Matt Alt has lived and worked in Japan since 2003. With the insight and expertise learned on the floors of companies otherwise inaccessible to the regular consumer, Alt recently put together a fun tale of how pop-culture items changed the way we perceive and think of the world. His book, Pure Invention: How Japan’s Pop Culture Conquered the World (Crown Publishing, 2020), was released in June this year.
JAPAN Forward sat down with Alt on October 26 in Tokyo to discuss pop-culture, COVID-19, soft power and the future of Japan’s video game industry. In this second part, we delve a little deeper into his new book, the trends that can be drawn from it, and why knowing about Japanese pop culture is important to understanding today’s world.
In your book you map out criteria for how you choose objects of pop culture. How did you narrow them down?
There are so many cool things from Japan, but the lens of the book focuses on products we bought because we wanted to, not because we needed to. They nourished fantasies and transformed realities. In their histories is written a roadmap of how we got to today, and by extension a guide for navigating the turbulence of the 21st century.
Japan made itself rich by selling the world everything it needed, like washing machines, computers, and cars, but those actually created a lot of friction globally as they disrupted local marketplaces. The way that Japan got loved was through things you don’t need at all, but you buy in spite of it, because you can’t help yourself. It scratches an itch you didn’t even know you have.
Generation X were the first ones to say, “We don’t care about the cars and appliances, but we sure like these robots and video games, these Sailor Moon cartoons and Hello Kitty products.”
For us, Japan was never an enemy or a rival. There was never any friction. The only friction was how long it would take to save up our allowance to get the next Nintendo, Tamagochi, or whatever it was. That was a really startling transformation for any nation, and it’s hard to imagine other countries doing the same.
I picked things that transformed us as we consumed them. It wasn’t enough that something was merely a huge hit. There are plenty of huge hits that disappear without a trace afterwards, like pet rocks or the pogo stick. It was important that the product changed people’s minds about their image of Japan, or changed the way we lived our lives, and often both at once.
When you see pictures of Hillary Clinton playing a Game Boy on Air Force One, it starts to hit you how deeply Japanese fantasy-delivery devices penetrated the Western fantasy sphere.
What other pop culture aspects did you want to include?
One thing I wanted to include but couldn’t was a chapter on J-horror, the idea being that Japanese fantasy of what is scary has come to inflect European and American images of what is scary.
For instance, the Biohazard: Resident Evil series (by Capcom) almost single-handedly rehabilitated zombie entertainment that had been this really niche. It boomed in the ’70s and ’80s, then kind of fell out of favor. Suddenly, this Japanese company Capcom made zombies relevant again to a new generation of kids. It depoliticized zombies — in the ’70s and ’80s zombies were often explicitly social critiques of things like race relations and consumerism and militarism. Biohazard (and its foreign edition Resident Evil) decoupled zombies from that. In those games, it’s more about an evil company with zombies simply being powerful attackers.
And in movies, there’s The Ring. After that came out, for a while it seemed everywhere you looked in Western horror, there were copies of Sadako with her long hair and creepy locomotion. This was actually a sea change for Western horror.
When I was growing up in the ’80s, a scary thing was a guy wearing a hockey mask, or a guy with knives as his fingers — you know, these scary supernatural men that would kill you, serial killer style.
Now it’s this idea that a woman whose face you can’t see, frail, with hands moving in a very jerky manner, emerging from a television set. You see these tropes again and again. Even in the recent remake of the Eighties horror classic It, (spoiler alert) there’s a very Ring-esque moment involving the antagonist.
This rewiring of fantasies is not just with things that are cool, it can also be about things that are scary.
And it can also be about things that are sexy. I also talk about it a little bit in the book — the number one search term in porn databases is hentai, cartoon porn. There are all these Japanese words that have infiltrated the youth lexicon for bizarre sex acts that were invented for Japanese fetish porn.
Another thing I wanted to talk about was the [TV series] Power Rangers. I wanted to talk about the rise of Power Rangers together with [the animé and manga] Sailor Moon, which is a huge very multi-layered sort of globalized story — very interesting, and something that I would like to write about in the future, as I interviewed a lot of key players.
To me, Sailor Moon is kind of the flip side of the Power Rangers. The idea of team-focused heroism is something that kind of laid the groundwork for why Americans like the Avengers, and these kind of team-based franchises. Those are based on American comic books, of course, but [the point is Japan] created an appetite for it.
What is your favorite part in the book?
For me, Kosuge’s Jeep was the one that resonated most deeply with me. His story is just so dramatic, and a global war plays out in the middle of it.
It’s the idea that after this horrendous conflict, this man would then make an effigy of the conqueror’s vehicle, using no tools. And this (toy car) then became this symbol of outreach between the conquerors and conquered, between two former enemies-turned-uneasy allies. I really think that things like Kosuge’s Jeep helped smooth the relationship in those troubled early years.
Speaking personally, as a kid my favorite thing was probably the Game Boy. I remember just being blown away when that thing came out. I could now play Super Mario in my hand — I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen.
I literally grew up in the middle of the Japanese video game boom, so Pac-Man, Space Invaders. It was really fun to write about it from a more cultural perspective.
Unraveling the connections was a really fascinating part of the book. There are so many books out there that are written about various aspects of Japanese pop culture that appeal globally.
But I was unable in my pre-research to find anything that tried to tie them all together, that tried to explain in a holistic and multifaceted way why Japan has this cultural gravity it has. Even if you are a diehard animé fan, you are probably knowledgeable about Hello Kitty, karaoke, you probably played with Japanese toys. It’s very rare to find someone who’s just focused on one aspect.
Why were many of the objects that you talk about not pre-planned for success?
It was shocking for me that in almost every single case nobody had grand plans for any of these things. Hello Kitty almost got discontinued in 1980. Sony didn’t even believe that they would sell many Walkman other than to high school students studying for exams, and it literally became one of the most iconic gadgets to come out of Japan in the 20th century, maybe the most iconic.
One of the lessons to take away from the book is that genius is not always apparent, even to the geniuses that create the things in the first place.
Also, to paraphrase someone I quote in the book, William Gibson, “The street always finds its own uses for things.”
Once you release something as a product in the world, there is what the company envisions it to be, and then there is what the consumers actually do with it. Most, if not all, were created as much by the consumers as they were by the people who created the devices in the first place.
Sanrio never imagined it would become a symbol of feminism. The creators of 2channel (Nichannel) never imagined becoming political tools.
Another example of something that was repurposed was emojis. They were made to make websites load faster, they weren’t made for communication. The school girls repurposed them into this strange new linguistic tool for a digital era.
Osamu Tezuka never in a million years imagined that animé would become the identity for a generation of future children. Even for him, animé was thought of as a product to be consumed, to be created with care and craft, but nothing like what it is today.
The consumers made those things.
Why do you think the message of this book is important?
Fantasies are dreams, and dreams have the power to change our realities.
In a very real way, some of these products showed us new ways of living. I think that, because these are products that seem so frivolous on the surface, it’s very easy to miss how much they changed us and our daily lives. I don’t think many people realize that their encounter with a Game Boy, or Hello Kitty, or Pac-Man, could have been a transformative moment in their lives.
Why are we so pulled to these things? Why did the Walkman become so popular? I think the answer is more than “They were well designed.”
It’s partially a detective story and a kind of roadmap of how we got to now. It’s very hard to imagine the entertainment industry up to now, without the escapes that were pioneered in Japan. And even if we are not using the exact forms, we are absolutely using the descendants of them. The iPhone, I argue, would not exist without the Walkman or the Game Boy.
I do not want to hold up Japan as a paragon of virtue. Japan is a nation with a lot of problems too. But it’s precisely the way that Japan chose to engage with those problems that is why it produced these fantasy-delivering devices that we find so alluring.
It’s really about how the world’s tastes have turned Japanese, and how Japanese products transformed those tastes.
All of us, even if we didn’t consume animé, have been affected by these products. I wrote [the book] for more than just fans of animé, gadgets. I literally wrote this for all of us on the planet who have been interacting with Japanese products for decades.
It’s an untold story in the history of globalization, which often focuses largely on big picture narratives, and producers. But this is a story of how consumers played a big role, even bigger than producers in some way.
I’m definitely writing to a lay audience, although diehard fans will hopefully learn something too. In a very real way, we are all protagonists in this book.
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.
Interview by: Arielle Busetto