The Revolution Will Be Japanified: Pure Invention and the Multifaceted Influence of Japanese Pop Culture

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.

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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.

 

Black Creator Spotlight: Bianca Xunise

I’m kicking off the Black Creator Spotlight with a profile on Bianca Xunise, a Chicago-based artist whom I have followed on Twitter and Instagram for years now. I initially began following her because of her involvement in the Chicago goth scene, and for her punk and goth related jokes, outfits, and musings. In the course of the last few years, I have been treated to her comics as well, many which center around her experiences with racism, sexism, and mental health. Xunise is a cartoonist whose work has appeared in many places including Vogue and The Washington Post, though you may recognize it most readily from The Nib.

A few weeks ago, I finally purchased four of Xunise’s mini-comics through her Gumroad: The Ignatz Award-winning Say Her NameRock Against RacismGothThrob Magazine #1, and The Devil’s Music. Having paid attention to her posts, I knew what to expect and that I would enjoy it. In fact, I hope to one day re-purchase all four, along with more of her other works, in a physical format.

Xunise’s artwork reminds me, favorably, of Charles Schultz’s Peanuts. Her figures have sweet round faces and the easily readable facial expressions that are essential to the cartoon medium. A major important difference is that Xunise’s focus is frequently autobiographical, centering the narrative on the experiences of being a Black woman in the alternative music scene, rather than on a little white boy in Everytown, USA, with only one Black neighbor. Her straightforwardness and willingness to be vulnerable with her audience about her life give her comics the weight of truth.

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Say Her Name, a 2017 Ignatz winner, contains several short stories in which Xunise uses anecdotes from her own life to illustrate the larger, systemic issue of racism in America. The first story relates Xunise’s fears for her brothers in the wake of the shootings of young men like Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and Philando Castile, as well as her father’s run-in with a police officer who mistook him for another Black man. She discovers that even she, model citizen though she is, is not immune to the judgments of the police. She also details an incident of microaggressions around Halloween, and the time her childhood friend levied a slur at her, effectively ending their friendship.

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Xunise learns as a teen that her own mother had a similar experience when she was young, common ground that has likely existed between Black parents and their children for generations. Xunise’s relationship with her mother seems complex, and she touches more on her mother’s parenting style in The Devil’s Music, where she reveals her mother’s preoccupation with her return to the Christian church. This dedication to her religion meant that Xunise’s mother did not allow secular music in the house — unless it was from her own childhood. This seems like an unlikely origin story for a person with so much pop culture knowledge, but it is Xunise’s deep understanding of music history that drew me to her work in the first place.

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To that end, I was very drawn to Rock Against Racism, which appealed to my interest in music and history. Somehow, I came in to this mini not knowing much about the Rock Against Racism movement (just a passing reference here and there), and Xunise lays out the basics in a clear, engaging way. She reminds readers that music has always been political, for better or for worse. Beginning with the story of a drunken hate speech from Eric Clapton in 1976, Xunise then launches into the various counterculture music movements that sprung up in the 70s and 80s. I especially appreciate the way she highlights musicians of color who are too frequently overlooked in such overviews of music history. I know that I am guilty of not paying attention to such artists, and Xunise’s brief profiles of artists like Mona Baptiste, Pauline Black, and Steel Pulse (as well as her discussions about them and others on Twitter) have inspired me to dig a little deeper when looking for something to listen to.

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After all, music is the main reason I started following Xunise. I was really excited to read GothThrob Magazine #1, which talks about her various gothy loves. Included in this list are Dave Vanian of The Damned (pictured on the zine’s cover), the Mothman, and the Chicago goth scene itself. The tone of this mini is much lighter than the others, a sweet indulgence that moves beyond Xunise’s worries and woes to her joys. She makes a point to talk about two incredible Black woman musicians who helped shape rock music: Sister Rosetta Tharpe (one of the first musicians to play the electric guitar way back in 1945) and the exuberant Poly Styrene, of the punk band X-Ray Spex. Xunise is flexible in her definition of punk music to being more about pushing against the system that solely focused on a style of music, a philosophy which I share and am glad to see touted by an artist I respect so much.

Recently, Xunise hosted a “Comics as Resistance” workshop with The Believer, which you can watch here. If you do watch, I encourage you to support her Patreon. Using comics as a form of protest or resistance highlights Xunise’s background as a person in the alternative scene, conjuring up images of punk zine fests. Though Xunise definitely fits into that category as a punk creator, I would say that in many ways her work bridges a gap, pulling readers into her orbit who might not otherwise have experience in the goth or punk arena with her incredible ability to reach out authentically to her audience. Once again, it is her deep knowledge and openness of heart that keep me coming back for more of her work. I will absolutely be keeping a close eye on her career; I can’t wait to see what she has on the horizon!