Tokyo is the land of bubbles
Where folk can trade coins for baubles
They drop in some Yen
And out comes a friend.
And Earth increases its troubles.
Some time back I read an article on how in Japan, people are going wild for little toys that come out of vending machines (or in Japanese “gachapon” for the onomatopoeic sounds the toy capsules make as they fall from the machine to the slot). The article explored the exciting toys being manufactured for these gachapon: “ultrareaslistic split-unit air-conditioners…complete with air ducts and spinning fans,” for example, and even working mini-shaved-ice-makers, and how people are collecting these. In 2019, gachapon vendors sold $360 million worth of these little toys at 600,000 vending machines across the country.
According to the article, young women, especially, are collecting these little trinkets, and have stoked the fad via social media. But researching further, buying gachapon seems to be a long-standing consumer trend that started in the 1970s. In fact, the biggest maker of gachapon has been manufacturing them since 1977 and has sold over 3.7 billion of them! There are gachapon that appeal to kids, adolescents, adults; there are even ‘risque’ ones that are only for adults (though I imagine are more often purchased by teenage boys).
Really, this would be an eye-rolling, shoulder-shrugging, who cares kind of story, if there wasn’t a civilization-destroying ecological crisis in full swing. It’s surreal that the worse things get, the more people lose themselves in buying things that even industry insiders call “worthless.” Surreal but not surprising. Perhaps this is just yet another example of escapism. Like playing video games: perhaps we can’t save the world, but at least we can save the princess from monsters. Perhaps I can’t save Katoku, a pristine beach and world heritage site, from being destroyed but at least I can collect all five versions of Oshiri Tantei, the butt detective!
Or maybe, as with video games, it’s just a simple dopamine rush—getting a good gachapon is like finding a +5 armor of mithril coated with magical cheese puff dust, or whatever. In fact, that’s surely at least part of it. Even watching a video of a tour of a gachapon store sparked some mirror neuron-driven dopamine surges in me (like a giant unboxing video), as the narrators selected their gachapon from the thousands on offer and opened their treasures.
But there’s also a deep irony—that from the same country that made decluttering a fad (thanks Marie Kondo) comes the fad of hoarding silly toys and trinkets. From a country that has been a leader in increasing energy efficiency measures comes entire stores of vending machines (the current record is 3,000). But it’s an irony that is more crippling than amusing—as I struggle to see a way out of our global consumer culture.
It doesn’t help that consumers can so easily delude themselves* that they’re not part of the problem. A few weeks back, The Guardian published an article about a survey of consumers from ten countries. The results were disturbing. While 62% of people saw the climate crisis as our main environmental challenge, only 36% rated themselves as highly committed to preserving the planet, and 46% “felt there was no real need for them to change their personal habits.” Perhaps worse: 74% were “proud of what [they are] currently doing for the planet,” 39% didn’t think individual efforts can really have an impact, and 33% said they didn’t “have the headspace to think about it.” And keep in mind, these weren’t Syrians or Afghans surveyed—then I could understand the lack of headspace—but consumers in countries like the US, UK, France, and Germany.
I acknowledge that surveys have lots of flaws, but let’s just look at the most absurd number: that 74% of people are proud of themselves. That is most disturbing. Some of you might think I’m being hard on myself, but I am not proud of how I live; there are a hundred ways I could push harder: on diet, on staying put, on keeping my house colder, on devoting more free time to activism, on treating this like the true crisis it is and camp in front of city hall until I end up in jail.
But the desires for comfort, for preserving my freedom and access to nature and healthy food (none of which are available in prison), and the desire to keep my marriage intact, all keep me being a ‘good consumer.’ Not a great one, but one that still consumes lots of products and fossil fuels each year. So, proud is a word I’d steer clear of—but the finding is even more disturbing considering it was a whopping 74%, even as 46% don’t think they personally need to change their habits! It’s all very confusing.
But the one clear finding is that even though consumers will have to radically curtail their lifestyles (as this report mapping out 1.5 degree lifestyles details), instead we’ll keep trading our dollars, yen, and euros for baubles until we no longer can. Are there any ways to stop this?
Aikido Moves and Countermoves
Perhaps, aikido style,** we could use the momentum of consumerism against it? Let’s return to the gachapon example: what if we could fill the gachapon machines with compelling elements of nature—bits that draw people out into the wild and away from their baubles? A beautiful stone, a bit of dried wood, a shard of seaglass—items of beauty that Japanese collectors would faun over. And a note, or a location, or a trail map, and an invitation to forest bathe (which after all also started as a Japanese fad).
If I were Banksy, or a hip street artist living in Tokyo, I’d get myself a job in a gachapon store, collect a hundred used gachapon bubbles and slip a nature gachapon in each, and sneak these into a hundred machines and see what happens (or better yet, get a job at a gachapon factory and slip in a thousand that’d spread around the country). Perhaps, perhaps, it would shake people out of their consumer stupor and get them out into nature and fighting for Gaia.
Of course, as with aikido against a skilled opponent, if you pull, they move with it and counter your counter. The reality is this guerilla gachapon action would be ignored, or worse. People would love these nature baubles so much that this would become a new trend and people would be buying more in order to find a rare nature gachapon. Or even worse, the beaches and forests would be littered with people combing the sands and forest floor, ripping up mosses and disturbing wildlife looking for kawaii stones and seaglass.
And I wish I could say I’m being melodramatic, but that happened at least once before, with the invention of the “Pet Rock.” In 1975, one million rocks from Rosarito Beach in Mexico became “pets,” coming in cardboard boxes complete with instruction manuals and beds of straw. It was cute and funny and made the inventor a millionaire. But it didn’t get people questioning the whole pet industry or the fact that they just bought a rock in a box for four bucks ($20 today). Sure, the manual didn’t encourage people to go outside, so that’s a difference, but I think, as with Banksy’s pieces, the majority of reactions to nature gachapon would be to acquire them, not to reflect on their instructions.***
Perhaps the obsession with collecting is unbreakable for now. We’re like bowerbirds—we need to surround ourselves with shiny trinkets—even if it turns out those trinkets are now toxic not natural. Of course, it can’t go on forever. But it seems like we might try for as long as we can.
*Ourselves, actually, as I’m a consumer too, no matter how much I pretend/hope otherwise.
**Aikido is a martial arts known for using the momentum of the attacker against himself.
***There was one effort similar to this: seed bombs, where you could buy some seeds you could throw into an abandoned property to help green a city. Of course, there was no variety in the bombs, no special feeling when it came out, no collecting it—so it’s not surprising it didn’t become a lasting fad.