Why America thinks Japan's Cool
John de Boer (Research Associate, GLOCOM; Japan Fellow, Stanford University)
With "The Last Samurai", "Lost in Translation" and "The Twilight Samurai" up for a combined total of nine Academy Awards last night, America was abuzz with talk about Japan. Never before in history has there been so much fuss over Japan in Hollywood, at minimum when considered in terms of movies produced in a single year. This year alone there were at least five feature films related to Japan that gained major exposure. Accompanying the three named above were Quentin Tarantino's film "Kill Bill Vol. 1" and an Australian movie called "Japanese Story" directed by Sue Brooks. This surge in interest regarding things Japanese in the United States has got many talking about why Japanese culture has suddenly struck a chord in the West.
The truth of the matter is that Japan's success on the big screen in Hollywood is nothing more than superficial. As Ryan Nakashima pointed out in his Agence France Presse article of 25 February entitled, "Money, curiosity behind 'Japanisation' of Hollywood", live action films featuring Japan serve only to demonstrate how the U.S. film industry is trying to capitalize on Japan's popularity in America and on the Japanese movie market. The Last Samurai made $109 million in the U.S., however, according to the market research firm Exhibitor Relations, it is expected to gross over $121 million in Japan. For a market that is four times smaller than the U.S. market, these are impressive earnings. Even Kill Bill made $24 million in Japan, more than one-third of its revenues in America. As Doug Campbell (vice principal of the Tokyo Film Center School of Arts) stated in Nakashima's article, U.S. studios will make movies about Japan if they feel they can exploit Japanese culture. On the other hand, if Hollywood films about Japanese culture start to lose money, Campbell insists that we probably won't see many more. Judging from recent film history he is likely right. The last surge in Hollywood interest about Japan came in the late 1980's when the U.S. was worried about a powerful Japan taking over world finances and more concretely America. A surge that was accompanied in the intellectual world by works such as Ezra Vogel's Japan as No. 1 and James Fallow's article entitled "Containing Japan". As soon as Japan's economy went into decline and lost clout, after the 'burst of the bubble', the world and indeed Hollywood lost interest and Japan disappeared from radar.
In recognition of this tendency, movies such as The Last Samurai and Lost in Translation have not been taken seriously by most academics in the U.S. In fact, many are looking beyond Hollywood to try and understand why many American young people think Japanese is cool. As recently as four years ago when Professor Saya Shiraishi (Prof. at Kyoto Bunkyo University) rewrote her article entitled "Doraemon Goes Abroad" for Timothy J. Craig's book Japan Pop!, she noted that Japanese cultural products (specifically comics and animation) were not succeeding in the U.S. as a result of cultural and market barriers. She argued that Japanese productions were facing difficulties when confronted with the U.S. "image alliance" that pairs American pop-music with Hollywood movies, the television industry and toy manufacturers. Today, less than four years later, Japanese cultural exports have managed to crash through the barriers identified by Shiraishi and captivate young minds and capture huge markets. A large number of animated series seen by American youth on the television are Japanese. Much of what is being consumed materially is also Japanese. According to Sugiura Tsutomu, the animated series Pocket Monsters (Pokemon) and related merchandise has generated $2.3 trillion in sales worldwide. In 1999, the Pokemon movie grossed $85 million in the U.S (See Sugiura's article, "Japanese Culture on the World Stage", Journal of Japanese Trade & Industry, March 1 2004). In addition to animation, Japanese comic books, design, fashion and art (such as the Superflat), are everywhere to be seen.
Expansion abroad was an intentional marketing strategy on the part of a Japanese cultural industry that started in the 1980s and came to fruition at just the right time when domestic consumption was decreasing. The 1980s generation, whose tastes were cultivated through exposure to Japanese games, toys and animation, are now leading the "Japan is cool" movement. Four years ago Shiraishi wrote that, "today in Asia, Disney cartoons are what parents tend to buy for their children. But Japanese comic books, animation videos, video games, and character merchandise are what children ask their parents to buy for them, or what children buy with their own money" (Craig, 2000, p. 305). Today, some consider that the same phenomenon is applicable to the U.S. In his article, Sugihara argues that Toyota is enjoying brisk sales of its new Scion compact car launched in California in June 2003 because the young consumer generation has been "weaned on Japanese anime and video games".
More profound explanations of why Japan sells in the U.S. have been put forward by Prof. Anne Allison (Duke University) whose research indicates that Japanese toys have been successful in America because of their hybrid form, capitalistic nature and friendliness. Their ability to morph mutates ethnicity allowing it to go beyond Japaneseness and cross borders. The emphasis on trade and communication surrounding Pokemon merchandise generates the desire to acquire in the form of material and knowledge. Allison also informs us that Pokemon goods act as "portable companions" creating a special interactive bond between the consumer and the object.
What a synthesis of Shiraishi, Sugiura and Allison's arguments says is that American young people think Japan is cool because they have been socialized to like Japanese design, products and images and ultimately feel more knowledgeable and accompanied by acquiring them. The extent of influence that this relationship between Japanese cultural products and their American consumers will have in shaping the future remains a matter of intense interest in the U.S. and will no doubt give rise to fascinating academic and public debate in the years to come.