Sunday, October 11, 2009

I think I'm Turning Japanese?

In the article on "Japanization" Iwabuchi asks us to reconsider cultural globalization and more specifically Japanese influence on global culture. However, while reading the article, I couldn't help but think of how dated it felt, even though it was written in 2002 (according to my Google search). While I don't know what kind of influence Japanese culture has on other parts of the world, it may have a far greater influence on countries in Asia, in the United States it seems that influence has seriously waned since the 1990's.
Starting in the 80's and into the 90's Japanese technology and culture seemed to be everywhere. There were anime cartoons, from Sailor Moon to Pokemon, tamagotchi pets, and walkmans followed by discmans (discmen?). Students were encouraged to learn Japanese because the country was a rising economic superpower.
Now there seems to be little talk of Japan's world economic and cultural influence. Japanese cultural exports have achieved "cult" status with gruesome horror movies, manga, and Gwen Stefani and her Harajuku girls. While they are widely known of, it seems that they only absorbed and put into practice or use by a small number of people. If so then what is Japan's contribution to global culture (if the situation in the US is similar to that of other regions)?
I'm not sure what led to this decline in Japanese influence on US culture. Maybe it was the continued "economic slump" in the country mentioned by Iwabuchi. Maybe it was the rise of China as a new world superpower (although China doesn't seem to have exported much culturally, at least not yet). Perhaps if Japan's economy rebounds with the rest of the world it's cultural exports will rebound as well and we'll be hit with a new wave of Japanese culture.
This of course leads to a larger question. Why has Japanese cultural influence waned whereas US cultural influence seems to hold steady across the globe? Is it because US culture is so ill-defined and mainly thought of on the basis of a consumer culture? If a culture of consumption is all the US exports it is possible that such a vague and broad influence would endure, whereas something more specific such as facets of Japanese culture might increase and decline over time depending on public interests. If the US had a more defined culture would its cultural influence wax and wane or would the control of the media by US conglomerates allow it to hold steady?


  1. Katie, I felt the same 'datedness' when reading the Iwabuchi article. The idea of 'Japanization' seems almost like a fad to me. Pokemon was one phenomenon that was mentioned by Iwabuchi as showing the international cultural influence of Japan. However, I would argue that this show's influence was very generational and seemed to fall off rather quickly. From my babysitting days, I found that many of the people obsessed with this show, playing cards, stuffed characters, etc. were between the ages of 4 and 10, and it is debatable (actually unlikely) whether they recognized that this show and these toys were of Japanese extraction.

    In addition, I think you partially answered your own questions at the end. In my opinion, American cultural influence has been equivocated with the spread of a fast-paced, consumer culture. I also think that the difficulty in defining a more concrete definition of American culture exacerbates this over-simplification of American culture in the global consciousness.

  2. I also agree with you that the article was a little dated. While the Pokemon discussion was needed, and certainly was a good support of the author's argument, I couldn't help think, "Yeah, okay, but what else? What about since then?" Marie's comment is good too--kids usually don't think about the country of origin of their toys, let alone its culture. I remember the Tamagotchi pet craze--I think it was when we were 9-10 years old--and I never once thought about the fact that they came from Japan, only that I wanted one. Much of what Japan has exported has been geared toward the young, and I think some of those products' culture has been lost in translation to kids, so to speak.

    You also bring up a good point about American culture and its huge export success. I think because American culture is so consumer-based, it's easier for people to adapt it to their own cultures and daily lives. McDonald's, for example, is hugely successful all over the world. I think it speaks to the fact that everyone, regardless of where they come from, is a consumer. As Marie says, though, it does get over-simplified in the process, and I wish it weren't that way.

  3. I do think that the Japanese fascination has faded here in the U.S, but I have no clue how widespread it became in other countries. The author does express on a couple of occasions that Japanese consumer products don't seek to sell on the back of a Japanese way of life and that they lack an influential 'idea of Japan,' unlike the U.S. He mentions that although Pokemon and animations were popular with US children, it is doubtful the kids conjured up any ideas of Japan or that they understood or appreciated the country and its way of life. "What is experienced through Japanese popular culture is actually a highly materialistic Japanese version of the American 'original." This quote makes a point about the discussion that you brought up about America as well as the implications of Japanese pop culture. Iwabuchi is convinced that Americanization has a wider (and probably longer) reach. This is due to various factors, including consumption and capitalist tendencies. The example he gives is McDonalds. There are McDs in many remote places and over the years became quite popular. But, the fact that people in China buy burgers there doesn't inherently mean that they understand or appreciate America. By the same token, McD's does not represent the essence of America. It is simply "an attractive way of life," according to Iwabuchi. I agree with him that people are attracted to the American way of life. The fact that they are able to readily purchase and experience our products (burgers through McD's, Movies through Hollywood, etc) makes 'Americanization' easier and it seems to endure. This has changed as well due in part to the negative views of the U.S. that have sprung up in the past years, but there is no way to reverse the influence it has had, just like there is no way to really reduce the power that media conglomerates have.

  4. I agree with everyone's sentiment that the article felt dated-- I remember flipping back to look for when it was published after I'd gotten only a few pages in. Nevertheless, I think that Iwabuchi's point was that there has been a influx of Japanese technology since before, during and after the zenith of Pokemon and friends. I expect that gadgets such as iPods are considered an "American" product, even though they are produced in China, but they are still the technological descendant of the Walkman. While culturally "odorless," the international spread of Walkmen was an adoption of the Japanese tools for atomizing in a strongly collective society-- an effort that would seem less culturally subversive in countries like America that champion individuality, until you consider the strong influence of the standardization of experience in those same countries. An airplane full of people plugged into their iPods is a picture of isolation and liberation. In this way, tools used by the Japanese to a certain end (according to Iwabuchi) are utilized in other cultures for their people's own search for individuality and freedom.

  5. Side note: How many of us thought of using that song title in their blog? I know I did!

  6. As I read the article, I had similar feelings about the impact "Japanization" really had on the United States and other cultures. Oddly enough, I was babysitting an 11 year old last week who asked if my siblings liked Pokemon. The last time someone mentioned Pokemon to me was about 4 years ago when I was again, babysitting - that time a 7 year old.
    In undergrad, I had two friends who were very interested in Japanese animee, interested enough to start the Marietta College Animee Club. The group only had about 5 members total.
    I completely agree with what you said Katie, I believe that perhaps cultural influence ebbs and flows depends on economic power. As you mentioned, China economic influence has grown in the past decade. While in undergrad, this was very obvious at my university as the number of students learning the Chinese language was huge.