THROUGH THE FIRE: Behind the NFT craze
By BRETT FUJIOKA
I recently discovered that a friend had invested in non-fungible tokens (NFTs). readers of Rafou maybe you’ve heard of the recent consumer frenzy of so-called digital art.
There is a lot of confusion among lay people about what NFTs are and their potentially new uses. In short, it is 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 that’s why there isn’t enough space in the column to describe what cryptocurrencies and blockchain technologies are.
I will come back to this later. In the meantime, I’ll talk about how my cousin represents the consumer profile for NFTs and how it relates to the Little Tokyo community. Many small Tokyoites are consumers and even producers of NFTs. And many readers walk past them day by day, whether they realize it or not.
Before I get to that, I’m going to have 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 sums for exclusive street and urban clothing like Bathing Ape; limited-edition Nike and Adidas shoes; and other garments that cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars for a single garment. People Little Tokyoites could see lining up at similar sneaker stores in RIF LA to buy limited-edition sneakers.
In the past, hypebeasts looked almost exclusively negative because they thoughtlessly bought expensive products with little judgment or scrutiny of their true value. As things faded in the 2010s and now in the 2020s, the stigma of pejorative has faded. Even so, discussing the origin of the hypebeast culture is important to fully understand why websites such as Hypebeast.com have shown particular interest in NFTs.
It is difficult to discuss the origin of the term without mentioning the urban districts of Shibuya and Harajuku in Tokyo. The two adjoining districts are practically Akihabara for anime nerds, but for fashionistas. And the hypebeasts have more in common with the anime (otaku) nerds who frequent Little Tokyo than either will admit.
Long ago, during the 2000s, anime and Japanese fashion sparked niche interest among millennials. Clothing from Bathing Ape and “exclusives” from Nike, Adidas and other sportswear from Japan have gained popularity among consumers of urban and hip-hop clothing.
Nigo, the founder of Bathing Ape, had an extensive list of celebrities to promote his brand. Rap videos featuring everyone from Kanye West to Pharell Williams with this coveted clothing line cemented it in the imaginations of popular culture consumers of the time. It was a time when the anime aesthetic was just as closely tied to niche hip hop as K-pop is today. Takashi Murakami, the artist who has regularly paid homage to otaku culture, designed the cover for Kanye West’s 2017 album, “Graduation.” Pharell and several others used to collaborate on a recurring basis with foreign musicians in Japan.
Clearly, urban fashion consumers are significantly more hygienic than anime fan cartoons. Even the latter have become so embedded in contemporary popular culture that even the seemingly most normal and successful audiences casually watch “Demon Slayer” anime.
A lot has changed since then and I’ll explain why and how it relates to cryptocurrencies, NFTs and blockchain in a moment. The important thing to remember about hypebeasts is that they are obsessed with authenticity. They don’t necessarily care about authenticity like punk rockers or other hip hop heads do. In other words, it’s less about whether someone is a poser or not than whether their garment is “real” or not counterfeit.
Because high-end hypebeast clothing is highly coveted and made in limited quantities, knockoffs are spreading throughout the market. They are so coveted that back then the only way to get some versions was through third-party sources. As a result, consumers and sellers of these clothing lines are almost as keen as art appraisers to detect counterfeits.
Eddie has earned and continues to earn money from similar ventures. As a millennial, he never really matured or grew up and it’s a bit of a surprise to me that he cared about NFTs.
NFTs are related to blockchain technology. The latter is related to the Bitcoin cryptocurrency. The latter emerged close to the major recessions of the 2007-2008 global financial crisis. Confidence in the financial market has vanished. It’s a bit too much of a coincidence that the Bitcoin whitepaper was published in 2008 by Satoshi Nakamoto as trust in the market was beginning to erode and trust in institutions was collapsing.
Japan faced something similar. Philosopher Hiroki Azuma appropriated the phrase “the collapse of the Grand Narrative” from French postmodern philosopher Jean-François Lyotard to explain the emergence of otaku culture. 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. which probably never ended.
The disasters of the Tokyo sarin gas attacks and the Great Hanshin earthquake in 1995 further clouded the country’s national spirit. A grand narrative, in this case, is a system of ideology like institutions. Faith in the country’s tale of perpetual progress has crumbled.
This is where the otaku consumer culture emerged. As the cliché goes, otaku have struggled to deal with the struggles of reality and have often turned to commercial fiction for help. Otaku ideology is complicated for such a deceptive subculture. So much so that there is an exhaustive amount of academic literature devoted to the study of their consumer culture in Japan and around the world.
Nevertheless, it is not controversial to say that they are particularly committed to the authenticity of visual art. Around this time, hypebeast consumer culture began to sprout even more in Shibuya and Harajuku before gaining mainstream and then international attention during the tough years.
This brings us back to NFTs. Obviously, we live in an era of not only mechanical but digital reproduction. NFTs are supposed to guarantee a so-called certificate of authenticity stating that these digital objects are “originals”. In the age of the Internet, there really isn’t a way to prevent the illegal reproduction of digital objects beyond several copyright laws. And as we’ve seen with peer-to-peer servers like Napster, even that is hard to control.
Nevertheless, even some audiophiles care deeply about the quality of their music, which is why they prefer to buy hard copies like CDs and vinyl records. Even movie lovers avoid streaming and pirated movies to enjoy the original cinema experience.
Alas, digital images can still be reproduced with a right click. NFTs are supposed to protect the rights of artists and ensure that they make money selling digital art. There is also the question of whether or not the digital object itself is an original or not.
This is, in my fervent opinion, where the issues of otaku and hypebeasts overlap perfectly and why the latter is so interested in adventure. The former are more cynical and radically skeptical. In the United States, the closest analogue of otaku are gamers. And they almost unanimously rejected any attempt by developers to integrate NFTs into video games.
I bring up hypebeasts and Eddie as a frame of reference because the former is not an insignificant part of the consumer market. They’re part of the reason the Nike brand has grown steadily. NFT enthusiasts also insist that they are an integral part of the future of the burgeoning project for the next phase of the Internet with Web 3.0. They did not convincingly explain how.
Likewise, the nascent architects of Web 3.0 have yet to come up with a clear and definitive vision. That said, if Web 3.0 is the future and NFTs are a key feature, we need to take both seriously. In my years I would never insist on anyone investing in cryptocurrencies or NFTs because only the first comers generate huge profits and that ship has sailed a long time which is why I suspect Eddie s Tried the latter but didn’t fully commit.
Eddie was always more internet savvy than I was and found little ways to profit from it. So while I laughed that he spent hundreds of dollars on a JPEG, I don’t forget that he might one day have the last laugh.
Brett Fujioka can be contacted at [email protected] The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.