My daughter has a plush octopus named Veronica. Veronica, a Squishmallow brand toy, came with her name, as well as a stated interest in pretzels, reading, and having adventures. She also has two perfectly round black eyes and a teeny tiny smile all set close together, a face that I would easily describe as “kawaii.” When I was a child, the general public would not have understood this descriptor. Now, however, it is easy to take for granted how much this Japanese ideal of cuteness has taken over the marketing of toys — among other things.
Matt Alt’s new book, Pure Invention: How Japan’s Pop Culture Conquered the World details how we came to this point, beginning with the history of US-occupied Japan’s rise from the humiliation and devastation of World War II as the country who would take over the toy business. From the creation of a simple tin-scrap jeep in the 50s, to the invention and improvement of karaoke, arcade games, video game consoles, and the eventual export of anime and manga, Japan has wiggled its way into the Western consciousness even in spite of especially American fears and prejudices concerning a Japanese takeover. As Alt states, the science fiction of the 80s was littered with the idea of Japanese power dominating white Western culture (see: Blade Runner). Though we are not all speaking Japanese and committing our allegiance to the Emperor, these visions of Japanese aesthetic co-opting our everyday lives was remarkably prescient.
Not every aspect of this globalization of Japanese tastes has been as innocuous as toy design, however; Alt spends a great deal of time tracing the alt-right’s rise on 4chan, a forum inspired by the Japanese 2channel. 4chan originated as an anonymous forum for exchanging anime screenshots and the creation of memes, but in time anonymity provided a mask for disenfranchised white men and boys behind which they could say whatever they liked to whomever they wished. Despite anime and manga’s Japanese origins of affiliation with leftist radicals, Western Twitter is rife with belligerent users referred to as “anime avatars,” who seem to enjoy reiterating far-right talking points and harassing those whose views do not align with their own.
It is fascinating to see the trajectory of Japanese influence on the West, complete with both the ways in which it has fostered incredible progress and in which it has reinforced white supremacist ideals. The world we know today was not created in a vacuum, and Alt has given the historical context for a host of surprising facets of our modern lives. But he has also written a fascinating history of Japan itself, as both influenced by Western culture and drawing upon its own traditions and expertise. Take, for instance, the creation of Hello Kitty, that well-known ambassador of kawaii. Sanrio founder Shintaro Tsuji’s childhood exposure to the American “birthday party” inspired him to make cute necessities, something special for children from a man whose own childhood was fraught with war and poverty. The story of Sanrio’s growth, hiring women designers at a time when women were rarely in positions of power (and even here, would have to fight for top positions) and connecting with the children of a booming economy, is a testament to the way in which Japanese companies court the tastes of girls.
An entire chapter of Pure Invention is dedicated to the economic powerhouse that is female consumerism. Teenage girls have always been at the forefront of what is trendy, and no more so than in the popularization of pagers, cell phones, and fashion on Tokyo’s bustling streets. I remember when “Harajuku style” was all the rage to Japanophile teens here in the US (because I was one of those teens), and I still swoon whenever I see a photo of delinquent girls from the 90s in their over-long sailor skirts. They’re cool. They’re aspirational. And they helped drive sales for decades, even when the Japanese economic bubble burst, tossing Japan into a depression, the perfect example of the fallout of late-stage capitalism.
I am a great lover of history, and obviously a lover of Japanese pop culture, so perhaps I was predestined to enjoy this book. But beyond the subject matter, it is an exhaustively researched, eloquently written text which had me reflecting on my own experiences with the likes of Sailor Moon, Power Rangers, and my best friend’s Nintendo 64 in the 90s and early aughts. Looking back through my personal past, I can track the steady increase of Japanese and Japanese-adjacent sway on my media and consumer diet, a microcosm of what was happening to youth culture on the whole at the time. I look around my home and, though I am perhaps a special case as a manga collector and critic, see hundreds of examples of Japanese influence in my life. I recall having a lactation consultant, of all things, comment on the pile of manga I had sitting on my coffee table when she came to work with me, because her son reads manga — not a conversation I was expecting to have while preparing to learn about latching and milk supply! But so omnipresent is the saturation of Japanese goods that I did have that conversation, and have had many like it in equally surprising circumstances.
Manga has its own special place in Pure Invention, alongside anime and discussion of the student riots of the 60s and 70s. Osamu Tezuka is rightfully profiled, Alt even mentioning the God of Manga’s place in his own life. But the important takeaway is the rise of manga and gekiga as a catalyst for leftist movements, the heroes of these comics serving as inspiration for a group of young people who sought change and justice as they struggled to find work and purpose in their lives. It is the opposite of the American alt-right co-opting anime today, spouting ideas about how Japan is a country untouched by “political correctness” — an interpretation that shows just how little these individuals understand about Japan, and which implies that they are perhaps the ones who most need to read this book.
I am hesitant to say that Pure Invention is nostalgic, exactly, because Alt is far too aware of the drawbacks of Japanese globalization as well as the benefits. But he is open about his own youth being touched by the various new innovations in tech and media through the 80s and 90s. He never takes over the narrative with his own story, but rather provides context for growing up as a young American giving in to the onslaught of imagery and ideas from the East. That touch of intimacy helps the reader feel invested, as well, and like they can trust Alt — someone who, probably much like them, cares deeply about Japan. Matt Alt has been writing about Japan for many years, though this is the first of his books that I have had the pleasure to read. I intend on finding more of his work soon, as I was thoroughly impressed and engaged with this book.
You can learn more about Alt, his books, and his localization company at his website.