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Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2000

Japan's pop culture conquers the world


By PHILIP D. ZITOWITZ
JAPAN POP Inside the World of Japanese Popular Culture, edited by Timothy J. Craig. M. E. Sharpe, 235 pp., $58.95 (cloth).

Japan is undergoing a quiet revolution. Long known for its talents in miniaturization and for the mass production of electronic consumer products, Japan is gaining a new image: Miniaturization is giving way to "manga," and automobiles to "anime." The traditional arts -- ikebana, "sado" and "shodo" -- continue to flourish but they are being jostled aside by the dynamic domestic and international interest in Japanese popular culture.

The domestic appetite for items like manga or anime has already been carefully documented, although the sheer volume of their sales continues to astound. Manga account "for over 40 percent of all books and magazines sold in Japan -- which works out to 15 copies sold for every one person." Anime is a staple of the television and film industries. We can see cute little anime-inspired images everywhere: hanging from pocketbooks and portable phones, on posters and photos, on dolls and motorized toys.

The real surprise is how enthusiastically young people from Asia, Europe and America have embraced Japanese popular culture. A Hong Kong video retail outlet serves over 50 clients a day, who swarm in to catch the most up-to-date Japanese family drama. Bangkok's most exclusive shopping plaza houses a youth-oriented Japanese book store. Japan pop-oriented Web sites and fan clubs are sprouting up all over North America and Western Europe.

As Timothy Craig, the editor of "Japan Pop Inside the World of Japanese Popular Culture" has pointed out, "a new generation of young Americans, Europeans and Asians has grown up watching not Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny, but Japanese cartoons, from Astroboy, Speed Racer, Star Blazers and Robotech to Doraemon, Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball and Crayon Shinchan."

Craig initially posted a one-page Internet announcement requesting submissions for a Japanese Pop Culture conference that would be held at the University of Victoria Centre for Asia-Pacific Initiatives in 1997, and the international response was overwhelming. A modestly planned academic conference evolved into a dynamic three-day extravaganza with over 40 feature presentations from writers, practitioners and scholars. Apparently, the audience was as diverse as the presenters. Staid professors from Tokyo and Harvard Universities were rubbing shoulders with "purple-haired, karaoke singing otaku."

All except two of the contributors to "Japan Pop!" were participants in this seminal conference. Reflecting the themes covered in the symposium, Craig's selections for the anthology are broad enough to cover the full range of popular culture without being too amorphous. After all, popular culture can be so loosely construed so as to represent all facets of a nation's culture.

He divides the 17 essays into four categories: popular music; comics and animation; television and film; and Japanese popular culture abroad.

Craig's dynamic introduction gives an overview of Japanese popular culture. His sincerity and enthusiasm set the tone for the entire volume. While all of the essays have been written by scholars, he chose writers with enough sizzle to bridge the broad gap between the academic and general audiences. The essays thus incorporate the best of two worlds: They have the theoretical overview of the professional researcher and the vitality of journalism. In addition to explaining the distinctive qualities of popular culture and its burgeoning international popularity, the essays give a new perspective on an immensely popular work, as in Mark Schilling's "Into the Heartland with Tora-san"; elucidate important social and cultural trends, as in E. Taylor Atkins' provocative "Can the Japanese Sing the Blues"; or present cultural masterpieces that have remained generally unknown to a non-Japanese audience, as in Mark Wheeler MacWilliams' "Japanese Comic Books and Religion: Osamu Tezuka's Story of the Buddha."

As diverse as these and the 14 other titles seem, they form a rich tapestry of contemporary Japanese life. The photos, illustrations, song lyrics, samples of photos and quotes from both creators and consumers help the reader to more fully experience the flavor of Japanese popular culture. The anthology of essays becomes more than just a scholarly contribution; it provides a fascinating and honest tableau of life as it is lived in Japan.

"To understand Japan's complex society and the ways it is changing, to get a sense of what the Japanese people are thinking and what they view as important, to be entertained . . . there may be no better 'textbook' than the rich and often-surprising world of Japan's modern pop culture."

Philip D. Zitowitz is a lecturer at Meiji University. He is the author of the interview series: "New Perspectives on Language and Culture" and the forthcoming "The Spirit of Broadway, The Spirit of America."


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