Skip to comments.Japan's Gross National Cool
Posted on 05/02/2002 7:08:56 PM PDT by valkyrieanne
Japan is reinventing superpoweragain. Instead of collapsing beneath its widely reported political and economic misfortunes, Japans global cultural influence has quietly grown. From pop music to consumer electronics, architecture to fashion, and animation to cuisine, Japan looks more like a cultural superpower today than it did in the 1980s, when it was an economic one. But can Japan build on its mastery of medium to project an equally powerful national message?
On Sunday mornings, teenagers crowd the sidewalks of Tokyos Shibuya district until they spill over the curbs and into the streets. They start at Hachiko Square, under a video monitor that takes up the entire face of a glass and steel high-rise, and spread out, 30 or 40 wide in the crosswalks. They mill around displays stacked with new sneakersNike and New Balance from the United States, Puma and Adidas from Europe via New York. They gather in a small music store that specializes in the American vinyl records played in Tokyos popular soul barsGrandmaster Flash, Curtis Mayfield, Parliament. They spend 370 yen (roughly $3) at Starbucks for a tall iced latte, which tastes just as it does in Washington, D.C., and is just as overpriced. Like any global metropolis, Tokyo serves up a substantial dose of American culture, particularly to its youth. Sometimes, like Starbucks or Nikes, it is authentic. Sometimes, like a Harbard University sweatshirt or a potato salad pizza, it is not. But cultural accuracy is not the point. Less important than authentic American origin is the whiff of American cool.
A few blocks from the Starbucks in Hachiko Square you will find Mandarake, a shop that sells used manga and anime (Japanese comic books and animation, respectively). There is no storefront full of dog-eared comics in plastic sleeves, just a maw of an entrance carved cavelike out of fake rock and flight after flight of stairs down to the basement-level shop. There, comic books and videotapes are stacked to the ceiling, alongside the toys and collectibles they inspired. The real esoterica are under glass, rare Godzilla and Ultraman action figures selling for hundreds of dollars each.
With a network of shops across Japan and a listing on the Nikkei Stock Index, Mandarake Incorporated is positioning for global expansion. New stores opened in Los Angeles in 1999 and in Bologna in 2001. Japan accounts for the bulk of Mandarakes revenue, said company president Masuzo Furukawa, but in, say, about five to 10 years, it should be the other way around. The foreign market should be much bigger.
Already, there isnt much of a time lag between what sells well in Japan and what sells in the United States, Furukawa said, comparing business in Tokyo and Los Angeles. The buxom, gun-toting pixies, cute monsters, and transforming robots that fill Mandarake in Shibuya show up in MTV graphics, street fashions, bars and dance clubs, and even museums. Last year, the Getty Center in Los Angeles debuted a blockbuster show on Japans Super Flat movementyoung Japanese art inspired by the two-dimensional look of commercial cartoons.
Sometimes, like an Issey Miyake gown, the Japan that travels is authentic. Sometimes, like cream cheeseandsalmon sushi, it is not. But cultural accuracy is not the point. What matters is the whiff of Japanese cool.
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"I am Mr. Sparkle! I am disrespectful to dirt. Can you see I am serious!
Get out of my way, all of you! This is no place for loafers.
Join me or die. Can you do any less?"
I think most Japanese are surprised and pleased to learn of the extent that manga and anime have managed to make inroads into non-Japanese cultures of all sorts, but that has NEVER been an aim, per se.
Notice the way, for example, that Jackie Chan has a huge following in Japan. Who is Japan's Jackie for the rest of Asia?
He doesn't exist.
Beyond having the rest of the world paying for its steady stream of ingenious exports, in things cultural Japan is quite content for the world to just forget about them, more or less. And that's in spite of Hello Kitty's success.
A quick aside here --I'm no Bible Banger, but did you know that the percentage of Japanese who are Christian is lower now than during the freakin' TOKUGAWA era? Yes.
Exports of the cultural variety bring prying, foreign eyes. Japan tends to chaffe under that kind of scrutiny.
The peculiar brand of insularity that we see there is the polar opposite of that which prevails in France.
France - bring your genes here, leave your ways at home.
Japan - bring your ways here, but kindly take your honorable ass back home.
Laughing Out Loud (there, I spelled it out!).
Hachiko Square is a cool place to people watch.