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The 51st State

James Southcott explores the collaboration of Japanese and American cultures and their effects upon popular art.

BY James Southcott

Who would have thought, two of the most contrasting cultures separated by language, politics and 10,000 miles of ocean could together create some of the most innovative, thought-provoking and popular art the world has ever seen? Feudalist Japan and conservative America differ in many ways, from the Big Mac to Nattō, Chevrolet to Suzuki, the list is endless. But without one another some of the greatest pop-culture and entertainment would never have come to fruition.

After the bombs fell, an even larger explosion of culture was felt across Japan; creativity flourished between the two nations shortly after, no longer bided by their own rules and traditional styles of art. For centuries Japan was heavily secluded from the Western world, isolating itself in an attempt to preserve its long, rich and unique culture. It wasn’t until the 1850s before it finally opened its ports, allowing Western culture and trade on its shores and thus paved the way for a cultural eruption in the years to come. In the beginning trading relationship, the main export between both countries, was textiles, ornaments, jewellery, spices and other culinary, in other words: art and food. And 150 years later has anything really changed? Japan’s influence over Western culture is as prevalent as eating your lunch, visiting any high street supermarket you’re guaranteed to gaze over a Japanese product whilst searching for your midday sustenance. After debating between a Chicken BLT or a Cheddar Ploughman’s for half an hour you finally decide on Sushi as part of your £3 meal deal, combining it with a bag of McCoy’s and a Naked smoothie (the best value for money, trust me) to create a lunch representing a plethora of different cultures right on your dinner plate.

“Once a mysterious, remote oriental country, today's Japan is one of the US' closest friends. Japanese culture is becoming part of ordinary American people's daily lives: They eat sushi, drink sake, study judo, watch Japanese cartoons, and study the Japanese language.”

Chen Kangling - Global Times 2015

Across Western Cities Panda Express, YO! Sushi and Bobo tea stalls are a common sight on high streets; Japanese culture is slowly taking over our traditional Western diets and inspiring new dishes. The same can also be said for Japan, it goes without saying McDonald’s has taken the casual dining experience by storm across the globe but Japan has still found a way to implement their own culture on the menu such as the Mega Teriyaki Burger (Google it, it looks amazing) or the adventurous wasabi nugget dipping sauce. The opening of the American diner chain Denny’s across Japan provides the American dining experience with a Japanese twist, showing the collaborative relationship that both nations share with food. The Japanese describe this infusion of Western and Japanese recipes Yōshoku, with dishes such as katsu curry being directly inspired by Western cuisine. Anyway, enough about food because I could talk all day about meal deals and it’s making me crave a sandwich.

Photo by @trime

One of the earliest instances of the two nations inspiring each other was through the film industry. Japanese cinema was heavily influential to Hollywood and vice-versa, most noticeably with directors such as Akira Kurosawa whose films such as Seven Samurai  and Yojimbo  were very much influential to the American director John Ford’s western films in their narratives and themes of good vs evil. But the same time Kurosawa’s Ran is directly inspired by Shakespeare’s King Lear which is a world renowned western play written at the time of British colonisation of the far east. Obviously, we couldn’t talk about Japan without discussing anime. Disney may have coined animation as a means of storytelling, but Japan certainly mastered it. From Snow White to Spirited Away, animation is one of Japan’s largest exports of entertainment with shows such as Dragonball Z and Pokémon becoming a staple of almost every American child’s life growing up in the 1990s.

None more so than in the 1980s was the peak of this cultural hotpot, capitalism took over Japan with conglomerates such as Nintendo and Sony consuming the entertainment industry; Japan became the forefront of cutting-edge technology and still is to this day. There was a never-ending flow of content being produced between these two countries. Anime became incredibly popular and widespread within the US, American films began implementing Japanese culture into their films using such as Big Hero 6’s San Fransokyo and Bladerunner’s L.A being the perfect examples of the hybrid cities of Japanese culture integrating with Western cities. Bladerunner presented a futuristic Los Angeles heavily influenced by both Japanese and American culture, presenting a city of both Eastern and Western architecture producing a multicultural fusion of the two cultures through the cityscape, and characters predicting a future of multiculturalism and harmony. Bladerunner fantasises of a globalised Los Angeles, which what we are definitely seeing in today’s society more so on the east coast than anywhere else. With the whole millennial trend of being healthy and purchasing exotic goods in an attempt to stay relevant (hence why I’ve just bought a cheeseboard and tea set). Japanese culture has become the forefront of the millennial movement. Yoga, Buddhism and Minimalism are taking over the minds and life’s lives of millennials. Sushi is now a staple diet of many 20 somethings, and anything remotely Japanese is thrust into their shopping kart alongside a £10 avocado and a lavender and elderberry craft ale.

Photo by @bady

“Yet it's the post-war generations who have really basked under the rising sun. Almost every childhood craze of the past 30 years has come from Japan: Transformers, Power Rangers, Tamagotchi, Pokémon and on and on and on. And together these have blasted through boundaries between different media.”

Peter Hoskins - The Spectator 2015

American pop-culture of the 1980s was heavily influenced by Japanese culture through toys such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the perfect amalgamation of the two cultures; Ninja Turtles eating pizza is the epiphany of Japanese and American convergence culture. Countless fads and trends all started in Japan such as Pokémon and Tamagotchi, shaping our friendships at school break times, trading Pokémon cards and talking about the latest episode of Dragonball, little did we know our entire childhoods were being shaped by a small nation in the Pacific.

For generations the two nations have for generations influenced one another, whether that be artistically or politically. America may control the world through its government and politics, but Japan certainly has control of its culture and technology; the Pacific separating the two countries becomes a crucible of ideas and art mixing together, producing amalgamations of Eastern and Western culture. From food to film, their relationship has produced generations of art and culture, and globalisation has created one of the most post-modernist societies there is, The Vapors “I think I’m turning Japanese” which couldn’t be more true – the world is becoming ever smaller (thanks to global warming) and Japan is definitely at the forefront of progression progressing into one giant global culture.