I photographed this poster in a Japanese shopping centre. It’s designed to make people aware of the dangers of electricity during August, a month whose extreme heat and humidity mean that electricity is much in demand in the household (a lot of aircon and fans in operation), and hands are often sweaty or wet with condensation.
August is also, of course, a month in which the Japanese archipelago flashes and booms with thunderstorms. The Japanese god of thunder — seen on the poster — is Raijin
, a Shinto figure. The image on the poster is taken from an early 17th century image by the Kyoto artist Tawaraya Sotatsu
Ancient mythology coexisting with modern technology — it’s one of the true cliches of modern Japan (and especially appropriate for a god of electricity). The poster is also a reminder of the seasonal awareness that Shinto injects into Japanese thinking: this god comes out in August.
It’s pretty unlikely that a Western nation would publish electricity awareness posters featuring, say, Thor. This is because Christianity intolerantly demonised the folk religions it found wherever it spread, either discarding the old gods or making them into devils and idols. Shinto, a non-evangelical folk religion, was able to harmonise much more tolerantly with Buddhism, allowing figures like Raijin to exist in both cosmologies.
Raijin carries a hula-hoop-like ring of drums on his back to create the sound of thunder. These drums are decorated with the tomoe symbol, which is related to the yin-yang symbol and sums up the interdependence of opposing forces — another difference from Christian culture, which tends to prioritise one side of every binary and consign or cast out the other (“evil”) side.
As in the films of Hayao Miyazaki, Raijin is morally ambiguous: sometimes a protector, sometimes an attacker, but to be respected for his great power and mastery. A robot Raijin can be seen dancing in the video for Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s Ninja Re Bang Bang
The song has racked up an impressive 34 million views since its release last year, and it’s exactly the sort of thing you’d expect to hear playing in the kind of shopping centre where I photographed the Raijin poster. I think of Kyary Pamyu Pamyu as this decade’s answer to Kahimi Karie (there’s even a slight similarity in their names), but whereas Karie was part of a 1990s interest in cultural convergence and globalisation — that’s one reason I, as a Westerner, was involved in writing her material — Kyary is much more Asian, and much more Japanese, in her references.
She disproves, in other words, the idea that over time cultural differences erode and everywhere gets more like everywhere else. Japan, two decades on from Kahimi Karie’s big successes, is significantly more
in touch with its local oddities, its own particular cosmologies and flavours, its cultural electricity. Difference doesn’t just shrink, it also grows.