Saturday, October 25, 2014

Pop Japan (ポーラ)

Because Akita is an international university with a high number of Western – and particularly American – exchange students, I am simultaneously exposed to Western and Japanese styles of interest in Japanese culture and pop culture (Western culture too.  We’ll come back to that).  With the significant exception of Studio Ghibli – there is a general lack of interest on the part of the Japanese people at AIU in Japanese pop culture as a whole.  My feelings on Japanese interaction with pop culture are that they are similar to America with a different skin applied.  As is true in America, everyone knows larger pop stars (ex Lady Gaga; Kyary Pamyu Pamyu), generally watches poor television shows (read some dramas and anime) despite the existence of good ones, and pays much more attention to youth fiction (light novels) than to literature.

I had the good fortune this month to go to a free music festival in Tokyo in which Kyary Pamyu Pamyu performed.  For those who are not familiar with Kyary, please see the attached video.

Pretty remarkable, isn’t she?

Even in Japan, Kyary has created quite a stir.  By remaining very respectful and maintaining traditional Japanese values in interviews and public appearances, she has managed to create an interesting balance of critiquing current Japanese pop music and social tropes, while also being mainstream.

For instance, here is a video of her performance of “Pinpon Nannai” – a song I propose critiques fat-shaming in Japanese society as well as general feelings of unhappiness in every-day life.

Despite the stated intention of augmenting tourism within Japan for the foreigners staying here, the only reason I can see to provide free tickets and food (score) to a music festival in Tokyo featuring your most popular (and most internationally known) popstar is because the music business has globalized.

With the advent of K-pop in PSY(of the incredibly popular Gangnam style and Gentleman), Girl’s Generation (single “The Boys” entering top 100 on iTunes), and other similarly popular other groups, Japan has watched one of its literal and in many ways cultural neighbors rise to mild international pop culture stardom.  I suspect that this event hoped to popularize J-pop overseas.

Although I think that Japan certainly has the marketing ability to make its pop music sell well overseas considering the luck it has had with many of its pop characters, and even Vocaloid, I think it says something about the industry that even my friends at AIU rarely are interested in J-pop or J-rock above their European, American, and Korean counterparts.  This is true despite an obvious (although potentially less potent at AIU) language difference.  Please put your thoughts on this issue in the comments!

Friday, October 24, 2014

Re-remembering Japan (ポーラ)

Along with our professor, Dylan, Janae and I went to the town of Kakunodate on the 14th of October.  The new phenomena of the October typhoon had just swept through Akita the night before leaving the streets a dangerous glistening mess of black pavement, oil, water, and leaves.  Although early for the changing of the leaves – a sight deemed especially beautiful in Akita prefecture – the edges of the still green sakura trees hinted at what was to come.

Kakunodate is a preserved samurai town.  It has many different small museums of sorts all stationed within old samurai homes.  During our visit, we traveled to two such homes.  The first we visited was the Ishiguro house.  It was the home of the highest ranking family in this district and was very large.  The part of the house accessible to visitors about 4-5 rooms all of about 6-8 tatami mats.
The second home was that of the Aoyagi clan.  This manner was significantly more museum-like.  It was also considerably more difficult to distinguish what parts of the manner were historic and which parts were added during later builds.  Admittedly it is probably easier to determine if you can speak Japanese.

Although another of my classmates has already written his thoughts on the association of Kakunodate and Edo-fying the past, I would like to respectfully disagree with his perceived lack of connection between Gluck’s work and the preserved samurai village.  I think that the way that information was presented in these houses for the most part ignored history prior to the Edo period.  The history presented in these preserved homes began with the rise of the samurai and particularly in the case of the Aoyagi manor, carried a relatively singular thought path all the way to the current day.  As someone who is not terribly interested in history (sorry Rob), and as someone who has not intensively studied the ways in which museums present their information I am not qualified to give anything other than my own personal perspective on this.  I would guess museums across the world have similar difficulties integrating history into a larger timeline.  That said, from what I have read about in regards to painting history for the use of propaganda etc, manipulation of the timeline is common.  Therefore, I think the emphasis on this particular time period within these museums and their preservation as Akita’s history is potentially revealing to someone who knows more than I.  If you get the chance, do go.  Many places in the area are relatively understanding towards English speakers, and even if not, the large amount of artifacts and their display should be revealing to people who are familiar with this time period.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Becoming Japanese (Paula)

One thing that might surprise a foreigner (or at least an American) traveling in Japan are the hours. Even in Beloit, small town Wisconsin, stores are commonly open until 7pm and some stores will be open until 9pm or as late as 12am. In Akita (Akita City, not just tiny AIU), shops start shutting down at 5pm, and all typical stores are closed by 9pm. This can be a problem in a prefecture famous for its sake and a strong drinking culture (much like beer-drinking in Wisconsin). After-hours you have three main options:

 As is typical in Japan, AIU provides vending machines as a consolation prize. Our single snack machine in located in Komachi lounge. They fill said snack machine at least three times a week. It is nevertheless empty about half the time.

 The bar serves food. Although nothing in the bar (with the exception of shots) costs less than 500Y, the prices are very reasonable and all of the food is surprisingly delicious and varied considering they make it all in a kitchen the size of my dorm room.

 And most gloriously of all - the surrounding Akita citizens have compensated for the lack of sustenance availability with the introduction of the Ramen truck. Insert first photo here please. Yes, the Ramen truck. This is not a drill.

 This lovely older Japanese couple sells a marvelously delicious soy sauce based ramen complete with pork, bamboo, scallions, etc, for 650 yen. Less if you bring your own bowl. The ramen truck arriving in Akita affects students like a piece of discarded food dropped in an ant hill. As word spreads throughout campus, more and more people rush to the back, consistently unoccupied road that connects Akita to the surrounding community. Even after just a few visits, I as a newcomer can easily tell by the way people move when the Ramen truck has arrived. 

The most common places to eat are outside the bar (weather permitting – I hear we’re up for some serious snow in winter), privately in rooms, and in Komachi lounge. Technically speaking, you can eat at the Ramen truck, but as the owners are Japanese, I would feel too intimidated to engage in conversation with them for as long as it takes me to eat their delicious food.

The Ramen itself is cooked to order. Noodles are rolled ahead of time, and dunked in some kind of water or broth to cook. Although commercial Ramen shops often offer a variety of options (esp salt, soy sauce, and miso) most smaller shops and the truck develop one recipe, and only serve that. At this particular truck, they make a soy sauce Ramen. I highly recommend it. Although other people will say to go to the more famous Ramen place in town, I think that our little truck is worth the trek to AIU!

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Pop Culture (Dylan)

With the next blog topic including the phrase “become a fan of something,” I guess it was kind of doomed that I would write about science fiction anime.  And of course the logical choice was to pick the anime franchise that was described to me as Japan’s cultural counterpart to Star Trek, Mobile Suit Gundam.
These are a few of the series. No, really, only a few of them.
Mobile Suit Gundam is a massive science fiction anime franchise responsible for creating the “real robot” genre, taking the already-popular trope of giant robots and applying a dose of realism to the concept, moving away from the superhero-style origins of the concept.  The first series, just titled Mobile Suit Gundam, was released in 1979.  Much like the Star Trek original series it’s often compared to, it was a failure in its first run but became a huge hit in syndication, gaining a tremendously successful follow-up in Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam eight years later which spawned a massive and ongoing franchise of anime about giant, human-piloted and humanoid robots being used as war machines… and how that’s a bad thing, we swear, stop looking at the cool robot fights.
And once in awhile, you get free stuff, too.
Now, at Beloit College, there’s enough dedicated nerd groups that finding fellow fans of anything nerdy and activities dedicated to them is really quite easy.  At AIU, however, there aren’t any such groups (well, until about a week ago, but it’s very much dominated by international students), and what more informal social gatherings there are amongst students tend not to be the most open to people with low Japanese proficiency, such as myself.  So that made accessing Japanese nerddom something of a challenge, at first, especially since the one class which actually advertised being about this sort of thing not fitting into my schedule.

I can offer what I observed about the Gundam – and more broadly sci-fi anime – fandom in Japan in my first month and a half hear, and then comment on the last couple of weeks, which have been a bit different.

On the surface, there really isn’t much of a difference between the more dedicated aspects of Japanese nerddom and American nerddom.  Japanese nerddom is something that’s pretty visible, but a bit cut off socially, and kind of impenetrable to outsiders, especially with a language barrier.  With the immediate setup video games are the most common outward expression, and while many students here play video games there’s a difference both in choice of games (“casual” party games versus role-playing games and shooters) and in frequency and duration of play.  But if this sounds more like a description of American nerddom five years ago than today, well, that is where things seem to be here, and I get the impression that in very recent years American nerddom has been somewhat more normalized and become much more mainstream than here in Japan.

But I also think that it’s easy to overstate this because there are, as in the U.S. and probably elsewhere, quite a few people who are part of a nerddom somewhere or another who just aren’t as obvious about it.  In the past couple weeks I’ve found that there are a larger number of students who do have nerdier interests but just don’t incorporate this into their primary, outward identity.  However, this remains more common amongst the international students (where it’s proven almost universally true) than the Japanese students (although the language barrier may be influencing this).

The other thing that’s happened in the past couple weeks is that I’ve met and gone on the tours led by the school’s resident nerd professor.  He serves both as something of a welcome committee for international students and as the current incarnation of the nerd gods.  He certainly provides an avenue for encountering more of the material side of Japanese nerddom, if not the personal side.
In the case of the Gundam fandom, the key material are the models and toys produced as tie-ins for the franchise.  Actually, they are both the primary source of income and the primary reason for existing for the franchise.  There’s a large number and great variety in them; ranging from children’s toys to models for dedicated builders.  The one pictured above is one of the antagonist robots (called Mobile Suits), the Hygogg, which is probably my favorite of the villain suits in the franchise, from Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket.  Unlike some other anime fandoms, where cosplay or just t-shirts are popular, these models provide much of the franchise’s material focal point and may be part of why there’s a notable lack of obvious fans for such a successful franchise.

No, really, there's an entire series dedicated to that point.
As a final note, I should explain why I did not use the word “otaku” in this post, even though that is a commonly-used phrase for the anime fandom as a whole.  In Japan, otaku implies an extreme form of nerddom which fits stereotypes of Dungeons and Dragons players in the U.S. as they were 15 years ago, and even has the same connotations of moral panic; it doesn’t seem to quite apply to Japanese nerddom as a whole and since I am still working out the nuances of the term I felt it better to not use it here.

I guess ultimately I’m still cut out of the actual circles of Japanese nerddom, including the Gundam fandom, and so stuck writing about this from an outsider’s perspective.  But we’re two weeks away from a Halloween cosplay parade, we’ll see what comes out of that.

A Queen of Cute (Janae)

I’ve seen people interact with popular culture by listening to (and singing along with) current popular music, watching popular TV shows (both dramas and anime), and buying merchandise from their favorite elements of popular culture. One of the things that I’ve found to be most prevalent is character merchandise. I’ve seen many little representations of characters from anime and other sources on people’s backpacks and cell phones, especially in chibi form (I’ve even seen chibi Batman.).
Some of the Hello Kitty Merchandise
I wasn’t surprised to see these little characters. After all, I have a character from one of my favorite shows on my backpack as well. I understand the attraction because people build positive associations with a certain character as they watch the show or read the comic book the character is from, but I was surprised to see so much merchandise centered around characters that didn’t have origins in popular TV shows, comics or movies. These characters are adored in Japan, and in many cases loved around the world, simply as a thing in and of themselves. I’m thinking of characters like Rilakkuma, who is an embodiment of cuteness and relaxation, and Hello Kitty, who is the queen of cute.

Kumamon merchandise
Overall though, I think the scale of it is what surprises me the most. There’s an entire section devoted solely to Hello Kitty in the 100 yen shop. This week one of my friends got some Hello Kitty merchandise for their birthday. Heck, I even bought some pairs of Hello Kitty chopsticks and a Hello Kitty pencil bag to give to my friend back home. Everyone knows at least one Hello Kitty devotee. Though in the U.S. it seems like Hello kitty is targeted mostly to little girls, here in Japan I’ve seen a variety of household Hello Kitty items for women too. I think part of the appeal is based on what this characters represent. Maybe people buy Rilakkuma products to make their lives seem just a little bit less hectic, and maybe thirty year old women decorate their bathrooms with Hello Kitty items to both remind them of their childhoods and add some cuteness to their homes.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Pop Culture in Japan (Crystal)

One of the classes I’m taking this semester is called “Japanese Pop Cultures and Subcultures.” So far, a lot of what we have discussed covers smaller groups in Japan; it doesn’t necessarily represent the broader Japanese perspective. Of course, there are those who are really into manga (otaku) or BL (fujoshi), but they do not represent the majority.
A more typical view of Japan's pop culture: The Pokemon Center in Osaka.
 Music, unsurprisingly, is a one of the most prevalent forms of pop culture I have noticed among Japanese youth.  Karaoke is a popular way to pass the time among friends, and one of the questions I often get when meeting Japanese students is, “What kind of music do you like?” Two of the most popular answers I’ve encountered from Japanese girls are AKB48 (an all-female J-pop band) and Avril Lavigne.

American music is definitely known among the people I’ve met. I’ve gone to a karaoke with a few Japanese students, and most were able to sing along with at least a few of the popular hits in the US. I was actually very surprised by the variety of English songs there are at karaoke places here. There’s plenty of decades-old music right along with the more recent hits.

Unlike America, though, band t-shirts don’t seem to be as popular here. Girls especially tend to be dressed much nicer, in solid colors or patterns. When the shirts have writing, they’re usually cute English words rather than emblazoned with slogans. Among the guys on campus, I have seen a few people wearing, for instance, Nike t-shirts, but it’s still less common than at my campus back home.

Fashion itself, of course, is a form of pop culture, and I’m sure that the way the students at Kansai Gaidai are dressed broadcasts something about their personalities and social groups, but I’m not well-versed enough in the intricacies of Japanese fashion to understand it.
A group of music kids, one playing guitar. Like an American clique, perhaps?
Another aspect of Japanese pop culture I find particularly intriguing is the divisions in marketing manga. I feel like when it comes to TV in the US, peripheral demographics are often ignored in favor of the much sought-after 18-35 male audience.

In Japan, however, TV networks and manga publishing houses have different divisions for different age and gender groups; shounen (young boys), shoujo (young girls), seinen (adult men), and josei (adult women). Though shounen is definitely the most popular, the others still have quite a lot of material to work with. Even a genre like BL (typically marketed to the shoujo demographic) has plenty of material, though interest in it is often considered something of a dirty secret.

Of course, this marketing does rely on stereotypes, which certainly aren’t always accurate: Boys are interested in action and fighting bad guys; girls are interested in emotions and personal relationships. Still, what it does is give a wide variety of material from which one can consume. And it’s important to note that none of these demographics are considered genres in Japan; science fiction, horror, romance, and historical fiction manga could all fit into any of the four main demographics. All in all, I have to admit that my exposure Japanese pop culture is far from extensive. It’s not something I have spent a lot of time discussing with my Japanese friends (because it’s not central to their lives? because they know I’m not familiar enough to know what they’re talking about?), but I look forward to learning more.