west, being in Japan is the closest we are likely to come to making first contact on another planet. For science fiction fans, this is a very resonant thing indeed. There were times I felt like I was living in The Mote in God's Eye by Niven and Pournelle, along with all that implies. (I might add that Mote is the only novel of any kind that I reread every decade or so.)

It is as difficult to quantify or qualify science fiction fandom as it is to precisely define science fiction. One of our tour group remarked that it is less than a family, but more than an organization. Mrs. Overclock characterizes it as a tribe, as in "Nothing good can come from dating outside your tribe." I like this a lot. Merriam-Webster says a tribe is "a social group comprising numerous families, clans, or generations together with slaves, dependents, or adopted strangers" or "a group of persons having a common character, occupation, or interest". Either of these serves as a workable definition of science fiction fandom.

I always know that I'll share some common interest with any fan. Perhaps I'm not into filk, maybe you aren't into anime, but we can both agree the latest William Gibson novel is just frackin' great. That's why travelling with fen (the plural of fan) almost always works well: you know the dinner conversation is going to be interesting, and almost all fen have a nearly insatiable thirst for the new and different, usually for the downright weird. They also seem to almost all have a wicked good sense of humor.

On our way to distant WorldCons, Mrs. Overclock and I play spot-the-fan in airports. It is cheating if they pull out the latest Gregory Benford novel. It is interesting to note that Mrs. Overclock and I had no problems identifying Japanese members of our tribe, regardless of the fact that we shared no spoken or written language with them. Apparently the fan gene transcends ethnic boundaries. Truly, this warms even my neutronium heart.

If science fiction is the religion of fandom, then it is a religion which has a huge and varied pantheon of gods. This is not unlike Shintoism, or for that matter Greek and Hindu mythology. And like those other pantheons, our gods walk among us. I had casual conversations at this particular convention with Gregory Benford, Larry Niven, and Joe Haldeman, and once I observed Mrs. Overclock chatting with Charles Stross. (For that matter, at least two members of our tour group were published authors, and Mrs. Overclock herself appears in a DVD and on two music CDs of science fictional sensability that you can purchase on

Lest you think it's all about elves, Star Wars, and Spock ears, one of the panels I attended was a slide slow and Q&A session by a forensic anthropologist who worked on a U.N. war crimes investigation team in Kosovo, Serbia. Holy crap, that was an eye opener; how far the Austro-Hungarian empire has crumbled. Other panels I attended included topics like The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis (with Geoffrey Landis) -- no, that has nothing to do with Klingons, it's from the field of linguistics, the growth in public surveillance (with David Brin), the current thinking in life extension (with Greg Benford and Joe Haldeman), the Singularity (with Benford and Charles Stross), and legal aspects of current directions in intellectual property law (with Cory Doctrow). Only at a science fiction convention, folks. Maybe they should call it an "awesome mind blowing stuff convention".

"The future is already here. It's just not evenly distributed." -- William Gibson

This quote came to me while I found myself travelling with a group of more than two dozen fen at nearly 200 miles an hour across Japan in a superexpress or "bullet" train. It may be that every age thinks of itself as an age of miracles, but this is the age of miracles in which I live: that I can be sitting in first class comfort reading a book while traveling at the speed of Formula 1 race car. I can do so in the company of a group from five different nations (U.S.A., Canada, Great Britain, Australia, and Sweden) yet all in the same tribe. And I can order an iced coffee from the lady with the food cart. Sometimes you just gotta step back and live in the moment.

Fandom is populated by an inordinate number of technologists, and perhaps rightly so, since it is they that must work in the future professionally. But our little group of tourists included two physicians, two lawyers, a nurse, a librarian, a retired school teacher, an airline pilot, someone running for public office, and a megalomaniacal supervillain. It was about evenly distributed in gender (provided we agree that there are two genders), and probably statistically typical for sexual orientation and physical abilities. We were probably not typical for number of college degrees per capita.

What the demographics won't tell you is that it was a damned interesting group of people with which to travel. It was with this group that we made our whirlwind tour of Tokyo, Mount Fuji, Hakone, Hiroshima, Miyajima, Kyoto, and Osaka, all the while dealing with the effects of Typhoon #9, a.ka. "Fitow", as it hit the coast of Japan. It was sobering to stand near ground zero in Hiroshima and realize that with the exception of a single structure preserved for posterity, everything around us dated from one fateful millisecond in 1945. While we did not see every single Shinto shrine and Buddhist temple in Japan (seems like there is one just around every corner), I'd like to think we hit all the big names. Despite the fact that I purified myself at every one, I still managed to uphold my tradition when travelling abroad and bring home a new strain of viral crud. When the epidemic hits North America, you can blame me.

Our tour would not have been nearly so successful (in fact, it could have been total disaster -- getting fen to break their target lock with shiny pretty things is like herding cats) without the hard work of a lot of folks, and they also deserve a big domo: fearless leader and fan wrangler Ken Smookler, North American travel agent Alice Colody, our extraordinarily patient Japanese guides Kaori-san, Nobuyo-san, Yasuko-san, Yuki-san, and the many other expediters and drivers whose names I didn't catch. You brought 'em back alive!

"I don't think we're in Kansas anymore, Toto." -- Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz

Mrs. Overclock and I completed our trip with a few days spent exploring Tokyo. We stayed at The B Akasaka, a small boutique hotel that I would recommend. It is five minutes walk from the Akasaka subway station on the Chiyoda line that is right next to (there is a God) a Starbucks. Every morning we could be found there with our lattes and curry pies, pouring over maps planning that day's campaign, while avoiding the commuter rush hour.

Tokyo is unbelievably huge, to us anyway (maybe less so if you live in New York City or London). It is divided up into twenty-three wards, any one of which is the size of downtown Denver Colorado. Tokyo and Yokohama are the first and second largest cities in Japan, and the Tokyo-Yokohama corridor is the most densely populated region on the planet. We took an hour-long bus ride from Yokohama to Tokyo and never once left the urban cityscape. I've read that it was this corridor that was the inspiration for William Gibson's U.S. eastern seaboard "Sprawl" in his novel Neuromancer.

But we mastered the London tube, so we were equally determined to tackle the Tokyo subway system. We managed to navigate our way not only across different subway lines, but even across different competing subway systems, the Tokyo Metro and the Toei. We found our objectives in Akihabara ("Electric City"), Asakusa, Shibuya, and Shinjuku. We had a good time. We drank a lot of beer, hydration under such circumstances being crucial to clear thinking. That, and we never had to drive.

Several times while in Japan, and never more so than while using the subway, it occurred to us that there are just so many successful design patterns for doing anything. And so it turns out that the Tokyo subway works much like the London, Chicago, and Washington D.C. subways. This also applies to getting a cab, ordering a meal, and paying for a scale model Tachikoma in a Akahabara robot store.

We did encounter some new patterns.

The shinkansen or "superexpress" trains (only called "bullet trains" in the West) have almost no luggage space. It's a good thing too, since a superexpress stops for only about one minute at each station (this is not an exaggeration). You have to be at the door with your luggage in hand ready to get off or on. The Japanese solve this problem by shipping luggage seperately via motor freight. We used this successfully twice during our trip, packing for a few days in backbacks until we could rendezvous with our luggage. We also did laundry twice during the trip, having taken only a week's worth of clothes. Partly this was due to the desire to travel light, but also due to weight restrictions on domestic flights.

We successfully deciphered the bizarre Japanese system of street addresses that confounds even its cab drivers to find Mrs. Overclock's Japanese bead factory outlet. We are both pretty amazed that this worked. The Japanese system does not make use of street names. In fact, with the exception of very major thoroughfares, streets are not named. Although some Japanese cities are based on grid system adopted from the Chinese, Tokyo, especially the older parts, is a maze of twisty passages which all look alike. Apparently this was a deliberate attempt by paranoid shogun to make invasion difficult.

We ate at a typical Japanese lunch counter, where you begin by inserting coins into a vending machine. As you insert coins, possible meal selections are illuminated on the menu on the front. When you finally make a selection, you get a ticket. You give the ticket to the person behind the counter, and after a few minutes of hash slinging your meal appears. The staff never handles money. Mrs. Overclock and I discovered that the chicken katsu don was just like what we eat at our favorite Japanese restaurant near our home.

The Japanese have a very civilized approach to religion: you can have none, or you can have several simultaneously, and only practice when it suits you. I found this practical approach so compelling that I found myself praying at every Shinto shrine and Buddhist temple we visited, when I haven't been to a Western church in years except for weddings or funerals.

My month spent in the People's Republic of China in 1995 was a life changing experience for me, and it prepared me for three weeks spent being deaf, dumb, and illiterate in Japan. It is humbling to not be able to read signs or even ask simple questions. But I never really felt handicapped. Japan can be easily navigated, enjoyed, and savoured, without speaking Japanese.

And it should be. While the U.S. has a culture of individualism that (I would like to think) promotes innovation, Japan has a culture of group harmony that promotes efficient production. As peoples we are stronger together than we are separately, because our strengths are complementary. Both cultures have much to learn from one another.

Plus, they have lots of really cool stuff.


Cecilia said...

A very cool blog, Mr Overclock! I learned some more about Japan and appreciated your opinions (which I share) about touring with fans. Thanks for sharing!

Chip Overclock said...

Kind words! This was the third fan tour situated around a WorldCon that Mrs. Overclock and I have taken, and the second organized by Mr. Smookler. The first two were the 1995 WorldCon in Glasgow and the 1999 WorldCon in Melbourne.

The good thing about such tours is you see a lot stuff in a very short amount of time with a native guide making sure you don't do something that is stupid without at least amusing the indigineous population. The bad thing is that you never spend enough time in any one place.

But Mrs. Overclock describes even our less structured vacations as "March or Die", so it seems to be a strategy that works well for us.

Chip Overclock said...

I've been asked in email about my apparent fetish with Japanese electronic commode seats.

Remarkably, typically NONE of the buttons on such seats actually flush the toilet. The intelligence, and all the additional plumbing for the bidet and butt shower, is all in the lid module. We saw these for sale in the Akabahara district in Tokyo. Underneath it's just a standard commode, with a regular old flush handle. So if you had an electrical outlet behind your toilet, you could install one of these beauties on your commode at home. You too could have a toilet that may need an occasional reboot.

Downside: every single lid was flimsy plastic; no sitting on the closed commode and painting your toenails.

Weirdest feature: nearly every toilet, even those that didn't have an electronic lid, including those in public places, had some kind of "flushing noise" feature you could activate, apparently to cover up those embarrassing "natural sounds" (as it was phrased somewhere along the way).

Japan is slowly converting over to Western style toilets even in new homes, office buildings, and the like. But frequently public facilities only had one Western toilet in the line, all the rest being the Japanese "flushing hole in the floor" variety pictured in one of my photos. Unfortunately so many younger Japanese now prefer the Western versions that there is a lot of competition for that one Western toilet while the Japanese versions remain unused.

Funniest toilet story: Naboyu-san mentioned that when she visited the United States she was shocked that the public toilet stalls didn't have walls and doors that reached floor to ceiling like the Japanese facilities. "But Naboyu-san, Japan is a country in which there is almost no expectation of personal privacy! Why should that bother you?" "Yes, but it's different in Japan. If I peer through the cracks between the panels in the American toilet, I could tell that there was another person in the next stall." "Naboyu-san, you're not supposed to look!" It was a very strange conversation and pointed out how complicated both Japanese and Western social rituals appear to one another.

I did develop quite the fascination with Japanese toilets, obviously. That and the "humping dog" USB toy (you plug it into a USB port and the little dog humps your laptop, showing that once again the Japanese lead the way in toy technology).

Chip Overclock said...

Here's the link to the Flickr photos: .

Kevin Standlee said...

I only found this entry recently, so my apologies for the delayed-reaction comment. I enjoyed your Japan trip report very much (contrasting it with my own three-week experience in Japan, which of course also included Worldcon). I did, however, stumble across this line, which perturbed me:

"The most senior committee members may receive some compensation...."

Really? Where did you hear that? If it's so, it's a complete surprise to me, and I co-chaired the 2002 Worldcon in San Jose. Oh, I and other committee members had a few expenses reimbursed (for hotel nights before and after -- but not during -- the convention that we decided we would not have had if we hadn't been working on the con), but by no means did anyone working on the convention receive any sort of salary.

Chip Overclock said...

I've been going to WorldCons since SunCon in 1977. Clearly they're a labor of love by a large group of talented amateurs (I always think of Mrs. Peel on the AVENGERS when I say that). But I do recall that in some WorldCon or another in the dim past some of the most senior committee members received some amount of compensation, small though it may have been. I don't claim to have any knowledge of how Nippon 2007 was organized in this respect, or the Con in San Jose (which I very much enjoyed too). Thanks for your comment!

Randy (Internet Ronin) said...

A delightful essay - thanks for sharing your experiences. The Flickr photos were great, too. Particularly liked the Umeda tubes scenes. And thanks for the tip about B Akasaka - will consider it in the future.(Found this via your comment at Marginal Revolution.)

Chip Overclock said...

Thanks for the kind words! Probably needless to say, Mrs. Overclock (a.k.a. Dr. Overclock, Medicine Woman) and I are still talking about that trip. We'd go back whenever the opportunity and budget presented itself.

-j said...

I second the notion about being illiterate - I mentioned this at dinner with some of my coworkers one night, and said it really bothered me. One woman couldn't understand why it would get to me so much, and, especially living here, it adds another whole layer to doing anything. I spent too much time at a pastry counter trying to decipher whether or not it was okay for two different treats to be bagged in the same bag.

I do better with the walking directions, though, as I am originally from small-town Arizona. The lack of coherent street directions doesn't bother me so much, but I'm not driving, so that's not an issue.

I wish I was here with a big group of nerds, though. That'd be the only real drawback to my trip - flying solo for so long gets kind of weird.