Toys. Video games. Portable music players. Kawaii characters. Anime. When it comes to modern pop culture, we’ve all turned Japanese.
That’s the contention of the new book “Pure Invention: How Japan’s Pop Culture Conquered the World” by Matt Alt. It’s an exploration of how key Japanese exports have influenced the wider world’s perception of the country — and infused the world with a bit of “Japaneseness” at the same time.
“It occurred to me that Japan is a country that has a lot of cultural pull, but there had never been a book that tried to qualify it,” says Alt, a native of the Washington, D.C. area (and occasional contributor to The Japan Times) who has lived in Tokyo since 2003.
To go about qualifying Japan’s pop cultural pull, Alt turned to some of the country’s most iconic inventions, from the Walkman to the Game Boy to Hello Kitty. To warrant inclusion, each had to satisfy what Alt calls the “three ins”: inescapable, influential and inessential. In other words, no Toyota cars or instant ramen: The products had to be something you wanted, not needed.
“Taken as a whole,” says Alt, “these products have transformed the way we dream, and given us a template for a ‘cool factor’ that wasn’t made in America.”
As Japan emerged from World War II, the first indication this devastated country might one day become a pop culture behemoth came in the form of cheap toy jeeps designed by a toymaker named Matsuzo Kosuge. Though made using cast-off beer cans and food tins, the jeeps nonetheless featured the precise and detailed design for which Japan would soon become famous — and, due to a shortage of toys in the U.S., became a hit both in Japan and stateside. “Pure Invention” positions Kosuge’s story and his postwar success as the template for what was to come.
“Kosuge’s jeep practically sums up U.S.-Japan relations in a single product,” says Alt. Before too long, Japan found itself at the forefront of pop culture globalization. In 1946, Japan was already exporting toy jeeps to its former sworn enemy; by 1993, then-first lady Hillary Clinton would be spotted killing time on Air Force One with Nintendo’s first portable console, the Game Boy — and playing Tetris, a game created in the former USSR.
Other Japanese gadgets chronicled in Alt’s book include the Nintendo Entertainment System, the karaoke machine and the Tamagotchi. But “Pure Invention” is about more than hardware: it also traces the more ephemeral parts of Japanese pop culture that have made it big worldwide, including anime, manga, emoji, kawaii culture, the post-modern literature of writers like Haruki Murakami and even the way we communicate online. The final chapter of the book traces the strange, tangled connections between 2channel, an anonymous online bulletin board for Japanese otaku (nerds), to 4chan, an English-language copycat, to Gamergate, the so-called alt-right and finally the rise of Donald Trump.
“I never imagined I’d be seeing Trump supporters use anime imagery in support of their cause,” says Alt. “But anime and Japanese tastes have become the lingua franca of the internet.”
In another sense, however, Alt posits that it’s no surprise the U.S. and other Western countries have embraced much of Japan’s cultural shorthand. After all, they’re experiencing many of the same economic and societal issues Japan already has. Or, as Alt puts it: “Japan got to the future a little early.”
“The Japanese stock market had an epic crash in the ’90s, which led to decades of economic stagnation,” says Alt. “Young people were casting about for new ways to define how they would live their lives in a world where all the promises of the Boomer generation had been wiped out. We’re now seeing the same thing happen in the U.S. in the post-recession era, and many of the tools young people use to deal with it come from Japan.”
Alt even sees echoes of such Japanese tools in this year’s biggest news stories: the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests. In the latter, as with earlier movements like the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, organization leadership is diffused and gatherings are planned on social media — something users of 2channel had mastered back in the early 2000s (albeit with very different goals).
As for COVID-19 and the worldwide lockdowns, many of those stuck inside have “turned to the tools of the otaku,” says Alt, including Japanese video games like Animal Crossing: New Horizons, which sold over 13 million units worldwide within six weeks of its release in March.
“It points to the Japanization of our tastes,” says Alt. “A big part of our fantasy DNA is now made in Japan. It’s fundamentally changed the way we spend time and identify ourselves.”
Matt Alt discusses “Pure Invention” in the latest episode of The Japan Times’ Deep Dive podcast. Listen now at jtimes.jp/podcast.