Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 3, January 2000

D.P. Martinez (ed)

The Worlds of Japanese Popular Culture: Gender, Shifting Boundaries and Global Cultures

Cambridge and New York:
Cambridge University Press, 1998,
212 pages.
ISBN: 0521631289 (alk. paper); 0521637295 (pbk. : alk.paper)

review by Todd Joseph Miles Holden

  1. In contemporary academic circles, globalisation is hot. Cultural Studies is in vogue. Popular culture is gaining in popularity. Gender has been of significance for years. And Japan, rightfully, was long ago accorded an essential niche in the world of ideas. Importantly, rarely have these elements been combined - certainly not in one small package. Indeed, apart from a couple of collections[1] and a recent conference[2] on the subject, Japanese popular culture has been shamelessly neglected.
  2. So, at first blush, The Worlds of Japanese Popular Culture would appear an essential text. Using the title as a guide, one might even be tempted to conclude that this has the possibility of being the right synthesis at the right time. Unfortunately, although there is much to recommend the book, this is not the grail J-Poppers, Japanologists, globalisation theorists or the gender studies set have long awaited. Neither is it a definitive statement about popular culture, Japan, contemporary society, gender, globalisation or gender-in-the-popular-culture-of-ever-globalizing-contemporary-Japanese-society. What it is, though, is a volume where some of the parts are considerably greater than the whole; where the sum under-whelms its often substantial individual contributions. Okay, so that's a conclusion, but what of the book itself? For those still curious enough to dip into it, what might be found?
  3. The book itself is divided into four sections: Introduction, The Male Domain, The Female Domain, and Shifting Boundaries. The first segment consists of the standard editor's overview, explaining how the various chapters in the book might profitably be read. Also included in this section is a brief (though I must profess, mystifyingly placed) piece by Yamaguchi Masao on sumo and its relationship to kabuki and the emperor system. Jump cut to Part Two, which is comprised of chapters on Japanese superheroes and monsters (by Tom Gill), the cyberpunk film Akira (by Isolde Standish), and karaoke (by Bill Kelly). Despite the section title, though, none of these pieces actually address 'maleness,' nor do they work to elucidate anything particularly male. Only when we enter Part Three do we encounter a section that appears aptly titled. All three contributions relate in some way to 'the female' in contemporary Japan, with assessments of young women in four fantasy manga (by Susan Napier), the prescriptive content of Japanese women's magazines (by Keiko Tanaka), and national aspirations as mediated through the heroine of a morning television drama (by Paul A.S. Harvey). Part Four reprises the editor's penchant for quizzical labels. None of the three chapters directly addresses boundaries and only one highlights a substantive shift of any kind. That piece, (by Nagashima Bobuhiro) is loosely based on discussions with three informants and, by the author's own admission is 'partly a folktale narrated by me in the guise of a native elder.' [3] It concerns the rehabilitation of horseracing due to one deified horse, a handsome male jockey, and the twain's cult of female fans. The other offerings in this final section dwell on media treatments of two contemporaneous 'royal' engagements (by Halldor Stefansson) and the creation, marketing and early success of Japan's professional soccer league (by Jonathan Watts).
  4. In the end, what these final chapters actually underscore is the extreme evanescence of popular culture. Like the cherry blossom - so revered in Japanese culture - the shelf life of 'the popular' is quite short. This is not to deride the study of the popular; only to remind us that often what is most valuable about such work lies beyond current utility. Trans-historic meaning must be valued over ephemeral moment; evidence must serve as illustration of some larger phenomenon, role, purpose, value or structure. In the study of popular culture, history and theory ought also to be called into the park, rather than analysts acting as so many tourists gawking from the periphery; or else merely contenting themselves with snapshots taken while lounging beneath the swaying limbs. In this way, Jonathan Watts'[4] recognition that a soccer league is marketed as 'shinhatsubai'-as 'new improved, now on sale'-ought to be linked, not merely to the process of consumption, but to the Japanese (valuational) preference in the consumption sphere for favouring the new and derogating the old. More, the role of popular culture in stimulating this penchant ought to addressed, as well as recognition that such a predilection stands in stark contrast to deep-seated values embedded in traditional Japanese culture: namely, preference for the old, valuation of the established. Finally, it might have been fruitful were continuities with other consumption contexts addressed - how, that is, Japan's 'shinhatsubai' bias mimics or departs from consumption discourse in other societies; in short, how similar or different is Japan not only from its earlier self but from other societies (at least in terms of this key modern organisational practice)? Unfortunately, such a trans-cultural, trans-historical, macro-theoretical perspective is neither recognised, anticipated, nor sustained on these pages.
  5. What is given wide currency is gender. In fact, of the introduction's many questionable claims, the most relevant for Intersections' readership may be that: 'every chapter refers to the male and female in Japanese society in one way or another.' As a consequence, it concludes, 'of all the themes to be found in this book, gender comes to the fore.'[5] Well... perhaps. But only in the way that, for instance, 'society' gushes forth every time one opens the sports section or the classified ads in a newspaper.
  6. Setting this criticism aside (for the moment) and taking the introduction on its word, two key observations are tendered about gender. First, in Japanese popular culture 'the boundaries between male and female, inside and outside, what is dangerous and what is stable, are constantly being negotiated.'[6] And second, in studies of J-pop 'the construction of maleness in Japan is rarely considered.'[7] These are both provocative claims that cry out for attention. Unfortunately, as for The Worlds of Japanese Popular Culture, no chapter actually takes either of these essential claims head-on.
  7. Two instalments do come close to exposing the former claim. The first is Susan Napier's solid exploration of female heroines in four fantasy manga. There she captures an essential ambivalence about contemporary female identity, arrayed from negative to positive (or, better, from conservative/stereotypical to liberal/disjunctive) depictions of female power. For instance, a contrast is drawn between two psychic characters: Mai, who at first is ignorant of her awesome power, then toils for the remainder of the series to repudiate it-thereby serving 'the sub-textual message (that) "normality" is infinitely to be preferred'[8] and Nausicaa, who not only recognises her special skills, but enjoys using them. Similarly, there is the vampire who accepts her differential (i.e. freakish, subject) status with passive resignation, contrasted with Sailor Moon, who is quite active - aggressive, even dominating - in embracing hers. Viewed as a unity and coded in terms of boundaries, we must note the decided equivocation revealed by Napier's brief analyses. On the one hand, as the author observes, while the exterior toughness and worldly potency of more recent heroines appears to mirror actual social conditions; in the main, these texts are quite conservative in how they orient heroine to social milieu. The reader is left concluding that if these texts accurately reflect Japanese views of female gender (as the author seems to assume) and if the portraits - once cobbled together - somehow capture the recent career of gender in Japan (as the author appears to be implying - although she never quite comes out and says so), then any negotiation of gender boundaries is transpiring incrementally if at all.[9]
  8. A second chapter that somehow touches on gender boundaries is perhaps the most noteworthy piece in the collection. It is Halldor Stefansson's synthetic, perceptive comparison of the nearly simultaneous engagements of Crown Prince Naruhito and sumo superstar Takanohana. The article begins with the premise that media treatments of these 'royal' events were 'variations on the same classical theme appearing and reappearing in multiple forms throughout the cultural history of Japan. This theme concerns the art of mastering the 'outside.'[10] By article's end, Stefansson has positioned himself to claim that 'the idealized male role now consists of being the guardian of the inside, incarnating the real essence of Japaneseness,' while women, though making only modest progress in the workforce at large, have come to dominate the realm which intersects the larger world, beyond Japanese political and cultural borders.[11] This amounts to an assertion of profound sociological significance; one which we can imagine Japanologists attempting to verify (and/or flesh out the boundaries of) in any number of sub-cultural, media environments and institutional contexts in the years to come. Unfortunately, possibly because of this volume's anthropological, microscopic, essentially atheoretical orientation, such an empirical agenda is neither recognized nor outlined.
  9. In the introduction the editor warns: 'these [section] divisions are in some ways too simplistic and readers should be wary of drawing conclusions from the way in which I have chosen to arrange the chapters.'[12] Later she explains, 'the book's structure [should not be taken] too seriously [because]: it is precisely these categories which are being questioned.'[13] No chapter, however, comes close to openly challenging - let alone subverting - these classifications, thereby raising a number of concerns. The first is the matter of reification. Reproducing a worldview is of considerable worry whenever any label is attached to a social object-but especially so, if the analyst has little belief in the tag being affixed. In fact, it would seem irresponsible, to say the least, to engage in an intentional act of mislabelling when the writer avows disbelief in their verity. Why persist in perpetuating the audience's perception of such a significant, though ostensibly facile, classificatory scheme if the author openly disputes it? Of course, such is the 'straw man' tack incarnate. Unfortunately, if unsettling the insubstantial stack is the editor's intent, the chapters conjured to effect such a coup fall far short of the mark.
  10. For one, as indicated above, 'the female domain' actually performs adequately enough in uncovering a distinct world of women, independent of the male imprimatur. For another, (and of even graver concern), it must be observed that there is a (considerable) qualitative difference between: (a) demonstrating that a thing alleged to exist, doesn't, and (b) claiming that a thing doesn't exist and then, lo-and-behold, failing to provide evidence of its existence. In the case of the latter - which is Part Two's major accomplishment - the effect is to leave an audience wondering: 'is that emperor paraded before us wearing clothes or not?'
  11. Which is another way of saying: imagine a work that self-consciously professes to study gender, proceeds to identify an all-important area of prior neglect within the genre, and then... virtually ignores it! That is what 'the male domain' is all about. For, despite Stefansonn's concluding passage (in Part Three) on the male/female dialectic coded in terms of inside/outside, no other article in this volume comes close to addressing THE male sub-world. Consider, for instance, Isolde Standish's chapter on bosozoku ('tribes of running violently') youth culture as depicted in the film Akira. While this chapter is a fascinating capsule of 'a youth culture of resistance which exists alongside mainstream contemporary Japanese society,'[14] it offers almost nothing in the way of gender analysis. It may be true that Akira was a work targeted at a male audience but that doesn't mean that it is safe to infer things male from a (non-gendered) deconstruction of the text. What can we conclude about an audience who listens to a Hayden symphony on the radio? What do we know about someone if we learn that he (or she) once read a Jane Austin novel? So, too, with a simple recitation of a plot without careful consideration of: (a) its gender content and/or (b) that content's relationship to a specific audience.
  12. More fruitful in this regard, would have been a comparative analysis of the two, roughly contemporaneous bosozoku films this chapter identifies in a footnote: Akira (targeted for adolescent males) and Hana no Asukagumi (a movie centring on a gang of females, released with a female audience in mind). A more intentional gendered analysis might have been more incisive in outlining or else uncovering the fiction of a male domain. However, because this particular chapter skirts gender almost entirely, is it a surprise that the editor finds something unusual happening with regard to the (traditional) definition of male domain in contemporary Japan?
  13. That said, this is not to suggest that this chapter is insignificant. Rather than gender, though, what this chapter reveals is a position present in contemporary J-pop about societal organisation and change. Akira's major message, Isolde Standish observes, is that 'only those few, the bosozoku, who refuse to conform to the values of the corrupt world and who are forced to live on the margins of society, will survive to form a new and-by definition-a better world.'[15] In short, once again we encounter the theme of margins.
  14. Indeed, if there is one theme that comes to the fore in this The Worlds of Japanese Popular Culture, it is not gender, but boundaries. In my view, it is through such a prism that the book's content might more clearly (and productively) have been passed. Assuming, as the editor does, that Japan is 'that most complex of modern (or postmodern) societies ... [one] in which change is rapidly occurring,'[16] it might have been more fruitful to organise chapters in such a way as to elucidate stasis and change. In particular, the visible, invisible, continuous, contested and/or shifting boundaries which both bear on and reflect contemporary Japanese popular culture. Such a framework, for instance, would have better accommodated a chapter such as Tom Gill's which demonstrates how children's commercial television dramas 'reveal ... recurrent themes which, in some cases, have their roots in supernatural beliefs dating back to antiquity.'[17] It also would have provided a comfortable fit with Bill Kelly's piece on karaoke, which concludes: 'the 'unique' character of karaoke performance in Japan does not therefore suggest any kind of consensus of opinion or blanket homogeneity, but rather historical continuity with a performance "tradition" which is embedded within the realm of tsukiai (literally meaning "to keep company with").'[18] Most importantly, this would have complemented the theme at the heart of Paul A.S. Harvey's chapter on NHK television's morning serialised novels: the complex negotiation embedded in the texts between 'the rhetoric of progress and the stipulations of Japanese tradition.'[19] In particular, as the author recounts, what the audience is fed in the drama Nonchan, are

      The postwar aspirations of Japanese women with regard to work and the family ... re-written as a realizable dream.... The dream is presented as a moral good... those women who lack a dream, although often characterized in a sympathetic way, are lesser beings.... And those who oppose the achievement of the dream are characterized negatively.[20]

  15. In this last summary one may sense the great wealth that is actually contained between the covers. Nonetheless, such riches are ultimately undermined by the lack of global vision, contemporary relativism, and conscious shying from theoretisation that characterises this volume. In part this may only be the sour aftertaste from having been promised so much at the outset. Or else it could be disappointment that so ambitious-seeming a premise so dramatically implodes under an unflinching separatist sentiment. For, early on we are informed that, though admittedly late to the popular culture table, the J-Pop buffet is, in fact, to be anthropology's own. Forget the sociologists and semiologists, the structuralists, and literary and cinematic theorists who have toiled in the field for years, 'anthropologists now have their new arena of study: in the connections made between areas as diverse as, say, cartoons and religion.'[21] There is a great danger, I wish to caution, in manufacturing disciplinary boundaries where none are needed, where none would normally exist. While this book would like us to explore the 'links or relationships between the 'invented' traditions of the nation ... its mass-produced culture, and the deeper connections to older culture such as folklore,'[22] it does so by invoking such diverse (and 'undisciplined' scholars as Marshall McLuhan, Roland Barthes, Raymond Williams, and Jean Baudrillard). As well it should. For, in order for anthropology (or any facile intellectual categorisation for that matter) to fully, faithfully, coherently study Japanese popular culture vis--vis gender and globalisation, it can only do so by employing pan-disciplinary means. The only goal parochiality achieves is to alienate many potentially interested (and collaborative) publics.
  16. In sum, The Worlds of Japanese Popular Culture is both better than it is and less than it could be. In fact, it is a book fraught with flaws. Above all, it suffers from the fundamental lack of vision, depth, continuity and careful organisation necessary to support the many ambitions its title so blithely promises. Most alarming, though, it is a polemic dressed up as a primer - an apology for anthropology - instead of being what it ought to be: a cross-disciplinary diagnostic of one of the major motors propelling contemporary Japanese society. Its ultimate failure stems from an editor who chose to assert one (political) program very strongly, while opting to pull back from taking any stand on the (intellectual) program. Nonetheless, despite the multiple criticisms levied here, there is substance - even riches - to be harvested in its individual chapters. And for this reason the book belongs on the shelf of academics interested in a contemporary snapshot of Japan, popular culture and gender which they might carry deep into the new millennium.


    [1] Hidetoshi Kato (ed. and trans.), Japanese Popular Culture, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1959; Richard Gid Powers and Hidetoshi Kato, (eds), Handbook of Japanese Popular Culture, New York: Greenwood Press, 1959.

    [2] 'Conference on Japanese Popular Culture,' held at the Center for Pacific Initiatives (CAPI), University of Victoria, Victoria, Canada, April 18-21, 1997.

    [3] Nagashima Nobuhiro, 'The Cult of Oguricao: Or, how women changed the social value of Japanese horse-racing,' in The Worlds of Japanese Popular Culture: Gender, Shifting Boundaries and Global Cultures, ed. D.P. Martinez, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998, p. 179.

    [4] Jonathan Watts, 'Soccer Shinhatsubai: What are Japanese consumers making of the J. League?' pp. 181-201.

    [5] D.J. Martinez, 'Gender, Shifting Boundaries and Shifting Cultures,' p. 6.

    [6] Martinez, 'Gender, Shifting Boundaries and Shifting Cultures,' p. 9.

    [7] Martinez, 'Gender, Shifting Boundaries and Shifting Cultures,' p. 7.

    [8] Susan J. Napier, 'Vampires, Psychic Girls, Flying Women and Sailor Scouts: Four faces of the young female in Japanese popular culture,' p. 98.

    [9] This raises the point about method - which I won't belabour in the review proper. Nonetheless, approach is certainly a potential bone of contention here. Reading the articles it is clear that an interactionist/poststructural perspective is at work (note: on a clear, but succinct, survey of the wide range of approaches within the interactionist paradigm, as well as their multiple points of difference from one other and, more importantly, positivist social science, see Norman K. Denzin, Symbolic Interactionism and Cultural Studies: the politics of interpretation, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1992). Whatever form the studies in this volume under review adopt (though most can be characterised as 'textual analysis' and certainly all fit, more generally, into 'cultural studies'), the treatment of data by every author is qualitative and unambiguously ethnographic, inductive and micro in orientation. Save for the final chapter on soccer, there is very little theory, working with or developing concepts, and almost no macro-structural discussion here. Moreover, almost all the work is non-positivist insofar as it tends to ignore concerns about objectivity, knowability, testability, universal agreement, relevance and regularity. Granted, for cultural studies many of these concerns are either irrelevant to, or else precise obstacles in, knowing and describing the social world. Nonetheless, one cannot avoid gathering the sense that the book we hold in our hands is a product of a team of writers who seek freedom from the constraints of 'control', 'rigour' and 'validity'. Nowhere in the text do we encounter recognition that non-positivist studies can work their magic via systematisation, triangulation, and verification. Without such discussion (somewhere in the text), the impression conveyed is that the contributors are 'taking their data where they find it'; a decidedly lax (and unnecessarily unflattering) impression when it arises; and (in most cases in this volume, I believe) an unwarranted view, given the earnestness and serious aims of the contributors.

    [10] Halldor Stefansson, 'Media Stories of Bliss and Mixed Messages,' p. 155.

    [11] Stefansson, 'Media Stories of Bliss and Mixed Messages,' p. 165.

    [12] Martinez, 'Gender, Shifting Boundaries and Shifting Cultures,' p. 6.

    [13] Martinez, 'Gender, Shifting Boundaries and Shifting Cultures,' p. 14.

    [14] Isolde Standish, 'Akira, Postmodernism and Resistance,' p. 57.

    [15] Standish, 'Akira, Postmodernism and Resistance,' p. 68.

    [16] Martinez, 'Gender, Shifting Boundaries and Shifting Cultures,' p. 4.

    [17] Tom Gill, 'Transformational Magic: some Japanese super-heroes and monsters,' p. 33.

    [18] Bill Kelly, 'Japan's Empty Orchestras: Echoes of Japanese popular culture in the performance of karaoke,' pp. 84-5.

    [19] Paul A.S. Harvey, 'Nonchan's Dream: NHK morning serialized television novels,' p. 132.

    [20] Harvey, 'Nonchan's Dream: NHK morning serialized television novels,' p. 146.

    [21] Martinez, 'Gender, Shifting Boundaries and Shifting Cultures,' p. 4.

    [22] Martinez, 'Gender, Shifting Boundaries and Shifting Cultures,' p. 4.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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