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The Encyclopedia of Japanese Pop Culture

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By Mark Schilling


Reviewed by Eric C. Shiner

book cover for the encyclopedia of japanese pop cultureIn this superb book Mark Schilling has gone a step beyond the usual academic rigmarole and has presented a text that should not only be required reading for all Japan scholars and students, but one that is also such an interesting journey into the mysteries of contemporary Japan that its readers may find it very difficult to put down.

Tirelessly researched, The Encyclopedia of Japanese Pop Culture (henceforth “J-Pop”) serves as an introductory primer to the side of Japan that most Westerners are oblivious to—the wild side. Through his minute examinations of everything from the 1970s pop music sensation Pink Lady to the charms of Hello Kitty, Schilling has seemingly left no stone unturned in his pursuit of those cultural icons which define postwar Japanese society. Simply stated, this delightful study of the “power of pop” uncovers the humanistic side of a Japan that most Westerners see only as a nation of stern-faced businessmen and rogue samurai and has shown us that, yes, indeed, the Japanese know how to have a good time.

hello kitty purseArranged in alphabetical order, Schilling’s entries average three to four pages each—more for the “heavy hitters”—and are therefore the perfect size for periodic supplemental readings in most Japanese language and culture curricula. Lightly satirical and “naughty” at times, J-Pop is best suited to high school (upper level) and university students. Teachers will find that this text will help to make learning fun, and that it may indeed stimulate further interest in Japan and Japanese studies.

illustration of Nintendo's Mario holding a mushroom and doing his iconic jump with hand in the airFor example, many college students will relate well to the “Instant Ramen” entry which sings the praises of instant noodles and tells wouldbe gourmets that 5.02 billion (yes, with a “b”) instant ramen packs were consumed in 1993, calculating out to 40.2 packs for every man, woman and child in Japan. High schoolers will eat up the Godzilla section (no pun intended), and will be interested to find out the true origins of Mario (of Nintendo fame), named after the landlord of Nintendo’s first U.S. headquarters, and of Hello Kitty, who, according to her life story, was born and raised in London and is now in the third grade—who knew?!? J-Pop is filled to the point of overflowing with these kinds of offbeat facts, but in my opinion, there is no better way to understand Japanese society than through this type of in-depth study of its pop cultural icons.

photo of cup noodle instant ramenRich in period photographs, Schilling’s entries paint an extremely rich portrait of social life in Japan from the late 1940s on, taking as their theme those groups, people, and objects that acted as keystones in the construction of postwar Japanese popular culture. Complete with a very useful Subject Guide and Index at the back of the book, Schilling breaks J-Pop into the following main subject headings: “Anime” (Japanese Animation), “Comics and Comedy,” “Fads, Trends and Obsessions,” “Food,” “Games, Toys and Technology,” “Magazines,” “Manga” (Japanese comic books), “Movies and Movie Stars,” “Music and Singers,” “Publishing,” “Scandal and Controversy,” “Sports and Martial Arts,” and finally “Television and Television Shows.”

photo of several people in power ranger suits Thus, there is something for everyone here; from would-be sumo wrestling fans to those interested in the life of Japan’s “Madonna,” the singer Seiko Matsuda, readers will more likely than not find that this book opens many new avenues into our understanding of Japan and its people. Teachers will further find that thanks to its diverse subject topics, J-Pop can be easily integrated into a wide range of courses and is as equally at home in a Japanese economics course (for example, students can use the text as a research tool on the subject of profits in the recording industry, etc.) as it is in a World Cultures survey course.

a strong looking man with his hands on his hipsEqually balanced and objective, J-Pop does an incredible job of explaining how and why the Japanese act and think the way they do through its cultural anthropological “excavation” of contemporary Japanese society. In fact, the only critique I have of this text is the occasional lapse in editing acumen— typos abound throughout—but this is nothing that future editions (and hopefully supplements) will not be able to mend. That being said, Schilling does a wonderful job of explaining in detail the cultural attributes that in essence help to form a shared Japanese mindset, and as a result, a shared national identity.

photo of a cat wearing a headband and karate outfitMuch the same way that most Americans in their late twenties were influenced in some way by Sesame Street, Atari, and Culture Club in their youth, so too were their Japanese counterparts affected by Doraemon (a robotic cat with magical powers), karaoke, and SMAP (a five-member male pop group). By reaching an understanding of these shared cultural mores, students of Japan will be able to apply this new-found knowledge to their specific field of study—whether that be business, language or culture—and will thus be that much closer to realizing how life functions on a daily and human level in Japan. All too often, students forego this study of the human element and miss out on the overall cultural climate of the country to which their studies are dedicated. Luckily, Mark Schilling has come to the rescue (much akin to the Japanese superhero Ultraman) by providing students of Japan with the most powerful cultural study that this reviewer has seen in some time, The Encyclopedia of Japanese Pop Culture.

ERIC C. SHINER is a graduate student in the Department of Art History at Osaka University in Japan. A ¯ recipient of the Mombusho Scholarship, Eric studies Japanese Contemporary Art, specifically the work of Morimura Yasumasa. He is a former Program Manager of the Japanese Science and Technology Management Program at the University of Pittsburgh and former Program Director of the Japan-America Society of Pennsylvania.