James Freeman takes Blue Bottle to the city that inspired him.
BY ROLAND KELTS
I am on my way to meet James Freeman, founder of Blue Bottle Coffee, and every inch of Tokyo feels sun blasted and overstuffed — except where he is. Freeman is hunched over a cup of coffee inside a Tudor-style café called Chatei Hatou, a 25-year-old relic of Japan’s bubble-era economy, nestled between a narrow okonomiyaki grill and a basement bar on a hill in Shibuya, one of the city’s busiest neighborhoods. When I step in from the glaring street, it’s like walking into a well-appointed cave. The café is spacious, cool, and dimly lit; the soundtrack is classical; and the white-haired, blue-eyed Freeman has the long 12-seat wooden bar all to himself. It’s his favorite place in the world.
“See, I love that,” he says, breaking off mid-greeting. He nods toward the barista, who wears a necktie and a dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. “I love that he warms the saucer. He pours hot water in the cup, then splashes some onto the saucer. It’s more refined to have the saucer the same temperature as the cup.
“If we can learn from that,” he says, “and compete here in Tokyo, that will give us an enormous competitive edge in our markets back in the U.S.”
First Sound from the Future
Hatsune Miku weaves her magic for US audiences this fall
By Roland Kelts
Not all trends sweeping the domestic market in Japan strike gold with overseas audiences. The exceptions are headliners such as Pokemon, Hello Kitty, and the manga series One Piece, with its record-breaking 345-million print run worldwide. Most Japanese pop culture phenomena are for the home crowd only.
Sports manga, such as Slam Dunk, rarely find a mass audience in the United States. Even trendy fashions, like last decade’s yamamba girls with their towering platform soles and bronzed faces, fail to charm most foreign tastemakers.
In the 80s, when I was a teenager set free in Tokyo streets by my Japanese mother, I was entranced by quirky Japanese idol groups, fantastical haircuts, and animated television graphics. Still, I didn’t think any of it would register with my peers in America.
It was altogether too light, too cute, too whimsical and self-conscious: a brightly twisted mimicry of Western tropes. Why opt for a cheery, slippery copy when you can get the hard-won original in New York, London, or Los Angeles?
I was wrong about a lot of it. After Godzilla became a global sensation, several Japanese pop icons filled the screens and streets of Western cities.
The North American manga business took a beating last decade. After peaking around 2005-06, the lethal storm of oversaturated shelves, a collapsing U.S. financial industry and the bankruptcy of major American bookstore chain, Borders, left publishers and distributors in a panic. Downsizing, restructuring and layoffs became de rigueur.
“The bankruptcy of Borders in 2011 was definitely the final straw in forcing me to close down the office and stop print publishing,” says Stu Levy, the founder and CEO of Tokyopop, a pioneer and stalwart of the North American manga market that once introduced millions to the iconic “Sailor Moon” series. Levy believes rampant digital piracy and reduced print runs combined with the closing of Borders to force his hand.
But after the losses sustained in the wake of Japan’s natural and nuclear disasters of 2011, manga publishers and their overseas partners see signs of hope — though not necessarily where they were looking for them.
I'll be touring California with the Monkey Business team next month, Oct. 11 - 25. Six cities -- San Diego, Los Angeles, Palo Alto, Oakland, San Francisco and Berkeley -- w/Tomoka Shibasaki, Hideo Furukawa, Steve Erickson, Hiromi Ito, Peter Orner, Dean Rader, Motoyuki Shibata, Ted Gooossen and more. Readings, signings, conversation, fine wines & spirits.
In 2002, American journalist Douglas McGray published an article in Foreign Policy magazine called “Japan’s Gross National Cool.”
After spending a few months traveling around the country, McGray concluded that Japan was transitioning from being a manufacturing exporter to a cultural exporter.
What he called “the whiff of American cool” that dominated most of the 20th century was being supplanted globally by “the whiff of Japanese cool,” in the form of cultural products such as manga, anime, fashion, and cuisine.
McGray cited the phrase coined by Harvard professor Joseph S. Nye (who was, incidentally, President Barack Obama’s first choice for ambassador to Japan in 2008): Soft Power.
I was in New York last week to host a launch event for the English translation of Haruki Murakami’s latest novel, “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.” My good friend and Murakami translator Ted Goossen, professor at York University in Toronto, joined me, as did pianist Eunbi Kim, whose multi-media project, “Murakami Music,” I saw performed at Symphony Space in Manhattan last year.
With all the talk of the Cool Japan campaign, it’s worth remembering that author Haruki Murakami reigns as the nation’s most potent global cultural export.
I wasn’t surprised to find the venue packed when I arrived. Kinokuniya bookstore’s New York branch in midtown comprises two floors and a basement. Events and readings are staged in the center of the ground floor. Audience members filled the seats and spilled into adjacent aisles, many of them peering over bookshelves.
I first met Murakami 15 years ago on a kind of bet.
Summer gigs, 2014 -- thanks to Nobuyuki, Tsuyoshi, Marlan, Ian, Marc in LA; Peter, Nagame, Lars at Embassy of Sweden, Tokyo; Manabu and Lisa at Meiji University, Tokyo; John, Ted, Eunbi and Haruki at Kinokuniya, New York City.
Next up: Ottawa, San Diego, Los Angeles, Palo Alto, San Francisco and Berkeley.
To celebrate the release of Haruki Murakami's latest novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, join author Roland Kelts, who has known and interviewed Murakami for 15 years, Murakami translator Ted Goossen, and Murakami Music composer Eunbi Kim for an intimate encounter with the author's life, work and personal journey from Japan to the world.