- Regionalizing Culture: The Political Economy of Japanese Popular Culture in Asia by Nissim Kadosh Otmazgin
The academic study of Japanese popular culture has in the last ten years transformed from an underresearched, undertheorized niche into a major force in Japan studies. Publications particularly on anime, such as those by Thomas Lamarre, Marc Steinberg, and Ian Condry, as well as translations of key works by Japanese scholars such as Azuma Hiroko and Saitō Tamaki have propelled this research in serious, theoretically complex directions.1 However, expansion has not spread equally across all disciplines; as William Tsutsui points out, most scholars writing in English have backgrounds in literary studies or anthropology and are situated in cultural studies or media studies.2 Moreover, English-language scholarship on the export of Japanese popular culture tends to focus on the Japan-U.S. nexus; there is little discussion of its export to Asia.3 Regionalizing Culture by Nissim Otmazgin [End Page 456] adds significantly to this discourse by considering political economy, which he defines as “the relationship between economic matters (such as the workings of markets) and political affairs (such as the decisions of government agencies)” (p. 1) and by examining the export of Japanese popular culture to urban East Asia. In particular, his research focuses on Hong Kong, Taiwan, Shanghai, Singapore, Seoul, and Bangkok.
Rather than analyzing individual texts or fan activities, Otmazgin looks at how the animation, pop music, and television industries are organized, the various ways those industries reach international markets, the technology of distribution, and the role of government control. This industry-level approach is a good complement to the cultural studies approach and provides discussion of market forces which is often missing from other studies.
Otmazgin argues that the large cities of East Asia have for the last 20 years formed a coherent region, particularly as a market for Japanese popular culture. This wide focus allows readers to see how Japanese pop culture has fared in different countries and how it has been received remarkably well even in places where there is vocal anti-Japanese sentiment (or an outright ban on Japanese imports, such as in Taiwan and South Korea for a time). The wide focus also disrupts the usual academic boundaries, reinforced through graduate education and publication and tenure requirements, which force scholars to specialize in one or two countries or languages. It is unusual in Japan studies to analyze so many diverse regions. However, Otmazgin argues convincingly that young middle-class consumers with disposable income, steeped in transnational pop cultural influences, create what he calls “the regionalization of taste in East Asia’s big cities” (p. 34). Despite significant local differences, trends in these urban centers have favored consumption of U.S. and Japanese popular culture. This regional model also suggests that these patterns of consumption can trump not only national but also ethnic and linguistic boundaries. Japan, which has a limited domestic market and a tiny overseas native speaker market, was able to tap into the desire of young, urban, and affluent East Asian consumers at a time of economic growth, without or in spite of government intervention.
Otmazgin starts with a detailed overview of Japan’s domestic market for cultural industries, particularly video games, manga, anime, television, and pop music. He provides hard data from these industries on size, revenue, and imports versus exports, which show how large these industries are domestically. [End Page 457] The data will be an important reference for scholars of Japanese pop culture in all disciplines, as this element is often left out of narrative-based analysis. Otmazgin includes a history of government promotion of cultural exports, what is now called “soft power,” beginning with Pacific War propaganda policies, followed by the resurgence of cultural exports in the 1970s and 1980s. Expanding on this history, he shows how Japan gradually built up political and social goodwill in the decades after the war. This is a timely reminder that the current “Cool Japan” campaign is less new than it seems...