National / Media | Japan Pulse

Getting to the bottom of Chicano subculture coverage on Japan

by Patrick ST. Michel

Contributing Writer

Over the past month and a half, a number of Western media outlets have revisited a topic that has long been a hit for online publications.

In late February, The New York Times published “Inside Japan’s Chicano Subculture,” a video documenting a niche group in the country that is building an identity around a culture created by Mexican-Americans.

Journalist Walter Thompson-Hernandez traveled to the archipelago to interview many of the people involved in the subculture, ranging from those in the nation’s lowrider car community to Chicano-inspired musicians. The video also explores the producer’s own identity.

The video performed extremely well. As of writing, it has attracted almost 3.7 million views on YouTube. Just as importantly, it set off a wave of aggregation from all sorts of sites, ranging from LatinX to The New York Times of Yeezy sneaker updates, Hypebeast.

A short time later, uploads from other media companies on the same subject started to appear on YouTube. Refinery29 examined the issue in a video that was twice as long as The New York Times’ clip in a piece titled “Why Japanese Women Are Dressing Like Chicanas,” while CNN-owned entity Great Big Story offered up “How Chicano Lowrider Culture Found a Home in Japan” just a few days after the Times’ creation. An article about Chicano culture popped up on Jalopnik before any of the others came out, but failed to leave much of an impression.

However, this issue certainly isn’t new to Japan. California alt-weekly OC Weekly wrote about lowrider culture and Chicano rap in Japan back in 2011, inspired in part by a professor at a nearby university who had reported on the issue in the student newspaper. The following year, Huffington Post offered its own overview of the subculture. Writing and film production on the subject has popped up in English-language media every once in a while ever since, including in The Japan Times.  

But why such a blitz of videos on the topic in 2019? There’s no news hook to this, and nothing much has really changed — note how many of the same faces appear in multiple videos, including rapper Mona “Sad Girl” going as far back as 2011. What it really represents is a change in how online-centric media is covering Japan (and much of the rest of the world) now.

Western coverage of Japanese “trends” has traditionally focused on “wacky” happenings, regardless of how authentic a trend they have actually been. Take a quick moment to recall international coverage in the past of bagelheads and zentai, among hundreds of other items that would make Edward Said smash windows. Such coverage hasn’t vanished entirely — the poop museum in Yokohama is a real winner in this department — but it certainly has diminished to a point.

Rather than othering Japan, Western media is now trying to find stories that can connect with their followers — especially if they can generate a reaction. Older pieces on the Chicano subculture tended to be far better than the standard “look at these weirdos” fare, more interested in highlighting an interesting subculture than anything else.

This new wave of content, though, focuses primarily on the issue of identity and cultural appropriation. Thompson-Hernandez’s documentary discusses it frequently, while the Refinery29 video goes so far as to try and figure out whether this is actually a problem or not. This in and of itself isn’t a particularly fresh angle at a time when issues such as this are constantly being discussed and both offerings, for the most part, cover it pretty well for creations focusing on a very small percentage of the Japanese population (although Refinery29’s video sometimes slips into making this sound like a generalization).

The Great Big Story video barely mentions the issue, preferring to primarily focus on footage of cars. Tellingly, it lags way behind the other two in page views.

Stories with a political or emotional charge to them perform super well in 2019. More Japan-centric issues take this approach as well, whether people are talking about the importance of Shintoism in Marie Kondo’s Netflix show to, well, just about every article about Naomi Osaka covering her off-the-court activities. This can draw attention to true societal woes in Japan such as the shortcomings of the entertainment industry or racism, but it can also result in takeaways that feel like real reaches, like how the new era name may actually be fascist.

The recent wave of videos focusing on Chicano culture in Japan taps into this shift. Importantly, they work best as standalone videos, which can easily be shared on social media platforms.

And this helps generate the real key to the videos’ success — other people start discussing the subject. The videos attract comments on the concept of cultural appropriation on sites such as YouTube and Reddit, especially whether they’re for or against it.

It appears that such netizens aren’t only interested in learning about Japan — they’re also interested in listening to the sound of their own voices.