(First of two parts)
It all started with a robot. At the age of five, Matthew (Matt) Alt received a toy robot from his grandmother. It had “Made in Japan” written on the stomach, and, just like that, Alt was hooked on Japanese pop culture. It was soon followed by Astroboy, Gundam, Godzilla.
Those are still around, but with new competition and platforms, including fantasy-producing devices that have been so popular during the COVID-19 lockdown.
Born in 1973, Alt was one of the rare cases at the time of people studying Japanese in high school. He continued Japanese in college, then worked in translation, eventually growing a side business that focused on localization translations for video games, toys, manga, and everything pop culture.
The world appetite for these forms of entertainment led Alt to found his own company together with his now-wife, Hiroko Yoda and move to Japan in 2003.
JAPAN Forward sat down with Alt on October 26 in Tokyo to discuss the global attraction of Japanese pop culture (which is the subject of Pure Invention, his recently-published book), his thoughts on the release of Sony's PlayStation 5, and what to expect from Japan's Pop culture scene in the future. Here’s what he had to say.
COVID-19 makes it an interesting time to publish a book on Japanese pop culture. What lessons do you think we can draw?
I’m kind of lucky that this book kind of presages that, now that we are in an epidemic, we are all turning more Japanese. We are staying in our homes and consuming more and more virtualized entertainment, our interactions are becoming more virtual, we are simultaneously coming more into virtual contact.
Modern life can be isolating, can be very lonely, even when there isn’t a global pandemic going on, and these fantasy-delivering devices can really help people bridge the gap and create new lifestyles for themselves in difficult times.
As a consequence, there has been a trend to engage with things that soothe our loneliness: not graduating from kids’ entertainment even as an adult, relying more heavily on fantasies, or things like interacting through virtual mediums.
This could be in the shape of video games, Hello Kitty that cheers us up, inviting people onto our Animal Crossing: New Horizons island.
These were behaviors that emerged in Japan at the turn of the century, and were widely denigrated by domestic and foreign observers as detrimental to human interaction. Of course, taken to the extreme they are, and they can be, but it turns out they were onto something.
We have found that they were just new forms of human interaction, new forms of intellectual nourishment, that even the creators could not think about.
It’s been a wake-up call of the massive role that fantasies play in our lives, packaged fantasies, whether they are in the form of gadgets or stories. Look at [the popularity] of Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba.
Comic books, superhero films, streaming entertainment, characters that were initially meant for kids, like the Avengers — now there is no shame to say as a full-grown adult, “I like Batman.” Something which would have seemed very transgressive a couple of decades ago is now normalized. It was normalizing before COVID-19, and now it’s just accelerated at hyperspeed.
PlayStation 5 has just been released. What are your thoughts on consoles in the future of gaming culture?
I don’t think consoles are the future anymore. Smartphones are the game consoles that we all play. Games aren’t going anywhere, but the idea that you would go and buy a dedicated console and play it on your television is, I think, outdated.
People want games that they can carry with them and play with them anytime. It used to be a prestige thing to be able to say things like, “I have the Sega Genesis, I have the Nintendo.” Now, I don’t think the average gamer, especially young ones, care about it as much as older ones do.
The PlayStation 5 is cool, and it will succeed. But I do think that for a long time now people have been moving to computer-based or smartphone-based experiences. It will be interesting to see what happens, because there are certain things that consoles can do that phones can’t.
That’s why Nintendo has hedged its bets on Nintendo Switch, because Nintendo Switch is both — it’s a console, but you can take it anywhere like an iPad or an iPhone. There’s a screen inside the console that you can take out and carry around with you. Nintendo has always been smart with that kind of thing.
Thinking ahead, what do you think the cultural landscape will look like?
One of the key messages of the book is that Japan got a little ahead of the curve in a demographic, societal, economic way. I don’t think that is true at the moment, as everyone is kind of synchronized at this point. But I think now we’ve absorbed our tastes from Japan. We are not going to see so much made in Japan, but made everywhere else with Japanese sensibilities.
A perfect example of that is [the smartphone game] Pokémon Go. It’s made in Silicon Valley, based on a game that was created by Californians, but using Japanese characters. The combination has propelled it to a billion-plus downloads. That’s what I’m talking about, the synthesis of Japanese tastes and fantasies.
Japan is also spinning itself at the forefront of problems of advanced societies. There’s still a lot of lessons to be learned from the way Japan grapples with them.
Do you think China could be a good candidate for cool popular culture?
The big difference is that people are scared of China, both politically and economically.
The rise of Japan as a cultural superpower coincided with it falling out of the headlines. When the bubble popped, all of these books and articles about Japan disappeared, because Japan was going through what we now know as the “lost decade.” But that cultural rise was able to happen because the fear factor wasn’t there anymore. It would be very difficult for China to obtain the level of soft power that Japan has.
China is a wonderful country with a wonderful history. The important thing to remember is that soft power is not a zero-sum game. I often see it treated that way, like somehow Korea’s Parasite winning the Oscar came at the expense of Japanese cool factor. Korea can be cool, and so can Japan. Parasite (2019) was an amazing film, it was shocking that we have embraced it so much, because it shows a pretty bad image of society, but it’s an amazing film.
I’ve written enough to know that the media needs a hook, and sometimes the hook could be “K-pop has beaten Japan in the charts,” but it doesn’t mean that AKB48 is failing.
Do you think that Japan still has space to develop in the field of video games?
Now Japanese video games have become one flavor of many. I don’t think you are going to see a case where Japanese video games dominate a marketplace like they did for about 15 years from 1985 to 2000, all over the world, because westerners have caught up. There are British rock star games, American simulators like Grand Theft Auto or Great Dead Redemption. Now local producers can make games that appeal deeply to local tastes, but they too have absorbed a lot of lessons, for people who are in their 20s and 30s have almost certainly grown up playing Japanese video games.
The competition is much fiercer, but there’s always going to be a role for Japanese game producers, because Japanese game companies still have that cachet and that image of being pioneers, and that the coolest games are made in Japan.
I know for a fact that a lot of Western game studios want to open Tokyo, Osaka, or Kyoto studios because it’s a prestige thing for them, a status symbol, whereas “Made in Japan” after the war [WWII] was a joke.
That is going to continue, and we can see it with Nintendo and Animal Crossing. Japanese games tend to be very different from Western games, they tend to be less violent, more fantastical, and Nintendo in particular is especially skilled at making these experiences that are both family-friendly and cool at the same time.
In the same way that Super Mario is kind of a kawaii character, but his actions are really cool, he is jumping, shooting fireballs, fighting dragons, even though the dragons are cute, too. Super Mario looked cute, but it felt cool, and Japan is really good at hitting that sweet spot; whereas American games tend to be these weird war simulators, which have their place, but Japan is good at hitting that soothing spot, uplifting.
[With Nintendo’s Animal Crossing] I knew it was going to be a success, just not that much. It was exactly the right experience at the right time. People couldn’t even leave their houses and it was still selling millions of copies!
The question is whether it would have done as well if COVID-19 weren’t around and, on that, I don’t know.
(To be continued)
ABOUT MATT ALT’S BOOK
Title: Pure Invention: How Japan's Pop Culture Conquered the World
Author: Matt Alt
Publisher: Crown Publishing, 2020.
Format: Print and e-book formats available
Learn more: Read about the book on the publisher’s website here.
Purchase: The book is available through Amazon, Amazon Kindle, Barnes and Noble, all of which may be accessed through the publisher’s website here.
Interviewed by: Arielle Busetto