Millennial Monsters: An Interview with Anne Allison (Part One)

In January, as part of my three week lecture tour, I stopped off in Durham, North Carolina where Duke University was hosting a special event designed to discuss the issues being raised by Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination, which was written by one of their faculty members, Anne Allison. I was one of several outside researchers who shared their insights into the issues the book raised. I had a great time interacting with the students and faculty there both through this event and a seminar session the following day. I have long been an admirer of Anne Allison's work which touches in complex ways on issues of globalization, cultural identity, fan cultures, sexuality, and popular culture. For me, one of the real values of her work is that she has read deeply into what Japanese cultural critics have had to say about some of the materials that have made their way over to this country. Given how little of this writing has been translated into English, this is an especially valuable service to those of us interested in this topic. The book offers a richly detailed series of case studies of the interplay of Japanese and American popular culture, going back to the tin toys produced during the American occupation, Godzilla and Astro Boy, and other early texts which made it into the western marketplace. The core of the book describes the emergence of an ethos of "coolness" around Japanese cultural imports -- moving from a time when the industry sought to erase markers of cultural difference to the present moment when many western consumers are embracing these products (toys, anime, manga, games) because of their Japaneseness.

Today and tomorrow, I will be sharing with you an interview with Anne Allison about her latest project. Here's her official biography which will provide some background about who she is and how this project fits into the larger trajectory of her career:

Anne Allison is a cultural anthropologist currently working on the globalization of Japanese pop culture in entertainment goods like Pokemon. Her recent book, Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination (University of California Press, 2006) looks at the global marketplace, capitalist logic, and fantasy construction of Japanese toys through the lens of Japan-US relations. Allison has published two previous books. The first, Nightwork: Sexuality, Pleasure, and Corporate Masculinity in a Tokyo Hostess Club (University of Chicago Press 1994) is a study of the Japanese corporate practice of entertaining white collar, male workers in the sexualized atmosphere of hostess clubs. Her second book, Permitted and Prohibited Desires: Mothers, Comics, and Censorship in Japan (Westview-HarperCollins 1996, re-released by University of California Press 2000) examines the intersection of motherhood, productivity, and mass-produced fantasies in contemporary Japan through essays on lunch-boxes, comics, censorship, and stories of mother-son incest. Anne Allison is Chair and Robert O. Keohane Professor of the Department of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University.

Let's start where your book ends. You write, "Finally, of course, there is the significance and signification of Japan in the creation of a global imagination no longer dominated (or at least not so completely) by the United States. The attractive power at work here may be less for a real place than for the sense of displacement enjoined by the postindustrial condition of travel, nomadicism, and flux generated and signified here by somewhere "not-the-United-states" but within the orbit of the globally familiar. Still, American hegemony is being challenged in the symbolic virtual medium of fantasy making. And in this a see a positive contribution to the cultural politics of global imaginings in millennial monsters and Japanese toys." Explain. In what sense is it more important that this is not American popular culture than that it is culture from Japan? Or conversely, why does it matter that American youth are consuming culture produced elsewhere? What do you see as the political, cultural, and economic implications of this shift?

It's always struck me that Americans are very insular; we tend to see America as the center of the world, American culture as the global standard and norm, and the American lifestyle as the best in the world. Much of this is unconscious and comes from, among other things, a popular culture so dominated by US-produced fare. So, to disturb this sense of American-centeredness and to open up Americans to understanding and recognizing cultural difference is good, I'd say. Of course the question then is: does the popularization of J-cool amongst American youth really signal an opening up of consciousness and sensitivity to cultures and a cultural way of life that is different? I would say - to a degree, yes. But what matters here is not that fans of J-cool necessarily understand the complexity of "Japan" as the origins of this different popular culture. Rather, what is important here is more the disruption of the dominance of American culture. This is the cultural implication of a shift in pop culture in the US.

But you also ask about the political and economic implications and this is a harder question to answer. Economically, Japan is as much a postindustrial, neoliberal economy as the US so I'm not sure there is a radical shift here in the wave of J-cool spreading across the US. Politically, we could say there is more possible significance: the acceptance of soft power from somewhere else implies a challenge (well, a "soft" challenge)to the unilateralism of the US empire and the way the US nation-state is imposing its will and policies on the global stage (invasion of Iraq) without consulting or cooperating with others.

What led you to write this book? How does it emerge from the earlier books you have done on Japan?

All my earlier work has examined the relationship between fantasy and what I call material relations (of work, school, and home) in various spheres: hostess clubs, home life, pornographic comic books, and the lunch-boxes mothers make for their children. Here too I look at the relationship between fantasy and the material production of youth goods in Japan though extend this into the global sphere of fan traffic and consumption. What triggered my original interest in this was my younger son's fascination with transformer superheroes which he watched with avid interest the year we spent there when he was 2. Not only would he watch these shows, but he also became a consumer of all the action figures and paraphernalia to wear and adorn his own body with (helmets, swords, blaster guns). My son was always a gentle child: sweet, calm, and non-violent. So I was intrigued by his own transformation into this fantasy world and became interested in studying the phenomenon further.

You begin the book with a discussion of the relations between American and Japanese popular culture following the end of World War II. How would you characterize the core shift that has occurred since that time? What factors led to this shift? Do you see this as occurring because of a push by Japanese companies into western markets or because of a pull by American fans demanding more access to Japanese cultural goods?

Great questions and the relationship between US and Japanese popular culture is complex. The two countries and, more importantly, the popular cultures of these two countries have long pollinated one another though the influences Japanese pop culture has had on

American are rarely recognized or acknowledged. It is said that Tezuka Osamu, the creator

of Tetsuwan Atomu (Astro Boy)and other popular manga and anime was heavily influenced by Disney as he started up in the late 40s and 50s. But he, in turn, influenced Disney; Kimba the Lion is said to have been the inspiration for The Lion King. But Japanese influence and imprint on the American imaginary has vastly increased in recent years and the first reason why this is so is due to marketing and entrepreneurship on both sides. Haim Saban, the CEO of Saban Entertainment in the US, was the one who tried for 8 years to get US television networks to air what eventually came out as Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. He did this for strictly economic reasons; the footage was relatively cheap and he thought it would be a big hit (and would therefore make him money). And, once this hit in 1993, it opened the floodgates for more Japanese programming to come into the US, peddled by both Japanese and American marketers. Once enough of a market was established though, I think the demand of fans became significant in that they kept pushing for more and more J-cool products to enter the States (and also, as Henry Jenkins and Ian Condry have shown in their own work, the fact that these fans were adept at dubbing and translating helped push the market as well).

The Japanese were once reluctant to imagine many of these goods as being of interest outside of Japan. What changed their minds?

I don't think it was so much that Japanese changed their minds on this as much as Americans changed their minds. Once Americans started approaching Japanese and soliciting deals to broker their products, relations opened up more. This is not to say, however, that the business relations between Americans and Japanese are always smooth in negotiating the sale and transmission of Japanese products to the US.

As I understand it, these deals are often difficult, full of cross-cultural misunderstandings. What US marketers have said is that, if Japanese are going to do global sales, they need to understand how the logic of this market operates--i.e. not cling on to products or storylines that won't sell. What Japanese marketers have told me is that it's all business on the US side but, for them, they care about these products/characters/games as if they were their own children and they're not always willing to change or abandon something simply on economic grounds. There is also the interest of American fans who, because they understand and appreciate Japanese-fare and are also willing to add translations and dubbings, the market for i.e. anime has grown in the U.S. Japanese marketers would not have predicted this and figured, for a long time, that a Japanese aesthetic was simply something few non-Japanese would ever get or even take to. This was true in the case of Pokemon which, designed for a Japanese audience, was never intended or imagined to go global. It had an "odor" and "taste" thought to be appealing only to Japanese or perhaps other Asians. When it hit in places like the US, its Japanese marketers and designers were astounded. With such successes, however, they also became attuned to producing for this wider audience: not making their products "global" per se but designing them with a Japaneseness that could travel.