Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Japanamerica on ANN's Chicks on Anime ...

At the start of this relatively long month of Japanamerica-related events, I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Bamboo and Sara of Anime News Network's "Chicks on Anime" column. Not surprisingly, given the excellence of the host site, their questions were both knowledgeable and fresh, betraying a deep awareness of the topic at hand and a keen sensitivity to the needs of the column's readers.

During the interview, I was in New York, while Bamboo and Sara were in California. But a couple of days before the interview went 'live,' I, too, was in California, and had the additional honor of meeting Bamboo in person at my talk at the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena (see photo below).

The interview touched upon several ideas I began to explore in the updated paperback edition of Japanamerica, but they clearly deserve more time in the light, as the follow-up reader comments amply prove. For now, here's our exchange, with a continuing link to the original post:

is the managing editor for ANN, and writes the column Shelf Life. Sara is an animator who's also released her own independent short film.

Our guest this week is writer and lecturer Roland Kelts, author of the acclaimed book Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the US. Kelts also lectures around the country; to stay up to date, you can check out his blog, which also posts columns he writes for The Daily Yomiuri, and a variety of other fascinating tidbits. Recently, he also contributed to NPR's Studio 360, as they visited Japan.

For anime and media fans who are interested in a more academic approach to the artform and its history, they can also check out some of the Anime Masterpieces programs around the country, of which Kelts is also part. Their contributors feature an impressive lineup of noted academics, writers, and industry veterans like Susan Napier, John Dower, Frederik Schodt, Charles Solomon, and others.

Mr. Kelts sat down with us to talk a bit about the differences between Japanese and American fan culture, and the realm in between. We'd like to thank him again for the wonderful discussion, and we hope you, the readers, will enjoy it too!

Bamboo: Your book, Japanamerica, mentions how Japanese pop culture has really rooted itself in the US. Can I ask—exactly what is "Japanamerica?" It seems like you refer to it as a place.

Roland: Yes, I've begun to refer to it as a place recently, or at least a frame of mind. When I started the book, the title stood for what I describe as a "mobius strip" of trans-cultural exchange, going back to Osamu Tezuka's love of Walt Disney and Max Fleischer, and running all the way up to today, when everyone at Pixar/Disney treats Hayao Miyazaki as a god.

But more recently it has become reified, so to speak. When I visit anime conventions in the US, or see American otaku trekking around Akihabara in Tokyo, I realize that the zone they inhabit is neither purely 'Japan” nor conclusively “America.” For example: cosplayers gathering at Katsucon a couple weekends ago were all meticulously outfitted as their favorite anime/manga characters. But their behavior—outgoing, noisy, joyous—was hardly "Japanese." Japanese cosplayers have no such event or atmospheres. It's Japanamerica, more than it is Japan or America. I celebrate that limbo zone.

Bamboo: It's interesting you mention that their behavior was "hardly 'Japanese'". I believe you said in your book, and in subsequent interviews, that because Japan, as a society, is so group-minded, and the social etiquette is so restrictive, that people turned to the Internet or pop culture as a release valve. Did I interpret your message right?

Roland: You mean Japanese people, correct? Yes, that's one reading I was trying to explore, that the release is that much more intense because of the restrictions and rules of etiquette.

Sara: If American cosplayers are noisy and joyous, what are their Japanese counterparts like? Is there a mirror of "Japanamericanism" in Japanese culture?

Roland: Japanese cosplayers tend to be semi-professionals with exquisite costumes—who spend most of their time quietly posting for otaku with huge cameras. It's much less a communal celebration, as it is in the US, and more of a carefully calibrated theatrical display.

Bamboo: Let me ask you, then—does anime serve a different purpose in the US, other than as an escape valve? It seems to me that the fan subculture here is a place where nonconformity is celebrated. I mean, as I recall, anime conventions as they exist in the US don't really exist in Japan ... [read more here]

Pasadena, CA, March 2009
(photo courtesy of Julian)

Friday, March 27, 2009

Anime Insider's death note

With the New York Times announcing additional cutbacks yesterday, the death of Anime Insider after eight years may say more about the status of print periodicals than it does about anime in America. Still, it's another stalwart down. [courtesy of Anime News Network and Lawrence Brenner]

Monday, March 23, 2009

The manga man (Rikimaru Toho) cometh

In my capacity as contributing writer/editor to Adbusters magazine, I drafted a short article on Japan's dame ren, or "no good people," willful dropouts and slackers, artists and free spirits--and street performer Rikimaru Toho, "the Manga Man:"

Dame-Ren (No Good People)

A glimpse into Japan’s embrace of Western-style capitalism.

The Japanese language is often indirect, characterized by suggestion and context, undecipherable to the foreign ear. Translation can seem futile.
But one word whose meaning is incontestable is karoshi – “death from overwork.” Japan’s first case was reported in 1969, when an otherwise healthy 29 year-old newspaper laborer suddenly keeled over with a stroke. The word gained popular usage during the rise of the economic bubble. In 1982, three Japanese physicians diagnosed and analyzed the illness in a book called "Karoshi."

As Japan embraced Western-style capitalism, it, in turn, started suffocating the Japanese. The corporation eclipsed every community in Japanese life, providing living spaces, arranging marriages and social engagements, and, most importantly, promising full-time jobs that would last a lifetime.

Except they didn’t – at least not for everyone. By the late 90s, Japan’s long-burst bubble had politicians scrambling to emulate the west again, this time adopting the latest US models of profit-margin efficacy: outsourcing, part-time labor, low wages and scant benefits.

Lo and behold: the scourge infecting Japan today has less to do with working too much and killing oneself than not working enough – and killing others ... [read more here]

The bullet train rolls on ...

The BBC on the glorious Shinkansen--perhaps my favorite mode of public transport in the world. See and ride here.

Friday, March 20, 2009

New Yomiuri column on American cosplay vs. Tokyo Anime Fair

On the challenge of monetizing American fandom as Tokyo Anime Fair 09 switches into full gear this weekend -- in the Daily Yomiuri:

Soft Power Hard Truths / American anime fans party, but don't pay

In a recent interview for pop culture news site ICv2.com, TokyoPop founder and CEO Stuart Levy describes his company's initial strategy in 1998 to harness what he calls "the three C's: content, community and commerce." A decade later, he and others in Japan's U.S.-targeted pop industries have been wildly successful at mastering the first two--content and community--but are struggling mightily to complete the triangle.

In addition to the shelves of manga and anime at U.S. bookstores and libraries, and the fan conventions held each weekend, you can now see original sketches, production cels and anime screenings at highbrow venues such as the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, the Pacific Asia Art Museum in Pasadena, Calif., and the Japan Society in New York.

Overseas communities built on love of Japan's pop media are intensely passionate--keen not merely to share their enthusiasms, but often to pursue them further by learning Japanese or visiting Japan. According to the Japan National Tourist Organization, the number of foreign visitors to Japan rose by 3 million from 2003 to 2007, with more than 8 million trekking to the archipelago in '07, and a projected 10 million by next year.

"We tried really hard to build up the community," Levy says, "but we couldn't get any revenue stream going there. Things haven't changed."

The role of the Internet in cultivating communities without generating profits has been amply addressed. On top of that, producers of Japanese pop media are struggling with outdated and self-destructive business models.

During a talk I gave at the Consulate General of Japan in New York last week, I was asked, "Why do [Japanese producers] have to care about the U.S. market? ..." [read more here]

Thursday, March 19, 2009

THIS Sunday, 3/22: Japanamerica and JET Alumni Author Event

I am honored to be participating in the JET Alumni Author Event this Sunday in midtown Manhattan. If you're in town and keen to attend, please join us. RSVP is required. Details below:

JET Alumni Author Showcase

jet-author-poster-copyClick on image to download PDF of flyer


with support from the Consulate General of Japan in New York, JetWit.com and Kinokuniya Books

Presents the first ever

JET Alumni Author Showcase: Kelts, Kennedy and Weston

(Reception to follow)

On March 22, JETAA NY is pleased to present three great authors — Roland Kelts (Osaka-shi, 1998-99), James Kennedy (Nara-ken, 2004-06) and Robert P. Weston (Nara-ken, 2002-04) — who will discuss their books, the craft and business of writing and how their JET experience fits into the picture.

NOTE: Event limited to 100 people. Reserve your space by RSVPing to: authors /at/ jetaany /dot/ org Please include in RSVP: First and last name and indicate whether you’re a JET alum (including years and prefecture) or a friend of JET.

Date: Sunday, March 22

Start time: 1:00 p.m.

Location: Holiday Inn, W. 57th St. (between 9th & 10th Aves.) 440 W 57th St, New York, NY 10019, (212) 581-8100


  • $5 in advance ($10 at the door) for JET alumni
  • $10 in advance ($15 at the door) for Friends of JET (i.e., everyone else) (Payment to be made via PayPal. Details will be sent after reservation is made.)

Come for an afternoon of entertainment, education and schmoozing! Meet other JET alums! Reconnect with your JET roots!

About the Authors

Roland Kelts (Osaka-shi, 1998-99) is the half-Japanese author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the US (www.japanamericabook.com), published by Palgrave Macmillan in the U.S. and Europe, and in Japanese by Random House Kodansha. An updated and expanded paperback edition was recently released. He is also a professor at The University of Tokyo, Sophia University and the University of the Sacred Heart Tokyo, a contributing writer and editor for A Public Space and Adbusters magazines, and a columnist for The Daily Yomiuri. He is the editor in chief of Anime Masterpieces, an anime lecture and screening series, and his writing appears in numerous publications in both the U.S. and Japan. His forthcoming novel is called ACCESS. Kelts divides his time between New York and Tokyo. You can follow his activities on his blog at japanamerica.blogspot.com.

James Kennedy (Nara-ken, 2004-06) is the author of THE ORDER OF ODD-FISH (Random House / Delacorte Press 2008), a fantastical young adult comedy that was one of the Smithsonian’s Notable Books for Children 2008. Booklist praised ODD-FISH as “hilarious . . . readers with a finely tuned sense of the absurd are going to adore the Technicolor ride” and Time Out Chicago described it as “a work of mischievous imagination and outrageous invention.” After completing a double major in physics and philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, James worked as a junior high school teacher and computer programmer. He has trained in improvisational comedy at Second City and ImprovOlympic and plays bass in the Chicago art-punk band Brilliant Pebbles, which has been described variously as “melodramatic video game music,” “moon-man opera,” and “gypsy sex metal.” James was an ALT at Oyodo Senior High School in Nara-ken from 2004-2006. He lives with his wife (and, come May, daughter) in Humboldt Park in Chicago. You can follow his activities via his blog at http://jameskennedy.com.

Robert P. Weston (Nara-ken, 2002-04) is the author of the innovative, award-winning children’s book, Zorgamazoo (Penguin Books 2008), chosen by Booklist magazine as one of the ten best debuts of 2008. Rob’s fiction has appeared in literary magazines on both sides of the Atlantic and has been nominated for the Journey Prize in Canada and the Fountain Award for Speculative Literature in the United States. He holds an MFA from the University of British Columbia and lives in Toronto. His blog, featuring arts and literature commentary as well as audio, is wayofthewest.wordpress.com. To listen to a reading from Zorgamazoo, go to http://wayofthewest.wordpress.com/2009/02/05/zorgamazoo-chapter-one-part-1/#comment-14.

Moderator: Randall David Cook (Fukui-ken, 1991-93) is the author of the acclaimed off-broadway plays Sake With the Haiku Geisha and Fate’s Imagination.

*Click http://jetwit.com/wordpress/library/authorsbooks/ to see a full list of JET alumni authors.

*Special guest appearance by Akira Sugiyama, Director of the Japan Information Center of the Consulate General of Japan in New York.

This event is being organized in cooperation with the Consulate General of Japan in New York.

Special thanks for laying the groundwork for the event to JetWit.com, a free online resource for the JET alumni community of writers, interpreters and translators, and the Writers Interpreters Translators (WIT) Group, and also to Kinokuniya Books(6th Ave. between 40th & 41st Streets in New York) for providing books for sale for the event.

Also thanks to Peter Tatara of New York Comicon and the New York Anime Festival for providing prizes for the event.

Lastly, domo arigatou to Roland, James and Robert for making themselves available for this unique, first-time ever event!



Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Dangerous stasis

Archaic Torso of Apollo

We never knew his fantastic head,
where eyes like apples ripened. Yet
his torso, like a lamp, still glows
with his gaze which, although turned down low,

lingers and shines. Else the prow of his breast
couldn't dazzle you, nor in the slight twist
of his loins could a smile run free
through that center which held fertility.

Else this stone would stand defaced and squat
under the shoulders' diaphanous dive
and not glisten like a predator's coat;

and not from every edge explode
like starlight: for there's not one spot
that doesn't see you. You must change your life.

--Rainer Maria Rilke

A couple of recent, interrelated articles on Japan seem particularly germane to conversations I've had while traveling in the US recently--so much so that I've used them as handouts on a couple of occasions to help orient audiences and raise questions.

The first story appeared in the Japan Times earlier this month and addresses the now notoriously sweatshop-like working conditions and wages in the vast majority of anime studios inside Japan, and the industry's inability to attract and retain young talent. I addressed this in Japanamerica and other venues, but since the conventional wisdom is that Japan's anime producers are being destroyed by file-sharing and downloading by overseas fans, it seems worthwhile to look more closely at the antiquated and insidiously self-destructive business model in Japan's own backyard.

After graduating from Tokyo Animator College, Yuko Matsui began working at a midscale animation production agency.

News photo
Work in progress: A student works on a project at Tokyo Animator College. ALEX MARTIN PHOTO

Two years later, she earns roughly ¥80,000 a month, averaging 10 hours a day doing the grunt work of filling out "in-between cels," drawings on transparent sheets used between key scenes to help create the illusion of motion.

Although she lives with her parents, she can't save any money and has given up on paying her national pension fees. Still, the 22-year-old apprentice considers herself better off than some of her peers who say they have to endure frequent all-nighters with few days off.

"There were seven others I knew who graduated with me at the same time, but three of them have already given up and quit," she said...

You can access the story on the Japan Times web site here.

The second article is an Op-Ed from the New York Times that also appeared earlier this month. In it, Masaru Tamamoto addresses the curious case of a nation in perpetual stasis since World War II.

RECENT events mark Japan’s re
turn to the world’s stage, or at least so it seems. Tokyo was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s inaugural overseas destination. Last week, Prime Minister Taro Aso was the first foreign leader to visit the Obama White House. All this suggests that Washington sees Japan, the world’s second-largest economy, as a powerful nation. If only we saw ourselves the same way.

The truth is, Japan is a mess.

Read Tamamoto's Op-Ed here.

I enjoin myself to bite my tongue. Living in Japan is a privilege, and an honorable and sane one at that. I feel very fortunate to have a life in a beautiful country, with civilized citizens, and a sane coast of cities, wherein safety is an unspoken by-product of existence. I am a half-Japanese, or a borderline figment, and as such, I'm lucky. I get to indulge in the best of our world at half the cost, personal and fiscal.

But at what price?

The problem with Japan--and the rest of us, Japanese, half, or otherwise--is that we fear the quality that most emboldens us: change. We don't want to change. We want stasis--trains that run on time, simple ideas, dumb accounts.

Since the birth of my parents, the Japanese perfected this longing better than anyone in the world. You can now be a resident of Japan, foreign, half or otherwise, and live your days in honest stupidity: No one will ever ask you to go further, press harder, ask more of yourself, or, really, really work.

But maybe now, in 2009, things are finally changing, as they do in history, without our input. As the old parable goes (and I was always told it was Chinese), if you want to boil a frog, turn the heat up slowly. The frog will adjust, the heat will increase incrementally, and the frog will die.

But if you want the frog to live, turn the heat up fast. The frog will leap from the pot.

In short: It's getting hot in here. Leap.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Japanamerica @ the Japan Society, Thurs, March 12

Talking KRAZY! Japan’s Evolving Pop Culture

Curatorial Panel Discussion
Thursday, March 12, 6:30 PM

Left to right: Bruce Grenville, Toshiya Ueno, and Roland Kelts, photo © Matthias Ley.

What are the forces that drive the narrative and artistic sophistication of Japanese manga and anime? What accounts for their dominance in Japanese visual culture and their international popularity?

Join KRAZY! curators Bruce Grenville, Senior Curator at the Vancouver Art Gallery, and Toshiya Ueno, Professor of Sociology at Wako University, in conversation with Roland Kelts, Lecturer at the University of Tokyo and author of Japanamerica, together with moderator Joe Earle, Director of Japan Society Gallery, as they discuss the continuing evolution of visual culture in Japan.

This lecture is part of the Members’ Opening and Reception for KRAZY!


Free for Japan Society members (no registration required)
$15 for non-members (advance ticketing only)

Purchase tickets online or call the Japan Society Box Office at (212) 715-1258, Mon. - Fri. 11 am - 6 pm, Weekends 11 am - 5 pm.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

New column on Katsucon and Chelfitsch

(photo from thetokyootaku.com)

On DC's Katsucon and Toshiki Okada's Five Days in March in my latest column in the Daily Yomiuri:

SOFT POWER HARD TRUTHS / Cosplayers a breath of fresh air for D.C.

I arrived at Katsucon, the 15th annual Washington area anime convention, the night before opening day, bouncing in on a turbulent flight from Boston. It was the first time I was able to catch amassing American convention-goers firsthand as they poured out of airport shuttles, jam-packed vans, taxis and pickup trucks and funneled through revolving doors into the hotel foyer. They made quite a sight.

Many were already in costume. The winds that had earlier buffeted my commuter plane whipped through feathered wigs and blasted masks and helmets, sending skirts aloft and eliciting shrieks and giggles. Other attendees lugged massive duffel bags and overstuffed suitcases past hotel staffers who were already dragging carts piled high with the baggage of earlier arrivals. Young cosplayers gleefully leapt into one another's arms, reunited by fandom. Businessmen in suits raised their eyebrows, often glancing toward me, seemingly independent of the pageantry in my civilian attire, as if I alone could answer their silent queries.

Surprisingly, I discovered that I didn't really have to. "These anime kids," one briefcase-toting middle-aged businessman said, shaking his head as we shared an elevator. "I don't know what's with that Japanese stuff, but they love it, don't they?"

Indeed, many non-conventioneers in the hotel seemed to greet the gathering of 6,000 or so cavorting, chanting and posing cosplayers with at least affectionate tolerance, and sometimes respectful admiration.

(Minor correction here: In my previous column I described Katsucon as "massive." It is indeed large and is getting bigger, moving into an enormous hall next year. But its attendance figures pale next to the mighty Anime Expo in Los Angeles and other gatherings, as an astute reader from New York pointed out.)

Hotel staffers told me they were very pleased to see their rooms and hallways full during the slow season, especially in the current economic climate, and other guests seemed to eye the participants admiringly: Beneath the darkening skies of a Washington winter and stimulus package struggles, here were thousands of young people and parents living it up in a pop culture party... [read more here]