by Roland Kelts
By now, the images associated with Japan's global pop juggernaut are new to no one. Pokemon, launched in 1996, is a multibillion dollar multi-media empire, extending into 68 countries worldwide. Its bright yellow, perky-tailed mascot soars above 5th Avenue in the annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, right next to an old pup named Snoopy. Fashion-fanatic Harajuku girls are now called "the Harajuku Girls," a Japanese dance troupe touring the world and gyrating in sold-out stadiums alongside a blonde singer named Gwen Stefani. Hello Kitty manufacturer Sanrio's overseas outlets now outperform their domestic counterparts, and anime- and manga-devoted clubs and conventions have sprouted and bloomed in foreign soils like Takashi Murakami's psychedelic smiley-faced flowers.
Much of the imagery is redolent of kawaii, either emitting a whiff of the uber-cuteness now considered an essence of Japanese popular culture, or, as in the case of Murakami and other contemporary artists, playfully subverting it. There is also a giddy smorgasbord of styles and designs, mixing high and low and East and West with seemingly endless imaginative abandon?and, of course, plenty of hyper-kinetic action: spiky-haired guys and gals a la Naruto and Dragonball Z and a heap of video game consoles leaping across screens and bursting through comic book panels.
The combined effect of this assault on the global consciousness is a vision of a contemporary Japan bursting with energy, inventiveness, color and light, qualities we generally ascribe to youthfulness: actually being young, or perpetually feeling that way. Many foreigners see in today's Japan the face of the future.
But inside Japan, specters of darker hues shadow the horizons: an aging population and a declining or stagnant birthrate; an expanding class of young, part-time workers (freeters) with checkered resumes and scant skills; and so-called NEETs ("Not in Employment, Education or Training"), with their CVs and skill sets suspended in mid-youth. Stories of pathological young shut-ins (hikikomori), who withdraw into their bedrooms and virtual worlds to avoid the real ones, and Internet suicide pacts, through which young loners meet one another online in order to kill themselves together in the bricks-and-mortar world off, have begun haunting headlines at home and abroad.
"There doesn't seem to be much optimism," says veteran Professor, translator and author Motoyuki Shibata of his students at the University of Tokyo, one of Japan's most prestigious and best-known academic institutions. His current classes contain what he calls "the first generation in modern Japan to grow up without the sense that things would get better."
"We're the risk-averse generation," a twenty year-old female student at the University of Tokyo explained to me. "We grew up too comfortable to take risks."
While conducting research for my book, Japanamerica, the social ills afflicting Japan's younger generations and the pessimism they betray began to form a narrative nexus, tying an increasingly anemic youth culture to the anxieties felt by many in the anime, manga, toy, games and other pop cultural industries.
It's not hard to find pessimism about the young pessimists. Michael Arias, the Japan-based American director of the recent anime feature, Tekkonkinkreet, recited the names of several professional anime artists and directors in their forties and older to illustrate his concern: his industry and craft may be finding audiences abroad just as they are dying in Japan.
"Making Tekkonkinkreet, I was fortunate to enough to work with some of the best talents in the field here in Japan," he now says. "And I heard over and over from the veterans on my staff how depleted the ranks have become in the last ten years or so."
What to make of the apparent disparity between the image of a vibrant "cool Japan"?and a domestic youth culture that is shrinking in size, hope and ambition?
By Roland Kelts, Author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the US and Contributing Editor of A Public Space
JAPANAMERICAN EYES is a special column for Japanese Writers' House Newsletter.
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