We’re Turning Japanese? Only if it Looks Like Something Else

There is no doubt that “the spread of Japanese cultural products reflects that Japanese media industries and cultural forms are playing a substantial role in global cultural flows” as Koichi Iwabuchi states in his work, “Taking “Japanization” Seriously: Cultural Globalization Reconsidered.” Japanese influences have had far-reaching effect and many cultural products have precipitated a cultural evolution to say nothing of their ability to enhance and expand global lifestyle. From the wonderful world of all things Sony including the invention of the Walkman and the Discman, the phenomena of Pokemon and other gaming software, car manufacturing techniques to ways in which business is conducted. But despite being a cultural and technological mainstay across the world, Japanese cultural dominance and influence is outpaced and outmatched by that of America.

American cultural products are by no means “culturally odorless” and we would have it no other way.  While consumers may opt for Japanese products over American in some instances because they are considered superior in technology (I’ll take an Infiniti over a Ford any day). I agree that most consumers aren’t “buying into the culture itself, but the product and its reliability, reputation, status conferment and other factors. Why, as Iwabuchi, suggests, aren’t Japanese products tied to Japan and the Japanese lifestyle, culture and symbolism? The concept of Mukokuseki is particularly disturbing, even though it explains quite a bit. The idea of self-erasing features and characteristics that are culturally and racially defining in order to become more acceptable on the world stage, look more Caucasian, sell more products and assimilate cross culturally goes beyond  racism (or more accurately perhaps, xenophobia) and is certainly not unconsciousness and Japanese animators have suggested. It speaks of a rejection of self and acknowledgment of an “unacceptableness” of one’s culture and lifestyle that may to American and other Western consumers. How is it really Japanese if it’s cloaked in American skin? If you don’t want to look like yourself, why would we? Seriously, can anyone imagine a Caucasian product that wants to look and feel like anything else? Would never fly and their would be mass protests and boycotts at the very suggestion.

Although Iwabuchi states as being “supposedly obsessed with its own cultural uniqueness.”   am not sure I agree and several . This is difficult to reconcile with the Japanese idea of as well as with empirical evidence.  Japanese  young adults and teenagers have been seen as wildly enthusiastic and oddly embracing of other cultures even when they seem almost the opposite of antithesis of their own culture. For instance, Jamaican dancehall and reggae culture has been widely embraced by a substantial number of Japanese young women. They darken their skin, don body baring dancehall outfits with ethnic hairstyles and accessories, travel into the bowels of ghettos in Kingston, Jamaica and its environs for dancehall shows and have become a staple local in contests usually performed by locales. I am not joking when I report that the winners and runners-up for several years have been Japanese women who can move their hips like nobody’s business.

It’s unwise to separate that which technologically defining from that which is culturally defining to make products more palatable. I don’t know that japan will replace the US as an object of yearning any time soon, but that’s not really the point. For Japan to not only continue increasing its capital and global market share of audiovisual products, but also to influence the lifestyle of global consumers will mean more than a proliferation of Japanese commodities. It will entail fully embracing that which makes them culturally unique and overcoming the fear of rejection whether based on cultural imperialism. Homogenity is boring.

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About inteltakeover

This blog is written and maintained by of a group of graduate students in the International Communication program at American University's School of International Service.
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3 Responses to We’re Turning Japanese? Only if it Looks Like Something Else

  1. jhenske says:

    I think that most products don’t exude culture. Eating sushi does not make one Japanese, nor does driving a Japanese car. I think you’re right in saying that we as consumers care more about quality, durability and cost then where a product actually comes from. That being said, our cultures are different, and selling something in America requires tweaking some features to make it more American. American products do it as well, and companies that do not alter their products to fit the preferences of other places will fail. Starbucks is a prime example of this; they rapidly expanded in China assuming that they could follow the same business model in Asia as in Europe and America, forgetting that the Chinese drink tea, not coffee. Making something culturally odorless is (in my opinion) reformulating something to make it appealing in foreign markets.

    • annziker says:

      Ok, so I think that we’re not really differentiating between types of products as much as we should here.

      Buying a washing machine/car/dvd player which has been tailored for American lifestyles and which is not intended for use in the country of origin is much different from making media or cultural product odorless.

      There are two key things we’re missing:
      1) Tech products, especially white goods and automobiles, have to be tailored to the country of sale’s specific infrastructure and regulations. As such, the washing machine which I am buying from HEC has been built for me to use here in the US, and includes cultural assumptions in its make… its size alone is an assumption about the type of environment it will be used in.
      2) We associate media goods with culture because they are products of culture… but they are also, in this case, a product of capitalism. Money is king, but it’s not really enough to erase culture completely. So while we are, as Jess said, tweaking things for different markets, we’re not going to lose the full impact of the culture its coming from in the actual tweaking. It’s in the rest of the world’s interpretation of that final tweaked product that the real changes will occur.

  2. Skylar Hong says:

    I like your point very much. Homogenity exists for sure and I believe some people are using it as a tool in political sphere. However, most people selling products overseas or globalizing their brand are not think about homogenizing other cultures. Although we are talking about soft power all the time, I do not think it is nessecary to relate every cultural and business phenomenon to homogenity or soft power.

    Also, I think people choose to accept and expose themselves under whatever the influence they like. If they do not like it, they will deny and reject the influence no matter how important it is. People in China are talking about the increasing influence about Japanese culture to Chinese kids. Besides all the concerns from adults, most kids in China are holding this attitude: there is nothing wrong about the any form of culture, Japanese culture just provides us a different choice and bring us something new. Personally, i prefer those kids’ point of view.

    It is true that homogenity is boring.

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