Siqiao Zhang

Hi, I’m Siqiao Zhang and I’m a junior double-majoring in psychology and public health at the College of William and Mary. I am from China and I’ve been studying Japanese since my junior high school and I continued to take advanced Japanese language courses in college. I am in this class because I always have an interest in Japanese movies, musics, and literature. And I want to develop a deeper understanding about Japanese popular culture by taking this class.bio photo

Arcades: Japan’s Unconventional Social Space

The World’s Only True Meritocracy

The arcade is a place where respect comes with skill. It doesn’t matter whether you are black or white, rich or poor, gay or straight, man or woman. All that matters is whether you’re good on the machines. “Put your quarter up” is the same as slapping someone in the face with a glove for a duel. When it’s your turn at the machine, you and your opponent are prepared to risk your pride, reputation, and money to prove one thing: which of you is the better player? Win, and you stay on the machine, gaining another victory for your mental scorecard and securing more playtime from your quarter. Lose, and you had to walk to the back of the line in shame, stewing over your defeat and formulating a new strategy as you await your chance to plunk another quarter into the coin slot.

Chinatown Fair was one of New York's last remaining arcades before it finally closed in February 2011.

Chinatown Fair was one of New York’s last remaining arcades before it finally closed in February 2011.

In the 1980s and 1990s, this was the classic arcade narrative that every arcade aficionados could call their own. In the present, the word “arcade” no longer exists in our daily lexicon. The word is a relic of an age long past just like audio cassettes, Betamax, and floppy discs. These days, if you hear the word at all, it’s in reference to places like Chuck E. Cheese’s or Dave & Buster’s. During our parents’ generation, society saw arcades as Han Solo saw Mos Eisley:  a hive of scum and villainy frequented by ruffians, delinquents, and all manner of riff-raff. It’s not hard to see why society said “Good riddance!” when arcades started to die one after another in America.

While arcades died in America, they continue to thrive in East Asia. In Japan, arcades are a sustaining industry where arcade game manufacturers such as Taito see nearly 100 billion yearly. But what’s Japan doing different from America that allows their arcades to succeed? Believe it or not, it has nothing to do with the business model. Japanese arcades have stayed true to the 100 yen per play ever since the 1970s. The arcade scene still exists today because it’s necessary for them to exist. For the Japanese, the arcade is a social space that simply cannot be recreated by any other means. Arcades are the last truly meritocratic space left in Japan, and perhaps in the whole world.

A Social Haven

For many customers, the arcade is one of the few places they can really let loose. Arcade regulars often say that at home or in an apartment complex, it’s difficult to invite people to play games or have a party without getting complaints about the noise. In the high-volume arcade environment, customers are encouraged and yes, almost forced to raise their voices to communicate with one another. It may sound like it causes problems, but an arcade event manager who goes by Gama no Abura finds that the loud atmosphere affects customers positively, raising the excitement for everyone and contributing to a good time.

Momochi Yusuke (Left) and Kusachi Yuko (Right), both skilled Street Fighter players and members of the professional gaming team, Evil Geniuses.

Momochi Yusuke (Left) and Kusachi Yuko (Right), both skilled Street Fighter players and members of the professional gaming team, Evil Geniuses.

In fact, this high-energy arcade environment is where many regulars forge their deepest friendships. Known as “gemusentomo” or “arcade friends,” these people not only share common gaming interests, but compete against themselves, motivating one another to improve their scores in space ship shooting games or perfect their technique in a fighting game. Sometimes, the bonds grow beyond friendship. Gama no Abura actually met his current wife after spending years together playing at the arcades. One of the most skilled fighting game players, Momochi Yusuke, met his longtime girlfriend, Kusachi “ChocoBlanka” Yuko, at the arcade where she worked.

The bonds these dedicated players form rivals the team dynamics of any school sports club or town hobby league. Fighting game players especially love to partake in inter-regional competitions in much the same way as any big sports leagues. They become not just host and guests, but home and away teams. They come to the arcade to duke it out and see which region was the best Beyond proving one’s own skill, players fought to represent their region’s strength, and more importantly to bring glory and reputation to their arcade. At the end of the day, these tense matches and heated rivalries don’t stop these players from going to a bar after a tournament to drink together in celebration of a shared hobby.

A Place Which Accepts Everyone

Some people in the west associate Japan with hyper-conservative political leanings and a rigid, normative society. It may come as a surprise then that arcades bring together incredibly diverse demographics. Much like the arcades in America, Japan’s arcades do not discriminate against any of its customers. Native or foreigner, rich or poor, young or old, it doesn’t matter as long as you have some 100 yen coins and a desire to play. While arcades see the most traffic through teens and young adults, a considerable amount of arcade regulars are in their mid-30s and 40s. These individuals see the arcade as a place of rest after a hard day at work, taking advantage of their close proximity to train stations for a few hours of entertainment.

Member of team Evil Geniuses, Ricky Ortiz (left) and model and TV personality Sato Kayo (right). Both are transgender females who are passionate about arcade fighting games.

Member of team Evil Geniuses, Ricky Ortiz (left) and model and TV personality Sato Kayo (right). Both are transgender females who are passionate about arcade fighting games.

These days, as the average age of Japan rises, arcades are seeing more foot traffic from the elderly. As with every industry in Japan, arcades are seeking the patronage of the older demographic and try to find ways to entice them. In most cases, elderly men and women such as Shiba Noboru come to arcades to enjoy horse race simulation games or medal games. However, there are some interesting elders such as Mr. and Mrs. Akiyuki, a married couple aged 75 and 71 respectively who are regulars at a Shizuoka arcade. Their game of choice? Dance Dance Revolution. Rather than try and force them off the machine, younger players wish to challenge the Akiyukis and compete for high scores. The Akiyukis take pride in their ability and practice with a home version of DDR to maintain both their health and their skills.

However, it is the arcade fighting games fanbase that truly push the normative boundaries of Japan. The games themselves have a rich history, including characters that, while problematic, still acknowledge demographics that the rest of society marginalizes. Capcom’s Street Fighter II was the first fighting game to allow players to pick a female character by introducing the famous Chun-Li. Arc System Works’ Guilty Gear franchise was the first fighting game to feature an openly homosexual person of color through the character named Venom. In the real world, players such as the aforementioned ChocoBlanka are members of a still rare, but increasingly numerous population of female players. And there are players such as Sato “Kayo Police” Kayo and the American Ricky Ortiz who are openly transgender individuals who grew up playing and loving fighting games. While individuals like Ricky or Kayo may turn some heads when they enter the arcades, once they jump on the machine and rack up a winning streak, nobody looks at their gender or sexuality anymore. They care about their skill.

Are the Arcades Dying?

Despite their continued popularity, Japan’s arcade industry is experiencing a variety of difficulties. Between an ongoing recession, rationing of power due to the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and stiff competition from the home video game industry, arcades are struggling to attract new audiences. For Ishikawa Kiyoshi, corporate manager of Taito, one of the largest arcade game manufacturers, it’s a matter of creating new experiences you simply cannot experience anywhere else. Okano Tezu, former Sega employee, believes that home console hardware such as Nintendo’s Wii have started to turn Japanese thoughts back towards home gaming, a shift in the video game industry that arguably killed arcades in America.

However, former Sega music composer Kawaguchi Hiro has a different idea. To Kawaguchi, there are numerous facets of Japanese popular culture that have gained traction in the west such as manga and anime. But he notes that despite the uniqueness of it, the Japanese arcade culture hasn’t migrated westward in the same fashion. Kawaguchi believes that this arcade sub-culture is “a rich experience that shouldn’t lose to anime or other Japanese sub-cultures.” Perhaps he’s right. The declining success of Japanese arcades may have to do with its inability to exist anywhere but Japan. As we look to the future in an attempt to stimulate the declining arcade industry, perhaps we need to look outward to a solution. It could well be that the future survival of arcades in Japan hinges on a second arcade wave across the globe.

 

Discussion Questions:

1)  How do arcades as a social space differ from social spaces you’re familiar with? How are they the same?

2) What are some possible reasons that the Japanese arcade culture seems more socially accepting than society at large?

3) Kawaguchi believes that the arcade sub-culture in Japan is at least on par with anime and manga. Could the reason Japan’s arcade culture continues to exist only in Japan be related to Iwabuchi’s idea of cultural odor and global markets?

4) It’s been said that the Japanese borrowed the idea of an amusement arcade from America. The Taito corporation started in the 1950s as a shipping company that brought many arcade games from America to Japan. How might this information tie together Japanese arcades with Azuma and his observations of the unique historic and cultural relationships between Japan and America?

 

Sources:

100 Yen: The Japanese Arcade Experience. 2013. DVD. (Note: Available through Amazon Instant Video, Apple iTunes Store, and on Hulu Plus)

Ashcraft, Brian. “Believe It Or Not, You Are Looking At Three Dudes.” Kotaku. Kinja Media, 1 Sept. 2010. Web. 28 Mar. 2015. <http://kotaku.com/5627165/you-are-looking-at-three-dudes>.

Ashcraft, Brian. “Watch This Elderly Japanese Couple Tear Up DDR.” Kotaku. Kinja Media, 11 July 2012. Web. 29 Mar. 2015. <http://kotaku.com/5925039/watch-this-elderly-japanese-couple-tear-up-ddr>.

Chinatown Fair: A Documentary. 2012. Film. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sM1goDcEepk.

“Elderly DDR Masters.” Japan Probe RSS. 27 Nov. 2010. Web. 29 Mar. 2015. <http://www.japanprobe.com/2010/11/27/elderly-ddr-masters/>.

Nakamura, Toshi. “Japanese Arcade Owner Is So Sad about Japanese Arcades.” Kotaku. Kinja Media, 3 May 2012. Web. 29 Mar. 2015. <http://kotaku.com/5907255/japanese-arcade-owner-so-sad-about-japanese-arcades>.

Watson, Leon. “A New Generation of Gamers: Japan’s Elderly Take over the Arcades to Play Push Penny.” Daily Mail. Associated Newspapers, 13 Jan. 2012. Web. 29 Mar. 2015. <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2085539/A-new-generation-gamers-Japans-elderly-arcades-play-push-penny.html>.

 

Keitai Shosetsu: The Love-child of Technology and Literature

A page of a keitai shosetsu

         by: Anastasia Rivera

             If literary critics had all authority, then the art of literature has only declined, dying only to die again with every generation. In Western literature, romantic novels written by educated young women were once trashy, now they are considered classics a la Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights. Japan, only a few decades ago, watched as novels written for women by women dominated bestseller lists and cultural critics bemoaned the depravity. They posed that true literature had been replaced by such ill-devised and highly emotional writings. In 2007, the top three best-selling novels originated as keitai shosetsu and the critics cried once more. The burgeoning popularity and ubiquity of mobile telephony has birthed the keitai shosetsu, the cell-phone novel.

The movie poster for Koizora, 2007’s #1 bestselling novel in Japan. It is the incredibly tragic love story of a young woman and a gangster.

A cell-phone novel is a serialized story, delivered through e-mail or text to those who subscribe through distributing sites such as Maho no i-Land (Magic Island) in Japan or Textnovel.com in America. Authors and readers can communicate and collaborate on stories. The audience may suggest dialogue and plot twists, express their opinions on the work, and ultimately shape the narrative trajectory. Authors, likewise, may track their stories’ popularity stats and viewings, adjusting accordingly. In short, “keitai shosetsu…exist in vast online pools where writers and readers engage each other” (Yourgrau). The intermediary of the editor and publishing company disappears as the line between producer and consumer blurs. Text messaging and e-mail rather than voice calls enhance the private nature of cell phones and the cell-phone further capitalizes on this isolation. Japanese society especially encourages this silent communication, shown in the general prohibition of answering calls in public spaces such as trains in order to refrain from disturbing others (Ling). The average daily commute of two hours is perfect. Cell-phone novels, then, resemble the long, affected gossip between close friends where one speaks to eager millions.

A common scene depicting Japanese commute

The main demographic for the cell-phone novel, both as authors and readers, consists of young women from early teens to twenties. There are exceptions, however, including the originator of the keitai shosetsu, a thirtysomething man who called himself “Yoshi”. Interviewed for Japan Today, kiki, who won an award and publishing deal for her novel I, Girlfriend, said, “I started reading ‘keitai shosetsu’ last year, and writing this year. They are easy to read and write, so it was easy to get into” (Galbraith). The ease with which one may participate in the cell-phone novel trend and the social distance of the internet allow for anonymity. Authors usually adopt simple, disyllabic pen names and have never written outside of schoolwork before. In fact, Japanese online culture is highly populated by cartoon avatars for profile pictures and blatantly false identification. “Match.com doesn’t work well [in Japan], because a majority of people won’t post photographs, and blogs—a recent study found that there are more of them in Japanese than in any other language—are often pseudonymous” (Goodyear). Cell-phone novelists in particular have strong incentive to never reveal their identities, despite the popularity of their works and subsequent fortune from publishing successes, as they usually write autobiographical confessions through the highly intimate medium of the keitai shosetsu.

The first movie based on Deep Love, the first cell-phone novel, which branched off into multiple storylines. This is the story of Ayu, a high school prostitute who participated in enjo kousai.

Through these cell-phone novels, young women can express themselves freely and relate to those whose stories are hardly different from their own experience. The cell-phone novel truly adopts a therapeutic tone not unlike the basement meetings of an anonymous support group. Themes of keitai shosetsu revolve around “prostitution, AIDS, rape, incest, abortion, drugs, suicide, and desperate eternal love” (Yourgrau). Rather than an outpouring against female oppression, however, these stories reflect a common impression of Japan: the humility and passivity of women. Social issues that cannot be addressed openly are artfully typed into the solitary keypad and delivered only to those who choose to learn more. “The moral of [the average keitai shosetsu] is not that sex leads to all kinds of pain, and so should be avoided, but that sex leads to all kinds of pain, and pain is at the center of a woman’s life” (Goodyear). It should be noted, however, that other genres like science fiction have been attempted. But, the vast majority concerns the traumatic experiences of young women narrators.

Critics, like those from the respected literary journal Bungakukai, have frequently concluded that such writings do not qualify as literature due to poor composition and campy content. Echoing the ageist dissatisfaction with newfangled textspeak, fears include that the common usage of kaomoji (lit. face characters or emoticons) and informal colloquial language will bring the literary deterioration of coming generations. A Japanese slang word even arose to disparage cell-phone novelists and their audiences. Yutori refers to those who cannot read, write, or think intelligently, attributed to the ‘slow education’ (yutori kyouiku) system adopted in the 90s (“Keitai”). Furthermore, the anonymous nature allows for empathy-garnering deceptions. Despite such criticisms, even renowned author, translator, and Buddhist nun Jakucho Setouchi has revealed that she has contributed to the growing number of keitai shosetsu (Galbraith).

There is value in the growing cultural production among youth, whether or not they are considered literature. Honestly, the disputed classification of keitai shosetsu as literature or a social plague hardly seems relevant. This is a form of communication, announcement, and creation of legacy. It is a medium of expression that, whether or not there is approval, will continue or fade into obscurity like other fads and trends. They should be analyzed for what they say about society, because, either way, they are stamps clearly representative of Japanese youth.

A keitai shosetsu printed into book form

Discussion Questions:

1. What do you think accounts for the success of keitai shosetsu in Japan yet relative obscurity in America?

2. Do you support these criticisms of the medium?

3. Why would young women specifically adopt the cell-phone novel? Why not similarly marginalized salarymen, for example?

4. These stories frequently feature violence, sex, and other sensitive content. Does such base content eliminate them as high literature?

 

Sources:

Galbraith, Patrick W. “Cell phones come of age“. 26 Jan 2009. Accessed 28 April 2015.

Goodyear, Dana. “I ♥Novels”. The New Yorker. 22 Dec 2008. Web.

Kinsella, Sharon. “Cuties in Japan”. Women, Media and Consumption in Japan. eds Brian Moeran and Lise Scov. Curzon & Hawaii University PRess, 1995. 

Ling, Rich and Per E. Pederson. Mobile Communications: Re-negotiation of the Social Sphere. 2005.

Nishimura, Yukiko. “Linguistic Innovations and Interactional Features of Casual Online Communication in Japanese. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication”. 2003.

Keitai Shousetsu: A Study of Japan’s Mobile Phone Fiction”. 2010. Accessed 28 April 2015.

Yourgrau, Barry. “Thumb novels: Mobile phone fiction“.  29 July 2009. Accessed 28 April 2015.

Cosplay Culture: A Study in Transculturation Gone Wrong?

By Victoria Mikolaski

Cosplay is a word that is becoming more well-known everyday with the exponentially increasing interest in everything that has to do with popular entertainment nowadays. The emergence of Marvel films and popular books and TV shows, and countless other franchises, has amassed fans from all over to each respective fandom. One thing that seems to link these fandoms is cosplay.

What is Cosplay?

The word “Cosplay” is an abbreviation for the phrase “costume play”, and is defined as a performance art in which participants dress up in a specific costume with accessories to represent a character or idea from their preferred TV show, book series, comic, anime and/or manga, movie, video games, or any other form of entertainment. This also includes music groups like Visual Kei rock bands, the most popular choice among cosplayers in Japan. Cosplayers buy, or make from scratch, their costumes and props, basing their character’s look on reference pictures taken directly from the source for greater accuracy in color schemes and costume design. All this effort is solely for the purpose of expressing their affections for existing narratives, an effort in reworking these stories through various media. A “fannish subculture”, cosplay culture is also closely linked to other groups set on achieving the same goals: fanfiction, fanart, and fan videos to name a few. Cosplay motivates fans to interpret existing works, and not only perform them but extend them with their own narratives and ideas. It is a way for fans to actualize fiction in everyday life, and in doing so subvert reality for a while.

History: Cosplay’s Origin Story

Forrest J. Ackerman showing off his futuristic costume at the 1st Sci-Fi WorldCon in 1939

Forrest J. Ackerman showing off his futuristic costume at the 1st Sci-Fi WorldCon in 1939

Curiously enough, the origin story of cosplay is still debated among cosplayers today. Based on photographic evidence, I will tell the version most likely to be true. Cosplay is agreed to have been around since conventions began. It is said to have started as early as 1939 in the U.S. with Forrest J. Ackerman when he attended the first World Science Fiction Convention in New York wearing a futuristic costume (made by his girlfriend Myrtle R. Douglas). That led to the ever-increasing interest in costume-wearing at conventions in the 1960s and 1970s, namely shown by dressing up not only as characters from the popular sci-fi TV shows Star Trek and Star Wars, but also characters from the classics like DC comics Batman. Soon after this hobby swept the nation, Nobuyuki Takahashi (founder of Studio Hard) traveled to the U.S. and attended the 1984 Los Angeles Sci-Fi World Convention and encountered costuming practices there. He promptly returned to Japan and wrote an article about his experiences at the convention, encouraging his readers to try the hobby and incorporate it Into Japanese anime and manga conventions. It was he who coined the term “cosplay”. The first appearance of cosplay in Japan was in 1978 at a fan event, so either Japanese fans had the same idea around the time American fans were increasing their practice of cosplay in the 1970s, or the Japanese fans heard about it from America earlier and the encouragement from one of their own celebrities around a decade later got cosplay enough traction to become a major practice in Japanese fan culture. Nevertheless, Japanese fans gained interest in making costumes for their anime and manga conventions and the craze spread from there, finally returning full circle to the U.S. with a distinctly Japanese vibe attached to it.

Cosplay Today: Not What it Once Was

Presently in the U.S., cosplay is restricted to limited and specific settings: conventions and other similar get-togethers separate from the rest of the community. The cultural practices attached to cosplay are intentionally separated from everyday life and the professional atmosphere. In Japan, cosplay is more intertwined with the public domain. For example, participants often gather in public parks of Akihabara and Harajuku districts. Cosplay is also a large part of consumption culture: shops sell wigs and full costumes, and costume restaurants attract fan customers. That cosplay is a professional practice shows that it has a more prominent role in Japanese society than that of the West. Such emphasis in the professional world also indicates that cosplay is a selling point for Japan’s economy nationally and internationally. There is an integration through advertising in which the Advertising industry now uses cosplay models, “Cosplay Idols”, to show off costumes for anime, manga, and video game companies. They are viewed as fictional characters in the flesh, thus encouraging the younger generation’s interest in whatever they are advertising and keeping that interest, as opposed to an inanimate object or character that inevitably falls under the category of fiction and ‘not real’ in its 2D-ness. In recent years these promotional models have been requested for other areas of commercial goods, such as food and beverage commerce as well as fashion stores, clubs, restaurants, and other franchises.

Cosplay/idol group Steam Girls cosplaying Yuki Jirushi Coffee’s café au lait Finalist Mascot Costumes (2013)

Cosplay/idol group ‘Steam Girls’ cosplaying Yuki Jirushi Coffee’s café au lait Finalist Mascot Costumes (2013)

Americans now associate cosplay with Japan. Anime and manga are immediately linked to cosplay, but not original material such as Star Trek or Star Wars. The two types of material have been essentially separated into two different categories despite coming from the same beginnings and engaging in the same cultural practices. U.S. and Japanese goods are even being sold side-by-side at conventions, and still cosplay is considered the “other” and inherently different from the U.S. cultural and national identity. Transculturation in this case complicates the notions of national and cultural identity. Is cosplay now inherently Japanese even through the concept seems to have originated in the U.S. and still practices the same things? I would argue that the West is relabeling this cultural practice as Japanese because it fits into what is considered to be “otherness”. Dressing up as a fictional character and role-playing could be stereotypical of Japanese “weirdness” and “quirkiness” (and often cult-esque behavior). The U.S. would then be Orientalizing Japan to distance itself from its own cultural “weirdness”. Japan is then taking advantage of this “otherness” and capitalizing on the brand nationalism that cosplay provides. This however, leaves the secondary category of cosplay in an odd position. It is not inherently Japanese, but it does follow the same practices.

Two sides of the cosplay coin. Is Deadpool destined to be the only character who can cross this barrier?

Two sides of the cosplay coin. Is Deadpool destined to be the only character who can cross this barrier?

By definition cosplay should be culturally neutral and odorless, because the way it operates is the same wherever cosplay culture occurs. Cosplayers go to the conventions, attend panels, participate in the Masquerade, and buy goods produced by the fandom and the original works’ producers. Cosplayers mirror typical fans in that they serve as consumers and producers simultaneously.  Western and Japanese-based cosplay practices occur in the same space at conventions, so why are they perceived as different? What’s more is that gender, class, age, and identity do not seem to have any bearing on who participates in this culture. All fandoms are welcome, so the range of interests includes all genders and age groups. Because all that is required is attendance and engaging in the fun, class also has no bearing on participation. Identity as a consumer or producer varies, a small but not insignificant portion of the attendees at conventions self-identify as both consumer and producer in the commercial context of selling their wares, which are mainly hand-crafted. Often larger conventions are national and international events. This means that there is no reason for there to be a distinction between U.S. cosplay and Japanese cosplay, as the participants are diverse enough to make the culture nation-less and culturally odorless. Ultimately, it is up to the cosplayers and fanbase in general to decide whether the origins matter.

 

Discussion Questions:

Transculturation is the process of globalization in which an asymmetrical encounter of various cultures result in the transformation of an existing artifact and the creation of a new style. As the products get circulated globally they become by default less marked, more culturally odorless, thus the origins become less important.

  1. By this definition, why has cosplay culture been re-marked as Japanese rather than become culturally and nationally odorless after being circulated globally from the U.S.?
  2. How should the Western category of cosplay be labeled now that the subculture overall has been culturally and nationally marked as Japanese?
  3. Is cosplay capable of transcending nationality and becoming culturally odorless?
  4. Can you think of another product that has undergone a similar transformation? If yes, what allowed it to happen?

 

Sources

Ackerman, Forrest J. “Through Time and Space with Forry Ackerman (Part 1)”. Mimosa 16: 4-6. (1994) Web. 20 Mar 2015. <http://www.jophan.org/mimosa/m16/ackerman.htm>

Baseel, Casey. “Coffee mascot event with cosplaying idols proves to be too much for some fans to handle”. Rocket News 24. (2013) Web. 26 Mar 2015. < http://en.rocketnews24.com/2013/08/09/coffee-mascot-event-with-cosplaying-idols-proves-to-be-too-much-for-some-fans-to-handle/>

Frankenhoff, Brent. 2011, “It All Began…. “. Beautiful Balloons CBG #1677. (May 2011). Web. 21 Mar 2015. <http://www.cbgxtra.com/blogs/beautiful-balloons/it-all-began-%E2%80%A6-beautiful-balloons-cbg-1677-may-2011>

Napier, Susan Jolliffe. From Impressionism to Anime: Japan as Fantasy and Fan Cult in the Mind of the West. First edition. Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Winge, Theresa. 2006, “Costuming the Imagination: Origins of Anime and Manga Cosplay”. Mechademia Vol. 1: 65-76. (2006) doi: 10.1353/mec.0.0084

Sacai: Fighting Fashion’s Western Dominance

by: Brooke LaRue

In 1999, Chitose Abe, a former design team member at Comme des Garçon, founded her own Tokyo based label, Sacai. Since then she has worked as creative director, maintaining full ownership of her company. The label has expanded from women’s wear to include Sacai Man and Sacai Luck, a more casual line of clothing. Far from the spotlight, she successfully built her business on a relatively small scale until 2010 when she made her international debut at Paris Fashion Week, launching Sacai into the global fashion market. Following its debut, Sacai has gained international acclaim in the fashion world for its innovation in design. In an industry determined by Western approval, Sacai proves that it will not be dominated by Western designers.

As a designer not based in the United States or Europe, Sacai is almost always labeled by its nationality. Very few articles fail to cite the brand as Japanese, and in many interviews, Chitose is posed with questions concerning Japanese influence. In an interview with Interview Magazine, she was asked if she envisioned a Japanese or European customer while designing. She replied, “I never really design with a specific person-or culture-in mind. I believe that design can be appreciated universally.” From this statement she quickly shifted the conversation away from nationality to the specifics of her designs, the focus of which is functional elegance through transformations of basic items. She has also been quoted saying, “Japanese-ness may be important for some when selling to Europe, for me it’s not important. I think it says something that I’m the only Japanese brand that many of my stockists carry.”

After just two seasons in Paris, Sacai had 15 clients outside of Japan including renowned boutiques such as Colette in Paris, Biffi in Milan, and Joyce in Hong Kong.  Three years later and her international growth has continued. Yet, the fact remains that as one of the prominent Japanese designers, her presence in the global market may always be partially characterized by her nationality. This is particularly true, when one considers the regional exclusivity of the fashion industry. The world’s fashion capitols are New York, Paris, Milan, and London. These are also the cities in which the most distinguished fashion weeks take place. For this reason, these cities are also home to the most influential fashion publications and therefore voices in the industry. However, with growing globalization the industry has begun to expand, albeit slowly, and Sacai is a significant factor in this growth.

AP088222In certain regards, Sacai has been potentially limited by the media’s simplistic categorization of its nationality, but in other ways it has offered the label unique opportunities. For example, this past fall the Parisian department store, Le Bon Marché, celebrated the 90th anniversary of Franco-Japanese cultural partnership with featured exhibitions and a showcase of Japanese designers. Sacai was at the forefront of this exhibit with a pop up store instillation on the 3rd floor that remained for nearly two months.  The label’s most recent Sacai and Sacai Luck collections were sold, in addition to a capsule collection exclusively designed for the event.  The timing of the installation overlapped with Paris Fashion Week, when the most influential people in the industry flooded into the city and when Sacai showed its Spring/Summer collection, augmenting the brand’s recognition. However, this recognition exclusively came from a connection with Japan.

Most recently, Sacai partnered with Nike to release an 8-piece collection as part of Nike’s NikeLab project. This facet of Nike aims at innovation by innovators and selects different designers from around the world to create collaborations. With the collection, Abe was able to bring her creative use of fabric to Nike and many of her signature design techniques, such as pleating and lace details. She worked with the Nike team, using Nike archive pieces as reference points for design. The collaboration will expose a broader range of consumers to her designs and demonstrate her range of creativity.ChitoseAbeandBinx_native_1600

The release of the collection has been surrounded by press events, however the most interesting included a dance performance featuring pieces from the NikeLab x Sacai Collection. Performed last week in London, dancers highlighted the movement and functionality of the collection. The theme of the production was to contrast different worlds. The noted contrasts were ballet verses street dance and artist verses athlete. However, it is worth considering the underlying contrast of East versus West that is present between Sacai and Nike.

Stuart Hall argues that globalization must acknowledge the West’s historical dominance and this point is extremely true in the case of fashion, where the West’s dominance still very much exists. Any designer based in the East is under the jurisdiction of the established Western market if the brand aims to achieve any sort of international presence. However, though the fashion industry is strongly rooted in a regional exclusivity, it lacks dominance from one single nation, which could possibly lend itself well to future regional inclusion.

Sacai’s relationship with the West and with Japan is somewhat varied by situation. It is hard to determine whether a contrast really exists or if the media and Western expectations socially construct it. It appears, that the designs are not based in an inherently Japanese aesthetic, that in terms of Iwabuchi’s arguments in Recentering Globalization Abe aspires towards a cultural neutrality; but contrastingly the brand has been continuously characterized as Japanese through the Western media and contains a sense of cultural odor in that it is positively associated with Japan.  Sacai will continue to grow and find its place within the international market. With this, public perception will develop to form a deeper understanding of the designer, but without a doubt the label will always be associated with innovative design.

Discussion Questions:

In class we discussed Stuart Hall’s argument that globalization occurs through connections by travel, trade, markets, capital and the flow of labor, goods and profits, which leads to a blurred lined between what is considered “inside” and what is considered “outside”.

  1. How does fashion both blur these lines, yet also enforce them?
  2. Do you think it’s possible for the East to overcome the distinction of insiders and outsiders in fashion? If so, how?
  3. How do designers like Sacai, whose designs aren’t aesthetically Japanese, change Western perception of Japanese fashion?

Sources:

Graham, Mhairi. “Watch Nike X Sacai Tear up London.” Dazed. N.p., 20 Mar. 2015. Web. 21 Mar. 2015.

Johnson, Rebecca. “BoF Exclusive | Nike to Launch Collaboration with Chitose Abe’s Sacai – The Business of Fashion.” The Business of Fashion. N.p., 18 Feb. 2015. Web. 25 Feb. 2015.

Phelps, Nicole. “Nike Celebrates Its Sacai Collab With a Kappo Masa Feast.” Style.com. N.p., 20 Mar. 2015. Web. 22 Mar. 2015.

“Sacai.” Sacai. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Mar. 2015.

Wynne, Alex. “Le Bon Marché Celebrates Japan.” WWD. N.p., 10 July 2014. Web. 15 Mar. 2015

Michael Le

As a current senior majoring in Hispanic Studies with a minor in Japanese Studies, I aspire to gain a mastery of both languages with the hopes of becoming a translator. My interests in Japanese culture began at a young age when I watched Pokémon and Card Captors (the American localized version of Card Captor Sakura). However, I didn’t really pursue these interests until middle school when I met an exchange student who introduced me to her favorite music artists, including Hamasaki Ayumi, Utada Hikaru, and Spitz. With the rise in the popularity of YouTube, I spent most of my adolescent and teenage years exploring international bands, a hobby that sparked an insatiable love of languages (and grossly melodramatic telenovelas, but that’s another story). Now, I hope to expand my understanding of Japanese contemporary pop culture while also exposing myself to new experiences.

Jordan Cheresnowsky

10502096_811359175540882_5257088338524052679_nHello, my name is Jordan Cheresnowsky and I am a senior at the College of William and Mary. I am getting a distinct feeling of deja vu typing this, as I was a contributor to this blog my freshman year. Looking back on that bio now I am amazed at how much has changed in four years. Currently I am finishing up my self-designed major “Literatures of the Modern World,” a mashup of different cultural and literary classes that provides me with the necessary knowledge to become a media writer. As of two months ago I am a contributing writer for the “nerd culture” website All That’s Epic based out of California. There I write reviews, news, and features covering a wide variety of subjects such as film, television, and anime.

Though my current ambitions differ from those I posted on here my freshman year, I am still passionate about Japan and Japanese culture. When I was in middle school I was exposed to the Japanese culture through manga, opening my eyes to cultural differences I was unable to see living in a small town. From there I consumed all the information about Japan I could, from manga to anime, light novels to travel blogs, and even the occasional historical account or textbook. For the past four years I have taken a variety of government, history, literature, language, and film classes that have broadened my knowledge about Japan.