Purity, culture and cross-culture fandom in Japanese jazz and reggae

I know, I know, right after I said that I would start posting again… Well, I have a good reason, at least. This past weekend I was at the annual Association of Asian Studies meeting. It was hectic, and tiring, and I had a blast. There are some things I will do better next time (assuming I get to go again), but overall I’m pleased with who I met, who I heard and how I spent my time.

On Saturday, I was able to go to the “Individual Papers: Gender, Sex, and Self” panel. It was largely about sociolinguistics, which I know next to nothing about, so I wasn’t sure how useful it would be to me. However, I’ve had an interest in (and written a paper on) cross-dressing characters’ use of gendered pronouns in anime, so I thought I’d see what the current thinking of experts in the field was. I got a lot out of that panel, but I wanted to write about one specific paper from it: “Dreadlocks and Dajare: Localization and Globalization in Japanese Reggae/Dancehall” by Princeton’s Noriko Manabe. Certain parts of her paper reminded me of a chapter in Japan Pop called “Can Japanese Sing the Blues?: ‘Japanese Jazz’ and the Problem of Authenticity” by E. Taylor Atkins. I’m going to simplify like mad, and only use certain parts of the two works, so if you’re at all interested I would suggest looking more closely at Manabe’s and Atkins’ work. (I also didn’t take notes at the conference and haven’t read Atkins in over a year. You get what you pay for, folks.)

Both Atkins and Manabe look at Japanese fans of genres of music which are closely associated with a specific race or ethnicity – reggae with Jamaicans and jazz with African-Americans. When I first read Atkins’ chapter I thought it was interesting, if not really up my alley. After listening to Manabe, though, I’m seeing an intriguing pattern. According to them, both reggae and jazz fans in Japan go to great lengths to maintain the purity of the music they listen to. They manage how they listen to music to make the atmosphere more like the atmosphere they believe the originating community to be. They regard Japanese performers of reggae/jazz with skepticism – to the extent that some fans deny that Japanese performers can make “real” jazz or sing deep reggae notes like Jamaican deejays – and the performers in turn go to some lengths to create pure jazz/reggae. For example, Manabe details Japanese performers taking extended trips to Jamaica, learning and using Jamaican patois and buying background rhythms from Jamaican performers. These attempts to become like the original producers have some nasty side effects, including drug addictions among jazz musicians and homophobia among reggae deejays.

Neither Manabe nor Atkins (at least that I remember) tie Japanese assertions of being one nation, one race into their discussions. Using just two papers, both of which are about musical genres, is a bit of a stretch, but I wonder whether the attitudes are not two sides of the same coin. If you grow up believing that your nation and your people are a homogeneous group that outsiders cannot completely enter or understand, then it makes sense that other peoples might similarly be unknowable to you. If that’s true, then the attitude is unhappily close to orientalism, if in reverse (also very arrogant, in an odd way).

One negative impact of this attitude was clearly displayed by Manabe. Apparently, some Japanese fans and performers of reggae have taken up the homophobia that reggae has begun to move beyond, with those performers either excusing homophobic reggae artists or actively spreading homophobia through their own actions. The implication of many of these jazz and reggae fans’ actions seems to be that a member of one racial/ethnic group can only mimic another group’s culture, not actually join it, no matter how hard he tries. But if that belief underlies their actions, these fans are just trying on Jamaican or African-American culture like a coat that can be taken off at will. I wonder if the lack of willingness to play with the culture/music reflects a lack of confidence in themselves and their own culture. After all, if you are confident in yourself then you feel that you have something to bring to the table. If you truly believed that you, as a Japanese person, could not sing deep reggae notes, but you had confidence in yourself, you might play with the effects that higher notes create. (For the record, Manabe quoted a Japanese artist who explained that the high voice effect actually came from differences in how Japanese sound companies process background tracks, or something along those lines.) Instead, a lot of these fans create very tight strictures surrounding the music and try to fit themselves into those boxes.

So, I’ve been thinking about all of this for the past few days. I’m not sure what the fact that we’re only talking about music genres implies. Would it be different if we talked about sports? Do Japanese housewives watch Korean dramas subbed or dubbed? Then, too, I’m taking the few inches these papers provide and stepping out a couple yards here. You could as easily relate these practices to a sort of decentralized iemoto system with members of the originating culture acting as heads of the line. This raises the question of how Japanese fans view producers of these genres who come from other (non-Jamaican/non-African-American) cultures as well. Hopefully someone will do some work on all of these questions…


Syllabi, continued

Sorry for the wait, I’m afraid that I got rather busy, then sick, then busy catching up from being sick… it’s been hectic. I’ve got a few things in progress on this blog, and the lack of recent progress on them is due entirely to the busy-sick-busy-ness of my recent life. I haven’t forgotten any of it, though, I promise.

To pick up on the theoretical syllabus for an anime course that I’ve been making, my thoughts have been running along the lines of “how would I organize the class?” I don’t mean in terms of class discussion versus lecture versus Blackboard postings, I mean how will I set up the course so that it builds to a conclusion in a natural manner. I could (easily) go into a classroom and lecture on Miyazaki one day, cyberpunk anime the next, production methods on day three and so on until three months pass and the students have learned a smattering of this and that but don’t have a coherent body of work to take with them in the future. That wouldn’t be very good use of anyone’s time though.

I’m leaning toward using the question “what do anime tell us about Japan?” as an organizing principle. Now, I’m a bit leery of that, for a number of reasons. But I think that it fits into the real world of college (i.e. department structure, diversity and other class requirements) very well, and I think it would let me tie together a number of disparate issues that I think ought to be covered.

I considered other organizational structures, but they feel off to me in various ways. For example, I could start with early animation and move my way up through time to today, looking at what issues were covered when and how alongside evolving production techniques. That has the benefit of giving students a better basis for judging whether a work is derivative or actually represents something new and interesting. However, that also limits discussion in a number of ways, and emphasizes technical aspects, like the CGI or hand-drawing debate, over the issues discussed in individual works.

So, back to the theoretical syllabus as it stands. Focused on seeing what anime tells us about Japan, we start reading a chapter of Peach Girl in class on the first day and then watching the first episode of the anime version. Right off the bat, we’re both problematizing the idea of judging anime without knowledge of the materials on which it was based (assuming it isn’t an original). Then we segue into talking about what the anime tells us about Japan/life in Japan. We can start with simple things – school uniforms, how people refer to each other. But that sets us up for the semester: What do we learn about Japan through anime? If its students wear uniforms, why is that? What does that tell us about the society? In turn, what do the things we learn about Japan tell us about the United States and our lives here?

Hopefully, that will get them thinking.

Alices’ Wonderlands

I wrote awhile back about the Alice in Wonderland trend. Well, I kept thinking about it, and I’ve decided to do a series of posts on various adaptations of Alice. Most of the posts will be about Japanese variations, but since I saw Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland yesterday, I thought I’d start with that. Fair warning, sailors, spoilers be ahead!

Okay, so what is Burton’s Alice? It is neither Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland nor Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, though it features characters and situations from both. However, the plot is largely new. Burton’s Alice is a 19-year-old lady facing an uninteresting marriage proposal at the beginning of the movie. The new plot involves the Red Queen as a murderous despot, whose fearsome beast Alice is foreordained to slay. Alice, however, is uninterested in slaying anything, and only gets backed into it through her deep friendship with the Mad Hatter.

(I feel the need to insert here that Johnny Depp portrays the Hatter with both charming and convincing insanity; Mia Wasikowska’s Alice is endearingly independent in a rather timid manner [at least at first]; Helena Bonham Carter’s Red Queen is self-centered in a greatly amusing way; and Anne Hathaway’s White Queen is just great – kind, but not all there, if you know what I mean, in a way that strikes me as perfect. And it wasn’t just them. There was a lot of good acting going on.)

*Ahem* Anyway, Alice is made older and the plot involves more action. This is where I got very excited: this film is crazy female character-centric. While TtL-GawAFT had the two kings show up for various portions of the book, the only time either shows up in this film is when we see the Red King’s head (sans Red King) floating in the Red Queen’s moat. Moreover, Alice’s story comes a lot closer to traditional male coming of age tales in this movie than it does in the original. In fact, the original is really more about a daydream (well, a pair of dreams) than about growth as a person.

The new movie is, instead, a bildungsroman. The unwanted marriage proposal creates social pressure which forces Alice to run away for a time to Underland (as it is called in this film). In Underland, she is informed that she has lost her “muchness”, to the extent that she is not even considered to be Alice. The White Queen eventually spells it out for both Alice and the audience: she will stand alone against the Jabberwocky, so she must choose – alone, without the pressure of others – whether to fight.

Once she has regained her muchness, or become self-actualized, Alice can then make choices for herself. She decides to leave Underland, and turns down the proposal in favor of going into business. In our final view of her, she is standing on the bow of a ship headed to China for trade. The implication is that she kickstarts trade between Great Britain and China.

Burton’s Alice is a young woman who begins by being swept hither and thither by whomever is around, but ends by changes the currents of global trade herself. From one who is acted on, to one who acts. And Alice acts kindly. She tries to help an old, delusional aunt, she helps preserve her sister’s peaceful marriage and her business acumen supports herself so that her mother won’t worry. She backs up that kindness with steel: she kills the Jabberwocky that terrified Underland’s citizens into behaving. In other words, Alice becomes the ideal classical warrior. I wonder what Lewis Carroll would say?


I was watching the newest episode of one of my current favorite series – NCIS: Los Angeles – Tuesday when I noticed a shout out. Or at least, that’s how I think of them. I’ve also heard of them called in jokes, though I wonder whether it might be possible to separate the two terms.

“Chinatown”, the episode I was watching, is about Chinese spies. At one point, a Chinese spy uses a Chinese man who the police call a member of the Asian gang Hiragana. Throughout the show, the makers do a pretty good job (as far as I can tell) regarding Chinese things, meaning accents and such. Moreover, the Chinese tong has figured in many American TV shows and movies over the years, so the terminology associated with it should be easy to grasp for a group that clearly spent some time on getting fluent Chinese speakers and translating dialogue. Yet Hiragana is clearly a reference to the Japanese syllabary. I can only guess that that is an intentional shout out to those with some knowledge of Asia, Japan in particular. Does one of the writers have a little Japan in her past? Who knows?

Every so often I catch one of these, and they never fail to amuse me. Some of them – the ones that I would be more likely to call in jokes – reference something that only a person who follows a specific person’s works or has seen all of a series (or all of the bonus materials available online/on DVD) will know. Hiragana feels more like a shout out to me; anyone with passing knowledge of Japanese will get it, regardless of how much they know about NCIS or the actors/directors/screenwriters/et cetera. Do you recall an in joke or shout out that you particularly liked? What was it?

By the way, NCIS: Los Angeles rocks (as does its predecessor, NCIS). You can watch recent episodes here, should you be so inclined.