Book Review: Japanamerica

Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded The U.S
By Roland Kelts

ISBN-10: 140398476X
ISBN-13: 978-1403984760

PROS: A breezy, readable, yet informative look at how Japanese pop culture has become part of US culture, mixing theories, the big picture, and personal stories.

CONS: The book's approach makes it more useful for getting the big picture than direct research.  Some theories may seem odd or vague.

SUMMARY: An interesting and thought-provoking book that can help you get a good picture of how Japanese culture has become prominent in the US, why it may have happened, and the future.

I picked up Japanamerica after I realized that despite my interest in things Japanese, there was a lot I hadn't understood – and I, geek that I am, hadn't given thought to how Japanese culture was affecting the U.S.  This may seem to be an odd statement, but I'm USED to the fact it's become prominent and hadn't given thoughts to why.

So with this book having good reviews, I picked it up.

Japanamerica is a journey – in some cases literally – through the world of Japanese Pop Culture in Japan and America, the fused world of "Japanamerica".  Mixing visiting historical places and persons, talking to individuals, and speculation, author Roland Kelts asks just why and how Japanese Culture is big in America, and what it may mean.

This is a phenomenally difficult task quite frankly, and he does a good job of it.

Kelts approaches his subject in several ways, mixing them together throughout the book:

  • The development of and traits of Japanese media companies.
  • The history of the U.S. interests and how those intersected with Japanese products.
  • The changing relations and technologies that made this possible.

The author handles these by using a mix of history, interviews, statistics, and speculation.  Much as it's hard to break out one factor from another, Kelts doesn't really try – the entire "Japanamerica" phenomena is studied from its facets as opposed to broken down.

Thus the book looks at everything from the way Japanese media companies have developed the ability to produce effective niche media, to the effect of Star Wars and 9/11 on American media interests, to contrasts of artistic styles between Japanese and American aesthetics.  The structure of the book itself is personal, almost like a story, and thus there are no "hard answers", so much as look at the players and their interactions.

I found the book to be very informative, mostly because of this approach – without overarcing theories or simplistic answers, the book invites you to discover what's going on through the eyes of Kelts and the people he talks to.  You don't go to this book for a list of answers – you go to it to get a feel for what's going on.

The book succeeds quite well, its only major flaw being that when the author hints at definite theories – he believes 9/11's impact had a big effect on American culture that primed it for certain interests – that the book seems to falter.  It disrupts the nuanced approach, though thankfully these moments are few.

I can't classify this as a must-read because of the specialized subject matter – I myself am glad I bought it and learned quite a deal.  I would say it is best for:

  • Those working in industries that have a heavy presence or strong relations in Japan like animation, manga, or video games.  There are some wonderful cultural, historical, and practical tidbits help you get a big picture of your industry.
  • People who are general Japanese pop culture enthusiasts, especially anime and manga, who have a general curiosity of how the cultural fusion of "Japanamerica" came about.
  • Anyone interested in working in Japan because of their hobbies.
  • Those who work with anime conventions and similar events – it'll give you a lot of ideas for panels and so forth.
  • It's also a good gift, though be warned the author does take time to discuss some of the seedier aspects of Japanese pop culture, which could shock some, despite his approach.

I hope Kelts continues to write on these subjects.  This was a useful and informative book – that now I have to lend out to a few friends . . .

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– Steven Savage