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November 7, 2006

In Yoyogi Park

I posted this to my blog this morning but thought it was interesting regarding work here at C3 on fan communities and the global spread of popular culture.

The other week, I was asked to speak about globalization and new media to a delegation of Japanese businessmen who were visiting MIT. In the process of preparing for this talk, I dug back through a few of the things I wrote after a visit I took to Tokyo a few years ago. I thought it might be worth dusting them off and sharing with my readers here. What follows is an excerpt from an essay called "Media Literacy -- Who Needs It?" which builds on my experience of visiting Yoyogi Park on a Sunday afternoon.

I found Yoyogi to be a key location for understanding not simply the varied subcultures of Japan (they all seem to have a niche somewhere in the park's eleborate cultural ecostructure) but also the global exchange of cultural materials. I write here about two things I saw in the park -- the cosplay which takes place around anime and the rockabilly inflected youth culture called Yanquees -- but I could have taken you deeper into the park, where, for example, one could see teens rehearsing elaborately choreographed imitations of boy band music videos, even as a few feet away others are pounding on traditional Japanese drums.

In YoYogi Park

Our story starts in Yoyogi Park on a bright Sunday afternoon last spring. Yoyogi Park is a center for youth culture in Tokyo - near Akiharbara which used to be the electronics sector but is increasingly known as the Otaku (or fan) district and Harajuku where fashionable young girls go to buy clothes. In my short time in Japan, I had already discovered the way cultural practices - forms of consumption for the most part - mapped onto spatial locations, much the way the geography of the World Wide Web structures the interactions between various American subcultures and fan communities.

Every group seemed to have their own district, their own homeland, within contemporary Tokyo. The second thing that had struck me is the public nature of these passions and fascinations - the need to act out ones fantasy, the desire to form affiliations with others who shared your tastes. Yoyogi Park is where all of this comes together. In this realm, to consume is to participate and to participate is to assume some kind of new identity.

As you approach Yoyogi Park from the Harajuku train station, the first thing you see are the Cosplay Kids. These are young girls (and a few young boys) who have come to Yoyogi dressed as characters from anime, manga, or Jpop. They have come to see and be seen. Often, if you go into the manga shops, you can find brightly colored fliers urging fans of a particular cartoon series to rendezvous in the park on a certain date often with very specific directions about what to wear. Yet, because there are so many different fan communities, one can see many different identities being performed on this somewhat narrow piece of concrete - spies with shiny new weapons, space adventurers and demonic figures, people in Goth or renaissance courtly garb, the furries who are fascinated with anthropomorphic animals, Nanas who most often wear Victorian nurse and nanny uniforms, and so forth.

Many of them spent a good deal of time posing for pictures being taken not simply by tourists but also by their fellow fans; these pictures are being recorded by cell phone, camcorder, or digital cameras and many of them soon to be distributed via the web. The costumes and makeup are elaborate, richly detailed, and for the most part, home crafted. The kids take great pride in their costumes though they may own multiple costumes reflecting multiple cultural identities.

For many Americans visiting Tokyo for the first time, all of this is apt to seem alien or typically Japanese. But I knew about this cosplay before I arrived in part because of an interview my graduate student, Vanessa Bertozzi, had done with a 17 year old American girl named Chloe Metcalf. One of a number of teenagers we contacted as part of the Young Artist project, Chloe was active in the American cosplay community.

Here's some of what she told Vanessa:

I have been really interested in Japanese culture since I was in Sixth Grade. When I was in the Seventh grade, I started studying Japanese on my own. When I got into high school, I started taking Japanese courses at Smith College. I got into costuming through anime which is actually how I got interested in Japanese. And I taught myself how to sew. ...I'm a stage hog. I like to get attention and recognition. I love acting and theater. The biggest payoff of cosplay is to go to the conventions where there are other people who know who you are dressed as and can appreciate your effort. At the first convention I ever went to, I must have had fifty people take my picture and at least ten of them came up and hugged me. It's almost like whoever you dress up as, you become that person for a day....People put the pictures up on their websites after the con. So after a con, you can search for pictures of yourself and if you are lucky, you will find five or ten.

A number of things interest me about Chloe. First is the degree to which she transforms fantasies born of media consumption into various kinds of performance. In this context, I see performance, impersonation, enactment as important kinds of media literacy skills which are often neglected in our recent focus on visual or digital literacy. A growing body of literature has shown that children acquire basic literacies and competencies through learning to manipulate core cultural materials. As they do so, they negotiate a space between self and other which helps them to work through issues of personal identity and cultural membership. These ways of playing with texts become more and more sophisticated as children mature with adolescence becoming a central site for identity play and self-invention. For her, assuming the role of a Jpop character becomes a way of expressing her mastery over favorite texts - fusing her identity with that of a fictional character. Kids have told me that role play allows them to become the person they want to be rather than simply satisfying adult demands or accepting the often unwelcome identities projected upon them at school.

For Chloe, the identity she is constructed doesn't simply involve breaking with the parochialism of her local culture but it also involves the creation of strong emotional bonds she feels towards cultures produced in other parts of the world, cultures that are not easily accessible in a marketplace which historically has been highly protective of its local culture industries.

When she told Vanessa that a particular JPop group was "her favorite group in the whole wide world," one has the sense that she is actually talking on a global scale, especially when she adds that the group is little known outside of its genre or beyond the Asian context. She has sought out more and more information about forms of Asian popular culture. And in the process, she has begun to re-imagine her relations to the world - seeing herself as tied in important ways to the kinds of Japanese youth culture I had encountered in Yoyogi Park.

This search for more information expresses itself across a range of media - the videos or DVDs she watches of Japanese produced anime, the recordings of JPop music which may consumed on MP3 or on CD, the information she finds on the internet as well as information she shares with her fellow fans about her own activities, the physical costumes she generates as well as all of the photographs that get taken of her costumes, the magazines and comics she reads to learn more about Japanese popular culture, her face to face contacts with fellow fans. An elaborate underground economy emerges to support the circulation of these materials, including grassroots efforts to translate and dub illegally imported anime so that it can be made accessible to a broader public.

These activities around popular culture in turn translate into other kinds of learning including much which would warn the hearts of educators. As a middle school student she has already begun to study Japanese language and culture first on her own and later at a local college. This is a story one hears again and again from language instructors - how kids like Chloe are moving from interest in Asian popular culture towards seeking out classes in Asian cultures and languages.

Here, we run up against old anxieties about marketing and cultural imperialism which have animated earlier stages of the American media literacy movement. Some would argue that Chloe is not so much learning or experimenting as being possessed by cultural materials not of her own making. Others would argue that she is simply a victim of the economic expansion of Japanese media companies into the American marketplace. Yet, it would be a mistake to see Chloe and the other American cosplayers as simply duplicating cultural experiences imported into Japan or buying into media franchises. Rather, they are as much involved in transformation as consumption, in localization as globalization.

We can see this more clearly if we walk another few yards into Yoyogi Park. Here, you see a very different kind of cultural phenomenon - a pack of fifty or more Japanese rockabilly fans dancing to recordings of Elvis, wearing black leather jackets and exaggerated greaser haircuts, and performing flamboyant and energetic dance moves which mix traditional rock and roll with break-dancing. They call themselves the Yanquees and by all reports they have been coming to the park every weekend for several decades to pay tribute to the King.

At first glance, it is easy to see their passionate response to American popular culture but one needs to look more closely to see the ways that those influences have been reabsorbed back into more distinctly Japanese cultural practices. For one thing, this is a highly hierarchical culture with many rituals designed to insure discipline within the rank and file as well as respect for the most esteemed members. In this case, the leader of the pack is the only one allowed to wear a red jacket - an insignia of rank based on the red jacket which James Dean wore in Rebel Without a Cause. In their cultural mythology, the only person more powerful than Elvis is Jimmy Dean. Almost certainly the reverse is also true - Chloe and her friends pull the Japanese practice of Cosplay back into the social dynamics of 21st century suburban America. Even as they seek to connect with other cultures, they read them through the lens of their own culture.

For another, there is the gender segregation of the group. If cosplay is mostly but not exclusively female, the Yanquees are overwhelmingly but not exclusively male. I keep finding myself wondering what it meant for the two female members of the pack to dress in Elvis drag and dance with all of these muscular guys in the park. How might the fantasies provided by American popular culture allow them to escape constraints on gender performance in their own country? Or conversely, how are American boys taking advantage of the cross-dressing elements of cosplay to escape repressive constraints on male gender performance in the United States? In both cases, these youth seek a kind of freedom or fluidity of identity denied them in their own country but granted them more readily by engaging in cultural practices from elsewhere.

A long tradition of cultural scholarship has focused on the ways that youth around the world have used American cultural imports to break free from - even if only temporarily and even if only in their own imaginations - the parochialism of their own societies. Much less has been written about the ways American youth escape the parochialism of our own culture through engaging with forms of popular culture imported from Japan, China, India, or Latin America. In a recent essay, I described these practices as pop cosmopolitanism.

Historically, cosmopolitans sought knowledge and experience which took them beyond the borders of their local community. We associate the term cosmopolitanism with various forms of high culture - fine wine, painting, music, dance, theater, the art cinema, gourmet cooking, and so forth. Yet, today, popular culture performs this same function for a growing number of young people around the world. Their mastery over these cultural materials help them form emotional bonds, however imaginary, with their counterparts in other countries - not simply with Japan where this culture originates but in many other countries where these materials are also consumed. It provides common cultural currency for exchanges on the internet which may cut across national borders. This turn towards global identities is all the more striking when you consider the unilateralism currently shaping American foreign policy and the anti-Americanism which is surfacing around the world. Kids may be learning how to become global citizens through their engagement with popular culture at a time when their parent cultures are increasingly shaped by fundamentalism and nationalism.

I came to a new understanding of this pop cosmopolitanism when I stopped for groceries in a chain store in Clayton. Georgia, a small community in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. As I got in line, I heard the man in front of me ask in a broad southern accent why the "rolley-poley" and very white checkout girl had a Japanese name on her badge. She was trying to explain to him that this was an identity she assumed through her cosplay and that many of her friends - especially on the internet - knew her through that name. He was perplexed and demanded to know "how in the world she got interested in that." I could have pointed out the fact that this grocery store didn't sell Time, Newsweek or Entertainment Weekly - but did carry about a dozen gun magazines and the American edition of the Japanese manga, Shonen Jump. She tried to explain her interest by pointing towards the growing popularity of Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh!! and the young kid in the grocery cart, who was little more than a toddler, pulled out his Pokémon cards and started waving them proudly to his father. They went away and I told her that I was an otaku myself. She was shocked both because she had never met an anime fan quite as old as I was and because she didn't know that there were any other fans locally. We talked briefly and I went on my way.

I often reflect on that moment as one that illustrates a kind of transition in our culture - each person in the story having a somewhat different relation to the flow of Asian popular culture into the American market - the father finding it inexplicable, his son finding it normal, the girl finding it a source of personal identity and I finding it a kind of intellectual interest. I also think often of what being connected to anime fandom must have meant to this Appalachian girl - a connection to the world beyond the often narrow confines of this town, a means of knowledge and experience which set her apart both from the adults around her but apparently from many of her classmates. We might well imagine that this experience meant for her some of the same things that imitating Elvis might have meant to the Japanese women I saw in Yoyogi Park.

I have devoted time on my experiences as a tourist visiting Yoyogi Park because I think what I saw there - and what I saw in the North Georgia grocery -- illustrate fairly well the complexity of young people's relationship to popular culture. Those relationships can not be reduced to traditional dualisms of production and consumption. In no meaningful sense are these kids simply consumers of cultural materials produced by others even if they are very much drawn to the content of commercial culture. Rather I would argue that they are participants - shaping the flow of cultural materials across national borders, tapping into a global information network to support their activities, transforming the media they consumed into new forms of cultural expression, moving beyond the constraints placed on them in their local environments to tap a freedom that comes from stepping outside one's own culture and embracing pop cosmopolitanism.

At the same time, it doesn't make sense to talk about this purely in terms of new media or digital culture. The availability of new technologies has enabled some of their activities but kids are also enacting these interests through very traditional forms of cultural practice. Chloe, for example, told us about a friend who had taught himself how to make his own buttons in order to more perfectly recreate the costumes of a Japanese Jpop band. What would it mean to think of these kinds of activities as a kind of media literacy put into practice? To recreate Japanese costumes and customs, they must first study and then master them. They understand these cultures from the inside out - drawing on personal reflection to flesh out things they might otherwise have known only through books or media representations. As they mimic these cultural practices, they are drawn towards further research, trying to master the language, trying to understand the much older traditions which gave rise to this popular culture, trying to understand the lives of their friends in other parts of the world. We can see performance and role playing as a catalyst which motivates media literacy on the one hand and informal learning of academic disciplines on the other. Of course, it's worth noting how few American schools offer Japanese as a language or provide any real opportunity for kids to dig this deeply into Asian culture. These informal learning communities, in fact, are teaching kids things that most adults would see as valuable but which they can't learn in schools.

For more thoughts on the concept of Pop Cosmopolitanism, see my new book, Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture.

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