The Globalization of Japanese Pop Culture
Global Appeal, Lost in Translation and Japanese “Soft Power”

Global Appeal
When seeking an explanation for the global popularity of forms such as Japanese animation and Nintendo video games, most observers, whether fans or academic researchers, have tended to start with the pop products themselves. There does seem to be something intrinsic to Japanese mass entertainments — their style, their content, their message — that is distinctive and broadly appealing, especially in contrast to the familiar fare of Hollywood blockbusters, American prime-time television, and the Billboard Top 40 music charts. Japanese pop has become a global success story not just because it is as polished and sophisticated as the best of what America and Europe have to offer but also because it is insistently and unapologetically different from the familiar and often predictable products of the Magic Kingdom, Marvel Comics, and the top Paris fashion houses. (Japanese Popular Culture and Globalization, 35-6)

To the extent that elements that are abundant in Japanese pop culture — complex story and character development; frank portrayals of human nature; dreams and romantic optimism; kids’ perspectives; a focus on human relations, work, and mental strength — are scarcer in Western pop culture, Western consumers find that Japan pop enriches their pop culture diet, giving them a fuller range of forms, themes, and viewpoints to enjoy, and perhaps to be influenced by. (JPCG, 37)
The medium is both different in a way that is appealing to a Western audience satiated on the predictabilities of American pop culture and also remarkably approachable in its universal themes and images. ... Indeed, anime may be the perfect medium to capture what is perhaps the overriding issue of our day, the shifting nature of identity in a constantly changing society. With its rapid shifts of narrative pace and its constantly transforming imagery, the animated medium is superbly positioned to illustrate the atmosphere of change permeating not only Japanese society but also all industrialized or industrializing societies. Moving at rapid — sometimes breakneck — pace and predicated upon the instability of form, animation is both a symptom and a metaphor for a society obsessed with change and spectacle. In particular, animation’s emphasis on metamorphosis can be seen as the ideal artistic vehicle for expressing the postmodern obsession with fluctuating identity. (JPCG, 37-8)


Familiarity and the Media Marketplace

The reasons for the worldwide embrace of Japan’s “Gross National Cool” are, perhaps not surprisingly, as diverse as the forms of Japanese popular culture and the sources of Japan’s pop creativity. The intrinsic characteristics of Japanese animation, cinema, and character goods — obvious quality, stylistic and thematic complexity, insistent difference from Western pop conventions — have undoubtedly proven attractive to global consumers. At the same time, external factors — the market forces that consistently brought Japanese entertainment products to American audiences, international stereotypes of Japan’s cultural odor, the long shadows of September 11, and even the activities of devoted fans — also created conditions favorable to the diffusion of Japanese pop culture. Through a complicated interplay of content and context, Japanese pop forms have become familiar icons and welcome diversions, mass-marketed commodities and cherished artifacts, as well as meaningful sites of identification, aspiration, and resistance in the contemporary global imagination. (JPCG, 46)

Lost in Translation
Today, as has been the case since World War II, the Japanese pop culture products that reach consumers abroad are usually not identical to the ones that Japan’s domestic audiences enjoy. Pikachu may look the same in New York as in Tokyo, but his fellow “pocket monsters” have different names in different countries and their animated adventures are not precisely the same worldwide. Linguistic intermediation is inevitable in the global circulation of Japanese entertainment goods; anime and Japanese movies are translated and subtitled or dubbed in English, Korean, or French to make them accessible to audiences overseas. But editing also takes place to make Japanese pop forms seem more familiar and appealing to international consumers. This process of “localization” — the adaptation of pop culture commodities to the cultural, social, and political realities of the regions and nations where they will be bought and sold — is now regarded as a fundamental part of the negotiations and transformations of globalization. (JPCG, 47)

The remaking of Japanese pop products abroad may be the ultimate form of localization, a wholesale appropriation of Japanese styles, stories, and innovations that removes any apparent “Japaneseness” from a pop culture artifact, be it a samurai movie or an animated series, even more thoroughly than editing, censoring, and dubbing. But imitation is more than just a passive act; the recasting of Japanese forms in new American or European or Chinese guises requires intricate adjustments, negotiations, and acts of creation and produces imaginative new fusions not wholly “Japanese” or “Western” or “Asian.” Out of this constant, dynamic process — of pop products moving across borders and cultures, being localized and remade, inspiring new creative energies, hybridizing into novel forms, and then circulating once again to audiences worldwide — comes much of the imaginative energy and seemingly endless diversity of global popular culture. (JPCG, 56-7)
In a 2002 article in the journal Foreign Policy, the journalist Douglas McGray described a fundamental shift in the international profile of Japan in the closing years of the twentieth century. McGray notes that in the 1980s Japan grew into one of the world’s premier industrial nations, earning global attention (and sometimes respect) for the Toyota sedans, Panasonic appliances, and Mizuno sporting goods flooding international markets. In the long recession of the 1990s, however, when the shine came off the Japanese economy, Japan began to gradually but dramatically redefine itself in the eyes of the world. “Japan is reinventing superpower,” McGray wrote. “Instead of collapsing beneath its widely reported political and economic misfortunes, Japan’s 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?” In other words, can japan leverage its success in exporting popular culture — what McGray memorably called “a might engine of national cool” — to achieve broader political, strategic, or economic goals on the international stage? (JPCG, 59)

As scholars continue to debate the sources of Japanese pop culture’s creativity and the reasons for its global appeal, policymakers will no doubt continue to work to find ways to convert Japan’s substantial “Gross National Cool” into tangible political, economic, or diplomatic benefits. Whether anime will ever be able to compensate for the relative weakness of the Japanese military establishment or the appeal of Japanese fashion among Asian youth will somehow counteract the decline of Japanese manufacturing is dubious at best. In the end, only time will tell if the early-twenty-first-century globalization of Japaneses popular culture will prove an important turning point, an opportunity lost, or perhaps even the historic dawn of Japan as the world’s first soft superpower. (JPCG, 67)