Columnist Lee Miller explains Japanese culture dominates despite Western influences.
Is “Americanization” a dirty word? There seems to be a commonly held idea that Japan is not only Americanized, but that this transformation is bad. But is Japan nearly as American as people make it out to be? And even if certain aspects of life in Japan have been Americanized, is that necessarily bad?
Certainly, the effect of American culture on food is visible in Tokyo. McDonald’s is the No. 1 fast-food chain in Japan, with a Japanese burger chain coming in at No. 2. In Tokyo, people can eat at an Outback Steakhouse if they really want to, and soon, the first Hooters will open.
However, is food culture really Americanized? Step into a Japanese grocery store, and one can see that perhaps it’s not. While burgers and steaks are commonplace at restaurants, that’s largely where they stay. Japanese supermarkets are overwhelmingly stocked with Japanese foods with little selection in foreign foods at most places.
Since most foreign foods haven’t infiltrated the supermarket, and thus not the home, they must keep their exoticness, as opposed to being considered part of the culture. The farther out of the big cities one travels, the harder it is to find American restaurants.
In three days on a recent trip to Hokkaido, I heard someone talk about a McDonald’s in town, but I never saw it. Like in America, the farther one travels from major cities, the less internationalized things become, only to a more extreme degree in Japan.
Many restaurants offer menus quite different from their American counterparts: I was sorely disappointed to find that Denny’s in Japan is not an Eden of pancakes and omelets. McDonald’s in Japan has a teriyaki burger and a burger made from shrimp.
Music is another area that the Americanization of is likely overstated. Japan has modern rock and pop similar to the rest of the world, but the overwhelming majority of CDs sold in Japan are produced by Japanese acts.
The myth of Japan being head-over-heels for dated American music just doesn’t hold up. Sure, there are niche markets, but ‘80s hair metal bands aren’t exactly topping the Japanese charts.
It’s pretty rare for an American – or any Westerner – to top the chart, with the exception of Hikaru Utada. Utada, although she is technically American, is also the daughter of a Japanese music executive and, until recently, has been exclusively targeting the Japanese market.
Utada is the only Westerner to crack the Top 10 best-selling albums in Japan. No other Westerner comes within 500,000 of the Top 10 records.
Almost 300 albums overall have reached sales by the millions in Japan, but only about 12 were produced by overseas artists.
There are variations in the specific numbers: The best-selling Western album of all time, Mariah Carey’s “#1’s,” – sold 2.8 million copies, according to music statistics company Oricon, while others report it sold 3.2 million. But the radios in Japan are overwhelmingly filled by Japanese music.
If you go to the movies or turn on the television, you may see an American production, but the majority of shows and movies are produced in Japan.
However, the sporting world of Japan is very Westernized, as soccer, baseball and basketball have all taken off in the land of sumo wrestling.
The Japanese American football team has also made strides, with back-to-back American Football World Cup wins.
Are these bad things? To hear some people talk about it, yes, but that’s ridiculous. Japan has no lack of “Japaneseness,” and many Western aspects of Japan exist in harmony with Japanese things, rather than replacing them.
Western sports are really popular, so is sumo. McDonald’s is popular, but a good noodle restaurant will have a line out the door and down the block.
American-style music is popular with the Japanese, but people in Japan want Japanese musicians singing: Enka, a Japanese music genre from around the end of World War II, is still very popular and undergoing a small renaissance – granted, now with more Western influence. More Japanese people can play a koto then Westerners can play, say, a dulcimer.
It seems Americans caught up by the Americanization of Japan are more concerned with their perceptions of Japan than the actually happiness of the Japanese people. Maybe they think Japan is more fun and interesting as an exotic land of isolation, but Japan’s history is one that adopts things from other cultures just like every other.
Expecting Japanese people to live under a rock because you have certain expectations is selfish. If anything, we’re the ones that lost our roots, and Western things in Japan stand out precisely because Japan has stayed so true to its culture.
Lee Miller can be reached at email@example.com.