roguture, part 1: the wa

read time: appx. 12 minutes.

roguture is a japanese neologism that expresses ‘rogue individuals connected through trade’. through roguture, brothers davy and noah milliard run a humble english school and coffee roaster assemblage in west tokyo. their story is an expression of new life thriving within an ancient and binary system– the wa

this 3-part series touches upon the influence of the wa on japanese society and culture, and the complex consequences that follow from this– new classifications of death, deeply embedded racism, and fetishizations of group identity.

artwork by  daniel kim .

artwork by daniel kim.


[neil degrasse tyson voiceover] picture a galaxy full of celestial bodies– planets, moons and stars– in perfect orbital harmony with one another, revolving around one fixed point in the center of this galaxy. the unity in diversity is beautiful. but look closer towards this center. what do you see? nothing. 

at the center of every galaxy is a super massive black hole. it is a gravitational force so strong it brings the most chaotic of spacial bodies into orbital order. everything within a galaxy revolves around a black hole– something unseen, but powerfully felt. [end voiceover]

likewise, at the center of every society lies an organizing principle, or code by which it functions. in japan, there’s a single word with this gravitational power of a black hole. it orders all of society and brings everything within it into perfect harmony and orbit.

if you break the wa then you’re probably worse than a foreigner, you become something other than japanese.

davy explains it to me. 

“there’s a japanese word called ‘wa’. no one wants to disrupt this wa regardless of if it’s in the family, in a community, at work, or anywhere else in japan. it means harmony, not status quo…wa technically is good thing, it has a positive connotation, but the way that it works is so bad.

this concept of wa is inherent to japanese people because they’re raised in this culture. and they can’t function without it. it’s so against their nature to break that wa. if you go into a company you can’t break the wa. if you break the wa then you’re probably worse than a foreigner, you become something other than japanese.” 

davy shares with me stories about how the wa has played out in the lives of his friends. one friend, hisa, had suggested to his boss that they use a different internet browser at work in order to be more efficient. his suggestion was sternly rejected: “you’re disrupting the wa, we’re fine using the current browser.” another friend was punched in the face by his boss for a similar offense against the wa. in japan, “the nail that sticks out gets hammered.”

davy continues: “and part of that is great, that’s why japan is peaceful right? because people have this wa concept. but when you take it overboard you get to the point where you don’t want to offend anyone so you do everything the way that everybody else wants you to do. thats a big reason why i don’t want to send my kids to japanese school beyond the elementary level because i’m afraid they’ll  become japanese, that their minds will work in a certain way where they think ‘i have to go with the flow, i have to be part of this wa.’”

this disjunction between wa as an idea and wa in praxis– between its intended meaning and actual consequence– results in a mixed bag of affects. people feel simultaneously free and repressed. or, is it the pursuit of self-repression for the sake of being free? acquiescence to established paradigms of power in return for membership into a group? whatever the case may be, what it means to be 'free' varies from culture to culture. but the variation is always relative to a wa concept– it revolves around identity.

americans actually operate on a very group level. they need to be part of a group.

“in japan the idea about american culture is that it’s individualist. in japan it’s very group oriented. i have this theory that perhaps it’s the other way around. maybe americans want to show themselves as individuals but in a very group oriented way… it’s similar to the pull that mixed kids feel to have to identify with one group. i feel like americans actually operate on a very group level. they need to be part of a group.”

davy touches upon an interesting point here. americans in the u.s. are perceived as individualistic– look no further than social media or vanity plates and you get that impression. but as davy alludes to, individualism in the u.s. is enacted relative to group identification; hence the influence of identity politics in all aspects of american life (to varying degrees, of course). nowadays individualism constantly shifts relative to trending categories– POC, millennial, genderqueer, blockchain bros, and whathaveyou. let's call these 'boutique' identities. but as boutiques, their fates still tend to be at the mercy of corporate and institutional identities, the ones 'too big to fail': black and white, right and left, man and woman, self and other. between these binary poles is where you'll find most americans. in the u.s., you’d be more hard-pressed to come across an actual ‘individual’ than you’d think. 

feelings of displacement, alienation, loneliness– any number of negative affects can push a person to sublimate into a larger group for the comfort and security of belonging. there's nothing wrong with this, it's just physics– the larger a body's mass the stronger its gravitational pull, which has the effect of deforming the space-time around it. yeah, that's why they're called the masses. spend enough time around any group of people sharing the same identities and values, and you'll start feeling this pull. strength in numbers? sure, but at the cost of what? perhaps it's better to be a lone wolf

artwork by  daniel kim .

artwork by daniel kim.

because the force of gravity is so unfathomably strong surrounding a black hole, the space-time around it warps, resulting in distortions. in japan the wa has the affect of causing people to conflate individualism with conformity.

being an individual, is only shown by being part of the group. if you’re not part of a group you’re not an individual. if you don’t fit in you’re not an individual.

“even in japan this instinct [to stand out] is being smushed and killed. so, people are very individualistic and they express that by being part of the group. their way of being themselves, being an individual, is only shown by being part of the group. if you’re not part of a group you’re not an individual. if you don’t fit in you’re not an individual.” 

when put like that, it sounds orwellian. but it’s actually more huxley than orwell. not fear that enforces conformity, but pleasure. it borders on sadomasochism– pleasure elicited from self-abjection. the pressure to conform is so suffocating, yet gratifying, that it overwhelms the capacity for senses to function, rendering perception myopic. so, distortions ensue: appearance becomes conflated with truth, capital (economic, social, or otherwise) with progress, group-identity with individualism. 

american and japanese cultures are becoming increasingly intertwined affectations of one another. their mutual fetishization is perhaps most pronounced at the level of street culture where collaborations typically occur along the lines of binary repetitions. hipsters and millennials in their nostalgia for the neo-vintage, draw upon their personal history, and combining this with decontextualized cultural artifacts, express their identity as pure aesthetics. that the mystique of something like japanese craftsmanship appeals to the hipster pathos is no surprise– that there’s beneficial business relations to be forged, for the sake of amplifying one’s own brand, is even less of one. but the appropriation is mutual. 

for example, that the life of something like champion (the apparel brand) can be prolonged is detrimental to new enterprises trying to surface. not all things tried and true need to endure, not all artifacts need to be revived. point being, the marketplace of both products and ideas continues to expand, getting fat off of variations of recycled themes– hollywood anyone? (ghost in the shell, isle of dogs, to name a few clear fetishizations of japanese culture) all this is banal. it’s not that there aren’t new products or ideas out there, it’s that every generation simply follows in the shadows of their masters. cycles and repetitions indicate there is a wa at work, but as is typical of a black hole, while its force is powerfully felt, remains invisible to the eye. so it continues on, unimpeded.

i think that is at the core of japanese culture. in a weird sense your company is your god and you can’t mess with your company. you have to do everything they tell you.

another example from a different sphere of society: academia is notorious for having low turnover rates of professors. professors can enjoy tenure well into their twilight years, holding hostage their positions on staff, inhibiting new blood from entering the ivory tower. and people wonder why academia is so estranged from reality– they represent the stubbornness and refusal of the old guard to make way for the new. but more sinister than this, the old guard represents to the next generation a model that the youth often negatively internalize and unwittingly reproduce when they’re older. 

when it comes to the wa, perhaps there is no place where it is expressed more violently than at the workplace. where a twisted ideology conflating honor with blind devotion becomes a form of discipline in harmonizing oneself with the wa. but this ‘harmony’ at the workplace often results in pain and conflict at home. this is anything but balance.

davy explains: “noah and i have an underlying belief that there’s a big problem with the japanese family structure…the biggest problem is that the father spends way too much time at work and there’s no priority for that dad to love or spend time with his family…i think that is at the core of japanese culture. in a weird sense your company is your god and you can’t mess with your company. you have to do everything they tell you. growing up i saw that. saw my friends without any connection to their fathers, a family structure that was so poor. i’m not saying every japanese household is like that but too many are. especially in the city.”

it’s a devastating cycle of violence. absent fathers not around for their families. wives unconditionally supporting their husbands. sons becoming their fathers. and on it goes so long as the wa remains undisrupted.

just as sons become their fathers, what is supposed to represent the next generation, and the hope for change, is only a mere repetition of what’s come before. whether it’s the perpetual revival of old brands, or the reinvention of nazism via white nationalism, or the new-aristocracy in the guise of kinfolk bourgeoise lifestyles, the examples of binary resurgences are really endless and ubiquitous. again, some things that are old and established just refuse to retire (how many times have politicians promised ‘change’?). by trumpeting themselves as bringers of change, the establishment enjoys a prolonged lifespan at the expense of new blood.

i don’t want to send my kids to japanese school beyond the elementary level because i’m afraid they’ll  become japanese, that their minds will work in a certain way where they think ‘i have to go with the flow, i have to be part of this wa.’

[star wars tangent, since the millards are huge fans] was this not one of the main themes in the last jedi? everything, no matter how 'good' at the onset, can turn sour and overstay its welcome to the detriment of newcomers. luke was right. the jedi, as an order and establishment, had to end. and it's not only luke who comes to this realization, kylo does too– "it's time to let old things die"– albeit from a different place. the back and forth cat-and-mouse game between the light side and dark side was fixed in a cycle of endless violence, with the rest of the universe caught in its wake– not dissimilar to the binary grayscale between white and black in north america. which is why the suggestion that kylo and rey could 'combine forces' is simultaneously compelling and profane– depending on where you stand– the ultimate 'what if'. we all felt it. that scene, in that moment, when kylo extends his hand towards rey. the crazy rush of mixed feelings expressing an undeniable potential energy– could this blossom into something genuinely new? it's no coincidence then that in the same film where we see the destruction of the first jedi temple and it's most ancient texts, we also see the awakening of the force in a child right before the end credits roll. [end tangent]

as teddy perkins (from atlanta season 2 episode 6) intimated, many things never quite grow out of their adolescence. this is because just as something new is about to come into bloom and fully realize itself, it becomes sublimated with what has come before it, enveloped in the shadow of established paradigms of power– in heideggerean-speak, this is called facticity. to which darius replies, “every now and then people just want to have a good time.” except it’s not really just ‘every now and then’; the goodfeels vibe has gravitated into wa-territory. and the pull is strong. as alluded to earlier, the overwhelming desire for pleasure in the form escapism– through work, or otherwise– devolves into borderline sadomasochism. it's as if the next generation came into its own, took a look at the desolate landscape before them, and decided the weight of navigating through all the complexity was just too much. so god forbid you disrupt or question the sustainability of the 'free-wheeling popped-cork escapism' vibe that typifies both american and japanese street/work cultures today. some people just want to ride it out, 'cause it's not so bad being a company man. gravity has that affect. many things never quite grow out of their adolescence. they stay in fixed orbit around a black hole.

if you're foolhardy enough to disrupt the wa, “you’re even worse than a foreigner/gaijin you become something completely other” says davy. being relegated to extreme outsider status might crush weaker spirits; some people never overcome their cognitive dissonance– in this case, the unwavering fealty to group-identity at the cost of exploring one's own potential. but not so with the davy and noah. they're examples of an awakening of the 'force', expressing something completely other than what we know as binary. to say that they're 'force sensitive' is to say they're affective– deeply connected to the energy of life around them, empowered by it, and empowering others.

artwork by  daniel kim .

artwork by daniel kim.

despite the challenges and obstacles of the wa, davy and noah seem surprisingly light, as if unaffected by the weight of gravity all these years. they almost seem jedi-like in their movements, transforming the negative energy around them into something positive. thus, roguture came to be. how? stay tuned for part 3! next up in part 2 we'll talk more about one of the worst consequences stemming from the japanese adherence to the wa– racism, and davy's perspective of growing up mixed in a deeply homogenous society.