On a Friend's Birthday

by Darren Pierce : Densha Blues : 01.16.16 8:43pm EST
I never knew Erik Ando-yeap. For a decade, we communicated online, every day, morning to night, seven days a week. And I'm not sure I ever knew who he was. I'd like to share what I do know about him, but my experience is mostly understood through the view of a tiny chat window on a laptop screen. This remembrance of him will be overly focused on myself, because I can only talk about his world as it impacted my world. That intersection is the only story I can tell.

We collaborated with others on the development of a pair of web sites, focused on the history and enjoyment of old Japanese robot toys. He used the moniker "Yappy". He had no other name. Driven like robots ourselves, we focused nearly all our attention and energies on this work of putting robots on the web. Obsession has motivated many people in the world, none moreso than the nostalgist. We needed to validate old memories, and we needed to understand this fixation we collectively shared for Japan's creations.

The 90's had just left us. The Internet was no longer new, but it wasn't ingrained in our daily lives like it is today. Before the turn of the millennium, if you were a fan of some obscure thing, you had to work pretty hard to find others who shared your passion. The Internet gave you only a primitive tool to find others. It was easy to believe you were alone in your interests. Not everyone connected to the Internet daily or even at all, and you could not count on something like Google to magically find like-minded friends. Today, no matter how strange or minor your hobby, you can find large and growing communities of people who are just like you. But when you've lived for so long without encountering another person from your world, you lose touch with your memories. It all gets lost in a mist. Your childhood starts to share more in common with a dream than a memory.

Nobody wants to lose their childhood. Most of us don't.

In the year 2000, finding another English speaking person who loved, or even remembered, old Japanese robots was like finding a four leaf clover. You'd discovered a living artifact of a forgotten world. Share a chat or two, and those fading memories became concrete again. That important part of your childhood was reestablished as real after all. How many people did I know that fondly remembered the ending theme music to Urashiman? Or the way Gold Lightan's ankles compressed when his massive body landed on earth? Nobody. After so many decades, I might think I dreamt my whole childhood up myself. Upon meeting Erik, my sparse childhood world gained another citizen, and was again in reach.

Erik and I both had "Japanese childhoods", as we referred to them. I lived in Japan six years in the 80's as a child and adolescent, as part of a US military family stationed in Japan. Erik's father was Japanese, and while he didn't talk about his father very much, his father and consequent entanglement with Japanese culture made a significant impression on him.

We were both changed by the Japanese experience. Both of us would be considered "introverts" with neurologies and sensibilities quite compatible with Japanese culture. We were both impacted, in a fundamental way, by the Japanese design aesthetic, both in general society and in industrial design, but in particular in the Japanese mechanical design used in their science fiction.

This requires at least a token explanation, because it's key to our adventure. If you were an American child growing up in the 70's, and you told someone you were watching a cartoon with robots, it was understood you were watching something squarely aimed at children, with minimal effort wasted on its production. Rarely were such shows taken seriously by their creators or their audience. Rarely was much love or money put into the art or design. Rarely was talent a key requirement of the business. There were, of course, worthy and wonderful exceptions, but the general rule is that kids' shows in the US were not serious business.

The landscape in Japan paints an entirely different picture. The art and artistry put into the most minor details of "kids' cartoons" were easily on par with products aimed at adults. The stories varied in depth and quality and could be repetitive to a fault, but the sweat and talent behind the visual design was comprehensive and studied. Illustrations of assorted robots and vehicles were worthy of the cutaways found in Jane's Book of Ships, or a NASA drafting table. The toys employed sophisticated engineering and quality materials.

Mechanical designers involved with Japanese robot shows did nothing on a whim. Every aspect of the design of their artificial world was considered and integrated into a greater whole. Some designs were blueprinted and detailed at such a level, you could believe that they were ready to be constructed in real life. The Japanese designer took kids' shows very seriously. It was part of an overall culture of taking your job seriously no matter how dull or trivial it may be. From the perspective of a child, we could only understand that we were not being talked down to, and that the people on the other end of the TV screen were putting time, attention, and love into their craft. As a child exposed to both, I well noted the distinction.

Those children, having grown up exposed to good design and engineering in all aspects of life, appreciate design and require it as adults.

This orientation around design, this attention to aesthetic, had a voice unique in all the world. To some it was magnetic. It imprinted itself upon us. If you appreciate design, you want to live in a world of it. It was shocking to be exposed to the scale of it all. The sheer amount of time and energy and effort put into good works for kids and young adults was astounding. A child was not a second class citizen in Japan, but was a citizen being trained to take his or her work seriously. The country seemed to be a kind of paradise for lovers of science fiction in all forms.

But paradise ends, childhood ends, and time passes. Erik lived in New York City and I in Atlanta, but we both carried the affinity with Japanese design around like Linus with his blanket. We met online, naturally in a venue of Japanese robot design.

It took no more than a half dozen brief conversations to realize that we shared many artifacts from our Japanese childhood. When talking, we tuned into themes and memories and ideas that we had carried with us for years but hadn't been able to share with another human being in all the time since. We spoke the same language, and focused on the same obscure details. We were hung up on the same mysteries and unexplained features of things as minor as a piece of equipment seen for a frame or two of some old show.

Our connection gave us a shorthand that sometimes frustrated other peers in our little online group. It took only a word or two to put our minds on the same wavelength. All that was required was a cue such as "Ohkawara animal chunk" or "Leiji roundels" or "Nue shadow" or "generic Ishimori" to complete a thought. This isn't to say that these concepts were over the heads of our friends, merely that our minds didn't dwell in the same places.

The greatest case of this shared language might've been found in a search we'd undertaken long ago. Erik and I were trying to find examples of common design elements the Japanese used to bridge the worlds of children to that of the technical arts. Japan was filled with these devices, but the trick is trying to quantify and classify them. One of us, I forgot now who, said, "the Tomy font." Nothing more than glyphs of exclamation points were said for nearly an hour. That was all that needed to be said. The excitement wasn't in finding a good example, it was that we'd locked into the same nostalgic response. Rediscovering those old feelings was more valuable than gold.

The background to "the Tomy font" is unimportant, but Tomy was a company that converged on a pattern of design for toys that was deceptively technical while being delightfully bubbly and friendly, down to a common font that branded their products.

For some years, we'd taken on the responsibility to find and deliver to Western audiences the news of the world of Japanese toys and design. This was a natural and easy thing for the both of us. While we weren't fluent as natives, we could read and speak Japanese sufficiently to dig through our resources and monitor the industry at large.

The news we'd compiled was published in the lingua franca of the Internet, HTML. Today, HTML is largely constructed for you. Most people don't craft web pages by hand. At the time, we did it all manually in text editors. The aesthetic of the markup language itself, an underlying backstage element almost no person would ever see apart from ourselves, was important to him. The spacing, indentation, consistency, and a host of other picky traits were, to him, worthy of obsession. When he saw my first few examples of HTML, and saw that my style was just as picky, he was noticeably relieved. We were compatible! But while I would've worked with a sloppy person, Erik insisted on very high standards. It was a theme. He didn't want to approach greatness, he wanted to set the benchmark.

In assembling the news, it was sometimes left to us to romanize the name of a Japanese character or toy that had likely never been written for Western audiences. Many may not be aware that when converting a name between the Roman alphabet and Japanese, you are in effect making design decisions. There are often no right answers or perfect manner of conversion. Aesthetic plays a role. Translation is a kind of industrial design. Here, too, we found a common ground in shared pedanticism over minor traits of word conversion, and similar attitudes toward deciphering the creator's intentions. But where I was merely methodic, Erik wanted to codify a set of rules. If a process couldn't be expressed in logic, a kind of failure to claim understanding had occurred. I reserved a tuned process approach for my professional work, but Erik wanted it even here. That's when I started to see this business of robots was becoming his work.

It was quite a partnership, and the news desk required a high level of communication. We came early on into the habit of logging into AOL Instant Messenger each day, and sharing what we'd found. Our "paycheck" professions were entrepreneurial, thus we were parked in front of a workstation for most of the day. When you work for yourself, you find there's little segregation between "work time" and "free time". In our lives, that meant a lot of time in front of a screen, and that meant there was a lot of time for chat. Every day. For a decade. Morning until night.

When a new product was being publicized in Japan, it was typically shown first in printed magazines intended for hobbyists. We'd share a scanned image, in a contest to see who could find such images first and share them with the other, and then begins the process of analysis. This little game could make an otherwise boring day worthwhile! A new example of design, a new example of engineering, a new thing from the chocolate factory that was Japan; we could spend hours picking it apart.

We had evolved a methodology for going over imagery and classifying what we saw. There was a competition to be the first to find evidence of a screw hole in the prototype of a toy. A screw hole meant the item was assembled with, unsurprisingly, screws, which represented a superior step on the hierarchy of production values. Things assembled with screws were designed, engineered, and assembled. A step down was sculpture in a solid piece of material. That would indicate an item that was little better than a rubber action figure. It could be art, yes, but not the intersection of art and engineering. It didn't represent our idea of the traits of design. Even if it was fitted with joints, Erik would classify such things as statues.

We spent days, weeks, and months in that chat window, sharing URLs and photos of various design features. Sometimes, very little verbiage passed, only imagery. We were essentially looking through a photo album of the mental state of our childhood. Comment isn't necessary when you're having the same thoughts. I have many friends who remember the same characters, toys, and shows that I experienced in Japan, but Erik seemed to have the same emotional response I had. We weren't just looking at the same images, we were getting the same vibe, and feeling the same nostalgia.

The online community of Western fans of Japanese robots grew and grew. It was no longer like finding a four-leaf clover to find another robot nut. With the Internet entrenched in all our lives, finding buddies is like opening a tap. A core group of friends established itself, and what was once a lonely path turned into a torrent of contacts, connections, information, and friendships.

All this while, Erik and I functioned almost as a single unit, to the extent that some referred to us as a joined person. In some ways, as seen from the Internet, that was warranted, but only superficially. Years of daily chatting and shared interests will give you the impression that you know a person. Of course, we seldom discussed our differences, but we were different people indeed. Erik's life was oriented around a love of life in New York City, and came from a world of hipster culture, the liberal arts, and cutting edge media. His focus on design leaned toward its artistic characteristics. I am a suburbanite, with proclivities for engineering, science, and an active lack of participation in what might be called fashion. My focus on design leans toward the mechanical. He was visual. I wrote. Our differences balanced more than they clashed.

Neither of us were stereotypes. Erik eschewed Apple products for technical and professional reasons. He would reference, rarely but significantly, political opinions that he thought would conflict with his group. His vocation required merging the world of business with the world of the arts. He recognized that such a blending required certain compromises on both ends. A true professional could walk in both worlds, and was proud that he could do so.

And yet, he was never artistically fulfilled. While I merely enjoyed and studied design, Erik was an artist -- a good one. He wanted to make an impact in his community, in his culture. He was motivated by the history and phenomenon of cultural impact. The yardstick by which he judged artists measured their impact on the culture of their day. To change the culture, perhaps in even a small way, to make a mark, to be credited with even the most minor change in the vocabulary of his people, was the measure of success, of relevance, of mastery.

There is a bit of a marketing tradition in some Japanese product lines of making a "special black" version of an established product. In terms of visual style, the standard product is offered in a dominant black color scheme, trimmed in other muted primary colors. Japanese robot toys were sometimes offered in "special black". Erik referred to these as the "Gucci versions". The name stuck in the community. Nothing made Erik more proud than to realize he'd made a culture impact, even a small one.

Likewise, he wanted to define and publicize the marks other designers had made in the culture of design. By seeing to it that the unsung heroes of our industry were recognized for their contributions, he validated his own motivations, and could expect that he too might some day be so recognized.

Zinc Panic was to him, more than anything, a platform to begin the process of enshrining the designers of the Japanese mechanical arts of fiction for their contributions to the evolution of the status quo. It's clear now. He would skirt around this basic motivation without acknowledging its primacy in his being. The process of realizing Erik's core motivation was long in coming both for himself and for the rest of us. From time to time, he sought from me help in phrasing this motivation in words. My goals approached his, but they weren't entirely congruent. I wanted to study the 'why' of Japanese design: why was Japanese design unlike that of other cultures, why did these designers take certain decisions, why did Japanese culture place such an emphasis on design while others did not. We were on the same boat, but didn't quite have the same compass. He needed to verbalize what was in his head, but for the longest time, he couldn't, or wouldn't.

After years of chatting online and dozens of phone conversations, we met in Japan. We'd never met in person. There's a sudden realization that despite all you have in common, you really are people from two different worlds. Erik the New Yorker and Darren the suburbanite found ourselves being awkward. The most difficult thing of all was calling him by his name. I had referred to him exclusively as Yappy for years. I was barely aware he had any other name. Calling him Yappy in person seemed wrong, too, but no worse than calling him "Erik". Since when does anybody call him Erik?

It was a wonderful thing to be able to analyze in person the many things we'd discussed online, with the benefit of tangible specimens of design right in front of us. We made trips to a dozen hobby shops and toy stores, pointing out features that were emblematic of a particular designer or entertainment genre. We ate. We purchased.

We wandered into a run-down little shoutengai that allegedly had a good store filled with 80's vintage robot toys. If you're used to Western standards, these are tightly packed affairs. The aisles are not boulevards, but trails amongst the stacked product that you have to crab walk through. The entire store might fit into something the size of a bedroom. You don't shop so much as excavate. To get to the product in back, you have to carefully remove the products in front, testing your Jenga skills so that the product above doesn't come tumbling down, working layer by layer into the offerings, feeling like you're going back in time as you do.

It would require skill in any country, but we are in Japan, where manners, dexterity, a careful demeanor, and healthy respect for being a guest in a shopkeeper's store are things prized above all. As a foreigner, it was almost assumed you were going to do something dumb. Erik sometimes forgot that in Japan, he didn't look like a foreigner, and wasn't taken as one, unless he spoke. But it made him nervous nonetheless. While I was anxious to show such shopkeepers that I'm a "good guy", and just as careful with his stock as he is, Erik was nervous as a cat. It was inevitable, then, to hear a crash.

At Erik's feet thumped a boxed set of Laserion armor, an accessory for an 80's robot toy. He froze. I froze. The shopkeeper, perched on his little stool, reading his thick book, froze. You could've heard a spring-loaded plastic missile launch. Then came the familiar sound of hissing through clenched teeth that indicated to us both that a Bad Thing has happened. But he did not deign look up from his book. He didn't have to. What was now required was understood by all.

Erik picked up the boxed set of armor, wrapped in thick protective plastic and entirely undamaged from a drop of a height of less than two feet, and sheepishly toted it to the perched man with a sum of money. The cash was taken, again without looking up from his book. We slinked out. Erik was now the owner of a set of Laserion armor. The bad news is that he didn't want to buy it. The good news is that it was, of course, in factory fresh condition. All parties involved understood this. The ritual teeth hissing was more of a warning not to continue to drop antique toys than a demand for purchase, but Erik wanted to do the Good Thing and save face.

In the awkwardness of meeting someone for the first time in person, you wonder if it's the same person you've known online for years. In what happened over the next couple of hours, I was reassured that this was indeed the Yappy I knew. I could've foretold the following sequence as any seer with a crystal ball.

He didn't speak for ten minutes or so as we walked. This could be predicted. He then reached into his shopping bag, dug out the armor, and handed it to me. "I don't want this. You take it. I don't want to think about this anymore." This, too, was prophecy. I put the armor in my own bag. We rendezvoused with Kirsten, Erik's girlfriend, and she asked if we bought anything. "I had to buy some armor and now it's gone." She didn't question further.

I kept the armor in my little bag, but I didn't treat it as my own. I was merely transporting it. You see, I knew what would happen next. I was just waiting on the moment.

The moment came about an hour and a half later. "Um. Hey, Darren? Can I have that Laserion armor back? I sort of want it now." The anxiety shame had passed.

Later that night, we ate at a Korean restaurant. Many small dishes were served, but the waitress specifically encouraged us to finish our bowls of rice, which we did. She returned and, clustering our rice bowls together, announced, "Now I add hot water! Make yummy soup!" She poured hot water into each empty rice bowl. We stared at our bowls of what we were told was now yummy soup, amused and bemused, and tasted the contents, expecting that perhaps some unseen alchemy had happened.

Alas, it was just a bowl of hot water. It needed salt ... and soup. We shot each other glances, but everyone was too careful and introverted to say what we were thinking, which would've involved oaths. The moment was confusing and surreal. It was if something was going on that you were too stupid to understand, but try as you might, you couldn't make sense of it. Nothing more was said of this. Ever.

Some years later, in an online forum that both Erik and I participated in, as was the custom of the day, someone took the running conversation down an indecipherable path that left us all scratching our heads. I no longer remember the topic of conversation; it no longer matters. To the point, we couldn't figure out what this person was trying to communicate, but any attempt at understanding was painful. I was at my limit of tolerance and typed, "Add hot water! Make yummy soup!" Of course, nobody else understood, but Erik was "away from keyboard" laughing for about fifteen minutes. Two introverts may not explicitly discuss something, but the moment is shared and stored away in any case.

In time, a small core group of friends built this web site, the vast majority of the work being done by Erik and Ed Armstrong. Finally, Erik had a platform to classify, quantify, and deify those designers that made their mark on Japan and the world. Even the most minor player in the spectrum of Japanese science fiction could have their place in the sun. Erik could better understand how he might eventually take his own place in this world of design. And we assumed he would.

Beyond his driven nature, his high standards, and his depth of knowledge in his field, Erik was himself an artist and designer. His own work was every bit as worthy as the work he venerated from Japan. In the way of his heroes, every detail in design was to be taken seriously, and reworked obsessively until perfected. And with all this, he had not yet found a way to make his own mark on the culture, and it wore at him, to an extent I couldn't understand.

Zinc Panic was something of our own to exorcise our passions and demons. Erik could never satisfy his. Most often, I felt like I understood Erik's mind, but clearly I did not. In the space of a few months, he became increasingly distant. That happens. We all have our periods of engagements and disengagements. Finally, Kirsten called, and said he was gone. I expected it no more than I expected the seas to boil, and at the same time, in the unsettling way that realizations arrive, it made a kind of sense.

I didn't know Erik Ando-yeap. Or looking back, perhaps I did. He should be remembered as a great talent that never reached zenith, but I'll remember him as a friend with whom I shared a connection to another world.