Japan Boom Trickle Down

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My friends like to rub in my face the current American fascination with Japanese pop culture — “If Japan has become so uncool,” they are prone to ask, “why is it now more popular than ever in the States?” They’ve got a point: I cannot deny the popularity of Lost in Translation, anime, kanji tattoos, Puffy Amiyumi, A Bathing Ape, Hiromix, and Japanese horror films. Hell, Nigo’s in the new Snoop video.

However, all of the current items mentioned above are all essentially dated from the late ’90s Japanese pop explosion. What has happened is this: The wave of Japanese culture has gone from innovators like Momus and Tokion to early adopters Raygun and Matador to the mainstream. But it’s the exact same wave of content and creators. For example, A Bathing Ape was something Mo Wax (London) and RECON (NY) were fooling around with in the mid-’90s, then became a hipster item for British street wear kids around 2000, and now is fashion for the Source Awards set.

My point remains: The issues is that there’s no next wave here in Japan. There’s no new Nigo, no new Puffy, no new Cornelius. There are certainly a bundle of super talented individuals, but they’ve parted ways with the Japanese mainstream and live on the fringes. I don’t believe that Americans will see this late ’90s wave as a mere “trend” but a sign that Japan “has made it” in the world community. The sad thing to report is that the environment that created and coddled that specific post-Bubble cultural milieu is now defunct. At least in music and fashion, things are grim, and I’m not convinced that Japan has more power in the video game industry than it used to. Art and design may continue to be strong, but in what other fields is Japan currently becoming more innovative?

Since I thought it would always remain somewhat under the radar, I am very surprised that circa 1998 Japan has now become big in the United States, but I’m not quite sure that circa 2004 Japan is going to fly with the same crowd. They better like bad hip hop and Uniqlo cotton blazers.

Editor’s Note 2011: They do like Uniqlo cotton blazers!

W. David MARX (Marxy)
February 26, 2005

Marxy wrote a lot of essays back on his old site Néomarxisme. This is one of them.

9 Responses

  1. souris Says:

    At least in music and fashion, things are grim, and I’m not convinced that Japan has more power in the video game industry than it used to. Art and design may continue to be strong, but in what other fields is Japan currently becoming more innovative?

    the most innovative/original video game to hit the market last year was namco’s katamari damacy for obvious reasons. that game is so fucking brill. and released as a budget title no less, for $20. i wish the western video game market would see the value in funding some experimental developers instead of pumping tens of millions into the horrible franchise/sequel market that games currently linger in.

    i agree that the industry does NOT have the same power, but i disagree that the creatives in that industry are not trailblazing.

    the most memorable videogames in recent years are actually japanese but they don’t affect the mainstream gaming audience here. ico, katamari damacy and parappa — these games locked-down innovative gameplay but do not have the blockbuster sales figures. truthfully they were “flops” if you go by that standard; but as far as creative innovation goes, there is no doubt that japan is king of games.

  2. Jean Says:

    But there are some aspects of Japanese culture that you never touch, like anime, manga, and gaming. Sure, games from Japan have been big in North America for years, but it’s only recently that anime and manga has exploded, and I don’t see that dying down anytime soon. It’s even taking over proper American cartoons (in the stylized look), and influencing the American comics industry.

    I don’t see the Japanese music industry getting anymore popular outside of Japan anytime soon, but in design, yes, I do. The Muji brand has never been stronger, and this is going to lead a global market, I’m sure of it. Japanese designers/architects are more in demand than they’ve ever been.

    We’re even seeing a big exodus of athletes.

    I honestly can’t agree with you when you say that there is nothing to follow the Japan of 1998,

  3. marxy Says:

    The whole big deal with this current “Japan Boom” is that Japanese culture is being accepted in fields where it was traditionally weak. The things you’ve mentioned have been dominated by the Japanese for decades. Muji’s just a new version of the same skills, not new skills. Japan has always been a leader in product design, and if anything, Apple is beating them at their own game.

    Video games are essentially a Japanese product, and I would think less of the top games now are Japanese-made when compared to the 80s.

    I honestly can’t agree with you when you say that there is nothing to follow the Japan of 1998.

    I think there’s plenty of interesting stuff in Japan, but there’s not really the interaction between the underground and the mainstream anymore. Same in America, but the underground there has used the Internet to return to somewhat decent health.

    I think anime and manga aren’t part of this current Japan boom in that they’ve been influential to American animators for years. There are more fans now, but this growth really started 4-5 years ago. Are the most popular titles of today ones from the last 4,5 of Japanese animation or older?

  4. Chris_B Says:

    marxy I’m with you 100% on the content of the post. Its been observed here before, but I’ll say it again: seems that “imported” trends are always a few years behind.

    However, you said: Video games are essentially a Japanese product, and I would think less of the top games now are Japanese-made when compared to the 80s.

    Go read Phoenix or Game Over and re-think that one. Console gaming was pretty much exclusively an American thing till a few bad business decisions allowed Nintendo to start grabbing market share and even then it was not easy going for the first few years.

  5. Jean Says:

    It’s only in the past year or so that manga is now outselling comics in North America. Sure, the stuff being released right now is 4-5 years old, but that’s because that content wasn’t available then. I don’t see things dying down, and whatever series is popular here now will eventually get released there. As for anime, you look at the WB, Fox, Cartoon Network, and the stuff on air is overwhelmingly Japanese. You didn’t see that before (except the odd Voltron).

    BUT, I’m not saying that this is going to be the answer to Japan’s economic woes. It’s going to take more than the current popularity of Japan’s “Gross National Cool” to keep Japan competitive in the global markets. It is having a positive effect though, and a growing awareness of Japanese culture (versus Asian culture) is never a bad thing.

    I don’t fault you for constantly addressing the problems in the music industry and clothing brands as that’s your area of interest. And yes, you may be right, that the problems found in those industries are going to present in those other things I’ve been mentioning (the “kid industries”).

    In the end, it comes down to the fact that I’m still excited by a lot of things that I find here in Tokyo. Yeah, I don’t much listen to Japanese music anymore, and that supports what you keep saying, but in other areas (design, architecture, publishing), things couldn’t be better, honestly.

  6. r. Says:

    david, what if the answer is that the post-POP milieu itself is depleted in japan? just because you can:t find good pop culture doesn:t mean that there aren:t any interesting forms to be found at all, right? i mean, what about experimental japanese music? haven:t the kids from the sine wave orch. and also ami yoshida and all gotten a lot of attention recently? (they both were given awards at ars elec. during the past year or so…) anyway, bape momus and all the other stuff you site as barometers of the OLD and sluggish were in the beginning kind of young, alive and inlove themselves, right? perhaps you are looking in the wrong place for ‘new growth’, no? you:ll have to turn over more toadstools i:m afraid before you say what ISN*T wiggling artistically beneath.
    best,
    r.

  7. r. Says:

    it is interesting what jean says. he is right, of course, but of course he isn:t understanding that design, arch. and publishing are all META mediums of creativity, involving for the most part curratorial modes of behavior (like jean’s webpage itself)…in which the japanese have always excelled. these are not first-person, content MAKERS, they are second or third-person content ARRANGERS. insofar at that goes…bravo japan!!!
    marxy is looking for first-person content generation…and that:s why he isn:t happy.

    >>>>>>>>>>the fact that I’m still excited by a lot of things that I find here in Tokyo. Yeah, I don’t much listen to Japanese music anymore, and that supports what you keep saying, but in other areas (design, architecture, publishing), things couldn’t be better, honestly.

  8. marxy Says:

    Robert sagte:

    just because you can:t find good pop culture doesn:t mean that there aren:t any interesting forms to be found at all, right? i mean, what about experimental japanese music?

    This is the right retort to my problem, and I do concede this point.

    But as I have been saying lately, what I liked about Japan was not that they underground creators, but that a lot of the underground creators became overground celebrities. This has ceased to happen.

  9. ndkent Says:

    It is an interesting delayed phonomena. Though it’s not unique to have a past style that never “made it” come around for a second go. Wouldn’t the time lapse be just about right for influential non-Japanese artists and entertainment biz people to have assimilated it, made works influenced by it, and had word get around where they got it from. Few media types go out on a limb but when they see something enough others think have potential they have to get some of it fast.

    Some of it might have to do with the personal perspective of those who did catch it the first time around. It’s definitely anime leading kids to check out other pop culture things. Though I get the feeling it’s those people who identified something of interest when it was more or less new who are bringing up some of their favorites.

    I’m pretty sure there are a couple processes at work though the goal is to find Japanese content with cult/larger niche marketablity. It might be best to connect the dots. Being of Japanese origin definitely adds bonus points but perhaps the 1998 date is only a touchstone for the first time some of these acts came to Western attention. After all a lot of the acts cited actually did their works in 1996 or so – just to bring up the point that they took a little while to hit the radar of those who knew them “way back when”.

    As for Hiromix, what’s going on with her seems pretty clear. She’s offering a seemingly authentic peek into the desireable world of Japanese teens (and I guess now having a sexy girlfirend who can enter the world of teens).