Bidding Adieu to an Invasion

by Roland Kelts

   In my life, August marks the end of another year far more decisively than January 31 or my birthday. The former signals the end of the US holiday stretch, the latter the coming end of, well, my life.

In Japan, August is O-Bon season − a time for calling back the dead. In America, it's a time for fireworks and barbecued foods dripping with fat, an alternate method of letting death in.

Far from the epicenters of Tokyo and New York, I generally spend the latent days of this month lakeside in New England − which is latitudinally around the Tohoku region in Japan, where my mother was raised. I fish for lake trout, small- and large-mouth bass and the lowly perch, row a skiff, sink into the chill waves in the morning and rise up sun-washed. It's a time to reflect on the all the months racing past in real time.

This past year has been a juggernaut, as they say, with Japanamerica, keeping me occupied on a near weekly basis since its release in November of 2006. Appearances in New York − including a boffo launch party − consumed the first two months; a US tour on both coasts filled the early spring; then Tokyo, then London, then Osaka, and back to Tokyo, where we've wrapped up the summer tour events with a bilingual reading, courtesy of literary translator, professor and author Motoyuki Shibata at the Aoyama Book Center.


This last talk and discussion was among the most gratifying. Professor Shibata re-translated the portions of the book I opted to read. The room was filled, and audience members responded with questions and comments that were singularly revealing.

Among them: Why does the book's subtitle include the verb, "invaded?"

This is a complex question for two reasons: One, the suggestion that Japan and its culture have perpetrated an "invasion" of other cultures touches a nerve in a nation still sensitive to accusations of wartime atrocities in the Asian region. And two, the verb itself contradicts one of the book's key arguments − that most of Japan's icons of contemporary culture have not aggressively or even strategically been unleashed upon Western nations. Rather, they have permeated Western culture, slowly seeping into the collective unconscious and imagery via the Internet, cable television and surreptitious DVD selling and trading.

I was aware of this troubling scenario when the subtitle was first presented to me by my publisher last summer. The prevailing argument then was that American readers would associate the term "invasion" with what's commonly called "The British Invasion" of the 1960s − the era when British pop bands, led by the Beatles, stormed American shores and pop charts?and the effect would be a knowing, insider wink: 'We know it's not quite, or not quite yet, the same thing as the Fab Four, dear readers, but did you see master Miyazaki's Oscar, and are you up on your manga?'

The subtitle stuck. But when the Japanese rights were sold a few months later, I strongly urged my publisher in Japan to alter the subtitle in Japanese. Their solution was something along the lines of "the Japanese pop culture revolution," a more positive spin that still implies, with a wink, a radical sea change.

And so, dear readers, from the side of my barbecue grill, far from steamy Tokyo and sticky New York, fond thanks − and adieu to a stellar year.


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.
Distribution: The fourth Wednesday of the month.


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