Canadian, 16, on a mission to save Japan

Student joins other foreigners in delving beyond pop culture, exposing problems beneath 'cool Japan'

by Richard Smart

When Prime Minister Naoto Kan, following in the footsteps of former leader Taro Aso, promoted the idea of “cool Japan” — the export of the nation’s popular culture for economic profit — he probably didn’t expect that somebody like Peter Dyloco existed.

A 16-year-old Toronto resident born in Hong Kong, Dyloco’s ambition is to become a politician in Japan.

“My life goal is not only to move to Japan, but reform it from the inside out. Simply said: I want to become a Japanese politician,” Dyloco told The Japan Times in an e-mail.

“Too often have I read news articles about the aging Japanese population, the . . . fragile economy and the ballooning public debt. The political inaction doesn’t help. It pains me to see Japan falter in such ways, especially knowing that Japan can certainly do better.”

Developing an interest in Japan through its popular culture, Dyloco quickly realized there was more to the country than the anime characters, vending machines and teenage pop stars that tend to dominate international discourse on the nation.

“I’ve liked Japanese anime since I was little. But it wasn’t until I got older that I realized there was this whole culture behind it,” he explained in a telephone interview. “It was mainly from looking on Wikipedia. And from there one link led to another.

“My first real anime that really got me interested in Japan was ‘Gundam,’ and I realized it had this immense cultural significance. I’m quite interested in cars, for instance, and the Nissan GT-R took its inspiration from Gundam. Eventually, I started studying Japanese not only to increase my ability to communicate, but also to enhance my understanding of the culture as a whole.”

Dyloco’s story is that of a new generation that gained an interest in the country through its popular culture and has gone on to contribute to civil society and beyond in other ways. Through his Web site, Saving Japan ( savingjapan.wordpress.com ), Dyloco documents his findings on Japan and adds his own comments to articles, video and other information he finds about the country online.

Today, numerous others both overseas and in Japan are doing the same thing. Commentators, bloggers and authors such as Tobias Harris, Brian Ashcraft, Jean Snow and Matt Alt have all harnessed the power of the Internet to contribute to debates on Japan, and ended up contributing to print publications, producing books and appearing as TV pundits through their efforts.

As Kinko Ito argued in her 2005 essay “A History of Manga in the Context of Japanese Culture and Society,” “Like any other form of (art), manga does not exist in a vacuum. It is immersed in a particular social environment that includes history, language, culture, politics, economy, family, religion, sex and gender, education, deviance and crime, and demography. Manga thus reflects the reality of Japanese society. . . . Manga also depicts other social phenomena, such as social order and hierarchy, sexism, racism, ageism, classism, and so on.”

The same can be said of anime and the country’s other cultural exports: Scratch the surface and the problems that define contemporary Japan appear. And it’s through this process that those enthusiastic about Japan are likely to get drawn into the deeper issues surrounding the country.

While Japan has had an easy hand controlling foreign influence on its economy — much to the annoyance, for example, of the United States during the mid-1980s, when trade disputes dominated relations between the two countries — this new generation of Japanophiles are looking to get their voices heard in the social and political sphere. They are often bilingual, committed to the country for reasons other than money, and are contributing to social debate in ways their predecessors did not, through Internet-based media such as blogs, vlogs, tweets and more.

Ashcraft explains: “I’d always been interested in Japan since I was a kid. I grew up playing Japanese video games, owning Japanese toys and watching Japanese cartoons, so an interest in the country was natural. As I got older, I became interested in Japanese pop music, Japanese films and art.

“Japanese culture is so pervasive abroad — much more pervasive than most people in Japan think. It’s the country’s culture that is Japan’s best PR agent. Japanese pop culture initially made me want to visit the country, but ultimately made me want to live and work here.”

Ashcraft has produced two books on Japan, and through the website Kotaku.com, where he writes on gaming, he also offers commentary on Japanese life, culture and society in his posts.

Whether politicians will welcome the prospect of pop-culture commentators offering strong, well-informed opinions on other aspects of Japanese society is questionable. Regardless, Kan plans to push forward a plan to see “cool Japan” bring the nation in between ¥12 trillion and ¥17 trillion by 2020. A panel was launched in November to oversee plans to attain this target. However, in cultural rather than economic terms, the results of the plan are unpredictable.

Statistics released by the Japan Student Services Organization in December show that at universities, 92.4 percent of foreign students come from Asian nations. One can only assume that as Kan’s plan to see Japanese pop culture become more pervasive worldwide bears fruit, many more Asian youths with attitudes similar to Dyloco’s will appear.

The 16-year-old is surprisingly down-to-earth for somebody with such heady ambitions, and is fully aware that his goal is a little eccentric.

“My parents still think that I’m crazy,” he says. “It’s no secret that Japan is in economic decline, particularly with neighbor China nearby, and the entire corporate culture — the long hours, relatively low pay and promotions by seniority — have been mentioned.”

And while his analysis of Japan’s decline may be up for debate — commentators such as James Fallows and Eamonn Fingleton, for example, have questioned the popular notion of the nation’s troubles — Dyloco’s ideas are sensible.

“As far as I can see, the most pressing issue for Japan is immigration. You can’t force people to have kids, and if you can’t do this, then consumer demand will not go up, which means that the economy will not be able to grow,” he says when asked about what he believes the nation’s political priority should be. “So the only way to solve this is by letting people in. Obviously, there are problems with immigration — we can see that from Europe right now — but if gradual change were initiated rather than doing nothing at all, things would improve.

“The government has touched on immigration reform over the last few years, but they haven’t taken it completely seriously. Perhaps a problem with the older generation is they aren’t thinking about the future, they are just letting things collapse while they protect their own vested interests. But I don’t think younger people will be as opposed to immigration as the older generation are.”

The young student has also received words of encouragement from older peers that his goal is not a pipe dream.

“I’ve talked with the Tsukuba Councilor Jon Heese, and I think that as long as there is a willingness to do something for the greater good of society, there is a way to become a politician. Taking this path in Canada would be easier, but it’s not impossible to do so in Japan.”

For now, however, Dyloco’s ambitions are on hold.

“I’m doing pretty well in school. . . . Because of financial constraint, I’ll be applying for American and Canadian universities. Friends encouraged me to go to Japan, but I don’t think I can.”

But that doesn’t mean that his goal of giving back to the Japanese he is so passionate about is not bearing fruit. As a student of the language, the 16-year-old has found a way to contribute.

“I recently started volunteering at a retirement home, and there are quite a lot of Japanese there so I have got to practice my conversation there. It’s mutually beneficial so the old folks like it.”

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