The Association for Asian Studies (AAS) Asia Shorts book series—distributed by Columbia University Press—offers concise, engagingly written titles by highly qualified authors on topics of significance in Asian Studies. Topics are intended to be substantive, generate discussion and debate within the field, and attract interest beyond it.
The most recent book in the series, Japan on American TV: Screaming Samurai Join Anime Clubs in the Land of the Lost by Alisa Freedman (Professor of Japanese Literature, Cultural Studies, and Gender at the University of Oregon) explores political, economic, and cultural issues underlying depictions of Japan on US television comedies and the programs they inspired. Professor Bill Tsutsui says, “This smart and revealing study of the stereotypes of Japan created, circulated, and perpetuated on American television is fun and funny, eminently readable, and occasionally unsettling. Freedman’s insightful analysis will ensure you never look at John Belushi or Marie Kondo, The Flintstones or The Simpsons, Sesame Street or Portlandia, in quite the same way ever again.”
Since the 1950s, US television programs have taken the role of “curators” of Japan, displaying and explaining selected aspects for viewers. Beliefs in US hegemony over Japan underpin this curation process. Japan on American TV takes a historical perspective to understand the diversity of Japan parodies. These programs show changing patterns of cultural globalization and perpetuate national stereotypes while verifying Japan’s international influence. Television presents an alternative history of American fascinations with and fears of Japan.
Written in an accessible style that will appeal to scholars, teachers, students, and anyone with an interest in Japan and popular culture, as well as an ideal text for classroom use, Japan on American TV offers a gentle means to approach racism, cultural essentialism, cultural appropriation, and issues otherwise difficult to discuss and models new ways to apply knowledge of Asian Studies.
AAS Publications Manager, Jon Wilson, talks with Alisa Freedman about Japan on American TV.
Jon Wilson: Congratulations on the publication of your fun and fascinating book! Can you tell us about the origins of Japan on American TV and what inspired this book?
Alisa Freedman: I developed the book while teaching how culture flows between Japan and the US, revealing power dynamics between the two countries and creating new practices in the process. I include discussion questions for classroom use. The cover was designed by my student, William Bolls. I teach about my projects so that students can learn about academic research; in turn, our class discussions encourage me to delve deeper into trends. Popular culture is a social glue; students bond over enjoyment of trends and over the realization that Japan is all around us.
Wilson: In their blurbs, professors Anne Allison, Jan Bardsley, and Bill Tsutsui all wrote that Japan on American TV will make readers “chuckle, cringe, and think.” What makes readers laugh and cringe? What would you like readers to think about?
Freedman: I hope this book encourages readers to watch television more critically, asking questions about what they see. Thinking about why we laugh, uncomfortably, about stereotypes can lead to efforts to dispel them. Professors Allison, Bardsley, and Tsutsui have published insightful research on this topic.
I analyze parodies, which are, arguably, the funniest and most “cringeworthy” programs and those that teach us the most about dominant American views of Japan. Parody, which is successful only when the subject is mainstream enough for audiences to easily get the joke, shows the extent of Japanese culture in the US and cements fan communities through humor. It renders potential competitors less powerful by exaggerating their characteristics and making them laughable. It shows how we are different rather than uncomfortably similar. American television programs depicting Japan extend definitions of parody to include hegemony, or the political power dynamics underlying parody. Many of these same TV parodies have globalized in Japan, showing Japanese viewers how their country is perceived in the US and expanding discussions about the role of stereotypes in national branding.
The lighthearted book subtitle sets the tone for taking Japan parodies seriously. Japan has been one of the first and most consistently parodied countries on American television—from early commercial broadcasting to digital streaming platforms, in various genres, and to audiences of different generations. More than merely presenting a catalog of stereotypes, I examine how TV depictions of Japan are constructed within a nexus of discourses—those occurring in the mass media, constructed through social practices, and those advanced through the historical peculiarities of TV broadcasting—to make sense of the meanings they ascribe to Japan. The most positive change in television programming has been the diversification of Japanese characters. I argue that television parodies can convey a positive, albeit highly mediated, message of cultural acceptance.
At its core, Japan on American TV asks: “Can American media have fun with Japanese culture, or other national cultures, without advancing racist and sexist tropes or beliefs in American exceptionalism?”
Wilson: Why focus your analysis on parodies of “cute” Japan
Freedman: Most television parodies, and the more heartfelt programs they have made possible, either feature culture that is, by nature, cute, or they “cute-ify” Japanese practices to make them palatable. Many jokes portray Japanese people and culture as incomprehensible, non-threatening, adorable, and/or small. Japan is defined by, and made instantly recognizable through, colorful and often childlike versions of its historical figures and international exports—from samurai to Hello Kitty—thus shrouding a history of violence, economic tensions, and war that percolates underneath. In most of these programs, American characters try to make sense of (even while misinterpreting) Japan for the audience. Viewers laugh at these “ugly Americans,” while buying into their ability to show Japan to us. These programs are not harmless, for they risk offensively “othering” international cultures and dredge up hurtful public memories.
Television presents various forms of “cuteness” and shows that “cute Japan” is not an unchanging, unified category but instead is historical and diverse. Television takes prevalent stereotypes and funnels them through constellations of cultural and aesthetic concepts and narrative forms to make Japan the butt of jokes and thereby seem endearing, weird, or ironic. American television has cleansed, simplified, sexualized, desexualized, and commodified images of Japan, often by simultaneously embracing and swiping at Japanese culture that has globalized in the US. Analyzing how Japan has been “cutified” at different historical times reveals notions of US hegemony over Japan, changing education about Japan in the US, and the role of television broadcasting in shaping viewers’ perspectives on the world.
Wilson: In the introduction, you write that Japan on American TV “provides a gentle way of approaching racism, cultural essentialism, cultural appropriation, and other issues that are otherwise difficult to discuss.” Can you explain what you mean by this?
Freedman: American TV, like that of other countries, generally reaffirms that the country’s belief systems and behavioral norms are the right ones, even while poking fun at them. Discussing why television shows make us laugh and cringe is a memorable way to teach lessons about stereotypes, power dynamics underlying media meant for entertainment, and US-Japan relations and to encourage students to apply what they are learning to their own lives. For example, when I teach TV parodies, we examine how stereotypes are visualized and enacted on screen. We study when and how parodies were made and why they appeal to large audiences.
These lessons can be expanded to television depictions of other countries. I believe that becoming aware of how we watch television is a step toward ending national, racial, and gender profiling. I hope viewers take a second look at their favorite shows, not only questioning portraits of Japan but TV depictions of cultures and history more broadly.
Wilson: You include an excellent and comprehensive TV watch list in the book. If you were to recommend only three shows from the list, which would they be and why?
Freedman: Great question, Jon! I recommend that readers watch the programs analyzed in Japan on American TV before reading the book to enjoy shows that are meant to be entertaining, avoid spoilers, more fully understand my analysis, and come to their own conclusions about television’s representations of Japan.
Example 1: Big Bird in Japan (analyzed in Chapter 3): Big Bird in Japan (directed by Jon Stone) was a coproduction between American Sesame Workshop and Japanese public television (NHK) and was shown in Japan in 1988 before being broadcast in the United States in 1989. Sesame Street uses a striking amount of parody to appeal to adult viewers who watch the program with children. Big Bird in Japan, based in part on the tenth-century Tale of the Bamboo Cutter (Taketori monogatari), aired at a time of economic tension between the two nations, incited by the success of Japanese imports and the acquisition of American institutions by Japanese companies. Using humor and affection, Big Bird in Japan showed Americans Japan during the Bubble Economy era. Yet the focus is on classical culture, in contrast to the stern images of corporate Japan that filled the news in the 1980s. By showing that Japan is welcoming, sweet, and harmless (read: cute), Big Bird in Japan promotes cultural acceptance during a time plagued by “Japan-Bashing.” Children’s television provides insights into adult values.
Example 2: Saturday Night Live “J-Pop America Fun Time Now” (Chapter 5): This 4-skit series, airing in 2011 and 2012, parodies teachers and students who, because they refuse to learn from each other, ultimately misunderstand Japan. The series can be viewed as a playful cautionary tale for fans to appreciate, rather than essentialize and appropriate, aspects of Japan and for academics to acknowledge how popular culture is changing universities. As a metaparody (parody within a parody) of television, “J-Pop America Fun Time Now” raises the serious question of whether well-meaning students and teachers harm rather than help Japan’s international image by promoting damaging stereotypes.
Example 3: Tidying Up with Marie Kondo (Netflix, 2019, Chapter 6): In 2019, Marie Kondo—organizing expert, best-selling author, skillful entrepreneur, and media-savvy cultural influencer—mobilized national and gender stereotypes and a history of television portrayals of Japan to be the first person to become a US celebrity by speaking Japanese on American television. Combining tropes of American reality television and Japanese television documentaries, Kondo skillfully uses the dominant cultural stereotypes of a demure, mystical Japan contrasted to an expressive, confident America to promote her brand.