In my own research, I have found a number of distinct, often overlapping periods in which "fantasy Japan" has played an important role in the Western and, specifically, the American cultural imagination. Much of this role has been positive, as Westerners found in Japan's traditional culture a compensation for what they saw themselves as losing. Obviously there were other, more negative moments in Japan's interactions in the West, particularly as Japan's increasing military power began to make the Western powers feel threatened. Beginning with the 1930s, and of course intensifying in the 1940s, Japan's image changed from "fantasy world" to "implacable enemy."
With the end of the war, however, Japan once again became an alluring and mysterious place, exemplified by a beautiful, gentle, and all-accepting Japanese woman, as described in James Michener's Sayonara or in the 1958 Jerry Lewis film, Geisha Boy.
By the late 1950s and into the 1960s, Zen became part of a spiritual life for many Americans, and haiku poetry made a comeback. But it was still traditional Japan that held sway over the American imagination. Only in the late 1970s and early 1980s did the notion of Japan as a potentially cooler, edgier sort of society than our own began to take root, and it clearly reflected Japan's global economic and technological dominance. One of the earliest and most significant encapsulations of this new Japan "fantasy" was William Gibson's 1984 cyberpunk novel, Neuromancer. In this, and in subsequent novels such as Idoru and Pattern Recognition, Gibson developed the image of Japan as a technologically hyper-advanced society that not only dominates the lives of its citizens, but seduces Westerners as well.
When I interview young Americans about their perceptions of Japan, I am struck by how many of them see Japan as "cooler," more exciting and even utopian compared to America. Visiting some of the American anime conventions that draw thousands of participants a year, I am fascinated by how many fans are interested in Japanese culture in general, as opposed to just Japanese animation. Dealers' booths sell Japanese swords, kimono, the ubiquitous Japanese chocolate candy "Pocky," and even offer special guided tours to Japan for anime and manga fans. At one "con" (convention) I attended, a tea ceremony demonstration was packed with eager participants.
While the high-tech, pop culture-laden Japan of the twenty-first century seems very different from the vision of traditional Japan embraced by previous aesthetes and intellectuals, in both cases Japan presents an alluring alternative to contemporary American society and, as is shown by fans' interest in traditional aspects of Japanese culture, this alternative is not only contemporary pop culture. Moreover, many aspects that today's Americans appreciate about Japanese popular culture—its inventiveness, beauty of design, attention to detail, and the lyrical quality of many texts-have deep roots in traditional Japanese culture. In a world that in many ways seems to be growing more parochial, continued American interest in the richness of Japanese culture is a welcome reminder that we are still open to new worlds.
What is it about Japanese popular culture that intrigues young people, not only in America, but around the world? The explanation must be multifaceted, since Japanese popular culture is not monolithic, but offers several major strands. The first element in Japanese popular culture that should be mentioned is what might be called the "cult of cuteness." From the cuddly and adorable Pokemon and Hello Kitty to the painter Murakami Takashi's playful, brightly colored installations, Japan seems remarkably capable of producing appealing creations that give their audience (or possessors) a strong sense of comfort and pleasure. Sharon Kinsella, a sociologist, has suggested that "cute culture" is so popular because it represents innocence and playfulness, offering an alternative to the stresses and pressures of everyday life.