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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

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Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

Asia Says Japan Is Top of the Pops

From the derring-do of Sailor Moon to the delights of raw fish, Japan's mass culture has taken an astonishing grip on Asia's imagination

By Jose Manuel Tesoro

GOOFY, IT IS DEFINITELY not. Nor Mickey, Minnie or Donald. Not even Masters of the Universe dolls or Transformer robots. For most Asian children, the cartoon characters of choice these days have origins a long way from Holly-wood. What we are talking about here are leggy teenage girls with elemental powers, multi-hued alien warriors, helpful robot cats and a quiet furry beast the size of a truck.

These creatures are the leading edge of an amazing invasion. In the past decade, they and other products of Japanese popular culture -- from comics to karaoke, sushi to sweets -- have become international favorites. "Our greatest rival is Disney," says Oyama Hidenori, director of Toei Animation's international department. That is not an idle boast. His company produces Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball Z, two cartoon series that are sweeping the U.S. and Europe.

Japan's mass culture has long prevailed in East Asia. Japanese comics are ubiquitous on newsstands in Mal-aysia and Hong Kong, where half of all those sold are from Japan. Stores in remote areas of the Philippines stock snacks made by Tokyo's Meiji Seika. And anyone can dial for sushi delivery in Singapore or miss high notes in karaoke bars in distant Inner Mongolia. With the Japanese cartoon craze now lapping at American and European shores, it is time to ask: why is Japan's pop culture, especially its comics and cartoon characters, so appealing to Asians and, now, the world?

"It's because they're high quality, that's all," says Toei's Oyama. True, Japan has few peers in making stylishly produced comic books and animation. But Toei and similar companies have also built a massive promotion machine to marry that quality with market clout. Manga (comic) heroes in the 1950s became animated TV stars in the 1960s. Soon after, media, comics, animation, publishing, toy and clothing companies joined forces to turn characters into commercial smashes. For example, Sailor Moon, the hit schoolgirl superhero, has inspired TV shows, musicals and over 5,000 franchised products, including schoolbags, CDs, stickers and, of course, computer games -- one of the surest ways into a youngster's heart and a parent's wallet.

Characters do not have to begin on stands or the small screen -- all they need is a canny promoter. Kitty-chan, the cat known abroad as Hello Kitty, was created by merchandiser Sanrio as a logo for children's goods. Now, the feline phenomenon accounts for over a tenth of Sanrio's annual sales of $770 million. In fact, the line between a cartoon and its commercial applications has become almost invisible. Dragon Ball Z, a show about a quest for magic orbs, mainly features constant rounds of one-on-one battles between increasingly fantastic fighters. The show is, at its core, a made-for-TV video game. Suzuki Akira, author of a book on the Japanese character-merchandising industry, estimates it is a $15 billion business -- comparable to Hyundai's revenues last year.

Suzuki did not count the overseas market. These days, the animated Sailor Moon series is seen in 18 countries. Toei, the show's producer, sells it and its other series overseas with few changes. Sanrio, too, ships the same merchandise to Asia as it sells in Japan. Other companies believe customizing is the way to go. For the U.S. market, giant toy maker Bandai gives its Sailor Moon dolls American-flavored features. Oh Kah Lock, deputy sales director of Meiji Seika's Singapore office, says his company targets different age groups. Its Yan Yan biscuit-stick snacks, he says, sell well to pre-teens.

"Twenty years ago, we used to admire anything American," says Ohmori Takahiro, who directs exports to and imports from Asia at Sanrio's Tokyo headquarters. But the performance of many top Japanese companies in the past two decades has raised the whole country's commercial profile. "I am thankful to Sony and Toyota," he says. Sanrio's sales to Asia have doubled in the past five years. Almost three-quarters of its Asian revenue is earned in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Thailand, the Philippines, Sing-apore, Indonesia and Korea make up the rest. The company is now looking for partners in China and Vietnam.

John Chong, director of Malaysian comic publisher and distributor Penerbit Tora Aman, recounts how the first Japanese title he imported, Doraemon, started off with an astonishing 10,000 copies per issue. For the youngsters who buy the comic, he says, "It's something like an addiction." Hong Kong homemaker Connie Lo worries about her four-year-old, who has lost weight because of the excessive hours he spends playing electronic games on the Nintendo Gameboy. Singapore housewife Amirra Naesheim acknowledges she sometimes eats sushi every day of the week and always keeps her wardrobe stocked with Japanese designs. "They are never out of fashion," she says.

Shaharil Talib, an expert on Asian culture and sociology at the University of Malaya, sees an affinity between Asian consumers and Japanese products. "If the cartoons are winning the day, I guess they must be doing something right, something that's within the Asian system," he says. Crayon Shin Chan, Japan's version of Bart Simpson, America's popular smart-aleck, enjoys a surprisingly wide following in Hong Kong. TV program managers expected the show to attract young audiences, but surveys reveal that two out of five viewers are over 35. Felix To, program manager for ATV's Chinese-language channel, thinks the Crayon Shin Chan show appeals to parents "who have naughty kids and have been working very hard to keep close ties with their children."

Family values aside, Japanese cartoons aim for a visceral, physical wit -- unlike American shows such as The Simpsons, which is loaded with pop references and cerebral humor. So the Japanese material has a more universal impact. "Japanese cartoons have good gags," says Hong Kong mother Fung Yok Lin, whose five-year-old watches Crayon Shin Chan religiously. "If I were a kid, I would like them more than Western ones." For cultures with a strong Sinic component, Japanese cartoons have a strong whiff of familiarity. Son Goku, the protagonist of Dragon Ball, once sported a monkey tail -- and became, for knowing viewers, a modern version of the Monkey King, the popular magician-warrior of Chinese folklore.

But Toei's Oyama downplays the role culture plays in Japanese animations. "Although they may have cultural colors, their essential appeals are universal," he says. Children in France and Spain now watch Dragon Ball Z. Dolls of characters from the live-action Mighty Morphin Power Rangers TV show sold out in the U.K. this Christmas, and Sailor Moon debuted on American TV last September. More than half of Sanrio's $50 million overseas sales are in North America.

Perhaps what most entrances fans of all ages and from all regions about Japanese cartoons is their adolescent exuberance, their unique glorification of the dreams and imagery of youth. The most popular series, such as Sailor Moon and Doraemon, have children or teenagers as central characters. The world of these shows is painted in bubble-gum colors, while love and relationships take on the unserious character of teenage crushes. Futuristic sets and situations contribute to a suffused sense of innocent wonder.

Japan's fascination with childlike things could be a reflection of the "infantilism of postwar Japanese culture," as longtime Japan observer Ian Buruma puts it. In his book, The Wages of Guilt: Memories of the War in Germany and Japan, he suggests that the trauma of the postwar period may have encouraged Japanese to look at childhood with fondness. For youth implies an evasion of responsibility, a major issue for a society still struggling with its role in World War II.

But one does not need to evoke the Pacific War to explain the country's fascinations. In a society with strict structures and high expectations, fantasies flourish. Children who spend long, stressful hours preparing for all-important school examinations take refuge in cheerfully fantastic characters and animations. That, coupled with the spending power of Japan's young -- a typical 10-year-old may have $1,000 in the bank from doting relatives -- can explain the attenuated pre-adolescent orientation of Japan's pop culture.

The Japanese have coined a word for a person obsessed with pop culture: otaku, which derives from the informal form of the word "you." Eschewing society for the solace of cartoons, animations or video games, the otaku are the mental hippies of the cyber age, part-time or full-time. Many of them are office workers who, like computer enthusiasts, rush home in the evening and lock themselves away in their private world. "Animations were once considered cheap, but they have developed enough for adults to appreciate them," explains Okada Toshio, a lecturer on media at the University of Tokyo. "Now they have beautiful pictures, complex stories, sophisticated production techniques and distinct personalities."

As Asia advances, Japan's experience may have a special resonance. The region's young are under similar pressures to succeed in school and find a spot in society. They are also one of the first beneficiaries of their parents' new affluence. Colorful, trendy and surreally postmodern, cartoons and comics find an audience in those so bombarded with consumer culture that short attention spans are almost a survival tactic. "That's what kids are," says Malaysian academic Talib. "They like short messages -- impact, focus, and then images." A 320-page comic book, according to one study of manga, can be absorbed in 20 minutes, an average of less than four seconds a page.

Youngsters have simply been shaped by TV culture, says Mary Lui, editor-in-chief of Hong Kong's Elle magazine. "They are attracted by things with strong visual appeal," she explains. "Japanese pop culture provides exactly this." But short attention spans also mean that what's hot now might go cold next. Seven-year-old Lo Kin Sing declares that, before the school holidays, he and his five-year-old brother were devoted to Sailor Moon. "Now," he says, "we like Crayon Shin Chan."

Yet even if Lo and millions of Asian children tire of Sailor Moon, Crayon Shin Chan, Yan Yan, Hello Kitty or their successors, count on Toei, Bandai, Meiji Seika, Sanrio and others to churn out new fads and faces. So why isn't the rest of Asia doing the same and exporting its own characters? Says Talib: "In general, we haven't organized ourselves to market our products."

But parents may begin demanding homegrown alternatives as concern over the content of some Japanese cartoons gains momentum. The sunny space populated by Sailor Moon and her peers is only part of a sprawling manga universe that can range from the merely suggestive to the decidedly unpleasant. According to a survey conducted by Hong Kong's Lingnan College in May last year, the most popular comic title in the territory is the Japanese import Ranma 1/2. Its protagonist is a boy who turns into a buxom female when splashed with cold water. The situations he finds himself in are entertaining -- and often risquŽ. But even Ranma 1/2 is tame compared with the regular diet of sex and violence newsstands in Japan offer. One manga with a rapist hero was discontinued after protests.

"We are very selective," says Malaysian comic distributor Chong, who must show his titles to the Home Ministry for approval. "Most Japanese comics have too much violence." His company prefers to sell sports-related stories, such as SlamDunk or the football-based Captain Tsubasa. "Even then, we must be very careful in the translation," he says. But the responsibility for monitoring the content of children's reading and viewing does not rest just with the provider. Fung, the Hong Kong mother of the Crayon Shin Chan fan, feels that "parents have to be there to point out what is right and what is wrong."

At least one government has taken up the matter. Last month, Malaysia's Information Ministry instructed local broadcasting and marketing companies to drop the first two words in the title of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. Its concern: that children might conflate the Rangers and their special powers with morphine.

In the late 1970s Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos banned the broadcast of the Voltes V animated series, about a gigantic robot controlled by a team of five teens, because of its violent content. He also restricted video games parlors.

But despite these efforts to supervise Japanese cultural products, the tide is unlikely to turn. Their attraction is too widespread and Japanese companies too market-savvy. Toei has started a marketing campaign in four cities in China. If only 10% of the population get hooked on its products, says Oyama, "they make a market the size of Japan."

Indeed, Japan's ability to produce such creative whimsy despite a strictly ordered society may become even more relevant to Asian countries as they themselves try to balance intellectual ferment and social cohesion. As Asia catches up with Japan, bet on Japan's most popular export to continue to be its own mighty pop culture.

-- Reported by Murakami Mutsuko/Tokyo, Jane L. Lee/Seoul, Law Siu Lan/Hong Kong, Roger Mitton/Kuala Lumpur and Santha Oorjitham/Singapore

This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home



U.S. secretary of state says China should be 'tolerant'

Philippine government denies Estrada's claim to presidency

Faith, madness, magic mix at sacred Hindu festival

Land mine explosion kills 11 Sri Lankan soldiers

Japan claims StarLink found in U.S. corn sample

Thai party announces first coalition partner


COVER: President Joseph Estrada gives in to the chanting crowds on the streets of Manila and agrees to make room for his Vice President

THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

CHINA: Despite official vilification, hip Chinese dig Lamaist culture

PHOTO ESSAY: Estrada Calls Snap Election

WEB-ONLY INTERVIEW: Jimmy Lai on feeling lucky -- and why he's committed to the island state


COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel ì at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

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