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The Japanese Invasion of American Childrens Pop Culture

Shuai Jiang

Starting in the 1960s, Japanese-produced media has powered its way into American culture. How did a country half the population of the United States manage to dominate the lucrative children market? By a fusion of culture astuteness and shrewd marketing, shows such as Pokmon and Transformers are now integral parts of American children popular culture. Anime, and other Japanese media, achieved this status by greatly increasing the marketability of children shows by using themes that resonate with all children and advanced technology to greatly attract kids. In addition, Japanese television generated complex plot that rewarded religious followings by tapping into the emotional desires of kids. While American children accepted most Japanese cultural themes like explicit violence, open sexuality was staunchly denied by the American public. Starting with Godzilla sixty years ago, Japanese studios started exporting their film and shows to the United States. The most prominent of those media is the unique Japanese animation, or anime for short. The initial wave of anime arrived in the 1960s with Astro Boy and Speed Racer; while they enjoyed moderate success, they blended into the American cartoon scene and appeared with little publicity. However during the second wave of anime programming, which contained shows like Voltron, and Robotech; anime brought a sense of drama that American shows such as G.I. Joe lacked then. While there were American syndicated dramatic cartoons in the 80s such as Thundercats and Transformers (which was a Japanese spin-off anyways), the drama was always more superficial, the villains less convincingly nasty, and the stories less complex than their anime counterparts. Anime not only gave children a form of soap-opera, but also transformed the children television genre into a marketing festival: anime in the second wave were essentially advertisements to sell toys. According to Ledoux, the state of American TV animation during the late 90s changed to prioritize selling toys. Moving forward, we will

mainly analyze the third wave, which was composed of Pokmon, Sailormoon, and Dragon Ball, as they are the epitome of the changes which anime had on American culture.1 The most successful computer game ever made was released in 1996 by Nintendo, which is now a global empire in consumer electronics.2 The game, called Pokmon or Pocket Monsters, enjoyed huge success in the Japanese market. As a result, executives quickly released various comic books, television show, movies, trading cards, stickers, toys, and other products to tap into this craze.3 This is quite similar to the way the series G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero came into being. The franchise was created by Hasbro as action figures in 1964, and in the following years, diversified into a comic book series, and eventually resulted in a television show in 1985. 4 Comparatively, the first thing to note is the incredible speed in which Pokmon transitioned from a game to a global phenomenon with a plethora of products. Released in 1996, the video game was a godsend for Nintendo, which was under heavy competition from an increasingly crowded industry.5 In just one year, a television series made its way onto Japanese screens; one year and five months after that, Warner Brothers released an American version of the popular show on Western shores. Note that it took 21 years for Hasbro to transform the successful action figure G.I. Joe into an iconic television show. One might argue that the technology for distribution and animation is significantly more advanced in the late 90s, but another famous anime Transformers (called the Pokmon of its days)6 went from toy figures in

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Trish Ledoux, The Complete Anime Guide (Issaquah, Washington: Tiger Mountain Press, 1995), 7-8 Joseph Tobin, Pikachus Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokmon (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004), 3 3 Jonathon Clements, The Anime Encyclopedia: A Guide to Japanese Animation Since 1917 (Berkeley, Calif: Stone Bridge Press, 2001), 302 4 Carol Lawson, Toys: Girls Still Apply Makeup, Boys Fight Wars (Nov. 2012) 5 Tobin, 7 6 Clements, p. 410

1980 to a relatively successful television show in just four years.7 Japanese companies didnt invent the concept of converting crazes into television shows, but they demonstrated that speed matters. According the Clements, Pokmon is unusual in terms of its speed of development, but set the precedence for speed in future years. From the length of sound bites, we understand that the attention span of consumers is short, and timing is crucial for maximum success by tapping into the demand when it is highest. The Japanese anime makers understood this concept, and eventually their American counterpart picked up on this. The recent Angry Birds phenomenon, which is going from a popular game to a soon-to-be-released movie, demonstrates that the American studios understand this now.8 Similarly, anime bring a type of marketability that American cartoons didnt have initially; they add a cute factor into an otherwise boyish cartoon. While Pokmon certainly wasnt the first anime to be marketable to both genders, it was one of the most prominent. In the pilot episode, we immediately see a scene of two Pokmon duking it out, which appeals to the boys, followed by the introduction of the incredibly cute Pikachu, which conversely appealed to girls. This greatly increases the market appeal of Pokmon: not only can Nintendo tap into the digital games market dominated by boys, but also the plush figures and dolls market. Indeed, one of the primary concern[s] of anime creators was to design cute animals that would also have market value as plush toys. 9 This allowed the ubiquity of Pokmon product in virtually every imaginable market. A search under revealed that sixteen departments ranging from Automotive to Health and Personal Care have over 100 different types of Pokmon products.

Michael Cheang, A Brief History of the Transformers, (Nov 2004) 8 st For more information about this 21 century phenomena, see 9 Fred Patton, The Allure of Anthropomorphism in Anime and Manga, The Japanification of Childrens Popular Culture: From Godillza to Miyazaki, Ed. Mark I. West(Lanham, Md: Scarecrow Press, 2009)

Compare that to the 10 departments over 100 products for GI Joe, we see the huge marketing machine that is the Pokmon franchise allowed Nintendo to be the gold-standard of profitability for children media.10 Even Japanese-made media created specifically for a single gender enjoy being alluring to both. The power of Sailor Moon, the protagonist in a story about a teenage girl suddenly discovering that she has super powers and must save the world, comes from external sources such as jewelry, make-up and prism power.11 Thus, the show convinces to girls beg their parents for make-up and necklaces in order to feel powerful. The other audience that has developed for Sailormoon is men, who focus on the sexy side of the show and have developed a large pornographic market involving these short-skirted schoolgirls.12 This suggests that when Japanese executives consider a new product, marketability is a top priority. The structure of Japanese media also draws the children into pleading their parents for various products. Much like the way Sailor Moons power is derived from purchasable products to entice children, Pokmons theme song suggest that one should (and can) catch them all by collecting the various cards, stickers, and video games. Before every commercial break, there would be a segment of Who is that Pokmon? which rewards the loyal viewers for following the show by giving them a psychological high from answering the question correctly. Indeed, psychology plays a major element in the success of the show. The Pokmon universe is a safe and supportive world which allows the children of the world (the protagonists of the show)13 to be entirely independent but without the tedium.14 By making the characters children, the intended audience can better connect with the shows; popular anime and mangas main
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Clements, p. 303 Mary Grigsby, Sailormoon: Manga (Comics) and Anime (Cartoon) Superheroine Meets Barbie: Global Entertainment Commodity Comes to the United States, Journal of Popular Culture 32, no. 1 (Summer 1998): 74 12 Dana Springall, Popular Music Meets Japanese Cartoons: A History on the Evolution of Anime Music Videos, Unpublished undergraduate honors thesis (Birmingham, Alabama: Samford University 2004): 6 13 The main characters are Ash, Misty, and Brock who are ages 10, 10 and 12 respectively. 14 Clements, p. 302

protagonists are generally humans/humanoid aged around their intended audiences. Having the role playing Gameboy game helps as well. If a kid watches the show and plays the game at the same time, the player can implicate him- or herself into a role that makes the role appear real.15 If one examines Pokmon through the eyes of a broke parent, the show itself is less a cartoon than a half-hour exercise in Pokmon product placement. 16 Anime wouldnt have as many loyal viewers if it wasnt as dramatic as it was. As mentioned above, the second wave of anime brought children more complex stories and instilled dramatic elements. In most anime, not only is there a plot that focuses on relationships a story which links all episodes together, but also intense characterization.17 Children must watch from episode one in order to understand the story, and this has a very addictive effect. This solves one common problem of children outgrowing the shows that they watch. In Pokmon, there are three different age groups to cater to: 4-6, 6-8, and 8+. The first group wants to watch the show for its cute figures on television; they still dont understand the plot yet, but is greatly attracted to the monsters that are in the show.18 As they age, the continuity of the show allows the middle age group to still want to watch the show, but they will want the trading cards associated with them to be their own Pokmon trainer. Finally, the kids will graduate into the video games. Pokmons themes and stories generally follow the same formula generation-togeneration with Ash and Pikachu as invariants; the main change is the different Pokmon in each season changes to promote more buying. We see that using drama also increases the marketability of anime.
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John Fiske, Television Culture, (New York: Methuen, 1967): 236 Cary Elza, We All Live in a Pokmon World, The Japanification of Childrens Popular Culture: From Godillza to Miyazaki, Ed. Mark I. West (Lanham, Md: Scarecrow Press, 2009) 17 Inu Yasha, The Search for the Jewel of Four Souls in America, The Japanification of Childrens Popular Culture: From Godillza to Miyazaki, Ed. Mark I. West (Lanham, Md: Scarecrow Press, 2009) 18 Fred Patten, The Allure of Anthropomorphism in Anime and Manga, The Japanification of Childrens Popular Culture: From Godillza to Miyazaki, Ed. Mark I. West (Lanham, Md: Scarecrow Press, 2009)

While Pokmon uses its plethora of products to keep its audience, the Dragon Ball franchise employs a more sophisticated method. The first iteration of the show, Dragon Ball, has the main character Goku around ten years old. The second and subsequent iterations shows that Goku has grown up, married a woman, had children and even died (several times, but thats unimportant). In order to attract new viewers every season, Gokus cihldren take the role of Goku in the first season (the fighting and questing). On the other hand, the story also introduces problems that teenagers go through and more mature themes such as friendship. While the story does get quite ludicrous as the series goes on19, the franchise managed to not only keep the audience it had throughout the decade, but even expand. Contrast this to most American cartoons, and we see one of the reasons why Japanese anime is so popular. Shows made in the United States, such as Rugrats and Ren and Stimpy, did try to emulate this technique but did not achieve the success of anime.20 While anime is a major part of Japanese media in the United States, one unusual Japanese export arrived on the American shores: Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, the first of many variations in the Power Rangers franchise. Later spin-offs of Power Rangers have American themes in it, but the initial inspiration is the Japanese series of the Super Sentai franchise. While the other media we have mentioned are animated, the Mighty Morphin is not. This makes this series extremely controversial in its portrayal of violence, both in terms of its frequency and severity. One should note that the Mighty Morphin was not the first Japanese product that pushed the violence boundary for children in America: the first wave of Japanese anime in the 60s was often singled out for their depictions of violent acts. In particular, Astro Boy, which is

Goku becomes an alien of sorts, and is revived by the gods to save the world multiple times. I stopped watching way before this point though as the plot gets somewhat too convoluted. 20 Reiko Okuhara, The Censorship of Japanese Anime in America, The Japanification of Childrens Popular Culture: From Godillza to Miyazaki, Ed. Mark I. West (Lanham, Md: Scarecrow Press, 2009)

tame in todays standards, had to cut the level of onscreen violence in the second season in order to please American complaints.21 In other children television shows during the Mighty Morphin period, the portrayal is usually outlandish and animated; it almost looks silly. The Mighty Morphin on the other hand contains realistic karate moves, and conveys a sense that those moves, while powerful, do not hurt people. In episode 59 of the series, we see the Green and Pink Rangers fighting clones of them. While doing cool acrobatic moves, we see the result of the repeated blows is virtually nothing. Indeed, the National Coalition on Television Violence (NCTY) has expressed concern over the type of severe violence; the NCTV calls it hostile rather than instrumental, that is, most of the violence in the show is intended to harm or kill another character. While Japanese culture was not fazed by the violence in the Super Sentai series, most Western cultures were. This is an example of a Japanese influence that the United States reluctantly accepted (I say accepted as the Power Rangers franchise is still going strong).22 On the contrary, America staunchly rejected any attempt to sexualize children television show. Pokmon, a show which tried to please every age range, had to censor certain episodes due to the womanizing antics of Ashs friend Brock, or cross-dressing by the zany Team Rocket.23 The most extreme of this sexual censorship has to be in the series of Dragon Ball. While the general plot stays the same, certain parts of the show were censored out for the American audience. In the second episode, Goku (a twelve year old boy) finds out that Bulma (a teenage girl) has no balls by hitting her crotch twice; this scene was edited out of the American series. On top of that, there are various scenes involving Bulma giving Goku a shower which involved


Brian Ruh, Early Japanese Animation in the United States, The Japanification of Childrens Popular Culture: From Godillza to Miyazaki, Ed. Mark I. West (Lanham, Md: Scarecrow Press, 2009) 22 C.J. Boyatzis, Effects of The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers on Childrens Aggression with Peers, Child Study Journal (vol. 1, no. 1, 1995) 23 Clements, 303

Goku being nude. In the American production though, they drew a chair in front of Gokus naked body.24 Given the power of Japanese media to influence America, one can safely bet that this view will change in the future. NBC bought Astro Boy as it was a cheap way to fill slots; little did NBC know that they released a flood of successful Japanese cartoons and media. Over the next fifty years, Japanese pop culture touched almost every kid who watched television Saturday mornings. Ask any ten years old during 1999, who is your favorite Pokmon, and you instantly have a friend. Japanese studios proved to American adults that children can handle much more complex stories, with much more mature themes than thought. As a result of this cultural gamble, they reaped the rewards in the loyal followers of children, and the profits from them. The studios also gambled that America would accept violence and sexuality. America did reluctantly accept violence, but flat-out rejected sexuality in children television. Judging by how successful Japanese companies are at exporting their products for children, dont be surprised if there is a fourth wave of anime that brings even more innovative techniques of capturing the minds of the young.


Okuhara, p. 206


Works Cited Pokmon n o son p so s -26. San Francisco, CA: Viz Media, 2006.

Johnson, Amy J, Richard Horvitz, and David Yost. Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: Season 1, Vol. 1. Los Angeles, Calif: Shout! Factory, 2012. G.I. Joe, a Real American Hero!: Season 1, Part 1. Burbank, CA: Rhinomation, 2004. Cocanougher, Daniel, Barry Watson, and Akira Toriyama. Dragon Ball. United States: FUNimation Productions, 2003. Ledoux, Trish, Doug Ranney, and Fred Patten. The Complete Anime Guide: Japanese Animation Video Directory & Resource Guide. Issaquah, Wash: Tiger Mountain Press, 1995. Print. Tobin, Joseph J. Pikachu's Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall o Pokmon. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004. Print. Lawson, Carol. Toys: Girls Still Apply Makeup, Boys Fight Wars. New York Times. 15 Nov. 2012. <> Cheang, Michael. A Brief History of the Transformers. The Star. 16 Nov. 2012. < features> Grigsby, M. "Sailormoon: Manga (comics) and Anime (cartoon) Superheroine Meets Barbie: Global Entertainment Commodity Comes to the United States." Communication Abstracts. 22.3 (1999).


Springall, Dana. "Popular music meets Japanese cartoons: A history of the evolution of anime music videos." Unpublished undergraduate Honors Thesis. Birmingham, Alabama: Samford University (2004). Fiske, John. Television Culture. London: Methuen, 1987. West, Mark I. The Japanification of Children's Popular Culture: From Godzilla to Miyazaki. Lanham, Md: Scarecrow Press, 2009. Print. Boyatzis, Chris J. "Effects of &quot;the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers&quot; on Children's Aggression with Peers." Child Study Journal. 25.1 (1995): 45-55. Print.