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Japamerica: Hello Kitty, Ninjas and Katanas

February 28, 2010  
Filed under Global Spotlight

By Mike Woodruff

american

Someone famous and important once said, “If you want to know where you’re going, it helps to know where you’ve been.”

I grew up in the soft rolling, monocultural hills of Kentucky. My parents were white. My grandparents were white. My great grandparents were white. Somewhere in there, my family says we’re related to Pocahontas, but no one knows for sure. Contrary to popular belief, my diet did not consist of a daily helping of Kentucky Fried Chicken, my mother is NOT my father’s cousin, and yes, I wore shoes throughout my childhood and beyond. The bottom line is I grew up in a very American family. Meatloaf on Monday. High school football on Friday. That sort of thing.

On the surface, things seem pretty cut and dry, but, of course, we live in a very globally connected world where surface simplicities often hide deep complexities at work underneath.

To help highlight this, let’s talk about Kill Bill for a brief second.

See, I watched Kill Bill in a film class this past summer. It might not seem like an odd choice for a film class, but considering this was in seminary, it’s understandable that I received more than my fair share of raised eyebrows when I told people what we were watching. There was a point behind this, though. This wasn’t just any film class. This was a postmodern film class.

So we watched various movies, including Kill Bill, Fight Club and Donnie Darko, that dealt primarily with postmodern culture and then discussed what they were saying about the world. For Kill Bill, the professor raised an important question: Why does Japanese culture resonate so strongly with young people around the world?

Regardless of the reason, no one in the class tried to argue this wasn’t happening. Glance at any young adult section of a bookstore, filled to the brim with manga after manga that force kids to read backwards. Ask any kid what his favorite animal is, and there’s a good chance they mention a Pokemon. Everyone in the class recognized there was something more than a trend going on here. Maybe, perhaps, even something spiritual.

Hello Kitty Be Thy Name

People gave various reasons for why this is happening, with most sounding needlessly complex in order to fill up the requisite word count for the assignment. Some talked about how youth just like to rebel and like what’s different. Others talked about how a lot of anime or Japanese films deal with issues of identity and the appeal this holds for youth. A few talked about how more youth seem to like more Asian stuff these days because more youth are Asian. Well, duh.

I also gave my required two paragraphs, with most of that space being filler for the main idea, which could be summed up with one word:

Ninjas. It’s all because of ninjas.

There was more to it than that, but that was the underlying backbone of my argument. Ninjas fulfill every requirement on the awesome list. They’re mysterious, unpredictable, athletic, strong, lethal…Not to mention they have cool-looking weapons. I remember third grade being about multiplication, learning cursive, and drawing throwing stars and katanas in a sketch pad. You know, the essentials of an elementary education.
Almost every cartoon I watched as a kid originated in Japan or used Japanese cultural elements. Every video game I played came from Japan, even if they did feature Italians running around eating mushrooms and flowers while diving into pipes. Almost every toy I possessed came with a ninja sword. If my childhood fascination with these sorts of things was any indication, it wasn’t that I was turning Japanese. No, I was being RAISED Japanese.

Okay. Well, maybe not. I’m well aware there are plenty of profound differences between being raised in Kentucky and Kyoto, and watching cartoons doesn’t qualify me as any sort of cultural expert, just like saying “Cowabunga!” all the time didn’t qualify me as a surfer.

It wasn’t like I was raised around a lot of Japanese people. That would be an easy explanation, but like I said, I grew up in rural Kentucky. I don’t think I even saw an Asian person, let alone talked to one, in real life until middle school. No exaggeration.

Of course, as I grew older and my social circles grew, my perception of people who were raised in different cultures developed as well. I was never one of those people who thought that every Asian could perfectly imitate Bruce Lee. Nor was I ever surprised when someone who looked different from me spoke English with the same inflection.

I just assumed people raised in different cultures were different from me, and didn’t really think much beyond that idea. So when I did start making Asian friends after moving to Los Angeles, I was struck by how easily friendships developed. When I told people I was from Kentucky, a lot of people assumed life was drastically different than Los Angeles. I assumed the same. I was shocked to discover there really wasn’t that much of a difference. We grew up watching the same cartoons and playing the same video games. Granted, there were still a lot of profound differences that couldn’t be overshadowed by talking about Vultron, but at least it helped break the ice. Conversations started by assuming differences, but frequently closed with things we shared. This was never lost on me.

This is the way of global culture in a postmodern age. While my worldview was still strongly rooted in my own culture, being exposed to different ideas didn’t build walls between things familiar and unfamiliar. Instead, it helped me bridge them together. For me, differences are important to recognize not only to help avoid misunderstandings, but to also help find common ground.

Comments

One Response to “Japamerica: Hello Kitty, Ninjas and Katanas”
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