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The Samurai of Stir-Fry

In 2002, Douglas McGray (then-features editor of Foreign Policy) argued that despite the declining economy of Japan the greatest asset it had was its Gross National Cool, in an essay bearing the same name. McGray contended that, questionable authenticity of designer sushi notwithstanding, Japan’s cultural influence as a designer of cool had grown in spite of its waning economic influence. Evidence of this does not lie solely in the inroads that Japanese culture made into the U. S. , argues McGray, but rather in its ability to transcend American markets.

McGray notes that Japanese lifestyle magazines are smuggled into the newsstands of other countries before they have a chance to develop foreign editions and Tokyo fashions are picked up by Southeast Asian teenagers long before New York ‘discovers’ them. Additionally, manga has become part publishing shows in cities such as Frankfurt and 90s pop diva Namie Amuro built herself a loyal international following without ever setting foot in the United States.

Such a strange contrast then to what was written of the nation in the 1930s, when German economist Kurt Singer scratched his head over a gifted nation that had then produced so little culture that has been exported successfully in spite of its ability to endure and mold itself to adapt the influences of foreign nations. Yet much of the current influence of Japan on American culture exists in the influences it exerts on American media, rather than in a wholesale embrace of it. For the most part, Japanese popular culture exists as a subversive influence on the cultural paradigms of America.

In the case of videogames, they draw heavily on the postmodern narratives of Japanese storytelling for inspiration. In the meantime, Hollywood blockbusters are becoming more and more influenced by the visual stylings of manga while animated television programs are becoming more and more kinetic, in an attempt to compete with their Eastern counterparts. It is an unsurprising response to afternoons filled with Pokemon-like fare for the kids and “adult swim” programming loaded with the painfully hip trappings of Cowboy Bebop and the fascinatingly grotesque perspectives of Texhnolyze snuck into the wee hours of the evening.

As much as the mainstream magazines and newspapers like to celebrate this, McGray argues that foreigners will never penetrate the cultural and language barriers of Japan. As such, they will not see Japanese pop culture as the average Japanese does. Ironically, this is quite probably the secret to its appeal. McGray declares that the Japan of now is not unlike the United States: a “flexible, absorptive, crowd-pleasing, shared culture” that is able to exist alongside a “more private, domestic one”. Japan thus straddles between two contrasting cultural domains to create a powerful global presence.

Borrowing a term from Harvard dean Joseph Nye, McGray argues that national cool is Japan’s strongest ‘soft power’: an unquantifiable means of influencing the desires and values of other countries in means outside of economic hegemony or geopolitical importance. The unfortunate reality though, is that Japan has few ways to channel this power, but with such a potent resource at its disposal, it is difficult to believe that the country will remain comfortable in exporting medium rather than message. This is an interesting position for Japan to be in.

Literature and media scholar Henry Jenkins notes that globalization has resulted not only in an international exchange of goods, but a rapid flow of images across borders. As such, Hollywood must not only compete with emerging forms of entertainment (such as the Web and video games) for attention, but the output of other film-producing nations such as Japan. One of the strategies Hollywood has adapted is to buy out and co-opt such exports. In 2001, UPN purchased the rights to Iron Chef, a cooking competition with the theatricality of a martial arts tournament and turned it into Iron Chef USA.

They transformed The Chairman, originally a castle-dwelling monarch, and turned him into the eccentric leader of a Gourmet Academy played by William Shatner. The fighting tournament camp of the original was substituted by the bombast of professional wrestling, and featured cooking elites named “The Italian Scallion” and “The Samurai of Stir-Fry”. The show was a ratings failure and was cancelled after only two episodes. The San Jose Mercury asserted that, “something’s lost during the translation. ”

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