Cross-Cultural Influence

Just a warning: this one goes LONG. It’s about 70 minutes as opposed to the usual 35. ^__^ Fascinating topic though! And two great quotes come out of it:

“The US and Japan will always be syncretic. It is the hallmark of our cultures. There is no way around it, nor should there be.”


“Canada gets a contact high from America.”

I’m wondering if this has happened to anyone else out there. Have you ever watched an anime show, not knowing it was anime? Apparently Charles watched a lot of “Voltron” before discovering its roots, and I know I’ve watched several animes not knowing or caring about where they originated. I think of “Sailor Moon” as my first anime because it was the first one I watched and really recognized it was a different style. However, I think my first actual anime was “Fables of the Green Forest.” Something about it just sort of felt anime-esque in a Disney-ish kind of way, like when you see the chibi-fied version of Winnie the Pooh and know instantly that it’s an anime take on a Western tradition.

So, I go to look up “Green Forest,” and whaddaya know? Not only is it a Japanese production, but it’s based on a series of books by an American writer. As an aside, I also get an indirect anime association because there’s a character named Sammy AND there was another character who was voiced by the same person who plays Sammy/Shingo (Serena/Usagi’s brother) on “Sailor Moon.” Anyway, it’s fairly clear to see that this isn’t the sort of animation that one might consider anime before giving it a second look. It bears a stronger resemblance to “Franklin” or “Little Bear” than it does to “Beyblade.”

My next anime was “The Bush Baby,” and as soon as I saw “Sailor Moon,” it clicked for me that, “hey, ‘Bush Baby’ was done in this style too.” “Bush Baby” doesn’t feel very Japanese at all, though, in terms of its setting. It was set in Africa and starred a British main character, so I assumed the show was British (due to the MC’s accent). It’s not lost on me that both of these were relatively non-violent for cartoons, and that they both had warm and fuzzy feel-good stories about protecting nature. In light of the discussion in today’s podcast about Japan’s fascination with the West, it makes sense to me that both of these properties are, indeed, Japanese anime. Both use nature as a setting that would look exotic in Japan. Indeed, I went through a big phase as a kid when I thought jungles and any story set in a jungle was the coolest thing in the world. I can totally see why Japanese kids would fall in love with a story set in an African savannah or a North American woodland.

Bush Baby

My next bunch of animes that I got into were the Sanrio stories: Hello Kitty, Keroppi, Pochacco, and shows like that. Once again, I didn’t know or care that they were Japanese. I just saw a bunch of cute baby animals and I loved it.

However, none of these shows ever had the #1 place in my heart. That spot belongs to none other than the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. So, to recap, we have a bunch of shows that are Japanese in origin and but so heavily influenced by west-focused appreciation that they aimed either for exoticism or universal appeal… and then we have a North American creation that is so steeped in Japanese culture that it would be nothing without its incorporation of martial arts, Japanese legends, and references to traditional Japan.

“Turtles” was North America in Japan’s clothing. “Green Forest,” “Bush Baby,” and “Hello Kitty” were the inverse. And none of this ever felt like the collision of two worlds, or even of two different styles. Each show just had its own special magic, blending East and West in perfect harmony. *cue uplifting music*

As Charles explains in the podcast, Japan and America’s international game of telephone comes from said cultures being mutual fans. We spoke quite a bit about Japan’s love of all things foreign, but we didn’t mention the western side all that much. North America and Europe’s fascination with Asia goes back to the time of Marco Polo. Okay, so silk and spices had their place in the economy as luxury goods, but what about the artsy stuff? What kind of cultural flair have we borrowed from Asia?

Well, first of all, back in those days, there was more of a focus on China than Japan. China had the silk industry, so that’s what got the ball rolling. That’s right: we owe “Dragon Ball Z” to modified caterpillar spit.

In any case, wherever you go, people like the exotic. It’s inspiring, it’s fancy, and it feels kind of luxurious. Maybe it’s so appealing to enjoy stuff from elsewhere because it breaks down cultural barriers and connects us to our fellow human beings. However, we don’t always get it right (eg: Supaidaman, Power Rangers, etc). In the west, we have the concept of Orientalism, which is basically western society’s “Star Wars boner” for anything eastern. The thing is, the land denoted by “the Orient” has changed.

“The Orient” refers to “however far to the east that the European empires have set up colonies.” That’s why it’s a rather Eurocentric way of describing the world, and words like “Orient” and “oriental” have fallen out of favour. When you use the term nowadays, it refers to a particular style instead of a country or its people. For example, if you have an oriental rug, it could be Persian, or Turkish, or Chinese… it’s just that style (or the West’s take on that style).

A few hundred years ago, “The Orient” meant Turkey (which was the gateway between the European and Arab worlds). Then a bit later, it referred to the Middle East. During this time, the west’s idea of the exotic and glamorous was “oriental,” meaning warm climates, desert sands, Moroccan cuisine, and Arabic calligraphy. If you wanted to make something look fancy, you added a curly flourish (also called an “arabesque”). Members of high society in Europe would while away the hours sipping mint tea and smoking from a hookah. These aren’t traditionally European practices – and that was the point. It’s kind of like how, today, sushi is a special treat. Yeah, it’s delicious and pretty, but it’s also fun because it’s not from around here. It was just the same back then as it is now – when we want to design a fancy space, we make it look minimalist and zen and maybe add a shoji screen. Back then, if you wanted to make something fancy, you made it look Middle Eastern (with the exception of Spanish architecture, which is authentically Arabian-styled because Spain was under Arab rule at the time).

As time went on and the European powers made their way east, “the Orient” came to mean east Asia. Let the international game of telephone as we know it today begin. The thing is, when we’re talking about cultures borrowing from one another, we generally mean it in an appreciative kind of way. However, when you see something as exotic, you are automatically assigning it as “the Other,” which is dicey. On the flip side of “Hey, I love you” is “You are separate from me.” It’s kind of like having a crush on someone. You don’t have a crush on yourself; you have a crush on someone else (who is a separate person from you). Even if you mean it in a totally nice way (like how some overly sweet couples call their partner “their better half”), the whole thing hinges on there being a distinction between the two. With individual people, yeah, that’s obvious they’re two different people, but when whole societies do it, it’s divisive. Within all that fanboy love, there’s an undercurrent of “We vs They.” Hey, we’re talking about colonial Europe here – they had to run their empires on that sort of thinking. Therefore, sometimes exoticism is done wrong, and I’m not talking “Supaidaman/Power Rangers” wrong. There is an undercurrent of racism at times.

There’s a theorist by the name of Edward Said (pronounced “Sai Eed”) who came up with the name “Orientalism” to describe what western culture does to exotic items (and sometimes people). The west has a habit of taking imagery from the Middle East, and Asia, and Africa, and going “Ooh, look how wild and exotic it is!” It kind of borrows another culture and either makes a freak show of it, or boils away its local significance and leaves it as merely a pretty decoration. It kind of plays into the message of colonialism by saying “We’re right and everyone else is wild and barbaric.” All I can say about that one is educate yourself. When you like something from another part of the world, or if it’s local but inspired by another part of the world, make sure you know where it comes from and what it’s supposed to mean. Be respectful of other cultures and don’t buy into the “Ooooh, that stuff is foreign!”

By all means, it’s totally cool to like stuff from around the world. Cultures sharing things and even misunderstanding one another in a loving way is what gave us “Yojimbo” and “Star Wars” and “Hello Kitty.” It’s beautiful! Just make sure you’re not doing something disrespectful or falling for an outdated misrepresentation of other people and places.

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