Friday 03 May 2002

Japan’s newest export

Douglas McGray’s Foreign Policy essay, titled Japan’s Gross National Cool offers the most insightful analysis of Japanese culture I’ve read in a long time. McGray suggests that, despite the crash of the bubble economy and the resulting economic woes of the last decade, Japan “has been perfecting the art of transmitting certain kinds of mass culture—a technique that has contributed mightily to U.S. hegemony around the world.”

Japan has become one of a handful of perfect globalization nations (along with the United States). It has succeeded not only in balancing a flexible, absorptive, crowd-pleasing, shared culture with a more private, domestic one but also in taking advantage of that balance to build an increasingly powerful global commercial force. In other words, Japan’s growing cultural presence has created a mighty engine of national cool.

McGray peppers his serious social and economic arguments with marvellous examples of contemporary Japanese attitudes and behaviour. For example, the manufactured tarento (talent) pop groups that rocket to the top of the charts and disappear just as quickly:

Consider the case of a new band, Lipless X Sister… Like most Japanese pop music acts, Lipless X Sister is a concept group, dreamed up by record producers and marketing executives and then assembled through auditions. In this case, the concept was 18- to 22-year-old girls with 2-year-old children. A producer explained the band’s name to local press: “You can like them. But they’re mothers, so you can’t kiss them.”

And, of course, Hello Kitty:

Sanrio licenses so many products with Hello Kitty’s likeness that a company spokesman could not confirm the current count. Put it between 12,000, the estimate he gave, and 15,000, a number that is widely reported. You can buy individually wrapped Hello Kitty prunes. You can buy a toaster that burns Hello Kitty’s face into a piece of bread. You can buy a Hello Kitty vibrator. “We don’t have such strict regulations,” the spokesman said. “Hard alcohol, maybe that would not be appropriate.”

(Link via Arts & Letters Daily)

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Interesting, perhaps, that it's Korean pop music that's at the top of the charts in Japan right now, and that's by far the most popular throughout Asia. I'm going to have to reread that article and think about it some more. If Japan is exporting it's pop culture to the west, but (like other parts of Asia) importing from Korea, where does that leave us, considering Korea is importing so much from the West?


Posted by stavrosthewonderchicken on 5 May 2002 (Comment Permalink)

I didn't realize that Korean pop was topping the charts in Japan (it's a year since I've been in Japan). Are Korean groups "manufactured" to the same degree that they are in Japan?

Posted by Jonathon Delacour on 5 May 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Most assuredly, yes. Absolute pabulum.

Posted by stavrosthewonderchicken on 6 May 2002 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour