What Makes Japan So Cool?: An Interview with Ian Condry

From time to time, I have shared with my readers some of the podcasts being generated by the Cool Japan Project, a joint research effort at MIT and Harvard, focused on understanding more fully Japanese popular culture — especially anime and manga but also the culture around popular music and toys/collectibles. The project is sponsored by the MIT Japan Program, Harvard’s Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, the Harvard Asia Center, MIT Foreign Languages and Literatures, and MIT Comparative Media Studies.

Today, I thought I would introduce you to the man behind the Cool Japan Project — one of the coolest guys I know at MIT, my colleague Ian Condry. I had the good fortune to go on a tour of the Japanese media industry a few years ago along with Condry and it certainly opened my eyes to the richness and complexity of what’s going on in that part of the world. Now a junior faculty member in the MIT Foreign Languages and Literatures program who is affiliated with CMS, Condry was trained as an anthropologist and so his research into Japanese popular culture is shaped by extensive field work at sites of both production and consumption. His first major book, Hip Hop Japan: Rap and the Paths of Cultural Globalization came out earlier this year and is highly recommended to anyone who wants to better understand contemporary hip hop music, the globalization process, or the links between Japanese and American popular culture. He is now hard at work on a second book project, Global Anime: The Making of Japan’s Transnational Culture, which has taken him behind the scenes into some of the key studios producing contemporary anime and has brought key players in that space to MIT to speak as part of the Cool Japan program. In this interview, he talks both about Japanese hip hop and about the process which has brought anime and manga to the attention of American consumers.

If American youth are drawn to Japanese popular culture, your book explores the opposite phenomenon — hip hop culture in Japan. Why were the Japanese drawn initially to this form of American popular culture?

Hip-hop music and breakdance were mind-blowing to youth audiences worldwide when both appeared overseas in the early eighties. The sound was so different (where’s the band? why isn’t he singing?) that it drew many people who had grown tired of rock and roll. So too with breakdance which had a competitive energy that was impossible to miss. Both offered the promise of liberation into an uncharted realm. The dynamics have changed, now that hip-hop is bona-fide pop music, but the transformative impact was unmistakable. Interestingly, the first audiences in Japan didn’t understand what was going one, but they saw it was something different, and that sparked curiosity that kept growing. The early days of transformative early cultures are a mysterious and wonderful thing.

In your book Hip-Hop Japan, you suggest that the Japanese use this musical form to explore their own themes. What kinds of topics does hip hop address in the Japanese context?

Some of the most interesting recent rap songs in Japan are addressing America’s misguided “war on terror,” and the complicity of the Japanese media and the national government. The group King Giddra, for example, has a song called “911,” which uses images of Hiroshima’s ground zero after the bombing as a way of rethinking ground zero New York. The group Rhymester raps about America’s hypocrisy in always telling Japan to “follow the path of peace” but then starts bombing Baghdad. By the same token, they see the Japanese government as little more than “yellow Uncle Sam.”

Many rap artists are addressing other aspects of Japan’s changing society, from women trying to find a place in a patriarchal society, to rappers questioning the failure of the economy, to criticism of the pornography industry, youth violence, and drug abuse. There is plenty of Japanese rap that tends to light and poppy, or even pseudo-gangsta and tough, but there are also some of the most striking alternative voices in Japan appearing in Japanese hip-hop music.

Can you describe something of the research process that went into this book? How

were you able to get such access to the Japanese hip hop world?

Fieldwork is an amazing thing. Going to the nightclubs week after week, month after month, over a year and a half (1995-97), formed the basis of my research. There I met the musicians, record company reps, magazine writers, organizers, and all manner of fans, from the deep b-boys and b-girls, with their hair and clothes just so, to the “first-time checking out a club” kids. It was clearly the interaction among these groups that built the hip-hop scene, from the largely underground scene it was then, to the expanding underground and mainstream elements that have developed today.

Hip-hop clubs in Japan are active from midnight to 5 a.m., with the live show happening around 2am, well after the trains have stopped running for the night. That means everyone is stuck at the club to the first trains around dawn. This turned out to be a boon for fieldwork. By 3am, most of the people had told all the jokes and stories and gossip they had to tell to their friends already, and many people were willing to come up and find out what this gaijin (foreigner) with a notepad was doing there.

Access to the hip-hop in Japan kept developing over the years following during periodic trips to Tokyo once or twice a year. Over time, I got to know some of the artists more personally. Watching their careers change and develop over almost the 10 year span of the book’s research meant that I could see the struggles of artists coping with a quixotic pop world, where youthfulness is highly valued.

Something curious must be going on with race as an African-American music form gets taken up in an Asian culture where there are relatively few black people. What do you see as the racial politics of Japanese hip hop?

Race is very important for understanding hip-hop in Japan. Young Japanese (and many white Americans, too, I would add) are drawn to the “blackness” of hip-hop, most visibly in the clothing styles, hair styles, but also in a widening sensibility towards a particular musical style, born of verbal dexterity and polyrhythmic nuance, as well as the creativity involved in sampling and remixing.

The images of African-Americans in Japan tend to reinforce stereotypes, and hip-hop can be viewed as one of vehicles for these stereotypes. But at the same time, the fans who get more deeply into the music and culture are forced to deal with questions of race, questions of where Japanese fit into the matrix of white and black, questions of how Japanese racial nationalism still influences the ways resident Koreans, Ainu, and Okinawans have been treated historically, and how they are treated today. In these ways, the impact of hip-hop on racial attitudes has been complex, at times contradictory, but, I believe, generally among hip-hop fans, moving in some right directions.

Your next project has you examining anime and manga more directly. What can you tell us about this new project?

My new book project is called Global Anime: The Making of Japan’s Transnational Popular Culture. I’m interested in “the making of” anime culture as an entire global circuit of media production. I spent the summer of 2006 in several Tokyo animation studios, primarily Gonzo and Aniplex, but also with visits to Ghibli, Sunrise, Aniplex, Studio 4 Degrees C. and others. I observed the collaborative creativity that goes into anime production, how they divide the process – characters, premise, worldview – and how the ideas about creativity become enacted, actually made real, through the daily practices of making anime, frame-by-frame.

To me, Japanese anime provides an important, non-Western case study of the ways media goes global, both by speaking across cultural boundaries while retaining a kind of cultural difference (have you ever seen so many giant robots or transforming schoolgirls?). Anime’s connection to the world of Japanese comic books, woodblock prints and ancient picture scrolls is often deemed sufficient to prove a kind of cultural particularity, but at the same time, the development of Japan’s anime industry was closely linked to American comics, Disney and other pioneering cartoon creators.

I also explore the ways anime fans, first in Japan and then overseas, have been integral to the expansion of anime culture. Too often we are told to “follow the money” when we analyze media production, but what I see is that the money follows the creativity of artists who are able to capture audiences, and, at the same time, audiences can rescue lost gems in ways that many entertainment companies seem not yet to recognize. By looking at the case of Japanese anime, I believe we can come to a deeper understanding of national differences and global synergies, the evolving worlds of media, digital technology, and the ways artists, fans, and businesses interact.

How has this growing interest in “Japan Cool” impacted the study of Japanese

language and culture in the United States?

The idea of “cool Japan” really took off with the publication of journalist Douglas McGray’s 2002 article “Japan’s Gross National Cool” in Foreign Policy magazine. He argued that Japan had become a “cultural superpower,” despite a decade-long recession that began in the early nineties. It has also changed the attitudes of American’s interested in Japan

In the eighties, when I began studying Japanese language in college, my classmates tended to be Economics majors who planned to make a killing in international trade. They wanted to know how to bow and hand over business cards, but seldom seemed interested in Japanese history or culture Today, the majority, though not all, students of Japanese language and culture are drawn to Japan because of their experience with anime and manga. They are more interested in the culture, history, religion, and educational system of Japan. To me, it’s a much more interesting group, more broad-minded, socially aware, and intellectually curious.

Some Japanese policy makers view the overseas interest in manga and anime as a vehicle for “soft power,” political scientist Joseph Nye’s term for political power that follows from the attractiveness of a nation’s culture and ideals. I think the effect is in fact different. Manga doesn’t convey “power” so much as it provides an entryway to a larger world, but one that is clearly conflicted and contradictory. The real power of popular culture is make stereotypes seems less compelling, and to force us to ask more complex questions about cultural differences.

Why do you think anime and manga have succeeded here while Jpop has largely

failed to generate the same level of interest?

I give American anime fans a lot of credit for driving the interest in anime through devoted, unpaid efforts to make the media available. In the eighties, they used VCRs, and today it’s fansubs online through sites like www.animesuki.com.

Manga in Japan are such a powerful media because of the intense competition among manga artists. The largest weekly magazines carry about 15 serialized stories. Each week the publishers received about 3000 postcards, which list three most interesting and three dullest stories. A few weeks’ of poor grades, and dull stories get cut. The manga stories that have survived for years are the ones that have maintained their edge. The fact that it is easy to read manga for free in convenience stores or borrowed from friends also means that fans are exposed to a lot of different manga and thereby become more sophisticated judges as well.

I think record companies in Japan haven’t made much effort to break into the US market in part because US prices are about half that of Japan’s, so they feel they won’t make money. From the American perspective, Japanese CDs are simply too expensive, running about double the price of US albums. Both sides of the equation limit the flow.

Comments

  1. Scott Ellington says:

    This interview led me to King Giddra’s 911 with the expectation of finding an insightful voice addressing post-apocalyptic reconciliation with inconcievable courage. Although that expectation was thwarted, I revisited Miyazaki’s Spirited Away last night and discovered the volumes of Nakazawa’s Barefoot Gen this morning. Thank you!

  2. Interesting interview. I am really into Japanese culture and I am just starting to really delve into Japanese hip hop as I am touring over there early next year.

    Planet XYL