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.