by Roland Kelts
While reading Keio University Professor Takayuki Tutsumi's Full Metal Apache recently, I attended the opening of an exhibition in a Soho gallery featuring the work of 16 Japanese visual artists charged with a curious assignment. Each artist was asked to visually render in their own styles an image that was already a cartoon character, and a mascot at that.
The mascot, a manga-like mushroom with wide eyes, squat body and paint-splotched crown, is called 'docomodake,' its name being a word-play. Dake or take means mushroom in Japanese, as in shiitake mushrooms. But it also means 'only,' as in the only one. And docomo (an abbreviation of "Do Communications over the Mobile Network") is Japan's largest cell phone provider, a division of the nation's telecom behemoth, NTT. The exhibition was cheekily titled: "How to cook Docomodake?"
The mascot was introduced in Japan three years ago to advertise a series of cell phone pricing packages and became enormously popular, spawning an array of spin-off product lines including toys, anime videos, cell phone straps, et cetera.
But the New York opening marked something of a first: A Japanese corporate mascot reconfigured as a domestic icon of popular culture, then transformed into a model of deconstruction and artistic play for so-called cutting-edge yet relatively underground Japanese artists penetrating the heart of New York's downtown art scene. All in less than three years.
Chief among the ironies: No one in American can purchase the product the mascot is meant to represent. Docomo is a domestic brand only - Nihon dake - which didn't seem to bother the appreciative scene-makers crowding the gallery on a rainy Manhattan night.
Among the key claims in Tatsumi's sometimes thrillingly capacious analysis of the transcultural exchanges, dialogs and influences between Japan and America is that they have become synchronous in the 21st century, no longer bound by time and space. "At this turn into the new millennium," he writes, "we have plunged into the mostly chaotic and transculturally infectious negotiations between orientalism and occidentalism." Tatsumi believes that postwar Japan's recovery involved a willful distortion of the self - what he terms "creative masochism" - that helped the reborn nation embrace its defeat (to borrow from John Dower) and reconstruct itself out of what he calls "junk," or the rubble of the war's aftermath.
It’s all quite heady stuff, of course, but it's hard to ignore the speed at which phenomena that seem purely Japanese - or purely American, for that matter - crop up almost simultaneously on both sides of the world.
That these are often the products of cultural 'misreadings' only strengthens Tatsumi's argument. The author believes that over the past 60 years of cultural interchange, incorporating everything from jazz, American TV, Kurt Vonnegut novels and Star Wars to Astro Boy, Pokemon, Haruki Murakami, sushi and shochu, both nations have come to appreciate, even to embrace, their misreadings of one another - meaning, in this case, the downtown New York art scene-makers who packed the Soho exhibition of a deconstructed and reconstructed corporate anime mascot don't even blink at the ironies therein.
The same day the exhibition was getting underway, and only a 15-minute taxi ride uptown, Kinokuniya opened its largest overseas bookstore in midtown Manhattan. At 24,000 square feet and three floors, and overlooking Bryant Park, an oasis at the center of the city, the new Kinokuniya outlet promises an even bolder face for Japan's contemporary culture, literary, pop and otherwise.
Yet what's most remarkable in this century is that Americans will hardly be surprised.
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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