Pop culture including J-pop builds bridges between Japan and the US

I’m a fan of anime and manga, although I don’t actually follow the zillions of comics or animated series and movies, because they’re instrumental in building bridges between Japan and the United States. I’ve spoken with eager young Caucasian anime fans in full cosplay (dressed in costumes playing the part of their favorite anime characters) who said they’re taking Japanese classes, and are planning on Japanese Studies in college, because they love anime so much.

That’s some powerful tug on the hearts and minds of our country’s future leaders.

And anime and manga are just the most visible signs of pop culture’s powerful effects, thanks to the many festivals and conventions across the US, and the popularity of anime programming on cable TV. Just take a look at video games, movies, and music, and Japan’s influence on America goes way beyond instant ramen and sushi happy hours. (Ramen shops are exploding in cities everywhere, but that’s another post….)

Curiously, though, J-pop, or Japanese pop music, hasn’t made too much of a dent in the American charts over the years.

Just last year, if you have kids you may have caught a catchy bit of bubblegum rock called “Sugar Rush” from the soundtrack of the Disney animated feature “Wreck-It Ralph” (notice how if it’s an American film we call it “animated feature” and if it’s Japanese we call it ”anime?”). The song plays over the end of the film, which will be released on DVD and Blue-Ray, etc. on March 5. You can see the super-sweet adorable video of the group singing it on YouTube above.

AKB48 is one of the biggest groups in Japan right now – literally. It’s a “girl group” of idols – cute young women who are hired for their performance talent as well as camera-readiness. Not only are they huge hitmakers, but there are 88 members of the group, and they rotate in smaller troupes both in videos and on stage, including in their own theater in Tokyo’s electronics district, Akihabara (hence the group’s name, if not number). Their last 13 singles have topped the Japanese charts.

You may have read in recent weeks about one of their top singers, who shaved her head and gave a tearful public apology after being caught spending the night with a member of a Japanese boy-band in violation of AKB48’s ban on romance.

This kind of oddball story about Japan’s unique cultural values shouldn’t detract from AKB48’s pretty amazing influence in Japan, and I assume, an inevitable attempt at scaling the US charts beyond “Sugar Rush.”

But many others have tried and failed to climb from the Japanese charts to the US Top 40. I like a lot of them, including some pop phenoms like Pizzicato 5 from the ‘90s, or R&B singer Hikaru Utada, who was born in New York and raised in Japan, and has seen fit to release an all-English album trying to crack the US market (her Japanese LPs are terrific). I’ve also liked punk and alternative groups out of Japan, such as Blue Hearts (like the Clash? You would have liked them) and Shonen Knife (ditto if you’re a Ramones fan), or the artier Petty Booka. There’s also the Okinawan folk-rock group Shang Shang Typhoon.

Back in the 1970s, a hit Japanese duo, Pink Lady, was hoisted on American audiences via a pretty dreadful variety music/comedy show that mostly made fun of Japanese stereotypes, like a twist on Sonny and Cher with a racial undercurrent.

If AKB48 cracks the code and has a hit, they can do no better than Kyu Sakamoto, the one Japanese artist who climbed to the top of the American charts in 1963, with the song titled “Sukiyaki.”

The song’s title has nothing to do with the Japanese dish that most people know. The single had been a number-one hit in Japan in 1961, and a British jazz group recorded it in 1963, but the head of the British Pye label deemed the Japanese title, “Ue O Muite Arukou” too hard for Westerners to say (or ask for at the record store) so he arbitrarily chose one of the few Japanese words that people in the west would know at the time. Another familiar word was “Sayonara,” which would have been more appropriate, because the song is a lament about a man who walks alone looking up at the sky as tears fall because he’s lost his love.

The song’s haunting melody came through even without translation (though an English version was a minor hit in 1980 for the R&B group A Taste of Honey): Sakamoto sang of heartbreak in a plaintive voice that made him akin to Elvis Presley in Japan. After a string of hits mimicking American rockabilly and early rock songs in addition to Japanese pop like “Sukiyaki,” he died in a 1985 plane crash. The only other hit he had in the US was “China Nights (Shina No Yoru)” a song that was popular in the 1930s, that he recorded in the early ‘60s.

The poignancy of “Sukiyaki”’s success is all the more vivid today not just because AKB48’s visibility on the Disney soundtrack, but because in a recent BBC poll of “Songs That Changed Your World,” “Sukiyaki” came in at #8. The reader who submitted the song made the case that the hit “did as much or more to change the attitudes of Americans toward their former enemies as any policy or speech. I am not old enough to remember the song coming out in 1963, but many older Americans have said this song marked the first instance where they began to see Japanese people not just as a former enemy or some mysterious, exotic race, but as people with feelings no different from their own, and capable of expressing beautiful, tender emotions.”

I’m a bit skeptical, because the song wasn’t translated and I think it was a hit because of its catchy sad melody, and exoticism factor of being from Japan. The Tokyo Olympics was right around the corner, in 1964, and I think that brought Japan into the league of modern countries and out of the post-war era more than the hit song.

Then again, I still love “Ue O Muite Arukou,” and I recently sang it with gusto in a Karaoke bar in LA’s Little Tokyo, and all the Japanese Americans in the room joined in. The Japanese, however – especially younger Japanese – looked at us like we were just weird.

Go figure.

Here’s a classic video of Sakamoto’s hit:

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