2023: The Year Japan's Sun Rose Again
Read to the end for a holiday bonus!
The story for much of the last decade was that Japan’s cultural influence was on the wane. In 2012, Quartz wrote “Why it was so easy for Korea to overtake Japan in the pop culture wars” while CNBC fretted about “Japan Losing its Cool.” Thinkpieces like these emerged like clockwork over the years to come. They painted a bleak narrative of Japan’s once-powerful cultural influence crumbling, particularly in direct comparison to South Korea, whose Hallyu wave of music and cinema won hearts and minds around the world over the course of the Aughts and 2010s.
Pop culture is more than simply entertainment; it also reflects the values of the nation that produced it. This makes pop culture a cornerstone of soft power, which is a “gross national charisma” that can transform the way the world sees your country. Soft power is a very real thing, but it is essentially a passive attribute rather than something that can be exercised directly. (As the Japanese government has discovered with its lackluster Cool Japan initiatives.) This makes it difficult to quantify the effects in concrete political or economic terms. Despite this inconvenient fact, or perhaps because of it, a great many observers try to frame soft power as a form of competition, recasting it in the winner-take-all terms of hard power.
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This thinking is the fuel of many a questionable hot take, such as how Japan's "City Pop" and Korea's "K-Pop" aren't simply musical genres (Eighties easy-listenin' and bubblegum dance, respectively), but weapons of "cultural warfare." Or "Why Parasite’s success is forcing a reckoning in Japan’s film industry," where one director's well-deserved recognition somehow came at the expense of a nation that wasn't even fielding any contenders. Next thing you know, they'll be saying Goodbye Kitty. Oh, wait. Too late.
But soft power is not a zero-sum game. It can't be applied coercively, as hard power in the form of diplomatic, economic, or military force can be. The difference between soft and hard power is the difference between sending rockets into a rival nation's borders versus sending BTS rocketing up their pop charts. I suppose that purchasing one band’s song or merch might come at the expense of another, in the cold, hard math of consumer spending. But in practice, things don’t work that way: loving Bong Joon-ho’s films doesn’t preclude one from loving Hirokazu Kore-eda’s. Reading Japanese manga doesn’t preclude enjoying Korean webtoons. Our budgets may be limited, but our ability to like things is as bottomless as our hunger for stimulation and novelty. So I've always taken reports of one nation's pop-cultural rise coming at the expense of another's with a big grain of salt. You should too.
There is perhaps no better example of this than what happened to Japan over the course of 2023. All but written off at the beginning of the 2020s, it re-emerged as a pop-cultural powerhouse over the course of just one post-pandemic (he said hopefully) year. At one point earlier this month, films from Japan occupied two of the three top spots on the American box-office charts -- Hayao Miyazaki's The Boy and the Heron at number one, and Takashi Yamazaki's Godzilla Minus One at number three. Putting aside my personal feelings about Miyazaki's and Yamazaki's films, this is seriously impressive stuff.
And it comes on the heels of numerous other high points. The Super Mario Bros. Movie grossing more than half a billion dollars at the North American box office alone, and well over a billion globally. Yoasaobi’s “Idol” hitting #1 on the Billboard Global chart. Publisher's Weekly reporting that Japanese manga sales have become "far and away the primary sales driver" in the American comics world, accounting for almost half of the graphic novel sales in the U.S. This is triggering shifts in the television industry. Netflix's live-action adaptation of One Piece proved such a megahit that it prompted the company's head of Asian development to relocate from Seoul to Tokyo. The Hollywood Reporter predicts that Japan is on the Precipce of a Content Boom.
Superficially, this sounds like another triumphalist narrative -- goodbye Squid Game, hello Heron! -- But it isn't one, not really. It isn't even the first time Japan was "on the precipice of a content boom." Those of a certain age (sigh) will remember hearing similar at the dawn of the 21st century. That’s when American tastemakers finally, belatedly started noticing anime. This resulted in high-profile crossovers like The Animatrix and the gekiga-style anime sequences Quentin Tarantino incorporated into Kill Bill Vol. 1.
Much ink was spilled over the arrival of his new "cultural force" in the U.S., including Douglas McGray’s now-legendary 2002 thinkpiece “Japan’s Gross National Cool.” But while the industry continued to grow and thrive, anime as a genre receded back into the shadows of subculture. By 2009, anime was a literal joke again, as seen in a 30 Rock episode in which James Franco declares his undying love for an anime-girl body pillow. As recently as 2018, Kotaku felt the need to run a piece entitled "It's Time to Stop Pretending Nobody Watches Anime."
Will the current “content boom” fizzle similarly? The big difference between the turn-of-the-Millennium Japanese-culture boom and today is, of course, the internet, which has supercharged fandoms and niches of all sorts. The U.S. anime marketplace was worth a hundred million dollars in 2000; it's estimated to exceed twenty-five billion as of 2023. And that's just one piece of the Japanese pop-cultural machine. I have some thoughts as to why Japanese content is finding such traction in the American marketplace at the moment, but it's getting late and I'd like to save it for an upcoming piece in the new year. In the meantime, thanks to everyone who's subscribed, or even simply stopped by to read, and see you in 2024!
And as promised, here's that holiday bonus: an essay I wrote about Hayao Miyazaki's rise as a cultural force (there's that phrase again!), for the British outlet Unherd. You can read it on their site.
If you enjoyed this essay, you might enjoy my book, Pure Invention: How Japan Made the Modern World.