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Roland Kelts
Thursday, October 02
WILLIAMSTOWN — Transformers. Sushi. Pokemon. There is no denying that Japanese culture has become a large part of the American culture that we see around us on a daily basis. And this is no coincidence, according to Roland Kelts, author of "Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S." Kelts will be giving a talk at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown tonight at 7.

"Japan is in a unique position in its relationship to the United States," explains Kelts. "Post-war (World War II) Japan was occupied by Americans, so a generation grew up with American influences: jazz, hamburgers, pizza, even American television shows like 'Father Knows Best.' "

This influence continued throughout the 1960s and 1970s, and many Japanese creative artists have taken in American cultural codes, styles, and images. While Japanese artists naturally create work that contains distinctive elements are Japanese culture, the background of American influences means that there is often also what Kelts calls "American DNA" deep in the Japanese aesthetic.

One example is Japanese architect Tadao Ando, whose work is featured at the Clark and who designed their Stone Hill Center. His work has a distinct Japanese style, but the underlying American influence allows it to seem familiar while still being fresh, according to Kelts.

Now the process is reversing: Americans are gathering Japanese influences — from art to food, music, films and cartoon characters.


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This is a big change from the middle of the 20th century. Kelts believes that in the late 20th century, the cultural gaze of the United States shifted from Europe to Asia. A few decades ago, American fans of Japanese pop culture existed, but most people thought it was weird.

Kelts recalls, "If my classmates found out that my mom was Japanese, they'd say 'Ewww, does that mean you eat raw fish?' These days sushi is everywhere, so obviously Japanese culture is pervasive. It crossed the threshold and become a familiar part of American life, like seeing a Japanese baseball player in a major league ballpark."

One of the biggest ways Japanese culture has influenced our lives, Kelts argues, is the move towards minimalism in tech products.

"You can go back to the Walkman that Japan brought in during the 1980s and draw a straight line to the iPod and Blackberry of today. Japan has a long history of creating exquisite mini products," he said.

Perhaps this is not surprising, given the fact that Japan isn't much larger than California but contains roughly half the population of the entire U.S.

Another common American fascination is with Japanese game shows. Kelts explains that Japanese daily life still centers around a culture of etiquette and self-denial, with many codes of behavior for how to act in different situations. On the flip side, Japanese popular culture is a realm of anything goes.

"In the context of play, you can do pretty much whatever you want as long as it's legal and nobody gets hurt," says Kelts. "There's a lot of the tension between the world people have to live in and the way people want to act, the fantasy world."

Yet the similarities between Japanese and American pop culture may be greater than the differences, in no small part due to the constant cultural interchange. Kelts has interviewed Osamu Tezuka, the creator of AstroBoy and one of the fathers of Japanese Manga. Tezuka said that he was a big Walt Disney fan.

This generation of American kids has grown up with so much Japanese pop culture that if you ask them to draw a cartoon character, they'll likely draw something in an anime or manga style. Those kids will eventually grow up and produce designs with Japanese influence, which will likely criss-cross the ocean again so the feedback loop continues. The advancing technology and interconnectedness of the Internet will only speed up this process.

While all this cultural interchange may be discussed in Kelts's book, his talk at Clark Art will focus especially on the Japanese artistic aesthetic.

The biggest distinguishing characteristic of the Japanese aesthetic, says Kelts, is the emphasis on lines and the outline of a character, as opposed to the Western emphasis on shading and perspective.

Kelts explains, "The people who work for 'Hello Kitty' have a slogan: 'Seventeen lines and no mouth.' If done well, this focus on lines allows the viewer's mind to fill in the blank. Haiku or Japanese flower arranging function the same way; you focus not only on the words, but on the blank space. Your mind fills in what it wishes to see."

If what you wish to see is a talk by Roland Kelts, then just show up for his free lecture at the Clark Art Institute today at 7 p.m.

If you go ...

What: 'Japanamerica' talk with Roland Kelts on Japanese art and popular culture in America.

Where: Clark Art Institute, 225 South St., Williamstown.

When: Tonight at 7.

Information: (413) 458-2303.

"Roland Kelts' lecture is one of several programs the Clark has offered over the past several months that look at Japanese design and culture," said Sally Morse majewski, manager of public relations and marketing at the Clark. "The programs relate to and help celebrate the opening of Stone Hill Center which is designed by Japanese architect Tadao Ando."

In November, the Clark will offer Anime for Grown Ups: The Art of Japanese Animation Film Series — five films shown throughout the month, first showing in Japanese with English subtitles, followed by a dubbed American version. Japanamerica ties together many of the things we have looked at, particularly fashion and film, and provides a look at the cultural influences of Japan are felt in the United States.