( Source: A Muchness of Me )
Introduction: On Assumptions about Korean Culture
While I claim to examine Korean sociology through “gender, advertising and popular culture” on this blog, the last seems noticeable only for its absence in recent months, and so this week I planned to rectify that by beginning a series of weekly Korean film reviews, focusing on those from the 1990s and early 2000s that are now probably somewhat dated but which were ground-breaking in their depictions of gender roles and particularly women’s sexuality at the time. But I’ll also look at recent ones that those paved for way for too, such as “My Wife got Married” (아내가 결혼헀다) that is playing in cinemas at the moment, and which, in depicting a wife who seeks two husbands much like a married man might also seek additional sex and companionship in a mistress, would probably have prompted a storm of public protest just ten years ago.
My first film review was already written on Monday, but by coincidence I happened to be reading Recentering Globalization: Popular culture and Japanese transnationalism (2002) by Koichi Iwabuchi at about the same time, and it is so full of interesting and relevant (if indirect) points about Korean popular culture that I can’t resist considerably expanding the post to take account of what I’ve read about Japanese and East Asian dramas, idols, films, and so on. In the meantime, I’d like to also discuss Iwabuchi’s explanations for why Japanese manga characters generally look, if not quite Caucasian, certainly look somewhat less than Japanese, also interesting but which be somewhat out of place in a film review.
But first, and please forgive the brief personal tangent, I title this introduction “assumptions” because as a non-Korean who’s been here much of his adult life, then I know that I still hold many beliefs and opinions about Korean society that were really formed in my first few years here, when I was not only resolutely monolingual but was prone to generalize in order to make sense of what was then a wholly foreign place. Which is human nature, and so nothing to worry about in itself, but without some outlet and feedback for expressing those beliefs, especially friends as apt to overanalyse and purchase books on the subject as oneself, then they can easily become ossified, regardless of the naive, nebulous, ill-informed and usually drunken circumstances in which many were probably first formed. Hence the blog, and, man…it’s a lot of work having to frame arguments and provide justifications for them for an audience other than my smug, self-congratulatory, pretentious self. But sorely needed, both in terms of having a continued positive existence in the country and for my belated return to academia, so comments are always much appreciated.
I mention this because, of those early beliefs and opinions, some don’t really bear up to critical analysis, like what frequent commentator “Gomushin Girl“, for instance, is slowly but surely proving to me about the wholly androgynous role pink clothing plays in Korean culture, and I’m also learning about how wearing it can even be a small act of rebellion for young people. But another which does, despite being the most contentious issue I’ve ever blogged about, are the very definite associations Koreans have between Caucasians and notions of modernity, glamor and/or more liberal sexuality, as I’ve discussed at length on the blog here, here, here, here, here, here and most recently here (for starters!). But where did my and – I dare say – most Westerners’ similar views on that subject originally come from?
( Advertisement for cosmetic surgery clinic in Busan. Source: comatosed )
Probably the most important are the racial considerations taken into account when hiring English teachers, the large numbers of Caucasians in advertisements, and finally the overwhelming Korean preferences for cosmetic surgery operations that just so happen to give them facial and bodily features more often found amongst Caucasians than Mongoloids, the latter two of which, far from being figments of our imaginations, I’ve demonstrated quantitatively are the case (not that the first would be hard to prove if I chose to write about that also). Probably noticed much later, but not that they exactly detract from any of those, are the rather non-Asian cartoon figures that advertisements and stationary across the peninsula are festooned with also. And as Iwabuchi demonstrates, that feature of Korean life is indeed just as real as our first impressions led us to believe, and a very deliberate one at that.
“Culturally Odorless” Japanese Products
( Source: I Believe in Advertising )
For impatient readers, then you’re sooo reading the wrong blog the gist of my argument here is that for much of its history, Korean animation (easier than saying “cartoons and comics”), has been heavily influenced – if not completely dominated – by its Japanese counterpart, and as such it shares the Japanese animation industry’s deliberate use of figures and characters of rather vague and/or even Caucasian-looking ethnicities, either for the sake of deflecting criticisms of cultural imperialism in (naturally) sensitive former East Asian colonies and/or victims of invasion in World War Two, and/or by Western media companies in the process of making Japanese animation more marketable internationally. Against the first part of that argument, I do acknowledge that one source, at least, argues that Korean manhwa (만화) characters do, in fact, tend to look more distinctly East Asian, and there is also the small matter of all Japanese cultural products being banned in Korea until 1998 too, but I think that a great deal of illicit imports of them (not to mention their influence) did occur in practice before 1998, and would wager that most of the comic books available in Korea today are simply translated manga. Besides which, I’m more than happy to entertain (but honestly don’t expect) any plausible alternative explanations for Caucasian-looking Korean animation that doesn’t involve this Japanese angle.
Moving now to Iwabuchi’s book more specifically, although its publication date makes it only 6 years old, most of his actual research was conducted in the mid to late-1990s, well before the internet began to have an effect on the dissemination of popular culture, so in many respects it is quite dated. But as I pointed out when I first bought it, it still informs any analysis and discussion of the spread of popular culture in East Asia – be it Korean, Japanese or otherwise – especially as, however unsexy this is in 2008, most of it is still done in practice by traditional media companies selling, buying and shipping content overseas, albeit the illegal CDs sold on the street having their content originally downloaded from the internet rather than burned on the former’s arrival.
( Source )
To begin properly then, crucial to Iwabuchi’s arguments is the notion of a product’s “cultural odor”, which isn’t as abstract as perhaps it first sounds:
The cultural impact of a particular commodity is not necessarily experienced in terms of the cultural image of the exporting nation. For example, in the realm of audiovisual commodities, there is no doubt that Japan has been a dominant exporter of consumer technologies as well as animation and computer games…[they]…have certainly had a tremendous impact on our everyday life, an impact which is, in a sense, more profound than that of Hollywood films. (pp. 24-25).
I would suggest that the major audiovisual products Japan exports could [best] be characterized as the “culturally odorless” three C’s: consumer technologies (such as VCRs, karaoke, and the Walkman); comics and cartoons (animation); and computer/video games. I use the term cultural odor to focus on the way in which cultural features of a country of origin and images or ideas of its national, in most cases stereotyped, way or life are associated positively with a particular product in the consumption process. Any product may have various kinds of cultural association with the country of its invention. Such images are often related to exoticism, such as the image of the Japanese samurai or the geisha girl. Here, however, I am interested in the moment when the image of the contemporary lifestyle of the country of origin is strongly and affirmatively called to mind as the very appeal of the product, when the “cultural odor” of a cultural commodity is evolved. The way in which the cultural odor of a particular product becomes a “fragrance” – a socially and culturally acceptable smell – is not determined simply by the consumer’s perception that something is “made in Japan.” Neither is it necessarily related to the material influence or quality of the product. It has more to do with the widely disseminated symbolic images of the country of origin…[such as with McDonald's association with an attractive image of the "American way of life"]. (pp. 27-28)
For those interested, the point about “culturally odorless” karaoke was echoed by Bill Kelly in his chapter entitled “Japan’s Empty Orchestra: Echoes of Japanese culture in the performance of karaoke” in this 1998 book that I discuss in two posts (here and here) on the reasons karaoke is so popular in Korea and Japan:
A global phenomenon which has been successfully marketed throughout Southeast Asia, Australia, New Zealand, North America and many parts of Europe, karaoke is a rare (and perhaps the only) example of a modern leisure activity “made in Japan” and transplanted overseas. [But] as a Japanese cultural commodity, it is the object – the karaoke machine – and not so much the culture, as defined by its use in a particular social context, which has been exported (p. 76).
Returning to Iwabuchi:
Sony’s Walkman is an important cultural commodity that has influenced everyday life in various ways….[One source] argues that it may signify “Japaneseness” because of its miniaturization, technical sophistication, and high quality. Yet, I suggest, although such signs of “Japaneseness” are analytically important, they are not especially relevant to the appeal of the Walkman at a consumption level. The use of the Walkman does not evoke images or ideas of a Japanese lifestyle, even if consumers know it is made in Japan and appreciate “Japaneseness” in terms of its sophisticated technology. Unlike American commodities, “Japanese consumer goods do not seek to sell on the back of a Japanese way of life”, and they lack any influential “idea of Japan”.
The cultural odor of a product is also closely associated with racial and bodily images of a country of origin. The three C’s I mentioned earlier are cultural artifacts in which a country’s bodily, racial, and ethnic characteristics are erased or softened. The characters of Japanese animation and computer games for the most part do not look “Japanese.” Such non-Japaneseness is called mukokuseki, literally meaning “something or someone lacking any nationality,” but also implying the erasure of racial or ethnic characteristics or a context, which does not imprint a particular culture or country with those features.
As a linguistic aside, knowing that “무” or “mu” meant “none” or “absent” in Korean, and that the “koku” in the Japanese term above probably meant the same as “국” or “gook” which means “country”, then I wondered what the final “seki” above meant in Korean also. By looking at the Chinese characters (無國籍) for the term from here, I figured out that the Korean equivalent is “적” or “jok” (say the “o” as in “hot”), which means “a record” or “a register”. So the final Korean equivalent is “무국적” or “mu-gook-jok”, which literally means “no-country-register”.
Any students of Korean that don’t already incorporate Chinese characters in their learning methods then I recommend these early posts of mine, with rather unconventional study subjects but still quite serious and I think useful suggestions for learning Korean vocabulary. But back on topic though, while searching for the above I happened to find this discussion of the term on a manga-related website, which gives examples of non-mukokuseki exceptions that prove the rule. But while certainly hardly the last word on the subject, I’m afraid that I’m definitely not going to look any further amongst the no-doubt tens of millions of mostly NSFW English-language webpages on Japanese manga to find more discussion of it. Continuing then:
Internationally acclaimed Japanese animation director Oshii Mamoru suggests that Japanese animators and cartoonists unconsciously choose not to draw “realistic” Japanese characters if they wish to draw attractive characters. In Oshii’s case, the characters tend to be modeled on Caucasian types. Consumers of and audiences for Japanese animation and games, it can be argued, may be aware of the Japanese origins of these commodities, but those texts barely feature “Japanese bodily odor” identified as such. (p. 28)
Having identified and outlined the phenomenon of culturally odorless Japanese products then, the final part of this post is on the why. Or…ahem…at least it was, for the questions buzzing in my head as I’ve been typing this post have completely derailed the careful plans I originally had for it, and I need to resolve them before continuing. In particular, I don’t know how to square all the above with the popular and distinctly Japanese-smelling dramas of the 1990s and the in fact celebration of the Japaneseness of the Japanese Wave as a whole; I still think it’s possible, but I’ve got some more thinking to do before continuing…but then it’s already been six days since my last post. Very unusually for me then, for the sake of giving you something to read and get some feedback then I’ll post this first half now, apologize for the premature ending and the…*cough*…measly 2300 words, and do my best to complete the second half in the next few days. Deal?
(Eiko Hanamura Image Source: PingMag)
Part Two (November 24)
Apologies for the long delay to completing this post, which was partially due to a bad cold, partially due to the increasing demands of my two daughters, and primarily because, after my rereading of his book, I no longer find Iwabuchi’s arguments surrounding mukokuseki as clear-cut or as compelling as I did when I wrote the first half; in fact, it turns out that he doesn’t actually mention the reasons for its origins at all, and ultimately I had to infer them. I think that that’s quite an oversight on his part, considering how much the concept of mukokuseki informs his discussion of the spread of Japanese popular culture in East Asia and all, but that’s not to say that I don’t find that still fascinating, nor that it’s not full of great, albeit indirect relevance to this specific topic. It’s just that with all that ultimately only relevant-sounding information in there, it took me a while to notice that omission.
First, a quick recap: a week ago I said that the two main factors behind the phenomenon of mukokuseki were Western media companies “internationalizing” Japanese cultural products for global consumption, and Japanese artists, animators, and game designers subconsciously at least wanting to make their products more palatable to East Asian consumers by removing their “Japaneseness”, thereby dispelling any notions that they constituted a renewed Japanese cultural imperialism among still sensitive East Asian populations. The first is still true as I’ll explain, but then the successes of distinctly Japanese dramas and music in East Asia since the 1980s confused me, for surely they completely contradicted the latter?
Well yes, of course, but timing proved to be crucial for my solving of that conundrum, for not only did mukokuseki become the “default option” for Japanese animation well before the 1980s, but this was overwhelmingly for domestic reasons. In contrast, the successes of Japanese dramas and music and so on three decades later occurred in a wholly different environment, (primarily) economic developments in the region producing both an insatiable new international demand for them from East Asian consumers but ironically also ensuring that Japanese media companies on their own lacked the logistical capabilities to satisfy it. Which, rather annoyingly for the structure I originally planned for this post, brings us right back to Western media companies filling the gap, so I may as well start this, hopefully more refined explanation of mukokuseki with the circumstances behind that.
( Source: IconicIonic )
Japanese media companies are a favorite of Western commentators on Japan, for while at the time Sony’s purchase of Colombia in 1989 and Matsushita’s purchase of MCA (Universal) in 1990 became a symbol of Japanese economic ascendancy and US decline, and as such provoked a considerable backlash (expressed in the movies Black Rain (1989) and Rising Sun (1993) later, and I highly recommend the well-researched book the latter was based on), with the collapse of the Japanese economy in the 1990s, Sony struggling for years to make a profit, and Matsushita even ultimately withdrawing from its purchase, then they became even better known as symbols of Japanese hubris before the fall. Nevertheless, they were still a sign of the start of Japan’s hitherto invisible and odorless cultural presence in the world starting to become more and more conspicuous, and Iwabuchi reports that the surprising success of computer games in general and animations like Akira (1988) and Ghost in the Shell (1995) in Western markets was indeed appropriated by nihonjinron nationalists in Japan to promote their own views and certainly did encourage “an increasingly narcissistic interest in articulating the distinctive “Japaneseness” of cultural products in 1990s Japan,” and presumably both did come to have some impact on the production and reception of Japanese dramas and so on. But while those are not my focus, it should be noted that concerns about a renewed Japanese cultural imperialism and arrogance by Japanese and East Asian commentators were very much raised only after Japanese cultural products had become popular. Which does tend to be the case with backlashes of course, but my point is that, unlike what I originally thought, wariness about the possibility of a one never really entered the minds of the producers of Japanese cultural products originally. Nor, with the case of animation, after the event either, for however much the newfound success of Japanese animation was used and/or interpreted to other ends, those actually in the industry were acutely aware of the crucial Western role in their economic success.
Why? If I could I’d love to step back and provide the context of Japan lacking the “soft power” embedded in US products, and which thus renders most correlations of “Japanization” with globalization/Americanization misguided, but that would be too tangential even for me. It will suffice to merely bear that in the back of your mind as you read the additional context and then specifics in the following lengthy quotes from Iwabuchi I’ll provide to answer that, as it will of the fact that the relative decline but still supremacy of American cultural power rendered Japan only one of several regional and media cultural centers worldwide as the industry consolidated over the 1990s (other notable ones being Brazil, Egypt and Hong Kong).
It is important “to place the significance of Japanese inroads into Hollywood, as well as the international popularity of Japanese animation and computer games, within a wider picture of transnational media and market interconnections….The rise of Japanese media industries articulates a new phase of global cultural flow dominated by a small number of transnational corporations. These moves testify to the increasing trend of global media mergers which aim to offer a “total cultural package” of various media products under a single conglomerate. After all, the reason Sony and Matsushita bought into Hollywood was not to dominate American minds, but rather to centralize product distribution. The purpose was to construct a total entertainment conglomerate through the acquisition of control over both audiovisual hardware and software. It was based upon the sober economic judgment that “it is cultural distribution, not cultural production, that is the key locus of power and profit”. The incursion can thus be seen as a confirmation of the supremacy of American software creativity and therefore of Japan’s second-rate ability as a software producer (p.37)
On top of that:
…finding a local partner is particularly important in facilitating the entry of non-Western media industries and cultural products into Western markets. [One source points out] three strategic patterns of activities for global media corporations: producing cultural products; distributing products; and owning hardware that delivers products. Penetration of transnational media industries into multiple markets needs the combination of at least two of the above three, particularly production and distribution, both of which are dominated by American industries. If Sony’s encroachment on Hollywood articulates Japanese exploitation of American software products in order to become a global media player, media globalization also promotes the incorporation of Japanese, and other, non-Western media products into the Western-dominated global distribution network. Japanese media industries and cultural products cannot successfully become transnational players without partners. The most serious shortcoming of the Japanese animation industry, despite mature production capabilities and techniques, is its lack of international distribution channels. Western (American) global distribution power is thus indispensable to make Japanese animation a part of global popular culture. The process can be called an “Americanization of Japanization.” (pp. 37-38)
( Is it just me, or does the figure at the top-right look like a rather coy Hugh Jackman? Source )
And now for the specifics:
For example, it was the investment and the distribution channels of a British and American company Manga Entertainment (established in 1991 and part of the Polygram conglomerate) that made Ghost in the Shell a hit in Western countries. Similarly, in 1995, Disney decided to globally distribute Miyazaki Hayao’s animated films. Miyazaki gained prestige from Disney’s decision, which helped turn his animated Princess Mononoke (もののけ姫, Mononoke Hime) into a phenomenal hit in Japan in 1997. As the producer of the film acknowledged, the fact that Hayao’s animations are highly appreciated by the global animation giant, Disney, worked well as the publicity for giving the film an international prominence.
The global success of Pokémon also has much to do with America’s intervening partnership. Most manifestly, Warner Bros., one of the major Hollywood studios, handled the global distribution of Pokémon: The First Movie, as well as televising Pokémon on its own US-wide channel. No less significant is how Pokémon has been localized, or Americanized, “to hide its ‘Japaneseness’ “as part of a global promotion strategy. Significantly, it is the remade-in-the-US version of Pokémon that has been exported to other parts of the world. Thus the successful marketing of Pokémon as a global character owes much to American intervention (handled by Nintendo of America), which testifies to another “Americanization of Japanization.” Japanese animation’s inroads into the global market articulate the ever-growing global integration of markets and media. The examples discussed above clearly show that the Japanese animation industry is becoming a global player only by relying on the power of Western media.”(p. 38)
( Scene from 1977 Korean Animation “태권동자 마루치” (Taekwondo Child Maruchi), with many more available here. To be fair, I imagine that the blond girl is probably supposed to be an actual Caucasian )
Having discussed those economic realities, here I originally planned to discuss those economic developments in the region that led to a sudden new demand for Japanese cultural products, namely the fact that many East Asia countries had largely caught up economically with Japan and thus felt an increasing cultural and lifestyle-affinity with Japanese people that they hadn’t previously. Again fascinating, as it ties in well with economic “flying geese” economic theories that helped buttress many (self-congratulatory) Japanese commentators’ views that Japanese cultural products were “articulating modernity for them,” much like American cultural products had done for them previously, which in turn led to a later popularity of Hong Kong cultural products in Japan, Hong Kong easily being an “other” that could be seen as a younger, more naive but also more passionate and vital version of Japan itself in Japan’s economic depression of the 1990s. And that in turn obviously heavily informs the rise and fall of the Korean Wave a little later, for numerous commentators have pointed out that Winter Sonata (겨울연가) for example, was primarily popular because it was so similar to Japanese dramas a decade earlier. Was the failure of the Korean Wave then (to the extent that we can describe it as a single event that is), partially due to its products having to simultaneously embody dated themes, production methods, storylines and so on to Japanese consumers but also modern and cutting-edge ones to other East Asian consumers?
Simplistic I know, and so many questions to pursue, but then this post is *cough* about the origins of mukokuseki, and which it took me a considerable amount of time to find even an indirect reference to in Iwabuchi’s book. But here’s the section of his book which made things click for me, which is from a discussion of a 1994 article in a Taiwanese music magazine about the spread of Japanese popular culture among Asian youth:
According to the author of the article, there are two related points in testifying to the potential of Japanese popular culture to facilitate Asian dialogue. First is the fact that Japan has had “no hand” in the dissemination of Japanese popular music and TV programs in the Asian regions. The spread of Japanese popular culture “has occurred with virtually no effort on the Japanese side: the East Asian middle class took note of Japanese popular culture and chose to embrace it of its own accord.”….Honda considers [this] “spontaneous” reception by Asian audiences [is] important, if Japanese cultural exports are to overcome the historical legacy of Japanese imperialism. And this is related to Honda’s other point that the universal appeal of Japanese popular culture lies in its non-self-assertive mukokuseki nature.
Honda refers to mukokuseki…[as a] “country-neutral quality” due to the massive influence of the American original. Such mukokuseki Japanese popular culture, Honda argues, unlike traditional Japanese images of Japanese culture and society, have a cosmopolitan appeal that articulates “a sharp break from the traditional, prewar image,” and they will lead to “[erasing] the old, oppressive image of the country – especially among the younger generation.”(pp. 77-78, referring to Honda Shirõ, 1994, “East Asia’s middle class tunes into today’s Japan” in Japan Echo 21 (4): 75-79. My emphasis)
And so that, however unsatisfying I acknowledge it may well be, is what I think are the origins of mukokuseki: a deliberate effort to completely break from (and perhaps partially atone) for the definitively cultural imperialist policies of prewar Japan in its colonies. Why only in animation, if indeed it was? I don’t know enough about Japanese culture (yet) to speculate, but I do know that underemphasizing the Japaneseness of cultural products is about as far removed from what preceded it. And the fact that many of the resulting characters happened to look Caucasian? Again, although admittedly it sounds a little clichéd, what could be more different to prewar images than positive ones of former enemies, then occupiers, rebuilders, Cold War protectors, and, for a while, personifications of modernity?
( Source )
Update: they’re not really related to the post title, but if you’ve read this far then you may also be interested in these two articles on mahwa’s success abroad and the generally slapstick style of humor used in it.
Update 2: Interestingly, the default color for Russian cartoon characters is Black!