Making of a “Cool Japan” in Mainstream America



“We are programming your websites, making your senior executives look smart, and getting into your schools for free! That’s right, raise the bar! …[We’re] bigger than Japanese in rap songs, and yoga!” from Beau Sia’s “Asian Invasion”

While I was working as an English Teaching assistant in an upper-crust, exclusive French high school, one of my students asked “In France, learning about the USA and studying English is cool. What country do Americans think is cool?”

In that moment, the idea of Japan flashed in my mind, but I responded with a generic “no particular nation is favored by ALL Americans. Many enjoy British TV, but there are many other groups of Americans that like films and media from other countries as well.”

When I returned to the US a year and a half later, I found it profoundly altered. Besides the obvious cultural changes due to the recession which occurred in entirety while I was abroad, there were many striking developments in US-Japan media exchanges and relations.

Firstly, Asians were dramatically more present in cable advertising. They were portrayed as well-educated, high-achieving, affluent individuals. Such roles, in my memory, were much more exclusively played by whites pre-2008 (the year I left.) Asians were the new face of US American affluence, and any high-tech, high-luxury product or service employed an Asian in their ad campaign. (This idea only became more salient, and three years later American beauty ideals reflected the trending idolization of Asians.  One cable television channel ran a story exposing that all [non-Asian] American men  prefer Asian women to those of other ethnic backgrounds, according to a study of over two million people on the dating app Are You Interested.)

Secondly, Yaoi could be found in bookstores in even the Bible Belt. Yaoi is a genre of gay romantic comic books that target a straight women audience. I was shocked to see any such material in a bookstore in the most conservative region of the US, nevermind a large and diverse quantity of it.

Thirdly, Americans had started to become markedly more communitarian. Hyper-individualism was at its height in the 80s and early 90s, but, due to many political and pluralizing influences, had been on a decline. A primary influence, in my opinion, was the fallout from Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone and higher education’s response–shifting their profile of the ideal student. Community involvement became increasingly important in addition to academic achievement for any college-bound student. There was now an institutional impetus for young individuals to be more community-minded.

A secondary influence playing a role in the move away from hyper-individualism came from Japanese trade. Japanese videogames saw a boom in the 1990s: starting with the popularity of the Nintendo and Super Nintendo home gaming systems, and spreading to home computer video game play with the booming popularity of Final Fantasy VII.  Japanese video games, particularly the popular and influential JRPGs, in which one plays a protagonist who is a part of a team that uses each member’s talents to achieve common goals, gave young adults an alternative view of how superheros function: the hero doesn’t always save the day by himself, but rather heads a team of unique individuals with different talents who together solve the problem.  

A few years later (2010-2014) we see this same shift in films and television shows.  These media had previously focused on one protagonist with perhaps two supporting characters. Now it is commonplace for narratives to incorporate five or more highly developed characters or a team of protagonists. Part of this change is certainly thanks to Joss Whedon, but JRPG influence remains a viable contribution to the evolution of American consumers. For example, the Kung Fu Panda franchise not only features an Asian story setting, but also integrates and focuses on the team mentality in addition to using wide-angle videogame-like camera shots.  

These instances of Japanese media influencing US media paved the way for more distinct inclusions of Japanese culture in US franchises, which I’ll continue to investigate in future blog posts.

The title of this entry comes from the “Cool Japan” initiative of the Japanese State Department which has the stated purpose to make Japanese culture become “cool” in foreign countries.

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