Lecture on Japanese Pop Culture

On October 28, 2008, professor Yasuki Hamano gave a lecture on “Pop Culture in Japan and its Cultural Roots,” but I must admit, it did not deliver as much as I had expected. When I think Japanese pop culture and its roots, I think anime, manga, cosplay, music, art, games, and ‘modern’ stuff relative to the youth of Japan, a thought that I believed was supported by the choice of pictures used in the notification e-mail. Instead, it was an hour-and-a-half lecture pitting Japan versus the US. The closes we got to anime, manga, etc., were two short trailers, having every example concerning anime include Hayao Miyazaki, and having an honourable mention of Pokémon.

As not to drag things out, here is a summary of the most important points that were made during the lecture.

American Animation vs Japanese Animation

Professor Hamano argued, that American animation is primarily focused on action and/or music while Japanese animation a primarily focused on telling a good story. He did not explain exactly why this is, though, but one can assume that it’s is because of the different markets and cultures the companies cater to. For instance, many feature length anime would “lose much in translation” since they often deal with themes with roots to Japanese culture, history, and/or politics.

Another thing professor Hamano mention about difference in animation was in the role and credit given to the producer. In Japan, the title of any feature length anime will always be unanimous with the name of the director (and children as young as five years old will know the names of the director), while in America, it is generally unknown among the American populous.

Comics vs Manga

Following a similar concept is the difference between comics and manga. While comics can essentially continue indefinitely, as each new writer brings a breath of fresh air into the story (e.g. Batman has been running since 1939 and Superman since 1932, both having had dozens of new writers through the decades), a manga will end when the story comes to a close or when the writer dies, in which case the story dies with him/her. There’s is no one to “take over”, as this would be greatly disrespectful. This again goes to show the importance of a single person in the production of art in Japan.

Mass Production, Consumption, and Disposal vs Re-use

The third that was stressed by professor Hamano was the differences in commercialism and respect of “items”, mostly in terms of clothing though not exclusively so. The example he posed was “Consider the clothes you are wearing right now. How many items of the clothes you are wearing, are older than you are..?” It went to show a major difference which was mostly present in the many years of the Tokugawa shogunate (Edo Period), and again in the isolated years during the Second Sino-Japanese War. While America had a system of mass production, which led to mass consumption, and mass disposal whenever a newer, better version or clothing line was mass produced (which these years are practically every season), Japan seemed to do the opposite, by passing on the same clothes (kimono) down through generations. The kimono worn by professor Hamano at the time of the lecture was probably 70-100 years old, as it was inherited from his grandfather.

On a slight side note, professor Hamano also mentioned the difference in how the clothes were disposed. In most parts of the western world, disposed clothes is either inherited by a younger member of the family, or simply thrown out (if not donated to Red Cross, which let’s face it, not that many do…), while in Japan, a kimono which after maybe centuries of wear an tear, finally making it to old to be used as a kimono, is cut up and the fabric is used to make children’s clothes, and later even, cut up and made into small pillows and their stuffing, or as dolls and toys; nothing goes to waste. However, with the ‘westernisation’ of Japan, this way of preservation is diminishing, and the younger generations have become accustomed to the mass production, consumption, and disposal of the West. Just look at how frequently any young, Japanese person will change e.g. cell-phones in just a single year.

Aesthetics: Perfection vs Imperfection

The last point that was stressed, though not as much as the above three topics, were the differences in aesthetic points of view. In the West, perfection is usually thought of as something man-made, as total perfection in symmetry in for instance nature is considered an anomaly. In Japan, the view is completely the opposite. The ‘imperfection’ of nature is what makes it perfect, while anything man-made as artificial, and therefore cannot be perfect. This at least is what was commonly believed in the time of our grandparents, great-grandparents, and so on. Whether or not the current generation believes the same is hard to say.

My Conclusion

As one can see, despite the title, there was not all that much of Japanese pop and modern culture, making the lecture, relative to its topic, somewhat of a bust. Had it not been coloured with “Japan is better than America” undertones, it would have been an extremely interesting lecture on “The Differences in Japanese and American Culture of the 20th Century,” but as that wasn’t what people were there to listen about, most would probably call it a boring lecture.

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