Friday, August 14, 2009

Seiji Horibuchi's New People/J-Pop Center opens tomorrow

A little over a year ago, I filed my Yomiuri column (re-posted below) after giving a talk at the Japan America Society in San Francisco and meeting Seiji Horibuchi, the founder of VIZ media. Seiji told me about his dream project, the four-floor J-Pop Center, which he planned to open in the heart of the city's fading Japantown.

Later in the year, I met Seiji in New York. The subprime spiral was in full downward motion; the economy was tanking. I asked Seiji about his project and he laughed -- somewhat ruefully, I thought.

The J-Pop Center, now called "New People," opens tomorrow. Read it all about it here.

I had hoped to take Seiji up on his gracious invitation to be on hand, but deadlines have me grounded in NYC. Nevertheless, I hereby raise a transcontinental toast to Horibuchi-san and his grand vision.

SOFT POWER, HARD TRUTHS / Manga magnate aims to redraw San Francisco

Roland Kelts / Special to The Daily Yomiuri

Historian Ronald Takaki wrote that while New York's Statue of Liberty once meant "America" to generations of arriving European immigrants, it was San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge that, for Asians, symbolized a landing on U.S. shores.

No surprise then that the city remains an American hub for all things Asian and Asian-American. When I made my own landing there earlier this month to address the Japan Society alongside consumer critic Mariko Fujiwara, I was greeted straight off the plane by a Japanese-American University of California Berkeley professor and his Korean-American literary editor wife. They set about curing my jet lag with a round of spicy selections at an Indonesian luncheon.

A few hours and a hazy nap later, my palette was stirred by spices from yet another Asian nation. Author, translator and Osamu Tezuka aficionado Frederik L. Schodt escorted me around the corner and down the hill from my hotel into a smoky Indian diner.

Jet lag has rarely faced tastier antidotes.

The following day was all about Japan. Fujiwara and I were greeted in the Delancey Street Screening Room by an alert and intelligent audience whose familiarity with Japan far exceeded Pokemon and Harajuku pixies. We discussed the challenges of an aging population and a lethargic youth, and also the opportunities in expanding transcultural exchanges and mutual respect.

In the audience that evening was Seiji Horibuchi, the pioneering founder of Viz Media, one of the first and largest Japanese entertainment companies to take root in American soil. Horibuchi moved to the Bay Area more than 30 years ago. He founded Viz in 1986. Two years ago, he launched Viz Pictures, a spin-off that focuses on releasing live-action features to complement the mountains of manga, anime, toys and related merchandise the parent company already handles.

As he quickly recited last year's hit manga titles in the United States, Horibuchi sounded like a man who's just getting started. In fact, he is.

Over dinner after the event, Horibuchi unveiled to me his most ambitious project to date, making it clear that he was moving beyond manga and anime on a mission to revitalize the city of San Francisco itself.

A year from now, Viz Media will open the J-Pop Center, a three-story entertainment complex that aims to envelop visitors in the entire Japanese pop culture gestalt, from food to fashion, art materials to toys, and on to magazines, household goods, manga, anime and movies.

"I really want people to appreciate Japanese craftsmanship, quality and design," he says. "We might even have high-tech robots."

At the core of the complex will be a 150-seat art house movie theater specializing in Japanese live-action and animated feature films. The second floor will be dominated by fashion boutiques of the kind found in Japan's Marui department stores, with a particular emphasis on Gosu-rori (Gothic Lolita) designs, whose worldwide appeal Horibuchi calls "a 21st-century phenomenon."

The first floor will provide the full panoply of J-Pop goods that have a clear "visual appeal. We'll be targeting strictly American customers." An expansive cafe will provide the appropriate Japanese-style refreshments.

But most important for Horibuchi is the complex's strategic location: In the heart of San Francisco's Japantown, the longest-lived and largest of the Japanese urban neighborhood communities in the United States. More than 100 years old, Japantown has survived the forced internment of its residents during World War II and the real estate booms and busts of the dot-com era.

Standing in the city that was the first shore for generations of Asian immigrants, Horibuchi tells me that his J-Pop Complex is more than just a business venture: "It's an historic opportunity to show the true value of Japan."

Kelts is a Tokyo University lecturer who divides his time between Tokyo and New York. He is the author of "Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S." ( available in both English and Japanese. His column appears twice a month.
(Feb. 22, 2008)

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