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Dave Barry Did Japan

Dave Barry Did Japan

The book Dave Barry Does Japan came out in 1992, perfectly amalgamating two family streams at the time: Dave Barry and Japan. At some point in the early 1990s, my father and sister became big fans of the Miami humorist, leaving his books strewn around the house for me to fumble through. During that same general period, my parents went to Japan on business for the first time. How surprised we were to learn that the manor’s favorite wit put out his own book about Japan, full of humorous anecdotes almost identical to those my parents experienced.

The timing was eerie, but not fortuitous. 1991 and 1992 were ultimately the darkest years for Japanese-American relations since WWII. While the American economy was in painful recession, the Bubble Era Japanese economy was invincible, nearly “Number One.” Americans started to project their anxieties about national strength onto the “unfair” Japanese manufacturing world. In early 1992, President George Bush the Elder went to Japan hand-in-hand with U.S. automobile executives to convince the Japanese to buy American cars and then vomited on Prime Minister Miyazawa. This was the peak hour of literal “Japan bashing,” where yokels smashed Toyotas with baseball bats in well-reported photo-ops. Michael Crichton’s Rising Sun sold paranoia about our Eastern “allies” to a wide readership. The CIA even briefly thought about using Japan as the major post-Cold War enemy.

So who better to defuse this tense situation than funnyman Dave Barry. Random House approached him with the idea of a book on Japan, and lacking anything else better to do, he traveled around the island nation for three weeks on his publisher’s dime and agenda. He knew absolutely nothing of Japan nor Japanese culture before departing and only experienced the most superficial travel while there. As expected, the final product Dave Barry Does Japan does not qualify as a particularly illuminating tome on Japanese culture. Yet, in three weeks and two hundred pages, Barry manages to covers every single cliché of modern Japan: exotic icky foods (live fish, octopus, fugu), chopsticks, gratuitous bowing, grown men openly reading pornographic manga on the trains, the evils of karaoke, corn on pizza, the difficulty of learning written Japanese, uyoku sound trucks, conspicuous yakuza members in American cars, “Engrish,” etc. An Amazon Review for the book screams “Must-Read for Every Japan Expat” — oblivious to the irony that a humorist with zero expertise could elucidate the entire discourse of long-term foreign Japan dwellers in less than 200 pages. They should pass out free copies of Barry’s book at Narita (and in JETRO press centers) so that no one will ever write books or articles about icky foods, bowing, reading pornographic manga on the trains, karaoke, and “Engrish” again.

Although a lot of the jokes about Japan are tired “classics” of the genre, there are a few key moments of delightful absurdity. Barry somehow is scheduled for a serious interview with the President of Keidanren — Japan’s most important business association — who launches into a thirty minute lecture on the special “matrix” between Japanese government and industry. Barry visits a baseball game and receives scores of glares for accidentally cheering outside of the “official” cheer framework. His recounting of a laugh-free rakugo recitation suggests that revered foreign “traditions” can be as poorly executed as any other form of cultural exercise: “‘My teacher likes baseball, and often he uses the rice spoon for a bat.’ […] The audience members do not laugh.”

Dave Barry Does Japan is not likely to secure a steady place in the canon of great Japan writing, but like all books about Japan — whether bad or good — Barry’s work has value as a historical cross-section of conventional wisdom about Japan — in his case, during the early 1990s. This was about eight years before “Japan Cool” replaced “Japan Bashing” as the core paradigm. Barry is perfectly middle-brow, somewhere in-between William F. Buckley wit and Jeff Foxworthy gleeful ignorance. With no prior knowledge nor passionate interests, the views on Japan in the book ultimately reflect the standard of his era. Overall, Barry sees Japan as a very serious, hard-working, efficient country worthy of respect. After visiting in person, he understands exactly why Japanese products are higher quality than American ones. (“Being American isn’t enough; we have to work hard, too.”) However, Barry manages to retain a sense of American superiority in one area: Japan’s pop cultural output. Although he can blame disinterest in traditional forms like kabuki theatre and rakugo comedy on his own philistinism, he pulls no punches in his full-out attack on Japanese youth culture.

Barry was taken to Harajuku one Sunday to watch the greaser rock’n’roll dancers and amateur bands on the hokoten pedestrian paradise. The greasers had been an institution of the Yogogi Park area since the late 1970s, and to the Japanese, they had a strong image as somewhat aggressive delinquents. So here was a prime opportunity for Barry to see “bad kids” and their original pop subcultures. Upon viewing these specimens of early 1990s Japanese youth happenings, Barry writes:

Although there may be vast cultural differences between Japan and the United States, the scene in Harajuku served as heartwarming proof that rock music is indeed the universal language of the young, and the Japanese young cannot speak it worth squat.

I admit that I am not exactly Mr. Happening Dude in the music department myself. I am definitely stuck in the sixties. […] But after seeing what passes for hipness in Harajuku, I felt like Jimi Hendrix. I felt cool enough to be on the cover of Rolling Stone

Ignore the outdated “cool” references for a moment and concentrate on his complaint: he immediately dislikes Japanese youth culture due to its lack of spontaneity in the performances, the orderly delinquency in an art form Americans expect to be drenched in disorder. The greasers are:

all dressed identically in tight black T-shirts, tight black pants, black socks, and pointy black shoes. Each one had a lovingly constructed, carefully maintained, major-league caliber 1950s-style duck’s-ass haircut, held in place by the annual petroleum output of Kuwait.

They did not seem to sense that they might look a little silly, like a gang of Hell’s Angels that tries to terrorize a small town while wearing tutus.

The greasers would take turns to dance in their circle, listening to “Heartbreak Hotel,” and dancing the Twist — a dance that may have never have been cool in the U.S., even in the ’50s. To an American spectator, these Yoyogi rock’n’roll dancers essentially took familiar cultural conventions and replicated them without any obvious “understanding” of their original context. In other words, would real ’50s greasers have ever danced in orderly manners in front of Sunday noon crowds? (Besides Grease, of course.) While Westerners today fawn over the unusual goth-loli girls and the kaleidoscopic colors of Harajuku layered fashion, Americans were never going to see the “cool” in a bunch of juvies un-ironically re-enacting silly past subcultures with the precision of army drills.

Apart from the Greasers, Harajuku and Yoyogi Park were also full of amateur bands. For Barry, these music groups further reinforced the cognitive dissidence of “organized delinquency.”

Playing loudly on both sides of the street, for a hundred yards or so, were twenty or so rock bands, each of which had come with a truckload of instruments, sound equipment, and generators. They had set up a few feet of each other, and they were all playing simultaneously, so it was impossible to hear one without hearing several others. No harm done. They were uniformly awful.


But what was really pathetic about them was their desperately misguided effort to be different. For example, you don’t see a lot of tie-dyed T-shirts in Japan, and there was one band whose members all wore tie-dyed T-shirts, which I guess made them different by Japanese standards, but they all wore virtually the same T-shirt. And dancing in front of them was a crowd of groupies — all teenage girls, and they all wore the same shirt, on top of which they were all doing the same dance step, which I assume they thought was cool, but which I swear looked exactly like the “Hokey Pokey.”

It was sad, really. All these kids, gathered in one place, trying so hard to be rebellious and iconoclastic, while in fact being far more regimented than a typical American bowling league.

Barry unwittingly sets up the critical binary for a major Western critique of Japanese culture: Americans/Westerners get it, and Japanese do not. Both groups can wear the same uniforms and listen to the same music and adopt the same mannerisms, but Americans possess a “soul” underlying their cultural participation that that the Japanese do not, no matter how hard they imitate. And during the early 1990s, when the Japanese greatly bruised the collective American economic ego, this was the critical judgment that kept Americans from feelings of complete defeat. Note the glee that Barry admits:

I felt wonderful, after being so intimidated by the industriousness, competence, and rapid technological progress of the Japanese, to discover that there is a Hipness Gap, a gap between us so vast that their cutting-edge young rockin’ rebels look like silly posturing out-of-it weenies even to a middle-aged dweed like myself. They buy our music, they listen to our music, they play our music, but they don’t get our music.

The era framed Japan and the U.S. in a competition, and Barry was openly relieved to see an American victory in Japanese kids not “understanding” American pop culture.

I doubt that anyone writing about Japan today — in a book equally vapid as Wrong About Japan or any number of JET/ALT memoirs with the words “bow” in the title — would go on with such conviction and confidence that Japanese youth are uncool. No one could possibly come to Tokyo in 2008 and not be blown over by the “cool” of Shibuya 109, Harajuku back street shops, or Omotesando boutiques. In 1991, Tokyo had a certain cool floating around in underground channels but Chage and Aska or “Shibuya casual” sloppy fashion weren’t going to break the world’s hardened biases towards Japanese pop culture. Simply stated, “Japan Cool” — as a branding for the entire nation-state — was impossible in 1991.

So what changed in the next five to eight years?

First of all, Japanese pop culture got a lot cooler. There was way more innovation and less imitation in 1990s street fashion and pop music, and the markets exploded to such a size that even “fringe” creators could become visible players. Also, the explosion of gaming culture in the U.S. made Japan a spiritual home for those baptized by Nintendo. Most importantly, the proliferation of unique subcultures made Tokyo a cultural ecology sure to wow any foreigners. “Greasers” could never be anything more than an impressive cover band: they had the details down pat, but the overall exercise added nothing to global culture. Kogyaru, on the other hand, rightly blew everyone away and added brand new ideas to the global cultural stew.

There was also a big change in judgment criteria. The end of “Generation X” cultural values in the mainstream around 1998 created the ideal conditions for an appreciation of Japanese culture. In 1992, “authenticity” was still very critical for judging music and other pop culture. Both the Boomers and the Gen X crowd rejected “pop music” on the charts as something inherently worthless. In that climate, there could be no enjoyment of Japan’s excessively-plastic, saccharine pop. Britney Spears and her cohorts changed that, however, by legitimizing a post-Gen X ironic appreciation of “pop,” eventually de-centering the entire debate on “being real.” This opened the door for over-organized, non-spontaneous Japanese “cool” being cool. The mythic “soul” was no longer required. Suddenly the best part of Japanese culture was that they didn’t get it, greatly dating Barry’s convictions.

Of course, the “competitive frame” between the United States and Japan also seems like ancient history. Once the U.S. economy exploded under President Clinton and the Japanese economy descended into the Lost Decade, Americans dropped all their hostilities towards their Eastern brothers in self-serving “forgiveness.” Publishers today no longer feel compelled to usher humor writers to Japan to ease international tensions, making Barry’s work the final word for a distinct era. Unfortunately, however, Barry’s book will not be able to permanently bury chopstick jokes and raw food gags. One man’s writing will not placate such a demanding and powerful plague.

W. David MARX
June 25, 2008

W. David Marx (Marxy) — Tokyo-based writer and musician — is the founder and chief editor of Néojaponisme.

61 Responses

  1. M-Bone Says:

    Excellent article.

    One thing that may be worth considering for your `Japanese pop culture got a lot cooler` point – all of the examples that you use (music, fashion, games) are fine, but the absence of anime jumps out a bit. I feel that the popularity of anime in the United States and Canada was built mostly on titles from 1983-1988 – many of the fans who started building the popularity of anime on university campuses in the mid-1990s were the same people who saw Robotech (Macross) as kids (or Akira later) and lots of the first popular releases (Bubblegum Crisis, etc.) were also 80s works. This set the foundation for `boom years` (from around 1999 maybe). Another big movie, Ghost in the Shell, is also more of an extension of director Oshii`s 80s output than it is a leap in Japanese popular cool.

    If you add this to the narrative, is anime a sort of harbinger of the fashion/music (and much more directly related game) shifts toward a genuine cool more conductive to internationalization?

  2. W. David MARX Says:

    Yeah, but anime was never “cool” until brought into a wider youth culture context. I’ve made that point before. The ’80s may have been a Golden Age for Japanese manga, but did someone in 1992 think anime geeks were cool? I doubt it. You needed all the other culture to “cool-ify” anime/manga culture, or at least, a widespread youth readership instead of niche SciFi fans.

  3. M-Bone Says:

    Anime was never `cool` in Japan back in the day (and I`m still convinced that the average housewife looks at those Akiba features on the 5:00 news programs as if they were reports on how zoo animals or `tama-chan` are doing). But didn`t anime pave the way for deeper interest in Japanese fashion and music in North America? It certainly seemed that way at the time. I tend to look at `cool Japan` as being a radically different idea in Japan and abroad with both ideas (plural for `abroad`)needed specific geneologies.

  4. daniel Says:

    I felt like Barry was forthcoming about his ignorance and never tried to write a book from the same position as the how-to-bow-ers. It’s been a couple years since I read it, but I remembered being impressed with what he wrote about Hiroshima. I also thought the trip to the plastic foods factory was interesting as well as the visit to Beppu, very out of the way.

    I didn’t like how they treated Beppu, though. He stayed in one of the gaudiest hot springs resorts ever built – the Suginoi Palace – and wrote about little else. I got to peak at the bath in the summer of 2002 – they had a Shinto themed bath and a Buddhist themed bath. They’ve since renovated it to a much more tasteful terrace-style bath.

    So, kogyaru are cooler than greasers by your calculation?

  5. W. David MARX Says:

    So, kogyaru are cooler than greasers by your calculation?

    Yes, kogyaru are an original creation, sexy young schoolgirls with rebellious makeup. Greasers took an American template and added the worst pars of Japanese organizational culture. I think it’s good that Japanese people know see the nostalgic “Japanese”-ness of the Greasers, but I don’t think they were ever going to break Japan Cool.

    But didn`t anime pave the way for deeper interest in Japanese fashion and music in North America?

    No. Japanese fashion made its first big break in ’83-’84 with the Paris shows of Comme des Garcons and Yohji Yamamoto. It then did not show back up again until the street wear labels and Fruits in the late 1990s. For music, Pizzicato Five and Shonen Knife came from somewhere with almost zero connection to anime/video games.

    Remember, every kid in 1986 had a Nintendo and no one put two and two together that Japan must be “cool.” They just made a lot of crazy electronic stuff. “Cool” is very much rooted in 1960s American youth culture, which was all about music and fashion and anti-social behavior. The expansion of “cool” to broader fields is relatively new.

  6. Aceface Says:

    “This opened the door for over-organized, non-spontaneous Japanese “cool” being cool. The mythic “soul” was no longer required. Suddenly the best part of Japanese culture was that they didn’t get it, greatly dating Barry’s convictions.”

    Had things changed that much for real?

    I think “Lost in Translation “is basically “Dave Barry does Japan 2.0”.
    But it can never catch the stranger-than-fiction reality of Japanese society(like say,Scarlett Johansson actually did a Japanese TV commercials,AFTER the shooting of that movie).

    That is the problem with the works of “fish-out-of-the-water”narrative on Japan that completely ignores the local context and reality.

  7. David Moles Says:

    The difference, I think, is that “Lost in Translation” never has that moment of Hipness Gap condescension.

  8. W. David MARX Says:

    There are parts of Lost in Translation where Tokyo is clearly uber-cool.

  9. Aceface Says:

    That happens pretty often in the movies,I guess.Rome is a bit different than the one you see in “Roman Holiday” and don’t even get me start with Osaka in Ridley Scott’s”Black Rain”(1989).

    And Tokyoites act more like human being than the moving mannequins in “Lost in Translation”.I think the film was a coded message from Sophia Coppola to Shibuya-kei crowd lionizing her as pop-icon.”You think me as a cool,but I thought you were bunch of weirdos.”

  10. M-Bone Says:


    I`m not talking about a high culture fashion circle thing – I`m talking about some average high school students thinking that goth-loli are cool. I think that we can trace this to anime. When I think about the 18-22 year old students that I teach – the ones who `love Japan` and are fascinated by the fashion and the J-Pop – the vast majority got into it through paths that we can trace to a mid-1990s anime boom. It may be fruitful to look at this on two very different social levels.

    `The expansion of “cool” to broader fields is relatively new.`

    And maybe anime-inspired if we link it to NAmerican mass culture (eating Pocky, downloading Hamazaki Ayumi songs, watching Battle Royale, angsty teens reading Murakami Haruki novels, etc.)? I`m not sure that the `Stuff White People Like` Japanscape happens without anime. `Kill Bill` probably dosen`t either.

  11. W. David MARX Says:

    I think Fruits built the infrastructure that legitimized Goth Loli. Anime influence, but it wasn’t the anime alone that made the Harajuku ele-goth-loli girls cool. It was the cosplay + the music/fashion angle.

  12. M-Bone Says:

    `It was the cosplay + the music/fashion angle.`

    Ture. I should have said `anime fandom`. I gather that half of the people at anime cons stateside (never been to one) are not even anime `fans` anymore.

  13. Matt Says:

    I think maybe David and M-Bone are talking about different groups of people. There are people who think Japan is cool, especially the anime!!! and there are people who think Japan is cool, except for the anime which is of course for geeks and losers. Both groups can agree that Japan is cool, and both will eat Pocky, but there’s very little crossover otherwise, right?

  14. Matt Says:

    Also, manga has basically conquered the US comic book industry, right? Yet Fruits/goth loli/whatever remain on the outskirts of the fashion industry, being admired by hopsters and hit up by the mainstream/Hot Topic subculture for ideas every so often but not dominating the J. Crew or American Apparel catalogue the way manga now dominates the “graphic novel” section at Barnes & Noble.

    (At least that’s the impression that comic book blogs on the internet have given me. I haven’t been in the US for years.)

  15. Matt Says:


  16. Mulboyne Says:

    You are onto something but perhaps the dichotomy you are talking about was more between the US and Japan than the West and Japan. I’d be the last person to judge what is or isn’t cool but there were a number of magazine features in the UK which played up Japan as stylish and chic in the late eighties. They usually all featured Sapporo’s bi-metal beer can (which had just made an appearance in bars), karaoke and, as M-Bone says, heavy coverage of manga like Akira which made a big impact in Europe. After all, we’d already been taught a few years earlier by “Bladerunner” that Japan was the future.

    One British television channel – I forget which one but there were only four at the time – gave over a whole evening of programming to Japan-themed television which aimed to be a counterpoint to the “crazy Japanese TV” image that prevailed. Highlights included a serious feature on Japanese TV commercials, an international version of “Naruhodo the World” and a selection of news, variety and drama programming. Channel 4 even started a karaoke talk show. Kazuko Hohki of the Frank Chickens hosted “Kazuko’s Karaoke Klub” in 1989. Most people involved with this embarrassment have successfully deleted their names from the historical record but quite a few top music names appeared. The only YouTube clip available features Gavin Friday of the Virgin Prunes:


    Today, that piece could be used as evidence for the prosecution but it shows that the UK was prepared to look to Japan for inspiration in pop culture. Certainly nothing on a par with what we see today but Japan wasn’t regarded as tragically unhip from a European perspective.

    That’s not to say that the British wouldn’t have had any sympathy with Dave Barry. In 1990, members of the band Asia appeared as guest judges on the amateur band programme Ikaten. Misguidedly, the producers decided to feature more copy bands than usual. Probably they thought that the old prog rock dinosaurs would appreciate seeing something the could recognize. The nadir was reached when the band members collapsed in hysterics as a girl band performed Manfred Mann’s “Do Wah Diddy Diddy”. They could barely compose themselves when asked to give their opinion of the performance.

  17. Aceface Says:

    The UK’s answer to “Dave Barry Does Japan” was “The Land of The Rising Yen”(1973)by George Mikes.
    I read in the Japanese translation long time ago.Wasn’t bad actually.

    What do you think about AA Gill’s “AA Gill is away”,Mulboyne?

  18. Mulboyne Says:

    Mikes was in his twenties when he first arrived in Britain and made a career out of playing the “observant outsider” role. Coming from Hungary, he didn’t have any of the Pacific War baggage that still coloured most British views on Japan in the seventies.

    Britain was an economic basket case at the time. The success of Japan and Germany was resented but the main barbs were directed inward. John Entwistle, bass player with The Who, wrote the song “Made in Japan” the same year as the Mikes book, and it has the chorus “There ain’t nothing made here in this country anymore”. Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters comes from the same generation and he could still write the following lyric for one of his characters in 1982:

    “If it wasn’t for the nips
    Being so good at building ships
    The yards would still be open
    on the Clyde
    And it can’t be much fun for them
    Beneath the rising sun
    Will all their kids committing

    The start of Britain’s recovery coincided with Japan’s bubble years and, as confidence returned, it seems people were prepared to be more generous to Japan at the same time that US resentments against the country were beginning to build.

    A.A. Gill aims to be provocative. Some friends of mine know him and think he is entertaining but don’t much like him because he always seems to be on the offensive. Initially, as a food critic, he attacked the way some in the West fetishized Japanese food but it was his “Mad in Japan” piece, denounced by the Japanese ambassador in London and the likes of Henry Scott-Stokes, that became the 95 Theses for disgruntled white guys living in Japan. I don’t care for it because he seems more angry with how Japan is represented than he is at Japan itself but doesn’t realize it. However, given how many shots he takes at the target, it’s not surprising that he occasionally hits.

    Gill writes about Japan the way Paul Theroux wrote about Britain in “The Kingdom by the Sea”. Mikes and Dave Barry write about Japan the way Bill Bryson treats Britain in his “Notes from a Small Island”. I think most people prefer to have their foibles pointed out in an affectionate portrait rather than a rant.

  19. W. David MARX Says:

    there were a number of magazine features in the UK which played up Japan as stylish and chic in the late eighties.

    I think this is a good point, because Japan started to be seen as “chic” in the 1980s around the world. But I am not sure this was in reference to A) the culture at large (just elements) or B) youth culture. There was that cold, mechanical “future dystopia cool” but not a total celebration of Japan as a perfect aesthetic total.

    The ’80s in Japan was relatively cosmopolitan, in a way that would impress the rest of the world. But then the whole “shibu-kaji” backlash against the DC Boom and internationalism really killed that off for a few years, and when Barry showed up in 1991, it would have been peak years for bad Bubble bodicon and sloppy American casual style on the streets. Aesthetically, the early 1990s were just not as “chic” as Japan, even though the seeds for Japan Cool had started to bud under the surface.

  20. Visitor Says:

    Gotta say guys, Japan is definitely fashionable – but who here believes that Japanese music, movies, TV, or literature surpass anything generated within Western markets? Sure, you get a couple blips of promise, but overall it seems like folks are claiming that Japan dominants cool because the country is the bastion of nerd products (anime, manga, video games) or they really dig on fashion.

    This sort of rationale seems pretty bias – more an indication of personal preferences, and less an indication of a medium-by-medium analysis.

  21. W. David MARX Says:

    If you go to Scandanavia, you probably won’t think, wow, so much exportable TV, but you wouldn’t make fun of the kids for being so “uncool.”

  22. Matt Says:

    “who here believes that Japanese music, movies, TV, or literature surpass anything generated within Western markets?”
    TOTALLY!! That boring Seven Samurai had WAY too much talking. I wish it could’ve been more like The Last Samurai.

  23. Aceface Says:


    “Gill writes about Japan the way Paul Theroux wrote about Britain in “The Kingdom by the Sea”. Mikes and Dave Barry write about Japan the way Bill Bryson treats Britain in his “Notes from a Small Island””

    That’s a good one.
    Theroux has some very weird grudge against Japan and it was only slightly visible when he was here for writing “The Great Railway Bazzar” but it became pretty evident in his China journey “Riding on Iron Rooster”.He almost ask every single Chinese he met about what do they think about Japan and that’s how he becomes friend with Chinese.Since the timing of Japanese translation being published was supposed to be a relatively good times in Sino-Japanese relation(since Beijing was isolated because the aftermath of Tienanmen and Tokyo had send our emperor)many readers were confused with this ill-minded behavior by Theroux,who has some followers in Japan.

    Back then,Kodansha had published a book based on a conversation between Theroux and another train-loving Japanese lit big shot and translator of the “Great Railway Bazzar”,Agawa Hiroyuki阿川弘之 right after the success of GRB.One of those 対談本 you see so often in the Japanese bookshelf.
    I think this has been ignored in official Paul Theroux bibliography,but the two talk about train and literature for about 120 pages and it was so painful to read since Theroux obviously doesn’t get the concept of 対談format and probably didn’t even like Aagawa and you coulkd tell that from every single pages.
    And the contrast was even more striking since Theroux is baby-boomer American liberal who later became pretty critical to Japanese and Agawa,as you may know,was former officer of the imperial navy and become famous by tht triology of the biographical works of admirals including Yamamoto Isoroku.Agawa is also one of the leading conservative in J-lit world and for being that,gaining the honor of writing the monthly leading essays in Bungei Shunjyu magazine.

    Reminds me of that old Kipling “The Ballad of East and West”that starts with
    “OH, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.”
    It supposed to be end as “”But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth, When two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they come from the ends of the earth. “but that didn’t seems to be happening in the case of Theroux and Agawa as fas as I read the book.

  24. Daniel Says:

    “Yes, kogyaru are an original creation, sexy young schoolgirls with rebellious makeup. Greasers took an American template and added the worst pars of Japanese organizational culture.”

    Sorry to jump back in late. Just want to clarify something I wasn’t sure about – you’re not faulting Barry for thinking the greasers uncool but rather for thinking himself cooler than them?

  25. W. David MARX Says:

    I perfectly understand the rationale for Barry not thinking they are cool. It’s a big egotistic for Barry to say he is even cooler but that’s how uncool Americans thought Japan was: that Barry – who is rarely egotistic in his writing – thought that it was fine to say that these kids were ultra-uncool.

  26. Justin Says:

    TOTALLY!! That boring Seven Samurai had WAY too much talking. I wish it could’ve been more like The Last Samurai.

    It’s funny that you use that particular movie as an example. One of the reasons I initially became interested in Japan was through its cinema (modern, not classic). When I’ve mentioned that fact to people in Japan, the single most common response I’ve gotten is “What, like The Last Samurai?” (This has honestly happened at least three times.) Whenever I rattle off a list of some of my favorites from the last decade (茶の味, Survive Style 5+, 誰も知らない, 下妻物語), I get blank stares. Admittedly, these are mostly young people, so not the best measure of ‘high culture’, but it raises an important point. From my experience, I get that sense that if one excludes animated features, most people in this country seem to be pretty uninterested in domestic cinema these days – aside, perhaps, from the occasional big budget nostalgia fest like Always 3-Chome and maybe whatever Beat Takeshi’s doing. But generally they’re watching the same Hollywood schlock as the rest of the world.

    There are plenty of interesting films being made by creative Japanese directors, but are any of them getting exposure inside or outside of Japan? Miike, for example, certainly has an audience, but how much of that is due to Tarantino taking up his cause? If we take Wikipedia’s entry on Japanese cinema as a general metric, the notable films of this decade are mostly horror and anime, with a few scattered gems like Nobody Knows.

    I’m not a film student and my own knowledge is far from comprehensive, but I find it slightly annoying that all conversations about Japanese film seem to begin and end with Kurosawa. If anything, it seems to indicate that the rest of the corpus of Japanese cinema isn’t worth mentioning, and that he was the exception to the rule.

    I disagree with the original post (except, perhaps, when it comes to television), but when one considers only the ‘mainstream’, it’s pretty easy to see that opinion might be formed.

  27. j echo Says:

    Re: Visitor’s post: “Japan is definitely fashionable – but who here believes that Japanese music, movies, TV, or literature surpass anything generated within Western markets?…
    This sort of rationale seems pretty bias – more an indication of personal preferences, and less an indication of a medium-by-medium analysis.”

    Is this intentionally ironic? I’d argue back that the idea of the un-surpassable “Western” product is itself quite a hefty personal bias. And again, what is “western” here? American hip hop cannot be compared to Belgian pop music, can it?

    But in any case, “Japan” is not universally cool as a personal taste. Of course not! Rather, it is now possible to think that Japan might be cool. Before Japan was the land of the cheaply-made product and funny-talking, short, ugly people. Now, Japan is the inspiration for Giant Robot and other surburban kids dreaming of some type of urban play.

    And everyone is forgetting electronics! Walkmans! Robots!

  28. W. David MARX Says:

    I think the Walkman supported American cool, but couldn’t make Japan cool. The conventional wisdom was: Japanese products and electronics are great, but Japanese youth culture is bad.

    These days the electronics and robots are part of the package.

    I have said this in the past, but I will say it again: Japan Cool is the fusion of different streams (electronics, otaku culture, highfashion, street fashion, good design, good food) all of which made the central concept stronger. I just want to make the point that the ’80s Japanese electronic cool wasn’t enough to allow appreciation of greasers and shibu-kaji kids.

  29. anonymous 10 Says:

    To reference some of the above comments, I don’t think anime had anything to do with the whole Japanese cool thing. I mean, people in the US and Canada like anime now … but in the 90s, it simply did not exist anywhere. The “man, this stuff from Japan is crazy” started with the Boredoms, Pizzicato Five, Merzbow, Japanese design and street fashion, etc. In the late 90s that stuff was definitely very much out in the open in the cultural sphere.

    I still honestly think anime is relegated to a certain niche of geekdom… of course, that applies to any grown adult who can follow 400-episode long serial cartoons.

    I also think appreciation for Japan started with the people who were kids in the late 80s and early 90s, who grew up with Japan at the height of its economic power; Japan dwelled on the horizon as this superior and futuristic place. Watch any movie from the early 90s and chances are there are some references that the future will be Japanized in some way.

    As kids we thought all that stuff was kinda cool, but the adults (particularly in the blue collar parts) absolutely DESPISED Japan. I don’t think we really got the jokes, though.

  30. anonymous 10 Says:

    Of course, in the 70s and 80s Japan was chic … but Japan was also chic in the 1890s, etc. I’m talking about when Japan’s pop culture finally intertwined itself with the West, particularly the United States. Now the Untied States is stealing its TV shows from Japan; that’s when you know you’ve made it.

  31. W. David MARX Says:

    “I survived a Japanese game show” is more like “I survived an American game show that Americans came up with and filmed in Japan with almost no cooperation from Japanese game shows and then at the end blamed all on the Japanese.”

  32. JD Says:

    A10 – correct. Marxy always seems to view the history of Japanese pop culture from his own personal history. It is like nothing happened before he turned 12.

    Japan was cool in the 70’s Japan was cool in the 80’s then Marxy turned 12 and it was cool in the 90’2. Right now another child is being born who will pronounce the 2020’s to be the golden years for Japanese cool.

  33. W. David MARX Says:

    Right, which is why you see so many articles about Japan Cool from the 1970s.

    Mr. Cynical/Cyclical, I am not going to deny that people thought Japan was cool in the 70s or 80s or whatever, but “Japan Cool” just wasn’t a narrative in 1985 the way it was in 2005.

    And I never said that Japan was cool in the 1990s. I actually just showed how it wasn’t. I have always said that Japan later in the late 90s/early 00s became “cool” because of the cultural innovation in Japan during the 1990s.

    I question your assumption that I have never read or seen anything about Japan written before my own birth.

  34. anonymous 10 Says:

    Well, what I meant was it was seen as chic; Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism is also chic and was in the 80s, 70s, etc. I stated that the cultural intertwining and borrowing is as recent now. Adults despised Japan throughout the early-mid 90s, but as kids we played our Nintendos and lamented that “Japan gets all the coolest stuff”. and not even in a dorky way, this was just playground kid talk. Now that we’re adults it’s like we get to indulge in all that stuff.

  35. anonymous 10 Says:

    Though I think that’s more on the design and entertainment end of things. The fashion and music stuff definitely didn’t happen until the late 90s, and I think all of it together created a perfect storm that led to “Japan Cool” or whatever it is. Or I’m completely and utterly wrong, this is just totally spur of the moment anecdotal.

  36. Matt Says:

    Speaking as someone who fell in love with the concept of Japan at a very young age, I can assure you that anime and games very much did “exist” and influence people prior to the 1990s, at least as far as my little circle of friends was concerned. I got hooked on Japanese toys first (“Shogun Warriors” in the ’70s), anime next (giant robot shows in the late ’70s and “Robotech” in the ’80s), and then games (Nintendo/Sega from the mid ’80s on). I spent most of my time from late elementary school on scheming to get stuff from Japan, to take language lessons, to get over there and experience it for myself.

    At least as far as my school was concerned, my friends and I represented a tiny whacko fringe of the geeks, but for the four or five of us into this stuff there was absolutely no doubt that Japan represented the cutting edge. We were an isolated little cargo cult of sorts but if we got hooked in the early ’80s, we can’t have been the only ones, and I suspect it’s exactly these scattered groups of early devotees of Japanese pop culture that gave the whole Japan Cool movement a big boost a decade or two later.

    (And bringing things back full circle: I was actually reading Barry pretty regularly when his Japan book came out, and distinctly recall being turned off by the smug tone. At the time, it really neatly encapsulated everything that annoyed me about the America-centric mindset of the people in the suburb in which I grew up, particularly adults who just didn’t “get” Japan like my friends and I did.)

  37. W. David MARX Says:

    I think the whole argument here comes down to what I mean by “cool.” Cool is not “my friends and I thought Japan was cool.”

    I am talking about official, snob cool, and although it’s not “fair” that snobs decide cool, they do.

    So yes, lots of people were into Japanese games and toys before the official Japan Cool thing (like me), but was it not like being into science fiction or any other clearly delineated nerd thing? And yes, Japan was “chic” in terms of sushi and Walkmen, but did that extend to “all youth culture” being seen as worthy of the same stage (or higher) than American and British cool?

  38. M-Bone Says:

    `I mean, people in the US and Canada like anime now … but in the 90s, it simply did not exist anywhere.`

    So I guess `The Matrix` just materialized out of thin air in 1999, right?

    Akira was already certified `movie canon` (Siskel and Ebert video pick of the week!) and `cool` in 1994-1995. When I was still a high school student in 1994, the local university anime club had 300 videos. They had over 1000 by 1997.

    Anime started to spread on college campuses in the early 1990s and it was that fan culture that helped to spread awareness of J-pop and Fruits (as `mass culture` interest) but I really think that the anime fans came first (Trojan Horse). This is the dominant interpretation in academic writing (Napier) and I certainly experienced it this way myself.

    Matt is also 100% correct – Marxy and I were talking about different strata and manga / anime are by far the most wide-spread form of Japanese popular culture in North America that are recognized as such (video games are `nationless` in the common view). The average manga section in a US chain bookstore is bigger than `Teen Lit`. Interestingly, some of these stores seperate the manga and graphic novels but have things like Tezuka`s Buddha over with the Spidermans (men?) and the Hulks.

    On the notion of earlier Japan cool – was there really a Japan cool in the early 1980s or was there just a demand for the exoticism of Shogun? If there was a real idea that Japan was cool – why did the films of the 1970s or Bond or whatever always need to send a white guy there to be cooler than the locals?

    About Barry – I wonder if he would have thought that Bosozoku were cool? Looking at the greasers as wannabe rebels seems odd – they strike me more as the types who wanted their favorite gakuensai to last forever. Trying to continue this sort of carnival is evidence of a certain type of creativity but it is not `cool`.

  39. W. David MARX Says:

    Is everyone forgetting that there used to be “cool kids” and “nerds”? The hybridization is new and was crucial for Japan Cool.

  40. Matt Says:

    How could I forget? Guess which crowd I ran with.

    My comments were directed at the “anime didn’t even exist” poster. I don’t think there’s any doubt that “Japan Cool” is part of the early 21st century zeitgeist, not the late 20th one.

    That Dave Barry Does Japan did as well as (I assume) it did is undoubtedly due to a single factor: the star power of the name “Dave Barry.” If it had been written by anyone else, I suspect it’d have sunk without a trace. I simply didn’t see any interest in Japan outside of my circle of friends at the time. Even as late as 1994, when I graduated from college, I seemed to be the only one in my Japanese class studying the language out of a love for the pop culture; the rest of my classmates were in it for reasons of business, martial arts, or simple lingusitic challenge. I gather from conversations with former teachers that by the end of the decade that trend underwent a near total flip-flop, and now people studying for reasons OTHER than interest in anime/games/manga are in the minority.

  41. Aceface Says:

    Lived in Reaganite America from ’81 to’85,I can safely say,though there were some interests in Japan and affinity to things Japanese existed among Americans,Still,Japan was seen as something like other planet

    Let me bring you an example,Jay McInerney.

    McInerney became king of cool in the literary scene in 1984 best seller”Bright Lights,Big City”,which also became instant hit in Japan with the translation by Takahashi Genichiro.McInerney was in Japan for a while teaching English and at the time was married to hal-Japanese model,so naturally you’d think he knows one or two about Japan,right?

    Next year(1985),McInerney came up with “RANSOM” a story about an American came to soul-searching in Kyoto,Japan.And the plot is basically “Last Samurai” plus “Speed Tribe” plus “Dogs and Demons” plus “The Deer Hunter” minus Christopher Walken and Vietnam war.

    This practically tells us that “cool Japan” was not even a dot on cool detecting rader of the hippiest American writer even in the mid 80’s.

  42. Nate Says:

    Cool is a relative term and probably many people would not consider Otaku cool. I certainly don’t. But Japan has the 2nd largest music industry in the world. There must be cool music coming out of there but its like the great music wall of China. Recently I’ve been using HearJapan to download songs and I found a lot of music that people would consider “cool”. It’s surprisingly badass.

  43. Mulboyne Says:

    Music might be obscuring the “cool” discussion a little because, for many years, Britain and North America didn’t really consider that any other countries “got” rock ‘n’ roll, let alone Japan. French youth were often regarded as cool long before Daft Punk got together and Air released “Moon Safari”. In the early nineties, though, Dave Barry could have written an article about France and still mocked the French for liking Johnny Hallyday. And, as Nate says, finding Japanese music was a lot harder than discovering European artists.

    Arguably martial arts were cool in the 70s. As M-Bone says, for some the appeal was exoticism but they had a wider popularity than that. Mainly kung fu and Bruce Lee but move forward a few years and “The Karate Kid” was released in 1984, the same year that the first “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle” comics were released. Frank Miller was also writing “Ronin” at the same time.

    Along with other commenters here, I can confirm that manga and anime were alive in the West in the late eighties. The first manga boom began in 1987 and coincided with the rise in status of “the graphic novel” which was a new coinage. Translated titles included the likes of “Kozure Okami”, “Kamuiden” and “Mai”. Akira followed in 1988, the same year as the film. Was this just for nerds? In London, at least, I recall seeing Akira posters for the first time in the window of a Covent Garden comic store two doors down from Michiko Koshino’s place. Manga had enough of an impact that Tim Burton signed up to make a live action version of “Mai” which got lost in development hell as the manga boom turned to a bust.

    I took from Marxy’s orginal piece that Americans who felt threatened by Japan’s economic power were comforted by their cultural superiority in the 90s in a way that perhaps you wouldn’t see today. That might be as much to do with the fact that Japan is perceived to be less of an economic threat as it is to do with the higher profile for Japanese pop culture. For instance, I don’t think the British felt more hip than Japan in the late eighties, except perhaps in music for reasons I mention above. Then again, Sony, Matsushita and Pioneer weren’t trying to buy any British movie studios at the height of the bubble.

  44. anonymous 10 Says:

    I wonder, why is it Japan specifically that has taken the United States by storm with its Japan Cool thing? Why not Scandinavia? People love the design and music from there and it’s definitely considered “cool” (we need a new definitive word, btw, I keep thinking of James Dean and baby boomers with that word), but it’s still pretty niche aside from a particular furniture brand.

    Yet Japan, with its design and pop culture, has become a dominant cultural force. Why that over others with similarly appealing exports? I do think it has to do with this current generation having grown up with Japan as this dominant, far off culture which fused itself pretty aggressively into American society, causing a lot of agitation and anxiety in our parent’s and grandparent’s generations. Japan was 1, United States 2. As children there was some kind-of eastward lookingness, and not even “among my friends”, this was a really low-level across-the-board phenomenon that applied to everyone since nobody could escape it.

    It’s not because Japan decided to start making music that appealed to people all of a sudden … most of the music groups that became hip in the late 90s existed in the early 90s, the 80s, and some even in the 70s. Why was it that things suddenly took off? Is it a coincidence that it occurred when a certain generation started to come into cultural maturity?

    I also think the Cool Dude vs. Nerd thing is alive and well again. It’s definitely not “Cool” to be into computers anymore, or the internet, or any of that stuff. Nobody does that Geek Chic thing anymore, that’s totally and unfashionably 90s. Living in HIpSTUR BrOOkLYN, it’s definitely not good to be too smart, too interested in something, etc. So I don’t think that applies to this whole Japan Cool thing. It’s more of an underlying developmental feeling of Japan as superior.

  45. Mulboyne Says:

    Anonymous 10, I can’t speak to your other observations but when you write:

    “I wonder, why is it Japan specifically that has taken the United States by storm with its Japan Cool thing? Why not Scandinavia?”

    I suggest you watch this video clip from Finland:


    They are fans of An Cafe


  46. M-Bone Says:

    Mulboyne – I agree that martial arts were popular / cool in the 1970s but I`m not sure that they were identified as Japanese – more, generic `Asian`, right (there was also its association with blackspolitation for a while there which didn`t hurt the cool)? Lots of people think that Bruce Lee is Japanese and Mr. Miyagi is Chinese. The Teenage Mutant Ninja turtles are hybrid as well – how many sengoku jidai ninja would have been going around with numchucks?

    `anonymous 10` – Why not Scandinavia? For starters, they don`t have the unfamiliar media – anime and manga and video games (the type that were brought over from Japan and created a storm in the early to mid-1980s were really unlike anything that had been seen before) – to serve as a bridge between Marxy`s hipsters and the mass audience that needs to be involved if something is going to spread beyond elite circles. Japan also has the geisha, tea, health and beauty exotic thing going for it which helps to diffuse Japan Cool to the 40 somethings.

    It may also help to consider Kurosawa and Bergman in this case – when the two filmmakers started to hit it in America (with critics) people were impressed with Kurosawa`s use of Japanese images while people saw Bergamn as being a master at evoking a sort of general humanism (and symbolic vocab) rooted in the European tradition. Flash forward to the late-1990s/2000s – for `Japan Cool` to exist, things have to be cool just because they are Japanese. A Scandinavian cool just can`t exist on the same level because no matter how `good` a cultural product is, it will always have something rooted in the mundane (familiar) which cannot be othered easily by Americans.

  47. Japan » Open Question: I have wavy hair.I love straight hair.I was told that we can chage it to be straight by change DNA in japan? Says:

    […] Comment on Dave Barry Did Japan by M-BoneMulboyne – I agree that martial arts were popular / cool in the 1970s but I`m not sure that they were identified as Japanese – more, generic `Asian`, right (there was also its association with blackspolitation for a while there which … […]

  48. anonymous 10 Says:

    The strange thing is, 40+ somethings are completely and utterly unaware of this whole Japan Cool thing, to them Japan is the same thing it was in the 70s, 60s, whatever. I worked for the North American headquarters of M4tsush1ta, and I remember one time we were trying to localize some product; the box art and style had what we’d recognize as this distinctly interesting Japanese aspect to it, so I suggested we work with that on the grounds that Japan has “cultural cachet” with 20-30 somethings (it was a product to be launched in Target and that’s their big demographic thing). The 40 and 50 year olds in the room were absolutely dumbfounded at that idea, and these were people who lived in New York City. To them Japan still meant something weird and incompatible with American tastes.

    So I do see some generational aspect to it. The depth of cultural product Japan has to offer is probably what seals it, though. There’s just a lot that’s worked its way into our daily lives, though I don’t think in the past it was ever recognized as being Japanese… thanks in small part to teams like I worked on at M4tsush1t4.

  49. mouchette Says:

    Let’s all not forget “Gung Ho”!

  50. M-Bone Says:

    `The strange thing is, 40+ somethings are completely and utterly unaware of this whole Japan Cool thing.`

    But this is the crowd that `Memoirs of a Geisha` and `Lost in Translation` were supposed to appeal to, no? Some will get it and others won`t.

    It just crossed my mind that this Barry is cooler than Japanese kids assumption has not really been done in by `Cool Japan` at all. Check out this quote from Dave Spector –

    `Making foreigners cuter takes away the threat of foreigners being more powerful, or having more know-how, or more sophistication. So definitely, they use that in a way to make themselves more comfortable.`

    Maybe`s he`s partly right here concerning the place of foreigners on Japanese TV but you also get the feeling that he thinks that he is smarter and more sophisticated than `they` are. Spector has all of the class and smarts of that thing I just scraped off my shoe, but in Japan, he can fool himself into thinking that he has some swagger.

    There is also the `charisma man` thing that `Cool Japan` seems in no danger of doing away with. Let`s face it, there are plenty of JETS in rural Ehime who think that their Nike t-shirt and GAP jeans put them way head of those Tokyo kids on the fashion, class, and cool scale because they are more `real`. There are also those guys who have never picked up a musical instrument in their lives (and were passionate New Kids on the Block fans when they were 11) who see a local act and feel entitled to pass the `they just don`t get rock` judgement based on having been born in America. Of course, these are the same dudes who expect their `I taught English in Japan for two years` accouncement to make them the star of the party back home….

  51. Aceface Says:

    Since this is the 51st post on the origin of “Cool Japan”,I’d like to shed some light on the reality that the current western discourses on Japan are mostly dominated by “gloom & doom” school of Japanology.
    I mean,is Japan really cool? or does it any matter to anyone?

  52. Mulboyne Says:

    Foreigner investors have been net buyers of the Japanese stock market for twelve straight weeks now so you could make the case that the doom and gloom school of thought on Japan has actually turned a bit quieter.

  53. anonymous 10 Says:

    The doom and gloom about the Japanese economy is just a tactic to make the American free-market model be seen as canon and unquestionable. It’s a tactic they use within the United States to discredit any economic theories outside of the one currently in use. The people who talk about Japanese economic doom and gloom also talk about European economic doom and gloom, despite that obviously not being the case.

    It’s truly a strange situation in the United States right now… nobody here trusts the media, so foreigners shouldn’t, either. It’s kind-of sad it’s gotten this way.

  54. W. David MARX Says:

    I mean,is Japan really cool? or does it any matter to anyone?

    For a lot of people in my line of work, it is the ultimate matter of life or death.

  55. M-Bone Says:

    `I mean,is Japan really cool? or does it any matter to anyone?`

    It will be interesting to see will happen when the American president elected in 2048 turns out to have loved Suzumiya Haruhi as a 12 year old.

  56. Japan » Old Article from Time Magazine Says:

    […] Comment on Dave Barry Did Japan by M-BoneMaybe`s he`s partly right here concerning the place of foreigners on Japanese TV but you also get the feeling that he thinks that he is smarter and more sophisticated than `they` are. Spector has all of the class and smarts of that … […]

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    […] Comment on Dave Barry Did Japan by anonymous 10The doom and gloom about the Japanese economy is just a tactic to make the American free-market model be seen as canon and unquestionable. It’sa tactic they use within the United States to discredit any economic theories outside of the … […]

  58. Japan » Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency in Tsukuba Says:

    […] Comment on Dave Barry Did Japan by MulboyneForeigner investors have been net buyers of the Japanese stock market for twelve straight weeks now so you could make the case that the doom and gloom school of thought on Japan has actually turned a bit quieter. […]

  59. Japan » Anime, Action help drive Blu-ray sales in Japan Says:

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  61. Thomas Lindenmuth Says:

    For someone so pretentious, you seem rather dim. You’re not sure the twist was once ‘cool’ here? There were songs written about the dance itself. Figure it out.

    You completely missed the point of the chapter on the kids in the park. Read it again, without the self-pity.

    You should really develop a recreational drug habit. Lighten up. Or give up. But make a choice.