Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Serious Japanization

This weeks reading on “Taking ‘Japanization’ Seriously,” highlights the rise of Japanese cultural exports and how this may influence Japan’s cultural power in the world. Iwabuchi states that although Japanese technology such as walkmans are widely used in America, these exports are “culturally neutral” technologies and the “country of origin has nothing to do with ‘the way [that they work] and the satisfaction [that a consumer] obtains from usage.” These products are “culturally odorless” and do not produce the image of a “Japanese way of life” by the user.

Iwabuchi further details how Japanese animators incorporate cultural odorlessness by creating their anime characters with non-Japanese features such as big blue eyes or blonde hair. This shows how a Western-dominated cultural hierarchy influences transnational cultural flows in the world. This point particularly resonated with me as I used to teach English in Japan and witnessed this first-hand in my classroom. My elementary and junior high students would show me their latest manga (comic books) and to my surprise, the characters had blonde hair and blue eyes, which looked nothing like their jet Black hair and dark eyes. I would ask my students, why do these characters look European if they are supposed to be Japanese? My students would respond that the characters are drawn to look “kawaii” (cute) and they could not possibly be “kawaii” if they had Asian features. The first time I heard this, I was truly shocked and wasted a lot of time trying to explain to the children that their features were just as beautiful as European features. No matter how hard I tried to teach them an appreciation for their features, they still insisted that European features were cuter. I found this Western-dominated cultural hierarchy particularly ironic and frustrating. Why does something such as manga, which is distinctly Japanese, need to use characters with European features to sell? I do not think Japanese animators and cartoonist do this unconsciously, but rather it is done intentionally in order to sell their products to an international audience.

The other point I found interesting in Iwabuchi’s article was his discussion of the “shift from a Western gaze to a decentered global gaze,” in regards to transnationally circulated images and commodities. These images and commodities become odorless through a transculturation process, which transforms an existing cultural artifact into something new to fit the consuming culture. I witnessed this in Japan during a discussion I had with one of my junior high school students. The conversation went as follows:

Student: Zainabu, have you ever been to Disney World?

Zainabu: Yes. When I was about 8 years old, I went with my family.

Student: (Student looks shocked) Oh so you came to Japan when you were 8 years old?

Zainabu: No. I went to the Disney World in America, not the one in Japan.

Student: (Student looks super shocked) There is a Disney World in America???

The conversation continued for about 20 minutes with me trying to convince the student that (1) there is indeed a Disney World in America, (2) Disney actually originated in America, and (3) Mickey Mouse can speak English. Thinking this was just the ignorance of one student, I interviewed several other students to find out if they knew that Disney was an American company. To my surprise, the majority of my students did not know this and thought Disney was a Japanese invention. In the world of my students, Disney was culturally odorless.

Transculturation ultimately helps conglomerates carry out globalization because if countries are able to transform products to make them appear more indigenous, they are more likely to be accepted by its citizens.

1 comment:

  1. Zainabu,
    I really enjoyed your post. It was interesting to see how the lack of odor goes both ways - just how many of us never thought about the fact that the Walkman was Japanese, your students likewise had no idea about Disney being from America. Your students also provided a sad example of some sort of "reverse" glocalization. Instead of making their locally produced comic books reflect them, they took on what they deemed to be "cuter", Western, characteristics.