Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon


Pop Envy

Posted in Current Events,J-Pop,J-Rock,Music by bourdaghs on the November 27th, 2012

I think I’m the last human being on earth who actually cares about this. NHK yesterday announced the line-up for this year’s “Kohaku Uta Gassen,” its annual New Years Eve pop music spectacle. At first glance, the only thing that caught my eye was the fact that recently reunited J-Rock veterans Princess Princess were going to be making their debut appearance on the show. Beyond that, it was just a ho-hum list of the usual suspects. You can check out the whole roster here (Japanese-language).

But then press reports (e.g., here and here) started pointing out a conspicuous absence. In recent years, the bill has always included top K-Pop idols, but this year nary a single performer from across the Sea of Japan (or, depending on one’s geopolitical allegiances, the East Sea). NHK cites “public opinion” as the reason for this, referring obliquely to the flare-up earlier this year over the disputed Dokdo/Takeshima islands (see this report from the NY Times on the increasingly bitter row).

This carries on a news thread from earlier this year: the odd fact that Japan was the one place on earth where PSY’s Internet sensation “Gangnam Style,” now the single most watched video in YouTube history, failed to become a hit. According to news reports, South Korea was “irked” about this indifference. Ian Martin, writing in the Japan Times last month, speculates that this may be entirely to Japan’s credit:

But it’s Psy who is the first Korean artist that the West gathers to its collective heart, while Japan stands by nonplussed, and I have to wonder if a lot of the reason for “Gangnam Style” ‘s Western popularity still boils down to, “Hey, look at the funny little Asian man dancing!” (This was essentially the gist of a sketch on comedy show Saturday Night Live that parodied “Gangnam Style” on Sept. 15. Psy also made an appearance in that sketch.)

It’s an awkward area to go into; no one likes to think of themselves as prejudiced. However, even if you’re not, mass media still wields influence on what society collectively considers cool. So think for a moment: How many genuinely “cool” Asian celebrities are there in the West? I don’t mean subcultural or art-house cool, so scrub Cornelius and Tony Leung off your list. I’m talking about Asian stars in the Western mainstream whose image is something people aspire toward and seek to imitate.

What’s struck me most about the “Gangnam Style” phenomenon is its close resemblance to 1963 and Sakamoto Kyu’s accidental worldwide hit, “Sukiyaki.” As I argue in my book, Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon, that incident has to be understood within its specific historical context, including the massive 1960 protests in Tokyo against renewal of AMPO–the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty–and the Cold War strain of Orientalism that transformed Japan into an object of fetishistic desire. Not to mention the escalating Vietnam War, for which Japan and Okinawa would serve as major staging areas.

The current tensions recall to mind something that Karatani Kojin wrote about a couple of decades ago. We have to always keep in mind that historians someday will write that we were living in the pre-war era.

2 Responses to 'Pop Envy'

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  1. Dougal said,

    on November 27th, 2012 at 3:01 pm

    Not quite the last human on earth who cares about this stuff, perhaps, but certainly someone who’s given me good reason to care more — this post is a good excuse for me to drop a comment saying just how fascinating & rewarding I found ‘Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon’. It’s led to many hours looking up old clips on YouTube, & I’ve been pondering your arguments for months now. A great book – thanks!

  2. bourdaghs said,

    on November 27th, 2012 at 5:36 pm

    Thanks for reading the book and for the kind words, Dougal. I wrote the book hoping it would have that kind of impact on people, so I’m delighted to hear it! But this year’s Kohaku still looks a little dull, I’m afraid (but maybe NHK will spring some last-minute surprises).