Teaching History and/of/or Japanese Popular Culture

William M. Tsutsui, Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences, Southern Methodist University [About | Email]

Volume 13, Issue 2 (Discussion paper 4 in 2013). First published in ejcjs on 6 September 2013.


Western scholarship on contemporary Japanese popular culture has been dominated by anthropologists and literature specialists. Historians, with a few notable exceptions, have largely been absent from the new academic interest in “Cool Japan.” This paper explores why there is a relative dearth of historical research on Japanese pop and assesses the contributions that historians can offer to the scholarship and classroom pedagogy of anime, manga, popular film, and television. Drawing on the author’s experience of teaching Japanese pop culture for almost twenty years and writing two books widely used in undergraduate courses, this paper argues that historians should make use of popular culture to nuance—and even recast—their analyses of Japan’s modern experience. In particular, historians should address how popular culture reveals the imaginative diversity of Japanese society and how pop forms help us appreciate the complexity of what we can consider “Japanese” in a global media marketplace.

Keywords: Popular culture, pedagogy, historians, historiography, Cool Japan.

Over the past fifteen years, the English-language scholarship on contemporary Japanese popular culture has boomed. This explosion of work on Japanese manga and anime, food and fashion, character goods and video games has been dominated by anthropologists, literature specialists, and experts in cultural studies. Historians (with a few notable exceptions) have, however, largely been absent from the new academic interest in “Cool Japan.”

Just a glance at the appropriate shelves in a library (or search results from Amazon.com) seem to bear this observation out. In what one might call the “classic texts” on Japanese pop, as well as in the more recent contributions to scholarly research, books by literary experts have been well represented: among the contributions that come immediately to mind are Susan Napier’s several influential monographs (1996, 2000, 2007), Tatsumi Takayuki’s Full Metal Apache (2006), and more recent works like Thomas Lamarre’s important The Anime Machine (2009) and Michael Bourdaghs’ new “geopolitical prehistory” of J-pop (2012). Anthropologists are also much in evidence, from Anne Allison’s Millennial Monsters (2006) to Ian Condry’s work on hip-hop (2006) to Laura Miller’s studies of body aesthetics and gender (2006). There are plentiful examples of books on Japanese popular culture written by journalists, critics, artists, and independent scholars (like Frederik Schodt’s volumes on manga [1983, 1996], Roland Kelts’ Japanamerica [2006], and the catalogs of Murakami Takashi [2005]), some from specialists in film, media, and cultural studies (like Steven Brown’s Tokyo Cyberpunk [2010] and Iwabuchi Kōichi’s valuable contributions [2002]), and even useful studies from sociologists (like Lee Thompson’s 2001 work on Japanese sports) and psychiatrists (notably Saitō Tamaki’s recently translated Beautiful Fighting Girl [2011]). Of these works by non-historians, a number have taken approaches that were largely historical in nature, including Susan Napier’s From Impressionism to Anime (2007), Deborah Shamoon’s new volume on girl’s culture, Passionate Friendship (2012), and Marc Steinberg’s fascinating Anime’s Media Mix: Franchising Toys and Characters in Japan (2012).

Yet works by historians on Japanese popular culture are (and have been) few and far between. Yoshikuni Igarashi’s 2000 book Bodies of Memory, which traces the legacies of war and defeat through radio dramas, pro wrestling, movies, and the Olympic women’s volleyball team in 1964, is an outstanding example of historical scholarship engaging with contemporary pop culture. So too is John Dower’s wide-ranging and Pulitzer Prize winning Embracing Defeat (2000), which surveys the resurgence of Japanese culture (among many other things) immediately after World War II. Gerald Figal’s Civilization and Monsters (2000), on the de-folking of folk culture by the modernising Meiji state, is another important work, as is Hiroshi Kitamura’s study of American films in early postwar Japan (2010), and Japanese historians have been active in the thriving subfield of food studies. Elsewhere in the scholarship of Japanese pop, though, finding major contributions by historians is challenging if not impossible.

Edited collections have been influential in establishing the scholarly landscape of Japanese popular culture, but here too historians have been little in evidence. A survey of important volumes revealed several edited by literature experts (John Whittier Treat 1996, Dolores Martinez 1998, Douglas Slaymaker 2000), others edited by scholars in religious studies (Mark MacWilliams 2008), international business (Timothy Craig 2000), and early childhood education (Joseph Tobin 2004). Other than the slim collection I put together on Godzilla and Japanese pop icons with Michiko Ito (2006), the only historian-edited book I discovered was Matthew Allen’s Popular Culture, Globalization, and Japan (2006). Even within all these volumes, historians were poorly represented: Timothy Craig’s Japan Pop! (2000) included only two historians among fourteen contributors and neither Dolores Martinez’s The Worlds of Japanese Popular Culture (1998) nor Joseph Tobin’s Pikachu’s Global Adventure (2004) included a single chapter by a historian.

Academic journals tell the same story about Japanese historians and popular culture. For example, a review of the first six volumes of Mechademia, which is at least arguably the leading journal focusing on Japanese pop culture, affirms the low profile of historians in this emerging field. Of the 94 articles in these volumes (running from 2006 to 2011), 40 were written by scholars in literature, language, and cultural studies, eight by experts in art and design, eight by specialists in communications and media studies, six by anthropologists, and 16 by non-academics (critics, visual artists, self-identified fans, and translators). A few articles came from academic folklorists, experts in religious studies, sociology, film, and Japanese studies, and even a lone physicist. Only three of the 94 articles in Mechademia were written by historians.

So what gives?  Are historians largely uninterested in Japanese popular culture, or is there something about the study of Japanese pop, at least as it has evolved so far in the English-language scholarship, that has excluded, alienated, or otherwise scared off most historians? In other words (and channeling here Iwabuchi Kōichi’s notion of the cultural odours given off by pop products), are historians turning up their noses at Japanese pop culture in general, or are they turned off specifically by the smell of the existing scholarship on Cool Japan?

My sense is that Japanese historians, although clearly less involved in conducting research on Japanese popular culture than scholars in some other disciplines, are (as a group) no less interested in the creativity, global appeal, and international ubiquity of Japanese pop than are specialists in any other field within Japanese studies. In particular, I think that many (if not most) of my fellow historians have embraced Japanese popular culture, at least in their undergraduate teaching, if not yet in their own research.

To test this out hypothesis, I reviewed 36 syllabi available online from history survey classes focusing on modern Japan, postwar Japan, or Japanese history from the dawn of time until yesterday. The vast majority of these syllabi were from “in person” classes, only a couple were from online offerings, and all were from courses given since 2005. All of the syllabi were from institutions in the United States and Canada and ran the gamut from small liberal arts colleges (Grinnell, Oberlin, Rhodes College) to regional undergraduate schools (Kennesaw State, Cleveland State, Sonoma State) to major research institutions (Berkeley, Purdue, the University of Wisconsin). Of the 36 syllabi, 11 (or just about a third) made not the slightest mention of any kind of culture (high, popular or bacterial) in class topics, readings or other assignments like film screenings. A further six of the syllabi included what I would consider classic high culture materials: highbrow literature (Natsume Soseki’s Kokoro and Naomi seem particular favourites) and art-house films (such as The Makioka Sisters and The Human Condition). That meant that 19 (or just over half these syllabi) included popular culture in some way. Four of the classes made use of American pop culture products about Japan (including The Last Samurai and popular novels). Four of the classes included manga or anime, although the instructors in other courses may have shown clips not noted on the syllabi: not surprisingly, Grave of the Fireflies, Miyazaki Hayao films, and Ishinomori Shōtarō’s Japan Inc. were represented here. Nine of the syllabi included Japanese popular movies and novels, including films from the Gojira and Otoko wa tsurai yo series, Train Man and Kamikaze Girls, and a mystery by Miyabe Miyuki.  Five syllabi mentioned aspects of popular culture (Tokugawa urban culture, baseball, advertising, food and consumerism) as class or lecture topics, and nine of the courses dedicated substantial class time (at least one full period of lecture or discussion) to popular culture. So historians don’t seem to have entirely missed the bus on Japanese popular culture, but at present they are sitting in the back of that bus, not driving it, when it comes to teaching and research on Cool Japan.

I wonder how many historians have tracked the same trajectory that I did in introducing Japanese pop culture into the classroom. Twenty or so years ago, when I first started teaching, my undergraduate surveys on modern Japan were good, old-fashioned, textbook kind of stuff: loads of high politics and international relations, a heavy serving of economic development and economic growth, a generally top-down perspective, and a smattering of social history that now seems remarkably dated and almost quaint (little on women and gender, but a great deal on labour unions and radical movements). In any case, a major objective in my teaching two decades ago was taking on my students’ stereotypes of Japan, which I perceived at the time to be, first, a narrow culturalism (the assumption that Japan’s twentieth century experience, from imperialism to quality control circles to LDP factional politics, could be explained by bushidō, Confucianism, and centuries of rice farming); second, a sense that Japan was a place of profound and enduring social harmony, where conflict was rare or even non-existent; and third, an unquestioned presumption of Japanese exceptionalism among modern nations (a notion that Japan’s case was so “uniquely unique” that its experience was incommensurable with those of other industrial democracies around the world).

When I first began using Japanese popular culture in my classes, around 1994 or 1995, I was driven by a variety of motivations, some high-minded and pedagogical, others cynical and even downright embarrassing. I always used film in my historical survey classes, but I rapidly became disillusioned that most of the high-brow, art-house pictures then most readily available (notably those directed by Kurosawa Akira and Ozu Yasujirō) tended to affirm (rather than challenge) my students’ stereotypes about Japan and seemed to reinforce their foundational belief that Japan’s experience was irreconcilably different from the Western one. So I decided to try popular film, and of course in my case I started with Godzilla as a way of jolting my students out of a culturalist rut.

Needless to say, in introducing movies into my classes, I was also pandering to students. Films, in my experience, have always been crowd-pleasers and popular movies (like ones featuring a giant radioactive lizard) tended to be better received (thus driving better enrollments and higher student evaluation numbers) than more somber and cerebral fare like Tokyo Story or Fires on the Plain. In a way through, I was also pandering to myself. I grew up on Japanese popular culture: Godzilla and Gamera on Saturday afternoon creature double-features, Speed Racer making me late to catch the school bus, plastic model kits of tanks and race cars from Tamiya. So I was as eager to watch popular movies—and, a little later, anime too—as my students were. I should also admit that I was motivated initially to introduce pop culture as a way of sopping up class time. In a fifteen-week semester, hour after hour of droning lectures and often-tortured discussions seemed a lot more palatable (to me as well as my students) with a movie or two thrown in.

For the first decade or so that I used the 1954 Gojira in my modern Japan survey, I had to rely on a unmarked VHS bootleg, with appalling subtitles (apparently made on a manual typewriter in Hong Kong), and purchased by mail order off a mimeographed price list from a post office box in California. My students loved it, however: most of them were familiar with Godzilla but none of them had ever seen that original movie (at best, they had seen the butchered version released in the United States in 1956 and featuring Raymond Burr). Finding anime to use in class was also a real challenge back in the mid-1990s. Long series were not really practical to use, materials aimed at small children were out, as were extremely violent or pornographic products (which seemed popular in the American marketplace at the time). I finally ended up using an obscure but fascinating original animation video (OAV) called The Ultimate Teacher: The Fearsome Bio-Reconstructed Man (Kyōfun no Bio-Ningen – Saishū Kyōshi), directed by Ashida Toyoo, much better known for his work on Fist of the North Star (Hokuto no Ken). The Ultimate Teacher is the humorous and satirical story of the battle for control over Tokyo’s worst vocational high school, waged between a female gang leader (whose superior martial arts powers derive from her Lucky Kitty gym shorts) and a discipline-minded substitute teacher (who, it turns out, was the product of a shadowy government experiment mixing the genetic material of humans and cockroaches).

I made use of these Japanese pop culture products in my classes in a manner that absolutely no one (including myself) would consider pedagogically innovative. Basically I utilised the films to illustrate established themes from my lectures and take on the stereotypes which I perceived as widespread among the students. Thus Gojira became an accessible way into discussing the trauma of World War II, the legacies of the atomic bombings, and the complexities of postwar U.S.-Japan relations. The movie, with its emphasis on science, insights into the changing nature of marriage and family, and its many episodes of interpersonal and political conflict, also worked well for me in challenging students’ assumptions of cultural determinism and Japanese harmoniousness.  The Ultimate Teacher, on the other hand, allowed me to explore the pressures of Japan’s hierarchical educational system and the particular nature of postwar Japanese pornographic censorship. Using something so satirical, which poked fun at the imperial institution, resurgent Japanese nationalism, and values like loyalty and honour (as well as parodying several genres of anime and film), also forced my students to reflect on some of their stereotypes about both Japanese culture and what was then known as “Japanimation.”

In short, when I first started using Japanese popular culture in my teaching, I used it in a very narrow way. Not so much in the sense that I used it to pander to students, as I personally don’t see anything wrong with engaging students with what they find compelling and making classes fun as well as substantive, but more in the sense that popular culture played a passive role in my courses: I did not see sources like Gojira and The Ultimate Teaching bringing radically new perspectives to the class; rather, I saw them as providing more evidence to substantiate the themes and arguments I had constructed around Japanese political, economic, and social history. Popular culture, in other words, did not change the picture I painted of Japan for my students, it just added some detail, provided some depth, and brought some splashes of colour to an otherwise rather drab historical canvas. I did not use pop culture to gain new perspectives on Japan and Japanese history (or afford my students such perspectives); instead, I just used pop culture instrumentally to affirm what I already thought and validate those views to the students.

Such an approach to the classroom use of popular culture is not, I suspect, very unusual, among historians of Japan or perhaps even for educators in a wide range of fields and disciplines. But historians may be guiltier than most since (to generalise sweepingly, but I think accurately) historians as a group tend to be among the more conservative members of the academy, more set in their methodologies and disciplinary ways, and more suspicious of subject matter and scholarly trends that seem faddish or lightweight intellectually. From talking to many colleagues over the years about pop culture and history, and how the two might work together in the classroom, a number of concerns about integrating forms like popular film, manga, and anime into history courses seem to keep cropping up regularly.

Popular culture, I’ve been told, just doesn’t seem that important. It’s not the stuff for a “serious” history course. There’s no time for it after considering “essential” topics like electoral reform, economic restructuring or demographic change. It’s too fun and fashionable. It’s dumbing down one’s teaching to the lowest common denominator of students. It’s current events, not “real” history. It’s all just another passing fad and, after it inevitably fades, Lolita Punk and sudoku will be forgotten just like Pet Rocks and Rubik’s Cubes (or perhaps one should say tamagotchi and Walkmen) and then everyone will just move on to something new. Get serious!

Beyond these somewhat dismissive responses, what I have heard more often from colleagues is a sense of vulnerability in using popular culture in class, a kind of insecurity about the material itself, their understanding and command of it, and the impact it will have on the dynamics of the classroom. Ian Condry captured some of these anxieties very nicely in a piece written for Japan Society in New York:

Teaching anime… poses a range of challenges for adult teachers who often (myself included) have less familiarity with anime than their students. Unlike the more common situation where the teacher is the expert who conveys information to a less knowledgeable group of students, those of us who attempt to teach anime to young people may well find that now we are the dummies. Certainly, this complicates the challenge of teaching and takes away some of the comfort zone that comes with gaining expertise in a subject, but it also opens new possibilities for classroom engagement. Moreover, given the importance of popular culture in our students’ lives, and the ways it does offer real advantages for teaching, we teachers should commit ourselves to finding ways to incorporating new media examples into the classroom in order to help nurture a deeper sensitivity to [the] variety of expressions coming from Japan (2009).

To many educators (and not just stick-in-the-mud historians, I would guess), this vision of a more “democratic” or what some scholars have called an “inverted” classroom studying popular culture is a little threatening. As much as we like to talk about the leveling of the lecture hall and collaborative learning, abandoning the reassuring hierarchy of instructor and students can be daunting, especially if one questions the value of teaching popular culture to begin with.

But even beyond this forbidding loss of control in the classroom, I feel many of my colleagues are even more intimidated by their lack of control over the material, over the unruly and constantly growing mass of words, pictures, events, and commodities that fall under the umbrella of popular culture. The corpus of Japanese popular culture is, of course, unmeasurably huge and even the material available in English translation or dub or subtitle is now unmanageable for a single scholar. I sense that a canon of Japanese popular culture might now be taking shape, at least among Western scholars, who are defining the foundational importance of creators like Tezuka Osamu and Miyazaki Hayao and of texts like Gojira, Gundam, and The Rose of Versailles. Mapping Japanese pop culture through this reassuring process of canonisation would surely make life easier for many teachers, but specialists question whether a canon of popular culture is even conceivable, considering the radically populist, unhierarchical, and diverse nature of pop forms.

Irrespective of whether or not a canon develops, I sense the most important factor that might now be holding back a greater embrace of pop culture in Japanese studies classes (and especially in history offerings) is the scholarly literature on the subject. Although strong academic books and articles on various aspects of manga, anime, popular film and literature, food, character goods, music, and many other forms of Japanese pop are now appearing in relative profusion, compared to a good many other areas of the modern Japanese experience, research on pop culture remains remarkably thin. I don’t think I would be going too far out on a limb to suggest that there is more substantial English-language scholarship in print on the Siberian Intervention of 1918 to 1922 than on Japanese video games, and more on the evolution of the Japanese post office than on the history of any of Japan’s movie studios or television networks. And, as noted earlier, due to the relative dearth of historians working on Japanese pop culture, the volume of scholarship that contextualises forms like anime and manga historically, and (more ambitiously) then uses pop culture materials to rethink historical narratives, is regrettably still very limited. A good part of the historically-minded literature on Japanese pop, especially the early publications in the field, has been simplistically culturalist in approach, encouraging readers to see manga and anime as transparent windows into Japanese cultural traditions. Even trained historians like Antonia Levi fell into this trap, encouraging us to find uniquely “Japanese” traces of Buddhism and Shintō in animated series like Dragon Ball and the films of Miyazaki Hayao (1996). And much of the scholarship written by literary scholars, anthropologists, and cultural studies experts, even if historicist in approach, has often been jargon ridden, idiosyncratic in choices of texts and themes, and predictably narrow in its historical analysis. That oft-repeated genealogy of manga and anime, stretching back to Edo-period printed materials and with a sprinkling of kamishibai and Walt Disney along the way, is all too familiar and (like so much in the study of Japanese pop) screams out for historical complication and nuance.

I tried to keep all these concerns and anxieties and lackings in mind as I wrote my two books on Japanese popular culture, Godzilla on My Mind (2004) and Japanese Popular Culture and Globalization (2010). The former, approached from the perspective of what Matt Hills (2002) has called a “scholar-fan,” was aimed at the elusive “educated general reader,” not an academic audience, though it has come to be used in a good many college classes. A former colleague once described it as “semi-scholarly,” although I have consistently referred to it as “semi-popular.” Japanese Popular Culture and Globalization is intended as a classroom text for high school and introductory university level courses in Japanese studies. As such it would seem to have a unique position in the marketplace as the first formal textbook on Japanese pop culture written in English.

My overall approach to these books, and especially the more recent one, where I was more self-conscious about its pedagogical uses and impact, was quite simple. I wanted to show that both Godzilla and Japanese popular culture more generally have histories and are embedded in history. They are, as childish and silly and vapid and cheesy as they may sometimes seem, complex texts situated within broad and constantly shifting contexts of political, economic, social, and international change. Moreover, I wanted to argue, pop culture products are not transparent windows, unmediated by authorial intent, commercial interests, or adaptation for overseas markets (among many other things), onto a unitary, coherent, and timeless “Japanese tradition.” Rather, I tried to suggest, studying popular culture should be a means of better appreciating the diversity of the Japanese experience, the contingency and malleability of what we consider “Japan,” and the intricacies, contradictions, and convolutions of the process of globalisation. And, last but hardly least, I wanted to have some fun in delving into Japanese popular culture and using it to help readers better understand Japan and its history. It would be a shame to study stuntmen in latex monster suits wrestling through the Ginza, or armies of mecha sweeping across post-apocalyptic landscapes, or the high school baseball tournaments at Kōshien, without taking some joy in the spectacle, the wonderful absurdity, and the sheer exuberance of it all.

So, for example, in Godzilla on My Mind, I was eager to show that Godzilla was not just a modern cinematic manifestation of an ancient Japanese dragon-god (which I have heard about a million time from fans) or that the rampaging monster is simply a symbol representing the United States or nuclear fear (which I have heard about two million times, often from fellow scholars). Knowing about the Kojiki and Hiroshima and the Lucky Dragon Incident are not enough to understand the 28 films stretching over 50 years of the Godzilla series. To comprehend the successes, implications, and multiple meanings of the Godzilla films, I argued, one has to be aware of the shifting nature of Japan’s postwar entertainment market, the global impact of Hollywood blockbusters, the politics of Japan’s remilitarisation and re-engagement with Asia, and the discourses of science, victimhood, and the environment in postwar Japan, among many other things. And to understand the international appeal of the Godzilla movies one can’t assume that there is some kind of universality in enjoying images of giant creatures stomping tiny Japanese cities, or that the Godzilla movies screened in Peoria or Barcelona were the same ones seen by audiences in Tokyo, or that cult fandom is a passive act of consumption. So what I have tried to do with Godzilla (and more recently with Japanese pop culture more broadly) is to give it a history, to place it in history, and (most challengingly) to use it as a means of reflecting on, refining, and revising established historical narratives.

The path I have traced in thinking about and teaching Japanese popular culture reflects in many ways, I think, the progress we have all made in understanding, problematising, and conceptualising Japanese pop over the past two decades. As I have moved away over the years from using popular culture materials as tidy illustrations for greater historical arguments, as shiny lures for attracting students to my courses, and as a painless means of occupying class time, I have come to treat forms like anime, manga, and popular cinema with more respect, more rigour, and more subtlety. What I still aspire to achieve (and hopefully am still working towards) is a full integration of popular culture into my approach to Japanese history, going beyond “adding in” popular culture to my understanding of Japan and to my classes, but instead incorporating the insights gained from popular culture in reframing my historical perspectives and in refocusing my teaching of Japan’s past. And this, I would suggest, is a critical challenge going forward for historians of Japan and indeed for all of us who study Japanese popular culture.

We need to embrace popular culture as a way of getting beyond what Thomas Lamarre terms a “unitary, self-identical, and monolithic Japaneseness” in the Western gaze (2009, p.89). Although the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs may assure us (as it did in a 2007 pamphlet) that “the magic of contemporary Japanese culture… draws on a creative tradition with unbroken links to the past,” Japanese popular culture actually offers us a far fuller and more complicated picture of Japan, encompassing the complexities and contradictions of contemporary society, the limits (as well as the extent) of civic discourse, and the opportunities for subversion inherent in pop texts. Above all, integrating popular culture into our conceptions of Japan and Japanese history allows us to acknowledge the riotous imaginative diversity and expressive range of a culture more often painted in muted shades of wabi-sabi gray. And it helps us appreciate (as if we need any more help in this regard) that there has not been a Japanese experience since World War II but instead a plurality of Japanese experiences that we in the scholarly community and in the West are only now beginning to recognise (Lamarre 2009, p.xxxvi).

We also need to embrace popular culture as a way of interrogating our own understandings of what is “Japan” and what is “Japanese.” What we and our students consume and generally understand as “Japanese” popular culture is seldom if ever an unambiguously Japanese product, but instead is a global commodity fed through multiple filters of production, selection, editing, and localisation before reaching audiences internationally. What is so widely perceived as “Japanese pop” may well have been animated in Korea, injection-molded in China, or engineered in Europe before being vetted for export by producers in Tokyo, distributors in California, or global networks of fans, and then being repackaged or reconceived, translated, dubbed, or subtitled, to meet the specific demands of markets and fan communities around the world. Pop culture, in short, is a powerful means of comprehending the intricate circuitries of globalisation that complicate the already complicated notions of “authentic” cultural expressions and of what we assume to be “Japanese.”

Finally, we need to recognise that teaching about Japanese popular culture is not enough, although establishing a robust, nuanced, and critical pedagogy of Japanese pop is a timely and important goal for us all to work towards. For Cool Japan to have a lasting and meaningful place in the classrooms of Japanese historians (and indeed of educators in all areas of Japanese studies), we simply need more substantive research on pop culture, and especially research done by or in collaboration with historians. Only when pop’s place in the scholarly literature has been secured, only when pop culture is not a supplement to our standard narratives of history but fully integrated as a constitutive component of Japanese past and present, will the teaching of manga and anime, Godzilla and Hello Kitty, SMAP and Harajuku street style reach its full potential.

Azuma Hiroki (among others) has written of an “orientalism [in] perspective towards Japanese pop culture” common in the West. Americans and Europeans, he argues, “consume images, but what is behind the image, such as ideologies, discourses, and histories, [is] completely erased when they are exported overseas” (2005). Thus, the histories of Japanese popular culture that we write in the years ahead will need to address (just for a start) the institutions of publishing, production, and distribution; the economics of Japan’s mass entertainment industries; the evolution of technologies of reproduction and of marketing; the politics of producers and the role of the state in media and leisure; and, of course, the abiding, ever-challenging questions of consumption and reception. We will need to get beyond privileging forms of Japanese pop culture that have gained large audiences abroad (such as anime and manga) and to give more attention to other forms also ubiquitous in Japan (from television programming and radio to golf and Boat Race). We will need to do more on forms that are tricky to study for most academics (like video games) and off-colour (like pink films and hentai) and not terribly trendy or stereotypically “Japanese” (like spy movies and musicals).

There’s a lot of work to be done, especially by those of us who are historians, but happily it sounds like fun, just like studying, teaching, and enjoying Japanese pop culture should be.


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Tsutsui, William M. 2004. Godzilla on My Mind: Fifty Years of the King of Monsters. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Tsutsui, William M. 2010. Japanese Popular Culture and Globalization. Ann Arbor, MI: Association for Asian Studies.

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About the Author

William M. Tsutsui is dean of Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences and professor of history at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. A specialist in the business, environmental, and cultural history of twentieth-century Japan, he is the author or editor of eight books, including Manufacturing Ideology: Scientific Management in Twentieth-Century Japan (1996), Godzilla on My Mind: Fifty Years of the King of Monsters (2004), and Japanese Popular Culture and Globalization (2010).

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