As a bookish kid in suburban Virginia, I grew up surrounded by the enduring influence of exported Japanese culture– albeit the 19th century Japan of ukiyo-e and samurai that had inspired Western artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as part of what might now be called a “First Wave” of Japanese National Cool. A reproduction of Mary Cassatt’s The Letter used to hang outside my room, and I recall my mother explaining the visible influence of bijin-ga woodblock prints, imported to Paris as the “cool decorative accessory” of their day, on the flattened picture plane and the stylized pose of Cassatt’s sitter.
At the library I read Japanese history, daydreamed about samurai, and occasionally turned in haiku for literature-class poetry assignments (motivated as much by their fleeting, transparent profundity as the form’s appealingly brief length). Meanwhile, through friends willing to lend me their Game Boys on the bus ride to elementary school, I gradually began to become familiar with another Japan– notable, as it had been in the 19th century, primarily as a source of New Things That Were Extremely Cool- chief among them the Nintendo 64 and the Tamagotchi.
These, while never quite understood as “foreign”, were unified in our minds as “better than American”. They were high-tech, and carried an appealing whiff of the exotic about them– while meanwhile, as an added bonus, they were completely incomprehensible to our uninitiated parents.
Without an allowance to buy a fighting-quality deck of cards, I managed to miss out on the Pokémon craze, but I can still remember passing from hand to hand a friend’s hallowed holographic, Japanese-edition Articuno. Worth a sum inconceivable to a 5th grader, its back covered with completely indecipherable characters, it was familiar yet alien, almost totemic, and deeply, deeply cool.
That feeling of appealing, familiar strangeness persisted when, in late high school, I was introduced to the world of classic Japanese film, and eventually to anime. These movies and TV shows, which my friends, active in the borderlands of the fansub community, passed around furtively, were at once accessible and impenetrable. With a little experience, one could discern common themes, visual motifs, and stock characters, some of them clearly derived from Western sources, others from the older aesthetic traditions I’d already been introduced to– and yet even these seemed unfamiliar, refracted by cultural distance and dubious translation. Before long, I began to see these, in turn, being re-adopted in American works, and even re-re-adopted back in Japan.
It is, in part, the desire to close this frustrating, exhilarating gap, and better understand the forces that lie behind it, that has since led me towards my current, intensive study of Japanese language and culture. I’m taking Gross National Cool to forward this goal– to find my way to the heart of the cross-cultural currents that continue to power “coolness” on both sides of the Pacific.