For three decades, Americans looked across the Atlantic for the latest in youth-culture hip.
Back in the '60s, there were the Beatles and the Stones, Carnaby Street chic and the breathless allure of swinging London. With the '70s, it moved from Bowie-style glam to Sex Pistols punk, as those in the know traded their platforms and eye shadow for torn T-shirts and safety pins. The '80s brought ska, goths and the new romantics, as such bands as Madness, the Cure and Duran Duran moved to the fore.
Here in the '90s, however, hip young America's gaze has shifted. Instead of looking to London, the truly trend-conscious have turned to Tokyo, trolling the depths of Japanese pop culture for tips on the latest looks, sounds and fads.
There's evidence all over, from graphic designers who make layouts look futuristic by plastering them with Japanese typography, to Tamagotchi-toting preteens pestering their parents for another "Sailor Moon" video. Japanese cartoon characters can be found everywhere from video stores (where ** anime, or Japanese animation, is a growth market) to T-shirts and advertising, while such musical groups as Pizzicato Five, Shonen Knife and the Boredoms represent the cutting edge of alternarock cool.
Forget Godzilla. Today's Japanophiles are more interested in mecha (robots and cybersuits) than in monsters and spend their time building "garage kits" (snap-together plastic models) of robots from the anime series "Gundam" or "Neon Genesis Evangelion." In fact, the old American notion of Japanese pop culture being tacky, low-budget and slavishly imitative is as outdated as a gas-guzzling Detroit muscle car. Modern Japanese pop culture is slick, attuned to technology and way ahead of the curve.
"Japanese pop culture is the beta version of 21st-century American pop culture," says film critic Roger Ebert. "In the area of young people's lifestyles, they seem to move a little faster and go a little further." Moreover, he says, they're much more accepting of the latest advances in technology. "They were right on top of laserdiscs, HDTV, DVD, computer games. You don't hear them moaning, 'Does this mean I have to give up my VHS deck?' "
Americans have been imagining a technology-intense, Japanized future since at least 1982, when director Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner" conjured a vision of 21st-century Los Angeles littered with video screens and Japanese product names. Since then, novelist William Gibson has reinforced that view in the cyberpunk thrillers "Neuromancer" and "Idoru," while animation fans got an eyeful from Katsuhiro Otomo's apocalyptic fantasy "Akira."
In truth, Japan isn't quite as high-tech as these writers and directors imagine it. "The fact is that Disney uses much more advanced technology in making their animated features," says Mark Schilling, author of "The Encyclopedia of Japanese Pop Culture." He points out that even Studio Ghibli, whose animated films often outperform Disney at the box office in Japan, uses very little computer animation in its productions.
"I don't even think they're trying to catch up. They know it's impossible," he adds. "Ghibli spent 2 billion yen on their latest movie, 'Princess Mononoke' -- that translates into about $19 million -- which is about twice the budget of an ordinary Japanese big-budget picture. But it's impossible for Japanese animators to get the same kind of money for their movies that Disney has. They just don't have the same kind of market."
Americans may have better equipment, but the Japanese have taken it more to heart. Computer-driven music has been popular in Japan since the late '70s, when the synth band Yellow Magic Orchestra was all the rage, and that fascination with technology carries over to the music of Tetsuya Komuro, or TK.
A prodigiously popular producer and songwriter, TK specializes in synth-spiked dance music. He's good at it, too. Over the last 13 years, his projects -- which include work with idol singers Namie Amuro and Tomomi Kahala, as well as his own band, Globe -- have sold more than 150 million copies in Japan. Recently, he moved to Los Angeles, and thanks to a pumping instrumental number on the "Speed II" soundtrack, he's beginning to apply his technological savvy to the American market.
"Since 1984, I've been doing the same type of music, with computer and synthesizer," he says. "And Hollywood, lately, hires people who make that kind of techno music. Their direction is close to me right now.
"Technology is a good influence for entertainment now."
TK is hardly the only example of how the Japanese turn high technology into mass entertainment. Just look at the Tamagotchi mania. Introduced last fall in Japan, it was originally intended to cash in on the key-chain craze that had Japanese junior-high schoolers playing palm-size versions of computer games like Tetris and Space Invaders. Tamagotchi was a step up from that, an original game that provided the player with a fresh-hatched "virtual pet" that had to be fed, played with and cleaned-up after. Treat it well, and the electronic creature would "live" for up to three weeks; treat it poorly, and it was destined for an early demise.
Japanese toy maker Bandai introduced Tamagotchi Nov. 23, and by New Year's, it was sold out all across Japan. News reports and Internet chatter about Tamagotchi mania began filtering across the Pacific, and American teens also began to clamor for the computerized critters.
By May 1, when Tamagotchi made its American debut, many stores were sold out before the toys even made it to the shelves, so great was the number of pre-orders. In all, some 3.5 million Tamagotchi have been sold in the United States (about half as many as have sold in Japan), and interest in the virtual pet shows no sign of flagging. Indeed, Tamagotchi's market has expanded significantly from its original junior-high-school target audience; at the moment, says Bandai, the average age of Tamagotchi owners in America is 19, with a near equal split between the sexes.
Despite Tamagotchis' mass-market success, the fact that they are still new and not that easy to find confers a certain cool upon the owner. True hipsters, however, go the extra step and try to unlock the mysteries of Tamagotchi.
"People couldn't understand why there was a little duck icon on the Tamagotchi," says Trish Ledoux, editor of the anime magazine Animerica. "Well, it's a [Japanese] training potty, which you recognize instantly if you have any familiarity with Japanese culture. But if you don't, you think, 'Why does the duck equal the bathroom? I don't get it.' "
There's more lore, of course. For instance, the "game" Tamagotchi owners play with their pet is a version of the Japanese children's game atchi muite hoi (what, they didn't play it at your school?). Then there are the creatures themselves, which assume one of six different character types when they reach maturity. American Tamagotchi manuals just show what each of the types look like, but the Japanese guidebooks provide each with a name -- "masukutchi" for the racoonish one, "tarakotchi" for the baby chick, "nyorotchi" for the tadpole. Naturally, hard-core Japanophiles not only know all the names, but can explain what they mean.
"The more you know, the more tantalizing it gets," says Ledoux. "The masters of the geekdom are the ones who know all that stuff and can explain it to those who are less fortunate. So you can pretty much set yourself up as a shaman of pop culture just by being able to decode all those things."
That Japanese is one of the most difficult languages for English speakers to master only adds to the challenge.
And Ledoux, who has translated the scripts for English-dubbed versions for such anime series as "Ranma 1/2 " and "Maison Ikkoku," says that American anime importers are learning that the Japanese-ness of these shows is a large part of their appeal.
"As time goes on, we realize more and more that it's not only OK to keep in the cultural references, but actually desirable," she says.
Especially when the people who are interested aren't typical comic and cartoon fanatics. When Ledoux began editing Animerica five years ago, the magazine's readership was 93 percent male. "According to the most recent data, 43 percent [of the readers] are female," she says. "Forty-three percent! I don't think in any of the related fandoms there is such a high female percentage.
"This is amazing. Girls are coming out of the woodwork and they're saying, 'Hey, this stuff is for me. It's not just a boy thing."'
Sarah Dyer, editor of the all-female alternative comic Action Girl, has noticed the same thing. "When I go into a comics store to pick up stuff, if there's teen-age girls in there, they're buying manga [Japanese comics in translation] pretty much 90 percent of the time," she says.
What's the attraction? "I think a lot of it is that manga tends to be much more character-driven and story-driven, instead of special-effects-driven the way a lot of American comics are," she says. "Not to get into behavioral genetics or anything, but I think that girls tend to like that kind of work more."
The girl factor
It's no accident that so much of this stuff, from manga and Tamagotchi to idol singers and fashion trends, appeals to girls, because teen-age girls make up the engine that drives Japanese pop culture.
"When you look at the hot trends of the past few years, nearly all of them have been either started by or taken up very quickly by teen-aged girls," says author Schilling. "These are girls in junior-high school or high school, who account for maybe four percent of the population. But they're the ones who have the time and the money to pick up on these things. The boys are occupied with studying or manga or whatever, and they're just not as interested in finding out what's hip and what's not."
This trend has not gone unnoticed. "I take the Nikkei, which is the Japanese equivalent to the Wall Street Journal, and it seems that every week, they have a story on something that teen-aged girls are interested in," says Schilling. "It's funny, seeing this sober-sided business paper chasing after these 15- and 16-year-old girls to find out what they're up to."
Given the universal interests of teen-age girls, it shouldn't be surprising that many of these trends are tied to fashion or social status. But fashion works a little differently for teen-age girls in Japan, says Schilling.
"The high school kids here [in Japan] have to wear uniforms, a lot of them," he explains. "So they can't display their hipness as easily as American kids can. So it all revolves around accessories. They're all carrying cell phones now -- that's the big thing, cell phones -- and on the cell phones, they dangle these little accessories. Every cell phone carried by a high-school girl has some cute character item dangling from it."
Another craze among Japanese high-school girls is Print Club, an update on the old-fashioned photo booth that lets the customer choose one of a dozen or more graphics to use as a frame, and then prints the picture on a block of tiny stamps. "Every teen-age girl has to have a notebook full of Print Club stickers," says Schilling. "It's like certifying that you're popular. You get these picture books with 10,000 people in them, and some of them total strangers. You show your notebook around, and people ooh and ahh.
"That's gone beyond a game-like fad; it's more a social phenomenon."
Schilling adds that he thinks Print Club machines would be a natural for the American market. According to a representative for Kodak, which manufactures the machines in Japan, the company is still investigating whether there's a broad enough interest to launch the product over here. Like many on this side of the Pacific, they worry that Japanese pop culture crazes are of interest only to fanatics.
Then again, catering to fanatics -- or, as the Japanese call them, otaku -- may well be the wave of the future. "There was an article recently in a magazine that posed the theory that Japan is becoming a nation of otaku," says Schilling. "Eventually, it says, we'll all be otaku -- we'll all have our own little areas of interest, and be fanatically knowledgeable about that area and not really care about anything else."
nTC He laughs, and adds, "That seems to be happening on both sides of the Pacific."
Japan in print
Unless you live in Japan, or at the very least read Japanese, catching up with Japanese pop culture can be maddeningly difficult. Here are a few publications that will help bridge the gap.
* "Encyclopedia of Japanese Pop Culture" by Mark Schilling (Weatherhill):
Reading up on Godzilla and karaoke is easy; getting the inside skinny on the comedy duo Downtown or the notorious dance club Juliana's is much more difficult. Fortunately, Schilling covers it all, from the old TV shows "Go Ranger" and "Ultraman" to current pop stars TK and Seiko Matsuda. Entertaining and informative, it's an invaluable resource.
* "Samurai from Outer Space" by Antonia Levi (Open Court):
Most guides to anime focus on plots and animation quality; Levi's book offers the subtext necessary to understand these shows in their Japanese cultural context. The perfect book for anyone who ever wondered who the Seven Lucky Gods were and what they were doing in that Ranma movie.
Although intended to use manga, or Japanese comics, as a way to teach Japanese, this monthly magazine offers regular coverage of Japanese pop culture crazes, as well as articles on Japanese food, computer programs and social life. The comics aren't bad, either.
* Tokion: Beautifully designed and bilingual, this not-quite- quarterly offers a broad yet balanced view of cutting-edge Japanese pop culture. The spring '97 number -- dubbed "The Sex Issue" -- may be a bit too racy for some readers but includes interesting articles on everything from a female bondage master to the Tokyo trance scene.
* Asian Cult Cinema:
Covering just what the title says, this slick little 'zine covers everything from Hong Kong stars Jackie Chan and Jet Lee to trashy Japanese features like the "Weather Girl" series. And where else are you going to find an in-depth article on the history of Gamera?
Getting there on the Internet
Who says it's hard to get to Japan? It's not when you're traveling by World Wide Web. Granted, if your web browser isn't configured for Japanese character recognition, visiting Japanese web sites will net mostly junk characters. But these sites -- which are mostly or entirely in English -- should make it easier to keep up with what's hot in Japan without ever crossing the Pacific.
* Anti-Japanophile Home Page
Despite the title, this page boasts an excellent lists of links for English speakers interested in Japan.
* Tamagotchi Fever!
Everything you could want to know about Tamagotchi, both here and abroad. Excellent use of animated GIFS to show how the various characters look.
* Anime and Manga Mall of North America
Want to know where to buy anime online? An exhaustive list of shops, both in the United States and Japan.
* TK Galaxy
Catch up on the latest from superstar producer Testuya Komuro and the pop idols he oversees. In both Japanese and English, with plenty of photos and MIDI sound files.
* Japan Edge: Japanese street culture
Focusing on techno music and street fashion, this mostly English page offers a real slice-of-life view of Japanese club culture.
Pub Date: 7/20/97