VOL.13: Forging Japan's Future
by Roland Kelts
Last month's sudden bankruptcy filing by Yohan, Japan's largest and oldest distributor of English language publications, has cast a shadow over American shores, despite its relative lack of coverage in the US media. Only a couple of years ago, Yohan announced life-saving investments in Stone Bridge Press and Cody's Bookstore, two San Francisco Bay Area institutions. The former is a smartly run independent publisher specializing in Japan-focused books, the latter a much-lauded independent local bookstore chain. Both have long been landmarks of the Bay Area's book scene, and both are now fighting for survival in the wake of Yohan's collapse.
The usual suspects are cited as catalysts - poor management, unsustainable investment and debt accrual, archaic labor structures.
But the demise of Yohan in the 21st century may signal something broader and even more worrying: a Japanese public turning increasingly inward, becoming more provincial and less global at a historical moment when it can ill afford to do so.
My colleagues at the University of Tokyo frequently concede that the English language skills of the current generation of Japanese youth pale beside those of students ten or twenty years their senior. Foreign Studies' departments at Japan's major universities are now battling to keep enrollment numbers respectable. A surge in support for nationalistic behaviors such as the compulsory singing of the national anthem and reverence for the flag, combined with intransigent Prime Ministers who visit the controversial Yasukuni Shrine (a memorial to the nation's World War II conquests) and dismiss well-documented evidence of wartime atrocities, has given the rest of the world a portrait of a Japan hopelessly out of touch with reality and gruesomely unhip. But this summer, as I drag my bones and www.japanamericabook.com book across America yet again, signs of the so-called 'cool Japan' remain resilient.
Earlier this month, I spoke at Keio Academy New York, a private school occupying a handsome 27-acre plot of pristine real estate just 30 minutes north of Manhattan. Founded in 1990, the school promises its students "the best of both worlds," meaning Japan and the US, East and West.
It was hard not to be impressed. The facilities are first-rate (staff members proudly revealed a teleconferencing system erected by NTT to enable 'live' lectures from Tokyo), the staff boast five-star CVs, and the students, white, black, Hispanic, Japanese, and mixes of all four - are alert, articulate and engaged, even after they spent five hours on a hot afternoon watching the Yankees win another game at the stadium in the Bronx. When I stood before them to talk about Japanamerica, I thought: Me vs. Matsui = Nolo contendere.
I was wrong. One American kid asked me what the word otaku really means (not an easy answer). A Japanese girl asked me if anime and manga are really Japanese. And also: could I explain why Doraemon can't yet be seen on US TV?
Great questions from young people who aren't bothered by the spike in oil prices, the war in Russia, or the subprime real estate collapse in the US.
Thereafter I flew to Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington, where I met American audiences who were hyper-enthusiastic about Japan's global presence. "What can we do," asked one American otaku, "to convince Japanese artists and producers that we want more, that we care about them and want to support them?" We talked about free Internet downloads, which are killing the export market. We talked about reading, about respect. What we didn't directly discuss was the prevailing irony: Foreigners are reaching for Japan just as Japan seems to be turning away from the world.
On the plane to Portland, I read Yokai Attack, a new book by the Japanamerican husband and wife team of Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt, detailing centuries' old monster and ghost tales in Japan's supernatural psyche, the precursors of today’s anime phantasms. The book is lavishly illustrated, historically sound, and beautifully presented as a high-concept paperback.
I also read Haruki Murakami's latest, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, in preparation for my live onstage interview with him at the University of California, Berkeley, in early October: I also reviewed my project plans for a new anime lecture series set to debut in the US this September called Anime Masterpieces. We will all miss Yohan. But maybe it’s time to apply some serious gaiatsu - 'foreign pressure' - to Japan's future. If Japan recedes, and China's Olympics seem aimed to ensure that - we will all lose.
By Roland Kelts, Author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the US, Lecturer at The University of Tokyo and Contributing Editor of A Public Space
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