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

Woodblock print of Hokusai's Great Wave with imperial Japanese flag superimposed on the background
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Traditional Japanese Woman in a "pop art" style
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)
Poster for the anime "Akira"
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)
Anime vs. Animation: "What's the difference between Japanese and American Animation?"
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)
Scene from Princess Mononoke (with "Japanese Identity" icon)
Napier also concludes that a substantial part of anime’s appeal is its subversive edge, its tenacious unwillingness to embrace the Hollywood happy ending that reassures audiences that all is well with the world. Indeed, anime — as well as manga, sci-fi cinema, and much popular fiction -- often leaves viewers with the abiding impression that the world is profoundly, perhaps even irreparably, corrupt and dysfunctional. Countless Japanese pop narratives end with the hero dead, Tokyo in smoldering ruins, and fears of apocalypse only briefly alleviated. (JPCG, 38)
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Image representing Japanese pop culture

Familiarity and the Media Marketplace

Various famous icons of Japanese pop culture
"The Smell of Pop"
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American Trauma (Hiroshima after the bomb) and Japanese Pop (World Trade Center after 9/11)
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American anime fans in cosplay outfits
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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)
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Japanese pop culture icons getting "lost in translation"
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)

Freedom Soap (eliminating the "smell" of Japanese pop culture???)
Seven Samurai Posters: original in the center with two American remakes on either side
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Iron Chef Japan
Iron Chef America
Freedom Soap (eliminating the "smell" of Japanese pop culture???)
Powerpuff Girls!
PostmodernismThe 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)
Poster for the American-made Super Mario Bros. Movie
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"Cool Japan" poster (representing "soft superpower")
Japan as Soft Superpower
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)
"Cool Japan" with Imperial Japanese flag
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)
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Various images with the Japanese and English words for "Conclusion"
Even a brief survey of Japanese pop and its global diffusion reveals a great deal about Japan's cultural heritage, its social, political, and economic conditions, and its place in the world. Although Japan has long been seen abroad as a closed and insular society, homogenous ethnically, linguistically, and culturally, the history of Kabuki theater, comic books, and giant monster movies expose a culture of real and deep diversity, tremendous dynamism, and profound ingenuity. Contemporary Japan is neither an exclusive, pure, and untouched civilization nor a place so thoroughly Westernized by decades of exposure as to lose its cultural distinctiveness. Instead, a history of imaginative dialogue between homegrown traditions and imported innovations contributed substantially to the energy and variety of Japanese popular culture. So, too, did a modern experience marked by constant and often jarring change, the trauma of war and humiliation of defeat, and a society wound tight by obligations and anxieties. And from this inspired and tortured cultural landscape came the distinctive themes and sensibilities of Japanese pop — the fascination with apocalypse, the haunting presence of monsters, the escapist yearnings of cute, the techno-fetishism of mecha — that have won so many admirers around the world. ...
Tradition and Modernity: woman in traditional kimono talking on a cell phone in front of modern drink machines
interconnected world
At the same time, globalization profoundly complicates what we consider to be “Japan” or “Japanese”; localization recasts pop commodities as they move among cultures, both stripping out difference and reinforcing stereotypes, while the global economy continues to dissolve borders and confound notions of authenticity. How Japanese, for instance, is an animated series conceived in Tokyo but drawn by Chinese or South Korean illustrators, dubbed and edited in Canada, and distributed in the United States? As the example of Japanese pop culture suggests, globalization is about the constant circulation of goods and ideas, the intricate but frequently contradictory cycle of transnational inspiration, and innovation that produces sameness while accentuating difference, erases boundaries while affirming cultural divides, and facilitates imitation while simultaneously sparking new imaginative energies. (JPCG, 70)