electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies
Review 9 in 2008
American Japan - Japanese America
Roland Kelts raises two questions in the foreword to his book, Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S. Why has Japanese pop culture started to influence the culture of the US (rather than the reverse, which, Kelts would argue, has been the case in the past)? And why has this cultural influence emerged now? Despite posing these questions, Kelts seems less interested in finding definitive answers, preferring instead to give free rein to lengthy discussions on the various issues they raise. Kelts makes numerous attempts to tackle the problems partially, and in doing so relies on the insights of a large number of commentators. More often than not, though, by taking this approach, he abandons theoretical discourse in favor of extended conversations or personal testimonies. This is not necessarily a bad thing, however. Japanamerica's most original material consists of Kelts' interviews with a myriad of colorful characters—from animators and producers, through Japanese and Western scholars and critics, to casual fans from both sides of the Pacific.
Kelts' multidimensional approach leads to a gradual unveiling of various factors behind Japanese cultural expansion. Japanamerica focuses on the complicated intercultural history of Japan-US relations and attempts to demonstrate that cultural flows are rarely one-directional. Kelts eloquently draws parallel pictures of emerging popular cultures in the US and Japan and reveals interesting details of the first anime productions in America.
One recurring theme is the idea that the Japanese anime industry is in terminal decline. This theme is articulated by numerous commentators in the book, who cite causes such as the lack of new mangaka (manga artists), the low birth-rate, and the limited financial resources available to the industry. For the most part, however, the ideas remain opaque and Kelts rarely attempts to provide a factual grounding for these claims. An example of an extended conversation partially developed is Kelts' comparison of the consequences of, respectively, 9/11 for American and the Second World War for Japanese popular culture (pages 25–40, 174–175). Kelts makes a number of starts on this discourse, but, having opened the door to insightful discussion, proceeds no further and quickly moves on. This approach suits Kelts' biweekly columns in The Daily Yomiuri; but what works for a short column has not worked for a monograph, and will leave readers of Japanamerica unsatisfied.
Perhaps due to the great variety of ideas presented, Kelts leaves most of his points similarly undeveloped. For instance, the reader is left unconvinced whether the alleged financial and legal shortcomings in the Japanese industry will indeed lead Japanese pop culture to destruction. When Kelts projects a possible collapse of the anime industry, how distant a future is he foreseeing? Is the market declining as rapidly as the book seems to imply? Economics, politics, history and tradition—all appear in Kelts' attempts to tackle his primary questions. This mishmash of theories hurts the book's academic relevance (but may of course add to its mainstream attraction).
Even the arguments that Kelts cares to elaborate on, such as Japanese producers' bipolar attitudes to exporting to the West (pages 74–85) lack a logical finishing touch or an adequate conclusion. Instead, Kelts presents us with emotional images (such as that of Tezuka's machine—once a symbol of the industry, now gathering dust in a forgotten workshop), and timid socio-cultural theories.
The main part of the book, in which Kelts describes and contrasts post-war Japanese and American pop culture markets, is well-researched and innovative. It compares well with other recent English publications on Japanese pop culture, such as Takayuki Tatsumi's (2006) Full Metal Apache and William Tsutsui and Michiko Ito's (2006) In Godzilla's Footsteps. The chapters on Tezuka and Miyazaki are particularly coherent and successful, in both cases presenting the real person behind the artist. Some of the data (for instance on the Pac-man creation or the Pokemon-4Kids deal) fits well with the general tone of the discourse about Japan failing to utilize its intellectual property. Other parts are less successful. The chapter on the Japanese toy industry, for instance, adds little to the book's major arguments and might seem redundant in the light of the recent Anne Allison (2006) monograph, Millennial Monsters.
Kelts describes how the Japanese economic recession resulted in and perhaps even triggered cultural originality. To some extent, of course, this parallels a similar phenomenon during the American Great Depression. Readers are provided with spectrums of vivid differences and surprising common points between American and Japanese popular cultures. The strength of Japanamerica lies in presenting both sides and perspectives for transcontinental pop cultural commercial interaction and cooperation. Although often lacking a deeper sociological framework, the insights prove eloquent and well observed historically.
Japanamerica is written for a readership that knows little about Japanese modern culture. This affects the tone of the narrative—Kelts' intentions are revealed quite unambiguously in lengthy descriptions of the cultural differences between Tokyo and Osaka, and detailed explanations of terms such as anime, furītā, otaku, and dōjinshi. The benefit of this method is that, sandwiched between these basic introductions, Kelts manages to introduce trivia fascinating both for Japanese studies scholars and Western fans. For example, details of the Tezuka-Disney connection reveal the highly ambiguous nature of any claims of plagiarism (pages 44–45, 192–193), while 'the curse of Osamu' introduces the reader to a negative aspect (production cost dumping) of Tezuka's dominancy in the anime industry in the 1960s (pages 47–48).
Kelts sporadically makes accurate comments (such as on the different attitudes of the Japanese towards the popularity of their culture overseas, or on the uniqueness of the concept of nudity in the Japanese media), and is able to draw insightful reflections from his speakers (for example, on Astro Boy's Japanese characteristics). Japanamerica is at its best when it does not aspire to being an academic publication, such as when Kelts colorfully contrasts anime conventions in Japan and in America (pages 147–156). The drawback is that whenever Kelts succeeds in making astute observations on the link between sexual energy and violence in Japan, or about Japanese otaku originating from Star Trek fans, he does not develop those points further or attempt to draw any general conclusions.
Although Kelts adds a private touch to most of the issues he tackles, this technique rarely feels forced. Moreover, it is Kelts' personal testimonies and diversions from his main points that elevate the book to a dimension that many previous publications on Japanese pop culture have failed to reach. Kelts defines his Japanamerica phenomenon in simple terms, describing Japan as a country of people with fantasies similar to those of his Western readers, but who (unlike his readers) take them more seriously (pages 179–185). Perhaps a popular book like Japanamerica, which abandons a heavily theoretical academic approach, is required to vividly show the specifics and self-consciousness of Japanese culture.
Kelts' anecdotes can provide food for thought. His sister's words about 'just a cartoon' provide a contrast with the post-9/11 world, where 'blasphemous' caricatures have triggered international waves of violence. Such private and empathic passages define the whole publication. Although often fragmental, chaotic and of popular character, Japanamerica is a fascinating, yet not satisfactorily developed, account of the Japanese pop cultural invasion of the Western world.
Allison, Anne (2006) Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination, Berkeley: University of California Press.
Tatsumi, Takayuki (2006) Full Metal Apache: Transactions Between Cyberpunk Japan and Avant-Pop America, Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Tsutsui, William and Michiko Ito (eds) (2006) In Godzilla's Footsteps: Japanese Pop Idols on the Global Stage, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Rafal Zaborowski studied law at the University of Szczecin and completed a BA at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, Japan, in 2008. He is currently working on his Master's thesis at Tohoku University. His main research interests include modern Japan, visual media and popular music. He has published articles on Japanese popular culture in Polish press and cultural magazines.
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