Roland Kelts was born to an American father and a Japanese mother, and grew up in both America and Japan. Kelts is the author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the US, as well as a visiting scholar at Keio University in Tokyo. As a journalist, essayist and columnist, he writes for many publications such as The New Yorker, The Guardian and The Japan Times, and he is an authority on Japan’s contemporary literary and popular cultures. He imparts his unique perspective on Japanese pop culture to the rest of the world as a public speaker and media commentator on CNN, NPR, NHK and the BBC. Most recently, Kelts delivered a TED Talk in Tokyo at TedxHaneda.
AKB48’s commercial success in Japan is often derided as a sign of the culture’s patriarchal infantilization of women, and the girl group’s inability to appeal to Western audiences a sign of Japan’s increasingly isolated ideas about femininity, sexuality and pop music. Put simply: outside of Japan, AKB48 will never be Psy.
But inside Japan, it’s a reliable moneymaker. Its most recent single, “We Won’t Fight” (Bokutachi wa Tatakawanai), topped the Oricon charts in June. The idol group is the no. 2 bestselling music act in the entire history of Japanese pop music in terms of singles sold. And Japan is the second-largest pop music market in the world – just behind the United States.
Cuteness sells in Japan, especially if it’s well-marketed. Which is why AKB48’s latest music video is puzzling. The ironically titled 12-minute epic, “We Won’t Fight” [short v.], was released this summer. In it, the kawaii (cute) girls are more Ronda Rousey than Sailor Moon.
It’s 8 a.m. and the two founders of Tonko House animation studio are preparing to meditate. Their 200-square-foot space at the industrial edge of southwest Berkeley is filled with desktops and laptops, packed bookshelves, paint jars, brushes and carbon markers, and one ten-foot-long work table. There isn’t much room. The table and chairs have been shoved to one side and a heavy beige filing cabinet wheeled into the hallway. For 12 minutes, Daisuke “Dice” Tsutsumi, a wiry Japanese expatriate, and his co-founder, the younger and sturdier Japanese American Robert Kondo, sit lotus style at one end of the room while their business manager, Daisuke “Zen” Miyake, an ordained Buddhist monk, kneels at the other and chants in a droning baritone.
Tsutsumi moved to America more than 20 years ago. Kondo — palms turned upward, index fingers touching thumbs in gyan mudra formation — was born and raised in the San Gabriel Valley, east of Los Angeles. Kondo and Tsutsumi founded Tonko House in February 2014. Their first film, a heartbreaking 18-minute animated short called The Dam Keeper, piled up festival awards. The film was nominated for an Oscar earlier this year.
More than 90,000 attended the 24th annual Anime Expo (AX), North America’s largest Japanese pop culture convention, held at the Los Angeles Convention Center from July 2 to 5. The four-day event featured a concert by idol group Momoiro Clover Z, who were joined onstage by two members of veteran American rockers, Kiss — a result of their unlikely collaboration earlier this year on the song and music video, “Yume no Ukiyo ni Saitemina.” (In March, the two groups also performed together at Kiss’ Tokyo Dome show.)
American producer and DJ Porter Robinson, cable channel mtvU’s artist of the year and an avowed fan of Japanese pop, delivered a surprise set following a gig by Japan-influenced electronic music act, Anamanaguchi.
Sanrio hosted a fashion show to celebrate the 40th year of “Hello Kitty.” The 20th anniversary of Hideaki Anno’s seminal film and series “Evangelion” was marked with a performance by its theme-song singer-songwriter, Yoko Takahashi. Other guest producers and directors who attended included Studio 4°C President and former Studio Ghibli Producer Eiko Tanaka, and Takahiro Miura, director of the popular series “Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works.”
Last week, Line Corp.’s, the operators of Japan’s most popular messaging app, launched an in-app music streaming service called Line Music. Japan is the second-largest music market in the world after the United States, but its consumers have so far been global outliers, clinging to physical products like CDs and DVDs, which comprise 80 percent of all sales, when everyone else switched to digital. Line Music joins the only other active streaming service in Japan, AWA, established late last month by Avex and Cyber Agent. Apple Music, Spotify and Google are said to be studying the market but have yet to make moves.
Some see Line Music and AWA as harbingers of Japan’s music business future, aligning it with the rest of the world. Veteran Tokyo-based producer and songwriter Jeff Miyahara, however, is doubtful. The novelty of streaming will wear thin fast in Japan, he tells me, because it’s a culture that prizes physical products, packaging and the kind of product-focus that is lost when all-in-one streaming services offer millions of songs — with little guidance or categorical control.
Umami gives identity and intricacy to mother’s milk, a bowl of ramen, a writer poised between Japan and America.
“Be always beginning,” Rilke wrote. You begin again because you have no choice. When I was six, my Japanese mother took me to her hometown to live with my grandparents. In Morioka, a northern capital city, I attended the neighborhood kindergarten. My memories of those days are uniformly positive: hunting cicadas in the backyard with a store-bought child’s-net-and-terrarium set (cicada-catching is standard summer fare for Japanese kids); watching Ultraman monster shows, animation, and sumo wrestling on TV, seated beside my grandfather, both of us barefoot on the ribbed tatami mats; and bathing nightly in my grandparents’ stainless-steel tub, encased in dark wood-paneled walls.
But my mother tells me I was miserable, especially at school. I cried so hard and often that the principal called home in the middle of the day and asked her to please pick me up. I struggled with the language, the differences in cultural assumptions and attitudes, my alien looks and their alien food. I learned Japanese songs and chants and games that I can recite and play to this day, but I could not learn how to be Japanese.
His first overseas roastery and café in Kiyosumi, Tokyo, did more business on its opening Friday than any of the company’s 17 US outlets do in a week. His order of branded coffee mugs shipped in from the US was supposed to last a month; they sold out in a few days.
Two women, who stood in line for five hours in front of the Kiyosumi store, told him they had taken the bus from Osaka to Tokyo—almost four hours away—to be there. The next month, when Blue Bottle opened its second Tokyo outlet, a café in the Aoyama neighborhood of Tokyo, the same pair turned up again.
“They seemed like lovely suburban ladies,” Freeman says. “And they were thrilled.”
The 18th annual Anime Central (ACen), North America’s third largest anime convention, was held May 15 - 17 in Rosemont, near Chicago. Last year’s event drew a record 29,000 unique attendees, tallying 81,000 in total over its three full days. Organizers breached those figures again in 2015, hosting over 31,000.
ACen is something of an oasis for anime fans in Middle America. While official celebrations of Japanese popular culture take place across the United States nearly every weekend of the year, many of them are modest affairs, geared toward less populated regions and local fans, sometimes hosted by municipal libraries and schools. The larger conventions and expos, with their bus-loads of cosplayers and A-list Japanese guests, tend to be coastal events, hosted in urban centers such as Los Angeles, Seattle, Boston and New York.
ACen is held in the heart of the American Midwest. Chicago hugs the shores of Lake Michigan but is otherwise landlocked, a city surrounded by forest and farmland with a reputation for plain-speaking, hard work and killer blues.
After a stellar tour of the Midwest and New York City with Monkey Business magazine, I am back in Chicago, honored to be appearing with Japanamerica from May 15 - 17 at Anime Central, the region's largest celebration of Japanese art and culture.