5 Nov 2007

The Japanese culture boom, from the outside looking in

filed under: journal  :: japanese culture  :: modern life

Last week I tentatively opened up a new site dedicated to bento, the Japanese meal in a box. I have been kicking around the idea of such a site for quite some time now but I was not sure if I should open a new site, or just fold more bento-related content into my existing, more general food site, Just Hungry. While there are already several bento blogs out there, I was not sure if there would be enough interest in a whole site dedicated to Japanese-style lunch boxes, so I procrastinated, before decided that I wanted to organize all that information in one, separate location.

In less than a week, the traffic to Just Bento, discounting the lack of search engine generated visits, has almost equalled that of the almost 4 year old Just Hungry. I'm simply astonished.

But then it's not the first time that I've been surprised at just how much interest there is in things Japanese, from non-Japanese people, in recent years. Whether it's anime or manga, gadgets or toys, fashion or sushi, amigurumi or Hello Kitty, each time I see how 'hot' and 'cool' something Japanese is it throws me for a loop. The funny thing is that all of this interest seems to have come after the collapse of the Japanese bubble economy in the late '80s to early '90s.

I'm old enough to remember when Japanese was exotic at best, odd and foreign at worst, and really not cool. I remember being teased and taunted for my Asian-ness and Japanese-ness in school. I remember my mother being asked to pose (in her kimono of course) as a model for a painting class in England, and being painted by most of the students as a slant-eyed geisha, even though she has rather prominent round eyes. I remember the stories my father used to tell of calling upon companies to sell them precision ball bearings, and being coldly rejected.

I remember accompanying a Japanese lady who was buying gift items for her store chain as a translator to a major trade show in New York in the early '90s, asking for a brochure from a stall holder, and being told that he did not 'sell to your people' because 'your people just copy and steal'.

Who is copying who now, exactly?

I keep on expecting the interest to fade. Sushi for example. Given that a certain segment of the population is fad- and trend-oriented, I would not be surprised if sushi suddenly became last year's thing, the Nouvelle Cuisine of the period. But I expected this to happen way back in the '90s, but sushi has becoming just more and more popular and ubiquitous. Kids in middle America even dress up as sushi for Halloween now.

So far, there doesn't seem to be that much effort from within Japan to aggressively capitalize on this interest in Japanese culture. The major online purveyor of 'weird stuff from Japan' is run by an American living in Japan. Japanese corporations seem to be more used to pushing something that needs no translation like a piece of electronic equipment (except for the manuals), than a piece of culture. Japanese people could learn from the French, who have always been good at selling their culture, giving it a cachet. If French cheese can be so highly regarded, why not Japanese pickles? What about farmers packaging and selling expensive packets of glorious shinmai (new harvest rice), say at $50 retail for 1 kilo? I'm sure there will be people who would buy it.

In any case, after being a member of an uncool race for most of my life, it's difficult to adjust to the cool neighborhood.

Comments on this post:

I have to admit Just Bento

I have to admit Just Bento led me to your sites as well - I guess this post is as good as any to let you know that I enjoy your writing (both food and otherwise). There's a practicality to your essays that I can relate to :) (And Just Bento is simply fantastic from a European perspective, especially in Poland - actual practical ideas rather than "buy this this this and this or you can't get anywhere".) I've added all your feeds to my daily reading list!

Thanks Beth! Comments like

Thanks Beth! Comments like yours really keep me going on my blogs :)

non-english drama

I don't have any numbers but I think that the appeal of Korean or any non-English drama is limited at the moment to segments of the population who either understand the language or don't mind subtitles...which in the U.S. is (probably) a miniscule number unfortunately. People even complain about the 'odd' accents of British dramas. I've only seen a couple of Korean dramas (the obvious ones like Daejanggeum) but they've been really good. I have to say that I've not seen many really outstanding Japanese dramas lately...though I haven't really sought them out either.

I’ve noticed manga

I've noticed manga becoming more popular and mainstream among pre-teens and teens here in the DC area. The local Barnes & Noble has a translated manga section that is easily three times the size of the western comic section. The same goes for the local library, which is building an impressive collection that goes far beyond titles like Dragon Ball and Akira. I imagine this is true for other Asian countries as well. I have friends that read the Thai translations of Crayon Shinchan. I've read several articles about the increasing popularity of Korean TV dramas in the US. I'm always surprised that there's less of a buzz about Japanese dramas, especially since they seem to have a wider variety of genres. This lack of western releases is what motivates much of the J-drama fansubbing community. As far as food goes though, I agree, not a whole lot makes it over. Green tea, Beard Papa, wagyu...?

Bento site

Love, LOVE the Bento site. It's actually how I found this whole set of blogs/writings. I live in Minnesota, am an actor, day-job in an office, and love to not eat the hearty, creamy, meat 'n white-starch meals I grew up with. You write very well, and your foods are very accessible. Keep it up!

thank you!

Thank you for your kind words - I'm glad you like the bento site! :)

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