The title of my lecture is a parody of the famous book by Erwin Panofsky, "Perspektive als Symbolisch Form". As Panofsky analyzed European culture and perception through examining the history of perspective, I will try to analyze Japanese culture and perception being reflected in our digital culture by analyzing our history of non-perspective. Non-perspective, literally, in Japanese traditional visual culture, is a symbolic form of our traditional way of seeing the world. Emerging Popularities of 3D Virtual Beauties Let me show you, to begin with, a 3D digital illustration of a woman drawn by a young Japanese illustrator named Sonehachi. A girl with a huge breast but with an almost child-like face, with unusually big eyes and a small mouth, and she is wears a minimum dress. A typical girl figure in Japanese 2D comics and animation titles brought into 3D, with amazingly realistic details but without overall reality. On her dress it says 'original' - the illustrator explained what he meant was that this is the archetype of a girl Japanese men dream to have, i.e. the origin. Since the first 'virtual idol' was created in Japan in 1994 using 3D computer graphics, creating one's own 'virtual beauty' has become a passion among certain Japanese men. One can see amazing numbers of such 3D beauties on the web. Another illustrator Seisaku Kano published a book where he shows in detail how one can take off-the-shelf 3D human body modeling data and change each parameter by as precise as 0.5%, to achieve a body of a virtual woman Japanese men love to have. Until a few years ago, how to convert characters from 2D to 3D was a big problem. Now there is even a formula. But why these virtual beauties with impossibly distorted faces and unrealistically exaggerated bodies can be taken as 'real' to Japanese audience? Perspective Japanese culture, as well as Korean and Chinese, had developed a different language in perception and representation of time/space, shape/shadow, and objective/subjective view. Perspective drawing did not appear in these countries before the idea was brought from Europe. When such paintings were brought to Japan they looked so amazing that some Ukiyo-e artists started using the technique. Some of them practiced precise perspective drawings, but others made mistakes, or modified it to meet Japanese way of thinking. Like the images shown here, there are quite a few examples where there are more than two vanishing points in one picture. The idea behind is; if here is a street where perspective drawing can be effective, and then a river which is also suitable for perspective, what is wrong in applying perspective for both elements? Such style is sometimes called 'partial perspective' in art history studies.

Shading and Shadowing

The situation is similar with shading and the use of shadow. Shading and shadowing determine the spatial relationship between plural objects. Together with perspective drawing, the use of shading and shadowing define the precise form and location of objects in the three dimensional space. Also, shading and shadowing determine the color intensity of objects while perspective defines the size of the objects to be drawn. In Japanese traditional paintings, however, subjective importance defined size and intensity of objects. The oldest example of such application is the famous portrait of Shotoku Taishi (Prince Shotoku) who was the prime minister from the end of 6C to early 7C. The prince is accompanied with two other figures who look like children because of the size. Actually it is believed that they were adults with lower status, thus illustrated as much smaller than the prince. Another example is a much later one, from 17C. At a scene of dogs hunting wild animals in front of Shogun, dogs and wild boars are painted much larger than men including Shogun, because they are the most important elements of the scene. Shading was introduced to Japan in 18C but it was only by the end of 19C that the use of shading became popular with the introduction of western paintings. Until then some Ukiyo-e artists used shading, but since the effect looked so alien to Japanese eyes they started using shading to draw evil characters and foreigners almost as a visual effect. These facts show that what people take granted is not necessarily so to those who belong to a different culture. Perception is not just a biological phenomenon. It is culture that defines perception. Golden Clouds Another feature in Japanese traditional space representation is the flexible relocation or neglect of space. Famous 'golden clouds' seen on many landscape paintings signify that the area covered by the clouds are skipped or neglected, either because there was nothing special, or because the space was distorted to make a better collection of important elements. It was a part of the visual language shared by Japanese.

Time and Space

Not only the way of manipulating space is flexible in Japanese traditional culture, the relationship between time and space is also flexible. In Japanese rolls different scenes that belong to different moments are painted together. Time can be translated into spatial expression. I conclude that above mentioned ideas and techniques in Japanese space manipulation are built around the concept of subjective perception of space and time. Such tradition underlies in Japanese comics, animation and games, which is the basis of digital entertainment. Flexible use of space in comics coincides with the traditional picture rolls where events in different time-space can be painted on a same scene. The flat expression of characters looks familiar to Japanese eyes rather than a realistic portrait. This will explain why 2D animation became so popular in Japan.


In short, visual realism in European sense never took place in Japan until 100 years ago. It is the same with choreography or animation. Recent use of Bunraku (Japanese marionette) interface or choreography in the motion design (instead of using motion capture) for virtual characters were brought through such observations. On the other hand, polygon-based computer games require more realistic representation of space and figure. This is a background of the arrivals of 3D virtual beauties. Notion of Life Relationship between human beings and other creatures also differs from that in Europe mainly because of historically different religious background. There is no absolute difference between human beings and other animals in Buddhism theory which formed the backbone of Japanese way of thinking. Rather, people believed that a bad man's next life could be a dog, or a good dog's next life could be a man. With the boundary between the life of human beings and that of animals blurred, the boundary between real life and virtual life - either with physical body such as robots, or without any physical body, as avatars and agents on the Net - can be easily blurred.

Feeling Real toward Virtual Lives

Virtual creatures such as Tamagotchi is a natural consequence of such Japanese tradition. This also explains why certain kind of mechanical android/robot stories are so popular in Japanese animation. The mobile suit of GUNDAM and the organic machine EVE in "Evangelion" are typical examples. (Also, it is strongly connected to the gender issue in Japan. "Evangelion" gives an interesting example.) The idea of human body integrated into a robot vehicle does not sound extremely strange for Japanese kids. Meanwhile, the blurred boundary between real and virtual life brings another problem. Some kids take the death of the virtual pets seriously while others "reset" virtual pets frequently. This brought a new business on the "after-life" of virtual pets. Bandai opened "Tamagotch's graveyard" on the internet. "Angel's Tamagotch" was developed to save the sorrowful kids, but also to make more business. "Networking Tamagotch" was another solution for the "death" of virtual pets. Virtual Pets who Live their Own Life The most interesting idea regarding virtual pets came from Sony Computer, with its mailing software named "PostPet". "PostPet" was conceived and designed by artist Kazuhiko Hachiya and was co-developed with Sony Computer. The concept clearly reflects what Hachiya has been doing through projects such as "Mega Diary" or "InterDiscommunication Machine". "PostPet" is a playful, anti-practical email software. You keep a pet in a virtual room on your desktop and take care of them. It will deliver your email, but would not come back soon because it starts playing with its friend, i.e. the pet of your friend. While your pet is away you can't send the next email. Since animals have shorter lives, the pets die after a while and go to the PostPet Park, where only the member of Sony Computer Network can make a visit. Still (or because of these features) PostPet became the best selling software in Japan in 1998. The concept is totally different from that of avatars or agents. A pet maintains an almost equal status to its owner, and behaves on its own. The concept comes partly from Hachiya's artistic commentary about the identity on the Net, but also partly from Japanese way of relating to animals.

Cyberspace Reflects the Real Space

More than people realize, what we have in cyberspace is even a condensed reflection of what we have in the real space. For example, those virtual beauties on Japanese network represents male chauvinism in Japanese society. With less restriction from the reality, people's unconscious perspective, the way of seeing the world, is more explicitly exposed on the Net. On the other hand, Net is the place where anyone from any cultural background can have an access to whatever on it, without caring its original cultural framework. In a sense, the Web is a space with innumerable partial perspective drawings.

Lecture held at the Symposium of SYNWORLD playwork:hyperspace Vienna (A), Museumsquartier, May 29, 1999