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Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S.

Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S.

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by Roland Kelts

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Contemporary Japanese pop culture such as anime and manga (Japanese animation and comic books) is Asia's equivalent of the Harry Potter phenomenon--an overseas export that has taken America by storm. While Hollywood struggles to fill seats, Japanese anime releases are increasingly outpacing American movies in number and, more importantly, in the devotion they


Contemporary Japanese pop culture such as anime and manga (Japanese animation and comic books) is Asia's equivalent of the Harry Potter phenomenon--an overseas export that has taken America by storm. While Hollywood struggles to fill seats, Japanese anime releases are increasingly outpacing American movies in number and, more importantly, in the devotion they inspire in their fans. But just as Harry Potter is both "universal" and very English, anime is also deeply Japanese, making its popularity in the United States totally unexpected. Japanamerica is the first book that directly addresses the American experience with the Japanese pop phenomenon, covering everything from Hayao Miyazaki's epics, the burgeoning world of hentai, or violent pornographic anime, and Puffy Amiyumi, whose exploits are broadcast daily on the Cartoon Network, to literary novelist Haruki Murakami, and more. With insights from the artists, critics, readers and fans from both nations, this book is as literate as it is hip, highlighting the shared conflicts as American and Japanese pop cultures dramatically collide in the here and now.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The influx of Japanese art and fashion into the American cultural mainstream gets an entertaining treatment from Kelts, an essayist and lecturer at the University of Tokyo, who interviewed many of Japan's leading culture gurus over the past three years. Kelts is clearly most interested in the world of anime and manga (from Pok mon to Princess Mononoke), as his readers will most likely be. A primary theme is that of the Japanese paradox: how has such a strictly defined and rigid society produced pop art that is, compared to its American counterparts at least, wildly imaginative and boundary bursting? Kelts's belief is that one directly created the other, that anime and manga's wild and kinetic structures, hyperaddictive apocalyptic story lines and surprisingly emotional content (not to mention sex and violence unheard of in American pop culture) could never flourish in an openly permissive and individualistic society that had not experienced nuclear devastation. Although the book grasps too eagerly at its subject's grander implications, it still effectively conveys the cross-Pacific cultural dissonance. Kelts has a sharp grasp of his subject and is on sure ground when discussing the history of the form, especially the impact of Disney on postwar Japanese animators or the reverential awe in which American animators hold such filmmakers as Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away). (Dec.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher

“[This] tells the incredible story of the way...Japanese entertainment and popular art...continue to grow and draw two very different worlds together.” —Pete Townshend, The Who

“Embrace the world of otaku in Roland Kelts' comprehensive study of how Japanese pop culture enchanted the West, from Speed Racer and Pokémon to cosplay and hentai manga.” —Wired

“If you wish to understand the nuances of otaku-dom, or are just hentai-curious, Japanamerica is a broad primer” —The Village Voice

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How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S.

By Roland Kelts

Palgrave Macmillan

Copyright © 2007 Roland Kelts
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-230-60203-8


may the g-force be with you

In April 1977, the American television producer Sandy Frank attended the MIP-TV (Marché International de Programmes) conference in Cannes, France, an annual event that began in 1963 as an adjunct to the famous Cannes film festival. The MIP-TV conference continues to attract international television professionals, distributors, and broadcasters seeking access to new content, with a recent focus on the Internet licensing trade. Thirty years ago, of course, there was no Internet, no DVD or VCR, no TiVo. Television had established itself as the single dominant form of communication and entertainment in the American home, and it could largely rely on a captive, stationary audience. Programming for the then limited, real-time hours of peak viewership was a demanding if heady business: Get it right, and you reach (and might make) millions.

Frank was a rising star. A year earlier, the NYU graduate and former NBC staffer had become the first television distributor to have three prime-time, first-run syndicated TV shows on the air at the same time: The New Name That Tune, The New Treasure Hunt, and The Bobby Vinton Show. His earlier packaged distribution deals included The Lone Ranger, Lassie, and The Bill Cosby Show.

Given the range of his successes, it is hard to deny Frank's instinctive understanding of what Americans like to watch. His emphasis on variety and game shows presaged the contemporary flowering of Oprah Winfrey, American Idol, and numerous reality shows. But his place in the American pop culture pantheon took a dramatic twist that April at Cannes.

It was the year that Tatsunoko Production Co., Ltd., a small Japanese animation producer run by the three Yoshida brothers from Kyoto, had traveled to Cannes for their first international showcase, buoyed by the minor overseas success of the stylish animated series Mach Go Go Go, known to English speakers as Speed Racer. Speed Racer had proven to be a draw with teenagers (mostly boys) in an after-school time slot. While the Yoshidas knew that America was a tough market for Japanese animation—largely owing to hidebound American perceptions of animation as children's fare—they finally had a title that they thought they could sell to a new generation.

In their homeland it was called Kagaku ninja-tai Gatchaman, and it had already proven wildly successful on Japanese television. Its story and characters boasted fundamentals that spoke directly to Japan's cultural values: the "hero" is in fact a team, whose members must rely upon one another and not stand out as individuals; while there are distinct villains, a sense of evil tends to permeate the atmosphere, as though evil could emerge from anywhere, even from within the flawed and sometimes selfish heroes themselves; the ramifications of war are tragic (the father of one of the characters dies); and the heroes' ultimate mission, to defend the earth from complete annihilation and restore peace and stability, justifies their need to fight.

In short, Gatchaman emanated from the imaginations of what the artist Takashi Murakami now calls the world's first postapocalyptic society—the offspring of two atomic bombs, whose subterranean traumas, he believes, force them to see the world anew, and whose vision is best expressed through the underground and censor-free media of manga and anime.

But when Sandy Frank, a New Yorker, encountered the sharp lines, elaborate and intricate plot twists, and evocative yet recognizable settings, he saw mythic potential. "It was unlike anything else on American TV at the time—which of course was its problem," he remembers. "It was not only new and unproven; it was also not produced in America." Not to mention that Gatchaman also featured violence, blood, death, sexual innuendos, and morally questionable and sometimes visibly mortal heroes—which could all be found in the more daring and sophisticated American cinema of the 1970s, of course, but not in what mainstream Americans called cartoons.

A month later, on May 25, 1977, a science fiction, outer-space movie named Star Wars was released in theaters throughout the United States. Its rapid and widespread success marked Hollywood's first use of the term "blockbuster," and its subsequent product tie-ins, spin-offs, and sequels transformed the industry's approach to both marketing and mythmaking. Media producers scrambled to capitalize, scouring the United States for similarly sophisticated sci-fi storylines and equally arresting graphics.

But Sandy Frank thought of that April in Cannes, and of Gatchaman, and he immediately penned a letter to the Yoshida brothers in Tokyo. "I just thought to myself: 'With Gatchaman, I'm looking at Star Wars. I'm looking at an animated version of Star Wars.' It just blew me away."

the meta-mystery

Japan has undergone one of the most rapid evolutions of any foreign nation in the American psyche—and at warp speed. As a child of mixed parentage (my father is American, my mother Japanese), I have been unusually and sometimes uncomfortably close to an international relationship almost blissfully rooted in ignorance, or at least willful misunderstanding.

In my lifetime, Japan has gone from the vanquished World War II foe (with lingering connotations of "sneaky backstabber" from the attack on Pearl Harbor) that rose from the ashes to churn out cheap copycat goods, like the electric guitars that my bandmates and I ridiculed as teenagers, to manufacturing automatons (group-think competitors in the electronics and automotive sectors) in the 1980s, to the rich and reliably peaceful economic ally of recent decades. America and the Four Japans, by translator and manga specialist Frederik L. Schodt, takes a thorough look at this elaborate role-playing dance.

But it was back in 1977 that Frank, motivated by the unexpected success of Star Wars, sought Japan's contemporary cultural output—the nation's imagination—in the form of an animation series for import to the United States. So enamored were he and his colleagues of the seemingly endless reach of Star Wars, they immediately rebranded the Japanese animation, Battle of the Planets.

For Frank, a lot more than editing would be necessary to sell Americans on his foreign find. With no Japanese translators at the ready, and an untested overseas genre on his hands, much more grafting, cutting, rewriting, inserting, twisting, and tweaking would be required to draw the nods of network censors and a whole host of heartland affiliates and sponsors.

"I totally revisioned the whole thing," he says now. "We had the cartoons themselves and the Japanese scripts and we totally redid the whole series. We did new music, new scenes—we even invented a new character that looked like R2-D2. We had 7-Zark-7 there to smooth over all the rough spots in the plot. There was an antiviolence campaign in the U.S. at that time, so we had to take out most of the violence, and there was a lot of it in the original. There was death and blood, and it had to go. We took it out—much to my regret, of course. Twenty years later, violence was back in and we could have cleaned up with the same series."

Frank's team attempted a western whitewashing of the darker undercurrents in Japanese animation: No one died, plot points were softened by the R2-D2 clone, anomie was replaced by logic, or at least some signs of cause and effect, and the entire series was moved to a distant planet to avoid earthly unpleasantness. Frank's staff could neither read nor understand Japanese, so they spent painstaking hours in the studio matching English words to the mouth movements of the cartoon characters. They interpreted the plots visually and replaced the quirky-sounding Japanese tunes with America-friendly soundtracks.

The result? Aside from Godzilla features on late night TV, a disfigured, hosed-down but still breathing Battle of the Planets became America's first major encounter with a new style of Japanese pop culture. And by 1979, Frank says, "we had it running on 100 network affiliates throughout the U.S., from 4 to 6:30, Monday to Friday." In other words, they had a hit. For many American teens and young adults, this would be their first taste of Japanese pop. Some of them got hooked for life. But even thirty years ago, many sensed that what they saw in blazing anime color on their NBC affiliates was not the whole picture, which made the show even more compelling. It added another layer of narrative intrigue to the show itself, a kind of meta-mystery for young viewers: What are they hiding from us? What have they changed?

"I watched Battle of the Planets regularly, and I knew even at a young age that something was really weird," recalls Lawrence Eng, who holds a doctorate in American otaku (geek, or obsessive fan) studies from New York's Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. "I think most of us knew that the American version was different, but we didn't even know for sure where the original came from. We just knew it looked cool."

Battle of the Planets was certainly no more advanced in production values than other animations on American TV at the time. If anything, it was more primitive. The action was jerky, the movements sometimes oddly out of sync, the drawings sometimes disproportionate, as when characters shrank too quickly in size as they receded into the distance, entering absurdly tall elevators or doorways drawn onto unchanging (and so money-saving) backgrounds.

Sometimes the low-budget atmosphere itself was a source of fascination. I remember watching Battle and other titles, such as Speed Racer and Star Blazers, with a neighborhood pal. Every so often one of us would point a finger at an odd facial expression or out-of-sync bit of dialogue. Highlighting, then mocking an error with laughter provided comic relief from the seriousness of the story lines. It also provided us preteens with the chance to feel momentarily superior to shows that nevertheless sucked us back in every school day afternoon.

The characters looked different and fresh. The animation sometimes emphasized the racier parts of the human body. Their modes of transport had sleek yet believable shapes. And when the characters fought, they didn't just zap one another, as in most American cartoons. They grappled, hand to hand.

Adding to the visual titillation was the fact that each character was defined by personal dilemmas, tics, and shortcomings that made them feel more complex and less predictable. If they were not more real, perhaps, then at least they were more engaging, especially to North American kids raised on the slapstick gags and one-note portrayals (When will that stupid coyote ever learn?) that dominated standard network animation.

"There was this lack of direct confrontation in most U.S. stuff at the time," recalls Thomas Lee, a Canadian who moved to Japan in pursuit of his passion for anime, and now runs his own Tokyo-based English school. He remains an avid anime fan and, he confesses with solemnity, a recovered video game addict. Like Eng and others I spoke to, Lee is in his early thirties, part of the first-generation wave of anime fans with indelible childhood memories of Speed Racer and Battle of the Planets.

"The American stuff was frustrating. You'd have shows like the A-Team or Superman, with these powerful heroes. And then, they'd just wind up shooting at walls or lifting heavy objects. Or else you'd just see Tom and Jerry wrapping their bodies around chairs or getting hit in the head with pans. But think of Japanese shows like Ultraman Taro or Power Rangers. Those guys really kick ass."

Lee also remembers his love of anime's outlines and edges. "American cartoons had soft, round figures. There was a stronger reality to the anime, a vividness, even down to the controls on the spaceship, which really looked real and corresponded to very specific actions. Even though I knew Battle had been edited, I saw those details and was hooked."

anime style is everywhere

Thirty years later, Japan's hip twenty-first century incarnation is itself a hit in America. No longer seen as the manufacturing king of Asia (a crown China is bearing unsteadily), Japan is now the region's most visible arbiter of cool, via video and computer games, postmodern pop music trends, cuisine, clothing, mix-'n'-match light-speed fashion scenes and, especially, its iconic animations and graphic novels.

There were earlier signs of Japan's identity shift, to be sure. The recent evolution of sushi in the American psyche and palate, from an exotic threat to a grocery store mainstay, is among the most obvious and revealing ones.

Sushi is not merely raw fish, raw being un-American, and fish being relatively low on Americans' list of carnivorous preferences. It is also an entire style of eating that until quite recently felt alien to most of us. Technically, you can use a fork, spoon, and knife to eat almost all other Asian (or ethnic) cuisines, from Chinese fare to pad thai. But try using them on your sushi. In addition to physically destroying the food itself, you are likely to receive several quizzical, or downright nasty glares—not merely from the wait staff and chefs, but also from your fellow Americans. Sushi helped make chopsticks inevitable; chopsticks have become unremarkable, an infiltration of American life.

On the side of pop culture, although the Power Rangers and Pokemon phenomena predate this century, it is not by much. The former is filled with the confrontational violence and hand-to-hand grappling that drew the young Thomas Lee and others to the bowdlerized Battle series in the late 1970s, and its mass success bolsters Frank's lament that his brainchild was born twenty years too early.

But the gargantuan success of Pokemon is, like sushi, singularly revealing, partly owing to the ubiquity of Pikachu, the series' bright yellow, moon-eyed mascot. Unlike Disney icons such as Mickey, Donald, Dumbo, or Nemo, a mouse, duck, elephant, and clown fish, respectively, or Hanna Barbera's Yogi Bear, Pikachu is an animated representation of precisely nothing we know in our physical world, introducing Americans to just one aspect of Japanese pop culture's creative freedom. And while the Belgian-born Smurfs series presented Americans with similar animated inscrutability throughout the '80s (prompting a character in Richard Linklater's 1991 debut, Slacker, to crack: "What the hell is a smurf, anyway?"), Pikachu is but one of 395 different species, all of them fictional. Loosed from the gravity of realism, or even of a more finite fictional world, Pokemon's producers have been able to create what is now known as the multibillion dollar Pokemon media franchise: video games, anime, manga—and the series's ever-proliferating trading cards.

In April 2006, Tsunekazu Ishihara, the president of Pokemon Co., explained a decade of American success to the Nikkei Shimbun, Japan's Wall Street Journal, in precisely those terms. "The basic concept of Pokemon games has remained unchanged since the first release in 1996. But we have always strived to add new characters and upgrade games so that Pokemon fans will never feel they are approaching an end. That is the reason for the prolonged popularity. We're set to release more new characters by the end of this year, bringing the total number to slightly less than 400."

As a foreign-born infiltrator of American culture, and probably to the chagrin of at least some parents, Pokemon leaves Smurfdom in the dust.

If the signs of a rising Japanamerica were visible in earlier years, the twenty-first century has seen what has become a veritable surge of contemporary Japanese culture in the American psyche.

In a 2002 article for the New Yorker magazine, writer Rebecca Mead, citing the fast-paced creative energy, visual inventiveness, and acquisitive consumer intensity of its contemporary culture, announced that Tokyo had superseded Paris as the world's fashion capital. She also noted that few Japanese designers bothered invading the West with their wares, focusing for economic reasons on nearby markets in Asia.

Mead's proof was A Bathing Ape, the uber-cool, retro anime-style imprint of a thirty-something designer, entrepreneur, and DJ who calls himself Nigo, and who sells his products—mostly street wear like T-shirts, jackets, jeans, and sneakers—in tightly controlled, limited editions.

Look again. Nigo now operates stores in the heart of London's Carnaby Street trend zone and in the center of Soho in New York. He partnered with Pepsi a few years ago to design cans and other merchandise (again, limited edition), and more recently he forged a creative alliance with half-Japanese American hip-hop star and mutual admirer Pharell Williams. Together, Nigo and Williams launched a transnational designer label, Billionaire Boys Club. Williams's new CDs, released worldwide, are designed by Bathing Ape.


Excerpted from Japanamerica by Roland Kelts. Copyright © 2007 Roland Kelts. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Roland Kelts is a Lecturer at the University of Tokyo and a co-editor of the New York-based literary journal, A Public Space. His articles, essays, and stories have been published in Zoetrope, Playboy, Salon, The Village Voice, Newsday, Cosmopolitan, Vogue and The Japan Times, among others. He has lectured at New York University, Rutgers University and Barnard College, and he is a graduate of Oberlin College and Columbia University. He currently splits his time between New York and Tokyo.

Roland Kelts is a Lecturer at the University of Tokyo and a co-editor of the New York-based literary journal, A Public Space. He is the author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S. His articles, essays, and stories have been published in Zoetrope, Playboy, Salon, The Village Voice, Cosmopolitan, and Vogue, among others. He currently splits his time between New York and Tokyo.

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Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S. 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a great book if you want to learn about the effect manga and anime have on America. There not much about the actual "how to draw" aspects of manga, though. Can you stop fighting over culture? I think al culture has its own fascinating and unique traditions.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Japanese culture is cooler than Korean culture by far.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
First of all I am obsessed with manga and anime and to me this book sample was pretty cool............ Ok that was awarked anyway tha book its self is amazing and it is sooooo informational. I never realized how much this type of Japans culture has played a role in my lief until I rean this book. Highly recomended Thnx 4 reading!!!!!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Japan culture subs Korean culture is the best!