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Bringing Japanese Pop Culture Travelers into Your Classroom: Perils, Pitfalls, and Payoffs

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No discussion of Japanese travelers is complete without mentioning the most widely traveled and influential figures to have ever left the country. They’ve been everywhere, representing their nation and their culture, and wherever they’ve gone they have left an indelible impression. They are the icons of Japanese popular culture—everything from Hello Kitty to Pokemon. But perhaps the most widely traveled figures in Japanese popular culture have come from the movies. Among the most familiar are samurai and rubbersuited monsters called kaiju. Inviting these travelers into your class will offer excellent opportunities to teach about Japan, but you need to be careful when they come to visit to make sure they contribute more to your class than just a vacation from listening to lectures.

I am a firm believer in both the utility and propriety of using pop culture products in the classroom. Yet, even for me, using such materials in class has its problematic aspects. I note with distress that whatever accomplishments I may have achieved as a scholar and teacher, my students at the University of Alaska Anchorage basically know me now exclusively as “The Godzilla Guy.” This is especially ironic as I come by my Godzilla obsession secondhand through my mentor Bill Tsutsui, who has not one, but two books on the big guy to his credit. (note 1) Personally, my own Japanese pop culture obsession runs towards the anime series Cowboy Bebop. (note 2) However, I note with some alarm that while I don’t actively seek it out, somehow, very little Hello Kitty related material gets by me. (note 3)

NOTES

1. William Tsutsui, Godzilla on my Mind: Fifty Years of the King of Monsters (New York: Palgrave, 2004); William Tsutsui, Michiko Ito, eds., In Godzilla’s Footsteps: Japanese Pop Culture Icons on the Global Stage (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).

2. Cowboy Bebop, directed by Watanabe Shinichiro, 1998, Bandai Visual. There is also Cowboy Bebop: The Movie, Knockin’ on Heaven’s Doors, directed by Watanabe Shinichiro, 2001, DVD, Sunrise/Bandai Visual, Columbia/Tristar.

3. Ken Belson, Brian Bremner, Hello Kitty: The Remarkable Story of Sanrio and the Billion Dollar Feline Phenomenon (Singapore: John Wiley and Sons, 2004).