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  • The End of Cool Japan: Ethical, Legal, and Cultural Challenges to Japanese Popular Culture ed. by Mark McLelland
  • Björn-Ole Kamm (bio)
The End of Cool Japan: Ethical, Legal, and Cultural Challenges to Japanese Popular Culture. Edited by Mark McLelland. Routledge, London, 2017. xvi. 224 pages. $165.00, cloth; $49.95, paper; $49.95, E-book.

At the end of Boys Love Manga and Beyond,1 a previous collection edited jointly by Mark McLelland, he documents the rise of censorship of drawn images from Japan. These legal and ethical challenges take center stage in [End Page 129] The End of Cool Japan, with a focus on the repercussions for research and teaching about manga, anime, and video games. This new edited volume critically appraises the country marketing campaign "Cool Japan," which has sought to bolster "soft power" and manage Japan's image in the world. Often critiqued within and outside Japan for its ineffectiveness and awkward lumping together of anime and tea ceremony as "cool," the campaign took off in the early 2000s, when government officials became aware of the economic success of so-called Japanese popular culture abroad. As the book title portends, one underlying theme of the present volume deals with encroaching "uncool" elements trespassing on officially sanctioned ideas of coolness.

Among the most salient uncool elements discussed throughout the collection are accusations by journalists in the West that Japan was the "Empire of Child Pornography," because its legislation in this area came late and excluded fictional minors. In his introduction and based on personal encounters with journalists, McLelland argues that Japan continuously functions as a weird "other" while also being simultaneously ensnared in such accusations on behalf of nonexisting persons, namely, cartoon characters. The following nine chapters explore the complex and contentious duality of "cool" nationalism and "uncool" criminalization, and the contributors trace issues of consumption, research, and education dealing with sexual depictions in Japanese media. The first six chapters share the very personal and often confessional tone of the introduction in how they deal with experiences of researchers in Anglophone countries. The last three chapters engage the challenges that fans of Japanese popular media face in Asia.

Alisa Freedman opens with a reflection on how U.S. student perceptions of Japan have changed from that of a feared and revered economic superpower in the 1980s to the manga and anime heaven imagined today. Taking the globally successful horror-thriller Death Note2 as her example, she argues that Internet technologies and the many fan practices they enable (unlicensed translations, derivative fan works) ironically spell the end for the very thing Japanese cultural administrators and corporations desire, that is, control over what is cool. She offers readers a broad overview of how fans outside Japan creatively make a text their own, often ignorant of the legal issues involved and unaware of how they are transmitting a certain image of Japan. Raising awareness about the role of fans in such globalizing processes plays a part in Freedman's teaching, in which students explore social issues through their own media adaptations. The wide survey of issues captured in this chapter builds a solid ground for the essays to follow. However, on several occasions, one wishes Freedman had spelled out the [End Page 130] implications a bit clearer (e.g., what insights a student gained about gender assumptions in Japan by adapting Death Note as "Love Note" with a female, instead of a male, lead).

Laura Miller continues with questions of how to engage with stakeholders of Japan's image abroad. She problematizes students who come to Japan studies as avid fans but are unwilling to examine critically the texts they love. Her stance as an anthropologist is not to teach about popular culture but rather to harness manga and anime to tackle gender representations or sexuality in Japanese society. Here, she also discusses opposition encountered outside the classroom in the form of "cultural gatekeepers" (self-proposed "normal" Japanese) who accuse her of painting an incorrect picture of Japan through research of "trivial" matters or sexual "deviance." The latter, which is perhaps best exemplified by the so-called BL genre ("boys' love" stories about male-male relationships...