By BRETT FUJIOKA
I found out recently that a friend invested in Nonfungible Tokens (NFTs). Readers of The Rafu may have heard about the recent consumer frenzy among so-called digital art.
There’s a great deal of confusion among laypeople over what NFTs are and their potentially novel uses. In short, it’s a unit of data that uses blockchain technologies associated with digital files such as photographs, music, and videos. I may have lost some readers with the previous sentence and this is why there’s insufficient space in the column to describe what cryptocurrencies and blockchain technologies are.
I’ll return to that later. In the meantime, I’ll talk about how my cousin represents the consumer profile for NFTs and how that relates to Little Tokyo’s community. Many Little Tokyoites are NFT consumers and even producers. And several of the readers pass by them day to day, whether they realize it or not.
Before we get in to that, I’ll need to discuss my friend. Let’s call him “Eddie.” Eddie is what Millennials and some Zoomers call “hypebeasts.” A hypebeast was a previously pejorative word used to denigrate consumers who pay exorbitant amounts of money on exclusive street and urban wear like Bathing Ape; limited-edition Nike and Adidas shoes; and other bits of apparel that span from hundreds or even thousands of dollars for a single article of clothing. The people that Little Tokyoites may have seen line up at sneaker stores similar to RIF LA to buy limited-edition sneakers.
In the past, hypebeast took on an almost exclusively negative air because they would mindlessly buy expensive products with little judgment or scrutiny towards their actual value. As the aughts faded into the 2010s and now the 2020s, the stigma from the pejorative faded. Even so, it’s important to discuss where hypebeast culture originated to fully comprehend why websites such as Hypebeast.com have taken a special interest in NFTs.
It’s difficult to discuss the origin of the term without discussing the urban districts of Shibuya and Harajuku in Tokyo. Both adjacent wards are practically the Akihabara for the anime nerds, but for fashionistas. And hypebeasts share more in common with the anime nerds (otaku) who frequent Little Tokyo than either will admit.
Way back during the aughts, anime and Japanese fashion gained a niche interest among Millennials. Clothes from Bathing Ape and “exclusives” from Nike, Adidas, and other sportswear from Japan gained popular currency among consumers of urbanwear and hip-hop apparel.
Nigo, the founder of Bathing Ape, had an exhaustive list of celebrities to promote his brand. Rap videos featuring everyone from Kanye West to Pharell Williams with this coveted apparel line cemented it in the consumer imagination of popular culture at the time. This was a moment in which anime’s aesthetic was just as intertwined with niche hip hop like K-pop is nowadays. Takashi Murakami, the artist who recurrently paid homage to otaku culture, designed the cover for Kanye West’s 2017 album, “Graduation.” Pharell and several others used to recurrently collaborate with musicians overseas in Japan.
Obviously, consumers of urban fashion are significantly more hygienic than the caricatures of anime fans. Even the latter have become so integrated into contemporary popular culture that even the most seemingly high-normal and high-functioning audiences casually watch the “Demon Slayer” anime.
Much has changed since then and I’ll get to why and how that relates to cryptocurrencies, NFTs, and the blockchain in a little bit. The important thing to remember about hypebeasts is that they’re fixated on authenticity. They don’t necessarily care about authenticity the way punk rockers or other hip hop heads do. In other words, it’s less about whether a person is a poser or not and more about whether their apparel is “real” or non-counterfeit.
Because high-end hypebeast apparel is highly coveted and manufactured in limited quantities, counterfeits pervade throughout the market. They’re so coveted that back in the day, the only way of obtaining certain releases was through third-party sources. As a result, consumers and sellers of these apparel lines are practically as eagle-eyed as art appraisers to detect counterfeits.
Eddie made and continues to earn money through similar ventures. As a Millennial, he never quite matured or grew up and it’s a small surprise to me that he grew interested in NFTs.
NFTs are related to blockchain technology. The latter is related to the Bitcoin cryptocurrency. The latter emerged close to the Great Recessions of the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-2008. Faith in the financial market faded. It’s a little bit too coincidental that the white paper for Bitcoin was published in 2008 by Satoshi Nakamoto as faith in the market started to erode and trust in institutions entered a great collapse.
Japan confronted something similar. The philosopher Hiroki Azuma appropriated the phrase “the collapse of the Grand Narrative” from the French Postmodern philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard to explain how otaku culture emerged. He argued in his book, “Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals,” that a grand narrative collapsed for Japan after its asset price bubble burst in 1991 and the country entered a long recession that arguably never ended.
The catastrophes from the Tokyo sarin gas attacks and Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995 further clouded the country’s national spirit. A grand narrative, in this instance, is a system of ideology like institutions. Faith in the narrative of perpetual progress for the country collapsed.
It was here that the otaku consumer culture emerged. As the cliche goes, the otaku had a difficult time coping with the struggles of reality and often turned to commercial fiction for succor. The otaku ideology is complicated for such a deceptively lowbrow subculture. So much so that there’s an exhaustive amount of academic literature dedicated to studying their consumer culture in Japan and around the world.
Nevertheless, it’s uncontroversial to say that they’re particularly fixated on the authenticity of visual art. At approximately this time, the hypebeast consumer culture started to germinate even further in Shibuya and Harajuku before it gained mainstream and then international attention during the aughts.
This brings us back to NFTs. Obviously, we live in an era of not only mechanical but digital reproduction. NFTs are supposed to secure a so-called certificate of authenticity that these digital objects are “originals.” In the age of the Internet, there really isn’t much of a way of preventing digital objects from being illegally reproduced beyond several copyright laws. And as we’ve seen with peer-to-peer servers like Napster, even that’s difficult to police.
Nevertheless, even certain audiophiles care deeply about the quality of their music, which is why they prefer purchasing hard copies like CDs and vinyl records. Even cinephiles avoid streaming and pirating movies to enjoy the original experience at theaters.
Alas, digital images can still be reproduced with a right-click. NFTs are allegedly supposed to protect artists’ rights and ensure that they make money on selling digital art. There’s also the matter of whether or not the digital object itself is an original or not.
This is, in my fervent opinion, where issues related to the otaku and hypebeasts neatly overlap and why the latter is so interested in the venture. The former are more cynical and radically skeptical. The closest analogue in the U.S. to the otaku are gamers. And they’ve almost unanimously rejected any attempts from developers to integrate NFTs into video games.
I bring up hypebeasts and Eddie as a frame of reference because the former isn’t an insignificant part of the consumer market. They’re partially one of the reasons why Nike’s brand has persistently grown. Enthusiasts of NFTs too insist that they’re integral to the future of the burgeoning project for the next phase of the Internet with Web 3.0. They haven’t convincingly explained how.
Similarly, the nascent architects of Web 3.0 haven’t offered a clear and definitive vision yet. That said, if Web 3.0 is the future and NFTs are a key feature, then we need to take both seriously. I would never in my years insist that anyone invest in cryptocurrencies or NFTs because only first movers actually generate massive profits and that ship has long sailed, which is why I suspect Eddie dabbled in the latter but didn’t fully invest himself.
Eddie was always more literate when it came to the Internet than I was and figured out small ways of gaming profit from it. So as much as I had a good chuckle that he spent hundreds of dollars on a JPEG, I’m not writing off that he may someday have the last laugh.
Brett Fujioka can be reached at email@example.com. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.