How American Disney influenced Japanese ‘s Toy Culture? Why Japanese characters always happy? And where it roots?

Pokemon, Doraemon, Astro Boy, Hello Kitty, Inuyasha, Cowboy Bebop, Ghost in the Shell, Akira, Spirited Away, Dragon Ball, Gundam, Ultraman, Godzilla and many others imaginative characters, Japan gain its own global reputation known as country of creativity and inspirational for its imaginative world throughout the years. Japanese pop culture and their toys with the ‘cool’ label set the global trend now and continuous influence the world’s youth culture which bring its originial and unique kawaii (cuteness) and otaku (obsessed anime and manga fans) phenomenon sweep out the western culture. Best buy has its own sections of English translated manga, and English dubbed anime; American based magazine Giant Robot only critic about Japanese Toy cultures, along with its Japanese toy stores at the young hip area at Santa Monica; San Francisco based toy store Kidrobot started with selling Asian trendy designer toys which in terms of following Japanese trend on Haight street; even Cartoon Networks features anime in a percentage of 1/4 of the whole network, from “Dragon Ball” to “Inuyasha” and recently “Fullmetal Alchemist” on air almost at same time as it on air in Japan- its origin; Takashi Murakami’s anime eyes on Louis Vuitton bags brings Japanese anime culture into the highest spotlight it ever had globally. American no longer only interested in Japanese sushi, sake, hello kitty from its distinct distance because of the poor English translation or culture misunderstandings, but seeing and experiencing the exported Japanese popular culture in America and see it slowly dominant and mixed in with the western popular trend settings. Moreover, statics from VIZ – the major U.S. manga publisher that has more than 50 percents of Japanese comics market share in America, shows that manga sales rising up really fast each year from $50 million in the year of 2000, jump to $140 million within 4 years in the U.S. and Canada.

One would ask how and why American young generations would choose over Japanese anime and manga culture than American animation and comic culture? Perhaps the young generations of Americans, Europeans, and Asians who grow up in the 80s watching not the Disney Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny, but Japanese anime, from Astro Boy (Tetsu Atom in Japanese), Speed Racer, Star Blazers, Robotech (Macross in Japanese) to Doraemon, Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball, and many more within the comparison between American animations and Japanese anime; Japanese anime often offer a wider varieties of subject matters, a sequencing story telling with a concrete concept based and often has hidden positive messages for different target groups from children to adult, and last there is a huge variety of art styles. For example, the masterpiece manga Hi no Tori (Phoenix) by Osamu Tezuka in the 60s is philosophy and Buddhism based and talks about life cycle ends and beginnings all the time yet brings out mankind should stay in peace in order to live in a better future. Moreover, it also touches the question of good and evil and how mankind’s foolish search for everlasting life is not necessary. Another one is Hadashi no Gen (Barefoot Gen) by Keiji Nakazawa in the 70s shows the illustrated life after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima from a war orphans’ point of view and shows how he deals with the aftermath. Versus on the other side American animations often only focus on the humor side or superheroes heroism and doesn’t has a much more variety to choose from, such as Felix the Cat, Road Runner, or Superman.

Moreover, one cannot count Japanese anime, manga pop culture’s development without talking about the traumatic effects of Hiroshima atomic bombing by U.S. In the year of 1945, two bombs nicknamed “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” by the U.S. military, were dropped to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, within a week Japan accepted to surrender, and ending its fifteen-year Pacific war. About an estimated 140 thousand died of the atomic bomb related causes at the end of 1945. The survivors from the war called the bombs with nickname “pika-don” which pika represents the flash of intense light and the sound of the blast (don) produced. The word pika is the same as the main character “Pika-chu” in Pokemon. Moreover, “pika-don”, the fear of suffering in war and the idea of long hunger for peace hidden behind the national scar on Japanese history. Perhaps the national trauma gives birth to the foundation of Japanese manga and toy culture.

Many of the starters of Japanese manga culture like Hadashi no Gen and Osamu Tezuka are the generations whom suffer from the atomic bombs in the 1940s. Dr. Osamu Tezuka whom widely known as the father of story-based manga, starts his manga career a year after the atomic bomb event, and because of his life experience, his manga often related a main theme of peace and hope in the time of darkness. Moreover, because of Pacific War, American culture was being dominant in Japan that time, and is not hard to find American objects, Disney animations influenced Osamu Tezuka’s comic style and made the first Japanese anime Astro Boy in the 1950s when Gumby starts on-air in the U.S.

At the same period of time, Japanese toy manufacture industry with imaginative character based starts postwar and it soon becomes one of the major industry to help Japanese economic get back on track. Even the Japanese toy industry actual began in the beginning of the era after the Meiji Restoration of 1868, manufacture miniature dolls focus on Japanese folk tales and traditional ritual beliefs along with the line of puppet art but the art itself didn’t really gain westerner’s attentions. While the marterial tin and metal used to produce toys when German invented German tin printing press in 1890, Germany was the world’s leading major toy manufacturer, followed by the U.S. The new idea of using celluloid introduced by the western to produce toys in 1877, celluloid metal soon replaced woods as the primary material to produce toys in Japan. Simply because of the economic value that celluloid can be inexpensive to manufacture and easy to mold the toy figure’s shapes. During that time, Japanese children was first been introduced to the western world: celluloid dolls with Caucasian facial expression, inside western fashions style. And soon the Japanese dolls that have straight black hair and black eyes, but wearing western-style school uniforms and hair ribbons instead of kimonos.

The Japanese western-style dolls and toys are having a high impact globally and good quality and it get more acceptable due to the mix of both cultures visually. By the end of the world war I Japan become the world’s leading manufacturer of tin and celluloid toys, instead of Germany’s domination. And by 1927 Japan become the world’s largest producer of celluloid toys. By 1936, toys maufacture business becomes Japan’s fourth top export items. Until 1938 Japan government prohibited the making tin toys for the domestic market. And soon the WW II starts and toy industry stops completely and change into war-related factories.

And in the early postwar era, Japanese government strongly promoted toy manufacturing business and use it as the major tools to earn foreign currency, because the industry itself can be easily revive compare to others, (91% of toy factories are often are small, around 10 tsubo -around 360 square feet) also toy making suggested a peaceful, at least non-threatening national image. Moreover, in 1946, a year after atomic bombing, most Japanese still in desperate need of food and shelter, the government passed a resolution urging the citizen to give toys to children to express the idea of hope and future. While toward the outside trading, Japan manufacture celluloid toys again but in form of robots, cars, trains instead of human-like dolls. Toy robots being really popular that time, due to the global trend of science and high technology interest. However, the U.S. banned the import of celluloid products in 1954, due to the fact of it is a flammable material, a fire hazard.

Then soon, Japanese toy manufacturers use PVC (polyvinyl chlorine), sofubi. It is water resistant, rustproof, easy to mold, and even cheaper to manufacture than celluloid. As a result, it was widely used for banks as bank savings and big corporations’ promotional items for customers due to the fact mostly Japanese business’ logos are character based. Along with the beginning of anime and the television being common in the 1960s, more of the toys are become the promotional product of the anime itself, to name a few: Astro boy (Tetsuwan Atom), Gigantor, the 8th Man (a murdered policeman who has returned as a cyborg), Ultra Man, Super Jetter and U.S. was one of the largest buyer of Japanese toys at that time. Japanese toy finally start being character and story based and get into the golden age of character designated toys in Japan.

One may asked why Japanese toy are mainly character driven along with humor expression, the characters always have a simile face? Due to the fact that atomic bomb’s fear was long stuck inside Japanese’s heart, the idea of longing to stay in peace with a positive outlook on life inspired Japanese manga culture. Moreover, Japan takes the visual form of American Disney’s idea of creating a fantasy world and change it to its own term. It was American toy industry had a close association with novelty manufacturing in the era after 1900. It is common sense to novelty makers that their products had to be updated continuously to upcoming the face value. It was only until Disney’s cartoon characters actual got licensing and make into dolls and toys and set the connection between media and toys. Japan first coping the technic of Disney, along with the idea of fantasy world, and add its own national trauma lesson into anime world. And Japanese spirit from anime translate into toys.

Perhaps, Doraemon, an anime shows (1970 to 90s) can expressed the situation of Japan in postwar era. The story centers on Nobita, a trouble student who doing really bad at school acadamicly, and his friend Doraemon – a cat-shaped babysitting robot whom send from the future by Nobita’s great-great -grandson from the year of 2112 to the present world to help Nobita. Doraemon has a “4-dimensonal pocket” full with gadget on his belly and often try to help Nobita out of his troubles. The fantasy of depending on Doraemon’s gadget fulfill the fantasies of real-life school kids, wouldn’t be easier if you can depend on someone’s effort instead of yours? In fact, Doraemon even willing to pull out his gadget to help, but every time it often brings out negative result, and teach Nobita and his friends a valuable lesson.

Nobita can be view as the defenseless postwar Japan, but lovable loser whom often needs help by create lovely smiling toys to shape its own national image better. His rontinely turns into Doraemon, (the U.S.) whom full of fantasy interesting ideas and strong powers, with the largest toy market. Like many victims of bullying and under fear attacked, Nobita nurtures his twisted desire for gaining power by not giving up, even doesn’t do well at school, but yet he never gives up on keep trying. Same as Japan, keep copying and imitating other countries’ good invention and ideas, take it in its own term and expand it to a better idea than the orginials. Perhaps, that’s why the U.S. Disney going start going downhill in the 90s, but Japanese anime keep growing bigger and bigger and gain a large group of oversea audiences. Disney stays in its own realm of children’s fantasy world, but Japan keeps adding serious literary masterpiece, philosophy and theories into anime to wider the markets and values. For example, Chikyuu Shoujo Arjuna (Earth Girl Arjuna, 2001) explains the idea of world Gaia view, mysticism, and of course the idea of global peace with encouraging of gain strength to face difficulties. It is a positive energy driven anime. While Family guy, South Park or Simpson touches part of U.S. political issues but pack with twisted humors – violence with happy at the same time. As a grow-up under the Japanese anime peaceful culture, I don’t see violence can bring out happiness at all, the idea of people laughing at you but not with you. Perhaps, this is problem of the culture differences.

As an outsider whom nurtured under Japanese anime culture in the 80s in Hong Kong, I realized the people whom grow up from my generation are obsessed with anime and that was the top topic we talked at school. Anime brings out hopes and wishes to my childhood, but according to Takashi Murakami’s point of view is different: “Japan, a nation that had recovered from the trauma of war only to find itself incapable of creating its own future…Japan is probing the root cause of its existential paralysis…We Japanese still embody “Little Boy”, nicknamed, like the atomic bomb itself, after a nasty childhood taunt…in a way, otaku sensibilities have much in common with those of American hippies in the 1970s. A lifestyle that seems to turn its back on the world is founded on a nearly groundless obsession with peace and happiness, tremendous curiosity for the internal world of the self, extreme sentimentality, and keen sensitivity, all of which contribute to futuristic creation…Otaku have always held excessive belief in their dreams, and have continued to trust that their fantasies would come true…although they won’t plan their own revolution, they won’t give up on the idea of utopian future…if they desperately dream – they were allowed to express their honest feelings in the world of anime. When they indeed find such expression, they heartily applaud it yet sigh in deep resignation, for they know it’s just an empty fantasy.” Perhaps, Japanese would never forgot about the atomic bomb and hidden the national scar and yet continued used it as a metaphor in anime as a self-meditation method, yet U.S. audience would never get the metaphor until they understand the history behinds the Japanese toy industry but continue buying into Japanese kawaii (cute) culture.

Annotated Bibliography

Takashi Murakami, Little Boy The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture, Japan Society (New York) + Yale University Press (New Haven and London) 2005

John Lie, Multiethnic Japan, Harvard University Press (Cambridge) 2001

Mark Schilling, The Encyclopedia of Japanese Pop Culture, Weatherhill Inc. (New York) 1997

Timothy J. Craig, Japan pop! Inside the world of Japanese popular culture, An East Gate Book M.E. Sharpe (New York) 2000

Gary Cross and Gregory Smits, Japan, the U.S. and the Globalization of Children’s Consumer Culture, Pennsylvania State University (Journal of social history) summer 2005

Annie Nakao, Trends Pop goes Japanese Culture, Chronicle (San Francisco) Feb 6, 2005

Jan Bardsley, Purchasing Power in Japanese Popular Culture, Journal of Popular Culture 31 #2 1-22 Fall 1997

Douglas McGray, Japan’s Gross National Cool, Foreign Policy #130 May 2002

Becky Ebenkamp, Land of the Rising Fun, Brandweek 46 #8 Feb 21 2005

Aviad E. Raz, Domesticating Disney: Onstage Strategies of Adaptation in Tokyo Disneyland, Journal of Popular Culture 33 #4 77-99 Spring 2000

Becky Ebenkamp and T.L. Stanley, How to Ruin a Toy in Ten Ways, Brandweek 44 #7 F 17 2003

Wendy Jackson Hall, How Pokeman Grabbed U.S. Kids, Variety 377 #9 N21+ Jan 17-23 2000

Campbell Gray, Japan’s Cutting Edge, Ad Age Global 2 #4 15 Dec 2001

Elaine Gerbert, Dolls in Japan, Journal of Popular Culture 35 #3 winter 2001


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