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Toys made Japan. And me.
Some things never change: a Japanese toy store, 1876.
An interesting headline from Kyodo News: Japan toy sales top 1 trillion yen for 1st time, led by foreign tourists. That’s $7 billion USD worth of toys sold over the course of a year. On the one hand, perhaps this shouldn’t surprise: Japan has been an active exporter of playthings for well over a century. On the other, Japan’s birthrate has been on the decline for going on three decades now. So who’s buying all of this kids stuff? Some of the uptick is attributable to what I’ve called The Great Regression, an unabashed embrace of childhood tastes among adults of all demographics. But the fact tourists are driving a lot of the business is a testament to how deeply Japan has become associated with play around the world.
I get this on a visceral level. Readers often ask what sparked my interest in Japan. There’s a long answer to this question, but the short one can be summed up in a word: toys. Specifically, the one in the photo above. It was sold in America as a “Shogun Warrior,” named to ride the coattails of a craze for the Shogun TV miniseries of the era. My grandmother gave it to me as a birthday gift in the late Seventies. It’s big, about two feet tall, and is made out of polyethylene, the same kind of plastic used for shampoo bottles. I didn’t know what it was; I simply loved the way it looked. But perhaps even more the way it flung sharp plastic tomahawks from one fist, impacting hard enough at close range to cause welts. I knew this from a great deal of personal experience, as my friends and I gleefully targeted each other with them.
The most intriguing thing about this particular toy wasn’t its design or its alarming play features. It was the untranslated lettering on its stomach. My parents were voracious readers and I’d picked up the habit at a fairly young age, almost by osmosis. So the appearance of these seemingly undecipherable new glyphs captivated me. Were these some secret letters of the alphabet, or robot-ese? When I asked my mother what they said, I got a little shock: she didn’t know! The lettering was, she guessed, the language from where this particular robot had originated: Japan, a country so distant that it lay on the other side of the planet. Revelation hit me like a plastic tomahawk to the forehead. Somewhere out there was a land of people who loved robots as much as I did.
The Eighties were a rough time for the US-Japan relationship. The trade wars were in full swing. To the grownups, Japan was a rapacious disrupter of local industry and stealer of jobs, a dumper of products at unfairly low prices and feckless double-dealer of technology to dangerous regimes. The American mass media portrayed Japan as a fedualistically rigid society of faceless corporate warriors with designs on global domination. In spite of it all, my friends and I grew up with warm feelings for Japan. The reason for this was simple: the power of play. While America’s leaders did everything they could to keep Japanese cars, electronics, and semiconductors out of the marketplace, they didn’t think to limit the flow of fun stuff from Japan into our toy stores and airwaves.
The Shogun Warriors were only a taste of what was to come. For Americans and Europeans, childhood in the Eighties became intertwined with successive waves of exquisitely made Japanese playthings with exotic names like Micronauts, Voltron, Robotech, and Transformers. Add to them toy-adjacent products like Sanrio’s supercute stationery and then the Nintendo Entertainment System, which injected a huge dose of Japanese playfulness right into our living rooms. In a very real sense you could say that the fantasy lives of young Westerners around were forged in Japan – and along with them our impressions of Japan as a nation.
The really interesting thing is that all of this played out totally organically. This wasn’t part of any organized campaign (other than the sales campaigns of toy companies) or any concerted attempt to win hearts and minds. The toys weren’t even designed with us in mind — they were crafted for Japanese children hungry for escape and stimulation. Western kids like me were simply beneficiaries, often getting products years after the fads had run their course in their homeland. But this didn’t make them castoffs. It paradoxically also gave them an exotic authenticity that set them apart from our local playthings. As a result, to Gen X kids like me, Japan would never be the enemy it was to our grandparents, or the dastardly rival it was to our parents. How could it be, when it was the source of all the stuff we so desperately wanted? How could you hate the homeland of Hello Kitty and the Game Boy?
“Toys are not really as innocent as they look,” wrote the midcentury modern designer Charles Eames. “Toys and games are the prelude to serious ideas.” He was speaking of the importance of play to creative processes of all types, but Japanese toys provide a very literal example. Celluloid dolls and tinplate figurines were some of Japan’s biggest exports in the prewar era, and they jump-started its economy in the post (along with silks, toys were the first products American occupation forces green-lit for export after WWII.)
It’s no coincidence that the first chapter of Pure Invention centers on the story of a toy. Toys aren’t the only source of Japan’s soft power, but they played, and continue to play, a huge role in it. The amicability, even simpatico, that many Gen Xers and those of subsequent generations feel for Japan is entirely due to the fact that Japan and the West played together, indirectly, growing up. I was a little unusual in that toys spurred me to learn Japanese and, after many twists and turns, build a life and career there. But as the Kyodo article shows, there’s nothing unique about my fascination with the way Japan plays.
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