For Your Bookshelf: Japanamerica by Roland Kelts

July 18, 2008 at 12:20 pm

Journalist and novelist Roland Kelts’ book, Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S., is a well-presented and easy-to-read guide, perfect for anyone who’s ever wondered: “What is Pikachu, anyway?” It helps if you’re familiar with popular Japanese artists like Haruki Murakami and Takashi Murakami (both of whom are interviewed) and anime, but it’s by no means a requirement to enjoy the book.


Born to a Japanese mother and an American father, Kelts was raised in the U.S. but spent several of his adult years living in Tokyo and Osaka and still has close friends and relatives there. He’s in the perfect position to interpret the cultural cross-pollination taking place between the two countries.

His book focuses on Japan’s influence on America in the modern era (from World War II onward), as seen in virtually every aspect of life, including films, books, food, TV, toys, games, cars, and of course animation. It’s not that Japan has changed its style; rather, Americans have come to appreciate what was there all along. Kelts believes that after 9/11, Americans became hungry for the sincerity and lack of irony presented in Japanese cartoons.

Surprisingly, Kelts reports, the global popularity of Japanese animation hasn’t made very many people in Japan wealthy. This is because the concepts of copyright and intellectual property were not widely understood there until recently. When animated films or TV shows come to America, the Japanese creators don’t always realize they need to hold onto the rights in order to see a profit from all the off-shoot products. As a result, the distributors wind up with the lion’s share of revenue.

Another interesting tidbit: according to Japanamerica, Americans are more than partly to blame for Japan’s otaku culture. Several interviewees immersed in otaku lifestyle said the concept for cosplay (costumed interaction) originated with American Star Trek fans. Ahh, Trekkies: the ultimate nerds.

One complaint about the book: the section on “mature comics” doesn’t dig deep enough. I wanted Kelts to provide more analysis on the topic of contradictions, because western people have a hard time reconciling what can appear to be a dichotomy within Japanese culture: the existence of violent and explicit manga in a society with an extremely low crime rate. The context is important, and I wanted to learn more about how and why Japan has integrated seemingly opposite attributes and allowed them both to thrive.

If Kelts writes an update to Japanamerica in the next decade, that would be a great topic to explore further.

Sarah S.

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