Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Manga Diplomacy

The Straits Times reports a rather cool development, with Japan’s Prime Minister utilizing “manga diplomacy” on his nascent state visit to Beijing to meet with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. Prior to his meeting with the premier, Aso met with Chinese students studying Japanese and also viewed the “Detective Conan” anime (pictured), which the students had helped dub into Mandarin. Apparently Aso has referred to himself as an otaku and a dai-fan of manga. He also met with the Chinese winner of an international manga contest he had set up in 2007 while in his role as foreign minister.

This also comes at the time where UPI Asia Online reports that Japan is hoping to increase tourism by 25 percent in 2010 and, hopefully, giving a boost to its economy. Part of the strategy will be to attract tourists who are interested in the country’s pop culture, including anime, games, and manga.

I think some enterprising gaijin living in Japan might be able to do some good business by hosting tours for foreigners interested in pop culture and making it easier to get around Japan. Take them to a J-pop concert, to Akihabara, and to Ghibli anime museum and the Osamu Tezuka manga museum.

I’ve never really been to Japan as a tourist and by the time I visited there (and eventually lived there) I had studied Japanese and knew a fair amount about the culture. People always ask me what it would be like to travel in Japan and, frankly, if you don’t know the language, I don’t think it would be very easy. Maybe that’s why Japan only currently gets a little over 8 million visitors annually. The country, with new campaigns in mind, would like to see that number reach 10 million by 2010 and 20 million by 2020.

Ganbatte, Nihon!

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Hello Kitty: This Beer's For You

AnimeVice reports on a deal between Becks and Sanrio for Hello Kitty beer and I have to say I just love the concept. Kitty on the label looks as blissed out as my neko (cat) when she’s napping off a nice dose of catnip.

I doubt if you’ll be able to find Hello Kitty beer in the U.S., however. Despite adult women adopting Hello Kitty and other of Sanrio’s kawaii characters on handbags and the like, it seems that here we still equate cartoon characters with children. How it surprised me when I first went to Tokyo and found that conservative businesses like banks used childish characters in their marketing campaigns and no one seemed to bat an eye. Young men carried backpacks with appliques of sweet duckies and bunnies their girlfriends had sewed on and no one doubted anyone’s masculinity. Actually, it was kind of refreshing.

But even more of a shock was seeing the easy access to cigarettes, alcohol and pornography via vending machines. Anyone with correct change could partake, under age or not. Something else you won’t see any time soon in the U.S.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Loser Dogs Have No Shame

In my novel, Midori by Moonlight, I write about the Japanese phenomenon of makeinu or “loser dogs.” Writer Junko Sakai originated this term in her 2003 book The Howl of the Loser Dog (Makeinu no Toboe) and stated that as an over-thirty single Japanese woman, considered a loser in society for being unmarried, she strove to take pride in the term “loser dog” and proclaim her satisfaction with her independence and success.

The Asia Daily News Online
reports that this trend is hot in Taiwan society where Japan’s social and pop culture weighs in with a strong influence. A hit TV series called “The Queen” depicts a successful, unmarried female journalist who finds herself unpopular among friends and colleagues because of her competitive nature and her success, but mostly because she is a loser—in other words, still single. And having an over-thirty unmarried daughter is something her mother cannot bear.

Expectations from family and society can be difficult to ignore and overcome, but many Taiwanese women, like their Japanese counterparts, are refusing to rush into marriage just because they are of “marriageable age.”

I say, “You go, girls!” Wan wan!

Friday, April 24, 2009

SMAP Star Arrested for Public Indecency

The Japan Times reports that Tsuyoshi Kusanagi, member of the long-time J-pop group SMAP, was arrested by police after being found naked and drunk in Hinokicho Park around 3:00 am. The park is close by the 34-year-old’s Roppongi apartment in the la-dee-dah Tokyo Midtown complex. Beforehand he’d been drinking with two friends in Akasaka. He apparently was so inebriated that he at first could not understand what was wrong with being naked in the park, and then couldn’t articulate how he came to be naked in the park.

Kusanagi is a staple of Japanese television advertising and now Procter & Gamble, Toyota and others have stopped ads where he appears. He had also been the spokesperson for the government’s Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry for the promotion of Japan’s conversion to terrestrial digital broadcasting. This campaign has now been cancelled.

I guess it’s understandable that such outrage would occur around a public figure. But back in the day when I lived in Tokyo I was amazed at the lackadaisical approach to public drunkenness. It was a common sight to run into extremely drunk salarymen carrying on in the trains or on the street, often vomiting or passing out, and I--the foreigner--seemed to be the only one gaping at them. And this in a country where alcohol is sold in vending machines.

But I guess being naked in public is going too far. And I have to say that these drunken salarymen did keep their clothes on.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Good Morning Musume

Well, maybe my lament about there being no welcome mat for J-pop in the U.S. has been heard because Active Anime has just reported that the Morning Musume song, “3,2,1 Breakin’ Out!” will not only be the official theme song for LA’s 2009 Anime Expo, but this mega J-pop girl group will also be guests of honor and perform in concert there. I think it’s pretty unusual for a J-pop group of this magnitude to make an appearance in the U.S. and maybe it shows that the J-pop trend is finally spreading worldwide. The song was written especially for Anime Expo by Tsunku, the prolific songwriter and producer for Morning Musume and others. He has also made news recently by teaming up with Nintendo for the Rhythm Heaven video game.

Now Morning Musume may not be my favorite J-pop group, though I do remember thinking their crazed “Love Machine” song was pretty catchy (but what good J-pop song Isn’t catchy?). In the San Francisco Bay Area we don’t get any major J-pop artists to perform -- there’s just not enough audience for them, though we’ve had our share of medium-famous enka singers. Perhaps New York and LA have hosted a few, but it’s rare.

I’ve never been to a con, but maybe I’ll have to make it to LA this July to witness this historic event!

Monday, April 20, 2009

Japan's Biggest Export

It’s official. Japan is no longer the dominant exporter of electronics and cars, but of its popular culture. Despite the economic downturn, conventions promoting Japanese pop culture are making more money than ever. Ronald Kelts, author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S., reports in the Daily Yomiuri that Seattle’s Sakura-con boasted 20,000 attendees, thereby bringing in about $13 million into the city’s economy, with restaurants and hotels enjoying booming business. And Scotland’s Sunday Herald chimes in, pointing to the incredible rise of manga.

I’m still waiting for J-pop music to become more internationally mainstream, but I knew I was onto something when I became obsessed with Japanese pop culture from way back in the day.

Saturday, April 18, 2009


The cover art for LOVE IN TRANSLATION is here and I couldn't be more pleased. The book comes out on November 24, 2009. Yay!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

No Language Barrier in Asian Pop reports a flurry of activity with some of the country’s top pop singers making records for other Asian markets. My Linh (in photo) has released three CDs in Japan on the country’s Pony Canyon label and a fourth one is in the works. Minh Thu is cracking the Thai market and My Tam is collaborating with a label in South Korea. All these singers sing in Vietnamese—Japanese, Thai, and South Korean fans don’t seem to mind the language barrier.

In fact, this lack of a language barrier probably has something to do with the huge Canto-Pop, Mandarin-Pop and K-Pop industries that learned their stuff from the successful Japanese J-Pop phenomenon, which has been around since the 1970s. I remember trying to save money by buying the Hong Kong pressings of Akina Nakamori or Seiko Matsuda’s CDs, which were cheaper than the Japanese. Akina and Seiko sang in Japanese, but the song lyrics were translated into Chinese in the CD booklet. Some also had the Japanese written in hiragana (the simple phonetic writing) so those who wanted to learn it could follow along in Japanese.

Perhaps Asia has been open to singers singing foreign languages because they have had to endure English pushed down their throats ever since records were invented. But here in the States, it seems that listeners have little tolerance for music sung in “foreign” languages. Except for the occasional novelty song, English seems to rule in the music world here. And Japanese singers who are trying to make it in the U.S. like Boa (who sings in her native Korean as well) and Utada aren’t allowed to sing in their native languages.

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Cat Cafes of Tokyo

According to the Global Post, cat cafes are all the rage in Tokyo. Japanese love their nekos (cats) and cafes with names like Nekorobi, Cat Cafe Rien, Calico, and Cateriam are springing up all over. They’re perfect if you work long hours, have to be away a lot on business or live in an apartment that forbids pets, but need some feline companionship to keep you happy. It’s not free to frolic with the kitties and there are rules: no kids under 10 allowed, no cat nip or cat food, and no holding or petting a cat if it resists you.

Maybe I’ll start charging visitors who want to come and pet my cat Meow. And the privilege of cleaning out her litter box will of course cost extra.