Japan cracking US pop culture hegemony
Japan is quietly emerging as a global trendsetter in pop culture, as well as in green technology and environmental practices.
Just two decades ago, Japan's image in the world was of an economic juggernaut, challenging America and other industrialized nations with its push for dominance in everything from microchips to supercomputers. Discussion of Japanese culture typically referenced the traditional and offbeat worlds of, say, Kabuki or sumo.Skip to next paragraph
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Today, Japan sets the trends in what's cool. Sarah Palin's famous glasses came from a Japanese designer. Tokyo has the most Michelin-starred restaurants in the world, with eight of them earning three stars. Even America's favorite food show, "Iron Chef," is a Japanese import. Japanese women are pushing the limits of literary pop culture with blogs and cellphone novels. Japanese comics occupy ever-greater shelf space in bookstores, and animé-influenced movies like the "The Dark Knight" and "Spider-Man 3" find huge audiences in the West.
What all these media share is a nuanced Japanese aesthetic that has infiltrated global sensibilities – a sort of new "soft power" for Japan. In the process, they're challenging delineations of good and evil from the world's main purveyor of pop culture, Hollywood, as well as American ideals of the lone action-hero.
"The American 20th-century ideal of the individual superhero is wearing thin," says Roland Kelts, professor at the University of Tokyo and author of "Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S." "The Japanese model is of self-denial and the sublimation of selfish desires for the sake of group harmony. This is becoming a multipolar world. The desire to be a part of something harmonious rather than the leader of a pack is growing."
Most weekdays, manga creators Shin Kibayashi and his sister, Yuko, can be found sitting elbow to elbow in their modest studio in a stylish section of Tokyo. She types dialogue while he comments. She does the same as he sketches. They switch roles – effortlessly – as the spirit moves them.
The world they work in is not one of American-style comic strips. Their serial cartoons – which are regularly bound into large volumes – follow sophisticated characters and plots over long periods of time, much like a soap opera.
The team's work spans the spectrum, from the Kindaichi Case Files, a detective series aimed at boys to the soccer manga Shoot! to The Drops of the Gods, a series for adults that focuses on wine and is read weekly by 500,000 Japanese. In France and Korea, the series is so popular that sales of wine brands mentioned in the comic often spike.
Shin says he's noticed a dramatic rise in interest in their work. "It took a long time, but manga's role has developed citizenship everywhere," he says.
In France last year, for example, 1,787 foreign comic books were translated – 64 percent of them Japanese. In the US, total manga sales in 2007 rose about 5 percent, to more than $210 million, according to ICV2.com, a trade website. Otakon, a convention devoted to Japanese pop culture in Baltimore, saw a record-breaking 26,000-plus attendees this past summer.
Shin says a plus for manga is the latitude they give the reader. "A significant characteristic is that there's not good and bad only," he says as he and Yuko sit in the entertainment room of his airy European-style home.
Daily life has many areas of gray, the two artists say – and it's encumbent upon them to explore them. That approach applies to young people as well, though they emphasize their sensitivity to young readers' impressionability.
Shin notes that TV, for example, would skirt showing drug use. But in manga, "I will show it, while at the same time making it clear that something must or could be done," he says. "Manga is an experimental medium, so you can explore how to influence boys not to do drugs."
"To readers, the manga's world is more real than Hollywood movies," Yuko adds. "In spite of the fact that the story is fantasy, the way characters [behave] in manga is more realistic."