You are here

Empire of Kitsch: Japan as Represented in Western Pop Media

The images of traditional Japan -- geisha, Mount Fuji, sushi, sumo, samurai, and green tea -- have been brought to the rest of the world for centuries through art work and trade goods. The post-industrial era has brought new cultural products from Japan and thus new associations to Japan, including karaoke, Tamagotchi, Pokemon, Aibo, and Hello Kitty.
Robert Hamilton

Issue #60, April 2002

I am not lovingly gazing toward an Oriental essence. To me the Orient is a matter of indifference, merely providing a reserve of features whose manipulation — whose invented interplay — allows me to "entertain" the idea of an unheard-of symbolic system, one altogether detached from our own. What can be addressed, in the consideration of the Orient, are not other symbols, another metaphysics, another wisdom (though the latter might appear thoroughly desirable); it is the possibility of a difference, of a mutation...
— Roland Barthes in The Empire of Signs

In 1970, Roland Bathes wrote L'Empire Des Signes (The Empire of Signs) in which he analyses Japan as a system of signs without fixed signification. In the book, he explores various Japanese cultural phenomena including bunraku, pachinko and, haiku. He makes clear however, that the nation he analyzes in his book is not the "real" Japan, but one of his own devising. The readings that he gives to various Japanese cultural phenomena serve his purposes as a semiotician, but do not necessarily reflect Japan as it actually exists. Japan has proven consistently useful in this particular role, not only for Barthes but for any number of individuals or groups. It is physically far enough from the West so that few have traveled there, and since the language bears no resemblance to any in Europe, it is opaque to those who have not studied it. However, unlike many other Asian countries, most Westerners have clear images to associate with Japan. The images of traditional Japan — geisha, Mount Fuji, sushi, sumo, samurai, and green tea — have been brought to the rest of the world for centuries through art work and trade goods. The post-industrial era has brought new cultural products from Japan and thus new associations to Japan, including karaoke, Tamagotchi, Pokémon, Aibo, and Hello Kitty. A new generation now uses these references to construct an image of Japan to suit its own needs. Western television programs such as South Park, The Simpsons, and Banzai make frequent references to, and appropriations from, Japanese culture. The focus is no longer on a Zen mystique that permeates the culture, as it was for Roland Barthes. The new invented "Japan" is a wonderland of high technology, bizarre trends, and campy science fiction.

American television is still dominated by U.S. productions, but not quite as exclusively as it once was. We are yet to see an Indian soap opera or a French police drama get regular play on a major U.S. network, but this is largely due to the unwillingness of audiences to read subtitles or the irritation that people have with dubbing. Animation, however, is always dubbed. Cartoons don't suffer from the limitations of live action programs in that they lend themselves quite well to translation. Because of this advantage, Japanese cartoons were some of the first non-Western programs consumed by wide audiences in North America. Yet early translations of these programs for American TV was far from straightforward. Not only was meaning translated, but specific Japanese cultural references were either removed or replaced. Since the stylized nature of the animated faces doesn't distinguish between Asian and Caucasian features, the general assumption by North American audiences was also that the heroes of shows such as Speed Racer and Astroboy were all white Americans.

The tendency to disguise Japanese animation as American has gradually faded (although not entirely disappeared) since then. In the late 1970s, America was watching Japan's Kagaku Ninja Tai Gatchaman (Science Ninja Team 'Gatchaman') as Battle of the Planets. In this radical re-edit of the original, all removable signs of Japanese origin were gone. The names of the main human characters were also generically Western: Mark, Jason, Princess and Tiny. As I child, I watched this show every day after school, and yet it never occurred to me that this was not a North American product. The voices, names and references were as familiar to me as those in Scooby-Doo or Justice League of America. In this way, Japanese animation entered the collective consciousness of a generation, but only after having been stripped of its origin.

Immigration Picture!In 1988, a change took place when Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira was released on American movie screens. The English translation of the animated science fiction film retained the original Japanese names for all characters, and took place in a dystopian city called "Neo-Tokyo". It did remarkably well at the box office, and garnered a strong cult following among college-age Americans. This proved that overtly Japanese content would not turn audiences away; indeed, the "authentic" nature of Akira's translation was one of the points that made this film such a success. Other Japanese animated television series that aired on U.S. stations in the wake of Akira's success were far less likely to exclude Japanese elements. The hugely successful girls' cartoon Sailor Moon (1995) retained Japanese signage in the backgrounds and featured scenes in which the characters ate with chopsticks. The girls wore Japanese school uniforms, and many of the characters had names such as Mina, Raye and Amara, which could be neutrally Western or Japanese.

In 1998 Pokémon, Japan's most commercially successful animated export to date, was introduced to U.S. television. It didn't arrive without warning though; Pokémon was infamous well before it hit American TV screens. The previous year, news reports of Japanese children being rushed to hospital after viewing an episode had reached western newspapers. Apparently, the episode (which aired on December 16th, 1997) included a scene which created a strobe-like affect with multiple explosions, color changes and rapid edits. This combination caused seizures in a large number of children who were watching the program. The incident created quite a stir, with over 700 people reporting to hospitals across Japan. The series went off the air for four months while an investigation ensued. After a number of procedural modifications were implemented and a health warning was tacked on, the series came back to Japanese television. Pokémon was subsequently exported to the states in various forms, including a TV series, video games, card games, movies, toys and more. Anticipation caused by the seizure incident, combined with the growing awareness of Japanese animation since the late 1980s and a huge marketing machine made Pokémon into a touchstone for anyone who wanted to reference Japanese popular culture. Western media became saturated with Pokémon imagery, and everyone knew where it came from.

Since animation was one of the first forms of media to present contemporary Japan to the American viewing public, it is no surprise that we can see references to Japanese culture in American animation more than in other genres of Western television entertainment. Trey Parker and Mat Stone's South Park runs on cable television in the United States and broadcast television in Canada. The crude animation is littered with foul language, politically incorrect phrases, and intentionally offensive situations. It also refers to Japanese popular culture on a consistent basis. The two creators were born in 1969 and 1971 respectively, and so are part of the generation of Americans that grew up watching Battle of the Planets, Speed Racer, and Astroboy. Transforming robots, "Ultraman"-like superheroes, and "kaiju" monsters straight from Godzilla movies appear in apparently random episodes, regardless of that episode's theme. More notably, Japanese characters occasionally speak in accurate unsubtitled Japanese.

The South Park episode entitled "Chinpoko Mon" was first aired in the U.S. on November 3rd, 1999. The episode revolves around a Pokémon-like phenomenon with which the children of South Park become obsessed. In a parodic pastiche of the marketing of Pokémon, toys, video games, and animation were all being sold to American children in South Park by a Japanese company. The company president "Mr. Hirohito" (bearing the same name as the Japanese emperor during World War II, and physically resembling him) was using toys and software to brainwash American children, making them into his own army to topple the "evil" American empire. These toys included a video game in which the participants attempt to bomb Pearl Harbor. While playing this game, Kenny — who is killed in each episode — goes into convulsions and dies in an obvious reference to the Pokémon seizure incident.

The plot summary above may at first glance seem offensive. If you are the type to take offense, there is a lot in it for you to choose from. Racial stereotypes abound. Criticizing an Asian product infiltrating the American market may smack of right-wing protectionism. References to Pearl Harbor and kamikaze pilots could stir up old WWII prejudices against Japanese-Americans. More careful consideration will reveal that this is a far cry from Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips (1944), the now banned war-era cartoon in which Bugs refers to the Japanese soldiers with slurs such as "slant eye" and "monkey face". We should keep in mind that South Park is a show which tries to be offensive. The format of the show requires that any group or individual depicted be mocked. Within that project, no racial slurs are used against Japanese in this episode. What we find instead is a genuine interest in Japanese culture. The episode is riddled with in-jokes that are meant either for a Japanese audience, or for those who are quite familiar with the country. Actual Japanese dialogue is used throughout the episode, most of it without subtitles. The name of the Pokémon parody itself, "Chinpoko Mon," is an inside joke. "Chinpoko" is Japanese slang for "penis", therefore, the full phrase would be the equivalent to calling a children's cartoon "Cock Monster" in English. Vulgar, yes, but demonstrating a true affection for contemporary Japanese culture through knowledge of the language. All of the real venom in this episode is reserved for corporate marketing techniques, which are not defined by nationality.

In her Bad Subjects article "Anime Otaku", Annalee Newitz speculated that Western fans of Japanese animation consume it because it reflects themes and characters familiar to them through American films and television. Yet it is obviously foreign, therefore allowing its viewers to reflect on it as though they were observing from the outside. The creators of South Park are likely among the numbers that Ms. Newitz would classify as "otaku". Their interest in Japanese popular culture is more than just passing. The frequency of references in the series alone is enough to raise eyebrows in that direction. Within South Park, Japan is utilized as an ideal Other. It is the source of material, inspiration and references that are familiar to many viewers, yet distant enough to retain a strange or off-beat quality.

Matt Groening's long running series The Simpsons has also dealt with Japanese subject matter on any number of occasions. In one episode, Homer investigated a Japanese dish soap called "Mr. Sparkle" which apparently bore his face on the box. In another, he thought he would die due to bad sushi prepared by an assistant chef. The most heavily Japanese episode, however, is entitled "Thirty Minutes Over Tokyo", and features the entire Simpson family going to Japan. During the episode, direct references are made to Japanese popular culture such as Gameboy, Transformers, Hello Kitty, and Godzilla. More classical references to the likes of Rashomon, The 47 Ronin, geisha, and Mt. Fuji also spice the episode.

As in the South Park episode, The Simpsons uses Pokémon as a key reference for establishing Japan as a nation of strangely appealing entertainment within; while watching a cartoon called "Battling Seizure Robots", the entire Simpson family drops to the floor with dilated pupils and begins to convulse. Unlike South Park however, almost all of the spoken Japanese is subtitled. The slight discrepancies between the spoken Japanese and the English subtitles are also quite telling as to what kind of Japan is being constructed. For example, when Homer asks Bart if he should reveal the secret to inner peace to the rest of the family, Bart replies "Dame yo! Are ha gaikokujin daro". This translates directly as "No, they are foreigners". However, the subtitle reads "No, they are foreign devils". While the well-known term "gaijin" is not exactly complementary (the component characters literally meaning "outside person"), "gaikokujin" (outside country person), the term that Bart uses, is actually quite courteous. The Cantonese term "gwai lo" or "white ghost" seems to be a much closer match for the English subtitle presented here. In an attempt to present a Japanese insult with the level of derision that the audience would expect, the writers have borrowed from another Asian language. It may seem nit-picky to point these things out. After all, this is a TV series in which Stephen Hawking's wheelchair is able to transform and fly; it is not exactly striving for verisimilitude. However, that is exactly the point. If The Simpsons is able to employ writers that can script proper Japanese, and artists to fill the streets of Tokyo with Japanese signs, then they are obviously aware of the liberties that are being taken with the translation. It is part of their project to construct a Japan that is an amalgam of all the intrigues, utopian and adversarial, that we perceive in East Asia.

Immigration Picture!"Thirty Minutes Over Tokyo" tries to cram as many Japanese icons as possible into the 30 minute format. The Imperial Gardens, Meiji Shrine, and the Hello Kitty Factory were all covered within 5 seconds as Lisa looked out her hotel window. However, it is the game show in which the family ends up competing, on which the episode lingers longest. The "Happy Smile Super Challenge Family Wish Show" is a pastiche of any number of actual Japanese variety/game shows in which contestants run the risk of physical discomfort ranging from having to eat something nasty, to being submerged in scalding water or receiving electrical shocks. The philosophy behind such disturbingly compelling programming is humorously, yet succinctly summed up by the animated H.S.S.C.F.W.S. host with the words "(American) shows reward knowledge. We punish ignorance"! The Simpson family is then put through a number of tribulations including blasts of fire, skunk spray, and finally being dropped into a mock volcano.

The game show depicted on The Simpsons is an exaggeration, but not by much. An actual Japanese television program called Dempa Shonen which runs on Nippon Television (NTV), featured a man named Nasubi who was required to live naked in a single room for a year while only being allowed to consume what he won from magazine contests for sustenance. It became incredibly popular and controversial at the same time. News of the show leaked into Western media, and various individuals proclaimed their outrage. Underneath all the condemnation, however, was the realization that if a similar program were to air in North America or Europe, it would achieve similar levels of success. Indeed, recent years have shown an explosion of "reality" based contest shows like Survivor and Fear Factor on American television. The premises behind these shows are no less bizarre than that of Dempa Shonen. For that matter, Let's Make a Deal and The Price is Right all belong to the same heritage: shows that trade dignity for cash or prizes. Dempa Shonen is simply the logical escalation. Like Japanese animation, these game shows garner interest from the West not because they are so removed from our culture as to be unfathomable, rather they allow us to view products of our own culture in hyperbole, bringing our own absurdities into sharp relief. Homer's chastising words as he leaves the "Happy Smile Super Challenge Family Wish Show" reveal that The Simpsons' writers likely have similar sentiments, "Game shows aren't about cruelty. They're about greed and wonderful prizes, like poorly built catamarans". He then proceeds to watch the TV monitor with laughter as the next pair of contestants are stung by scorpions.

Imitations of Japanese popular culture in shows such as South Park and The Simpsons allow us to indulge in the quirkiness of such programming without feeling responsible for the content. This form of imitation is taken to a greater extreme in the British television program Banzai. "From a land where anything is truly possible comes BANZAI", states the heading on this television program's web site. The image of foreignness is heightened by a cast of Asian hosts with heavy Japanese accents, occasionally sporting pseudo-traditional garb and often portraying a specific Asian stereotype like the Kung-fu master, the Japanese salaryman, or the dragon lady. Each segment of the show is also introduced with a title screen sporting a colorful background and unreadable, untranslated text. Interestingly, this text is unreadable to everyone. It is vaguely Japanese in appearance, and even includes some close approximations to real characters, but ultimately, the only meaning that it holds is to identify the show as coming from a foreign source.

Banzai is a game show of sorts in which various situations are presented for the purposes of gambling. An example of this is guessing which old lady will veer away first in a game of electric wheelchair chicken. Another is two men playing a variation on Russian roulette in which they take turns pointing spring-loaded umbrellas at their faces and pressing the buttons (all but one of the umbrellas has had the spring removed). When the show is broadcast on digital cable to set-top boxes, it is as an interactive program that allows people to wager on the outcomes. Repeat broadcasts and syndication, however, are straight-up spectacle. With its events like shopping cart jousting, the show's content, budget and general feel often resemble MTV's Jackass more closely than anything offered on Japanese television. Yet if we sit and watch Jackass, we are forced to deal with the fact that we are part of the culture that produced this show featuring grown men who are willing to step into a human catapult on the televised equivalent of a dare.

Japan has in many ways become a receptacle for both our fantasies and fears. The characteristics that make up our imagined Japan are often actual elements, but our choice as to which elements on which to focus is more telling about ourselves than it is about the culture that we are supposedly observing. The most popular shows on Japanese TV are not game shows or cartoons, but light serial dramas. That, however, is not what Western media has chosen to pick up on. Instead, the automated toilets that warm, wash, dry and create diversionary white noise have found their way into magazines, TV infotainment shows, and finally into our collective consciousness. Toilet seats are not the most news worthy of items, yet these odd, technological wonders fit the paradigm that has been set for Japan, and popular media revels in any piece of information that can help to reinforce the image of Japan that we have created for ourselves. Elements of Japan that do not fit that image are either ignored or replaced with elements from other cultures. Inaccurate portrayals are not so much misperceptions as alternate projections — choices that have been made.

So if the country being portrayed in our media is not Japan, but a fantasy constructed by the West, why call it Japan at all? Why not invent a fictitious land with a new name? There is, after all, a real Japan. The identity of the real Japan and the actual Japanese people are compromised by each new misleading portrayal. Roland Barthes defended his use of Japan in this role by explaining that creating a new world from scratch would be akin to writing a novel. In employing an established literary format such as the novel, "fantasy itself" is compromised "by the signs of literature". For Barthes, Japan was a plaything, an image that he could manipulate at will to illustrate his own ideas. The television programs I've discussed also present the image of Japan as malleable, but in a less conscious manner than Barthes. For Western media, Japan is an ideal Other because of its unique position in our consciousness. We have certain ideas and images about Japan that we hold, or at least suspect, to be true. Japan is in the content that we view on our televisions, the companies that make our cars and electronics, and in the designs that help create our post-industrial world. Yet even though we are surrounded by its images and influence, it remains an island located are far as possible on the other side of the planet. Using this site upon which to imagine our idealized Other accomplishes two things: it helps us to complete the picture of this country that plays such a significant role in our lives, and it provides us with a psychological balance for our own culture.

Robert Hamilton is a Canadian who now lives in Tokyo and lectures at several universities there.

Credits: "Lambtron" character from South Park's "Chinpoko Mon." South Park and related images copyright 1995-2001 Comedy Central, all rights reserved.
The Simpsons — dropped to the floor from watching "Battling Seizure Robots" in "Thirty minutes over Tokyo" — TM, FOX and its related entities, all rights reserved.

Copyright © 2002 by Robert Hamilton. All rights reserved.