Cooling it, Japanese-style

Fun Fair
By MIKE MILIARD  |  February 28, 2007

Afro Samurai
You don’t have to be in Fort Myers or Fenway to know that Japan is big business. Matsuzaka mania is only the latest symptom of a deep American infatuation with all things Nipponese, from Hello Kitty to Nintendo Wii, Pokémon to Princess Mononoke, “Harajuku Girls” to Puffy AmiYumi and Acid Mothers Temple. What does it all mean?

With “Cool Japan 2007,” a three-day conference that runs through Saturday at MIT and Harvard, Ian Condry, an associate professor of Japanese cultural studies at MIT and author of Hip-Hop Japan: Rap and the Paths of Cultural Globalization (Duke), looks to answer that question and more.

On Thursday, MIT will host a symposium on Condry’s book, while Japanese hip-hop artist Miss Monday will perform at the Middle East. Panel discussions on “Love and War in Japanese Culture” will take place on Friday (at Harvard) and Saturday (at MIT). And Harvard will screen the anime miniseries Afro Samurai — followed by a Q&A with creator Takashi Okazaki — on Saturday. The colloquium, Condry says, is a way of exploring the “cultural connections, dangerous distortions, and critical potential of popular culture” in Japan and abroad.

As for how Japan tapped into its cultural potential, it occurred in a less than predictable way. That is, by the early 1990s, after a dizzying economic boom, Japan had entered a deep recession. Record unemployment. The Nikkei, the yen, and GDP all in decline. Paradoxically, though, as Douglas McGray wrote in Foreign Policy in 2001, “instead of collapsing beneath its political and economic misfortunes, Japan’s global cultural influence has only grown. In fact, from pop music to consumer electronics, architecture to fashion, and food to art, Japan has far greater cultural influence now than it did in the 1980s, when it was an economic superpower.” For that, you can thank the country’s youth.

“There’s been a big decline in the birth rate, so there are a lot of single kids and a lot more money can be spent on the children,” Condry says. “Japanese government and big business is looking for things to do that aren’t manufacturing; everybody knows manufacturing is going to China. One of the responses is to see Japan’s entertainment industry leading the next generation of economic growth: whether it’s comic books, animation, video games, or music. That’s a vibrant sector of the Japanese economy, seen as important national resource.”

Interestingly, as McGray notes, the softening of Japan’s economy has simultaneously led to a profusion of creativity among the younger denizens of Tokyo and Osaka: “Perversely, recession may have boosted Japan’s national cool, discrediting Japan’s rigid social hierarchy and empowering young entrepreneurs,” he says.

Japanese culture may have made unprecedented inroads into America, but our country’s entertainment hegemony has not relinquished its grip on Japan. Now, it’s just served with a twist.

“In contrast to the ’60s and ’70s, when American culture was very big and was seen as the democratic, modern vision of freedom [in Japan], today’s rap audience is interested not so much in American culture as black culture,” says Condry, who spent years in Japan doing field work for his book. He cites Spike Lee movies and The Autobiography of Malcolm X as two popular touchstones. He also remembers talking to a record-producer friend who told him, “When I got to a Kabuki show, I feel like I’m in a foreign country. But when I hear Stevie Wonder? That’s my man.” 

On the Web
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