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Hofstra Papers in Anthropology
Summer Dig in Lloyd Manor

Hofstra Papers in Anthropology

Volume 2, Article #2, 2007

A Critical Look at Millennial Monster: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination

by Han Man Woong

Anne Allison’s latest book, Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination, jumps into the world of Japanese toys and play-goods, analyzing its phenomenal growth in popularity and economical success in the recent decades.  This book is not Allison’s first on the topic of contemporary Japanese culture; in fact, she has been on the subject since her debuting book Nightwork in 1994.  For Millennial Monsters she interviewed toy company executives, designers, and advertisers as well as child-psychology experts, undertook internet surveys on various fans, visited schools in Japan and USA, went through internship at an advertisement firm for Japanese toys, followed and analyzed mass media coverage on Japanese toys, and read up literatures on the topic of Japanese play-goods (p. 33).   Of course, the amount of research done is astronomical in content, yet one could wonder if it was enough; the subject being covered in her book may be too broad to cover all in a single book – the subject of Godzilla alone could fill an entire book (Tsutsui 1994).   Allison did narrow the subject in several ways, for instance by specifying “global” as USA and Japan, and to a much smaller extent, East Asia.  But although some important as well as interesting points are brought out, much of her summarizing is crude to an extent of being quite over-simplified to focus too much only in favor of Japanese success.  It is the purpose of this essay to show that it can indeed be misleading to depend on Millennial Monsters to obtain a “global”, universal, and total explanation of the unique Japanese cultural phenomenon, but the book is adequately able to explain the aspect of the extraordinary marketing and product-packaging scheme that the Japanese entertainment industry utilized that led it to success.

The American cultural hegemony in the post World War II years was undeniable: conquering the world with its political views and market economy as well as with its aesthetics such as music, TV programs, and fashion ware.  However, Allison points out that with recent turn of events highlighted by the successful entrance of Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh!, into USA the hegemony was over (p. 6).  With the global rise of liberal multiculturalism and the phenomenal development of regional industries no one can doubt that USA doesn’t completely dominate culture anymore, but saying that the American hegemony has become de-centralized with the rising of Japanese culture could be misleading, and denying insinuations in note simply makes the point moot and unclear.  Americans still dominate the American market in terms of sales of consumer products, and Europe, barely even mentioned by Allison, is less affected by the Japanese culture as Japanese businesses invest most heavily in the American market.  As for East Asia, Japan has had more “cultural influence” on the region during its militaristic occupation in the early years of Meiji Restoration and Japanese hyper-nationalism when Japanese culture was very much assimilated upon the population under its occupation than from the recent Japanese cultural boom that affects USA today.

As World War II came to an end with the defeat of the Japanese, Japan was forced to de-imperialize and morph from a militaristically aggressive imperial nation into a pacific democracy.  An important part of this morphing was to sentence their military commanders as war criminals, debunking their status as heroes of the nation during the war and branding them as conspirators and usurpers.  But to a greater effect on the Japanese morale the emperor was de-sacralized as a mere human and not a demigod to be worshipped and followed.  According to Allison, “[The] discrediting of fathers… trickled down to the male soldiers who returned to the family and household, where adult men no longer commanded ultimate respect” (p. 12), effectively depriving Japan of its “paternal signifier” and “helped propel a particular fantasy construction… refer[ed] to here as one of polymorphous perversity: of unstable and shifting worlds where characters, monstrously wounded by violence and the collapse of authority, reemerge with reconstituted selves" (p. 12). It is thus derived that in its early years of reconstruction, Japan, with “polymorphous perversity” stemming from a weak “paternal signifier”, produced Gojira (which, according to Allison, can be viewed as an anti-father) and Atom Boy, “whose “father” abandons him for not growing up bigger like a real boy and becomes deranged” (p. 12).   The point is further accented with the example of the Americans, who, having won the war, saw rise of the paternity, and Allison uses examples of paternally charged movies and TV programs such as Father Knows Best, Ozzie and Harriet, and Leave it to Beaver.

But from a larger perspective the argument may not be as straightforwardly conceivable.  Broadcasting history was too short and limited to propaganda at the time to comparatively analyze it trans-culturally for its representation of its respective society, and also the American “paternal TVprograms”could have been a part of the greater paternalizing campaign that was present even before the war to moralize men from the ashes of the Great Depression.  Furthermore, the related subject of feminism and its effects on Japanese psychology are not mentioned in Millennial Monsters, which moves away from the significance of the “paternal signifier” as an explanation of society after the early years of reconstruction in Japan.  Although Japan never developed feminism at the time, the fall of the “paternal signifier” would most probably have affected the female role in society, and in turn affect the entertainment industry in some perceivable way.  Also, in the “station” conscious society of Japan, a loss of the “paternal signifier” would mean serious consequences in terms of social structure, and the once-enemy being on top of the chain of command would cause serious issues with the concept of amaeru (“Amaeruis a Japanese word used to describe behavior of a person attempting to induce an authority figure, such as a parent, spouse, teacher or boss, to take care of him.  The person who is carrying out amae may beg or plead, or alternatively act selfishly while secure in the knowledge that the caregiver will forgive and indulge” (Wikipedia) by the Japanese towards the American.  Unfortunately the important works of Takeo Doi on amaeru and its inevitable consequences on the Japanese entertainment industry in the post-war period are not explored by Allison, which could have been enlightening to explain more clearly the phenomenon of Gojira and Atom Boy.  Instead, Allison mostly concentrates on Japan’s turn towards technology and the rising concept of mechatronics, all resulting from “polymorphous perversity”, to explain the reemerging and reconstituting of the Japanese self.

As Japan went through a period of rapid change it inevitably did become subjected to interesting cultural development.  The culture of Japan is historically heavily based on animistic beliefs with its age-long preoccupation on Shintoism and Buddhism that would not easily disappear even with extreme social change.  Allison mentions this: “animism percolates post-modern landscape of Japan in ways that do not occur in USA” (p. 12) ; but her comparison with USA is unjustified – Americans have not had Shinto-like animism in their historical background.  USA is about personal freedom and individualism, whose culture is derived from its own unique history.  Superheroes percolate their imaginative world, whose protagonists gain fame and glory by achieving morally justifying deeds.  At any rate, a distinct difference between Japanese culture and American culture is undeniably present, yet how Japanese toys and play-goods are able to penetrate this difference is not concisely explained by Allison.

In brief explanation Allison points out that “One of the attractions of J-pop in [Asia] is said to be its “Asian” aesthetic that resonates as more familiar than Western-produced fare.  In non-Asian countries, by contrast, the same style is popular for its “coolness” and the very difference this poses to homegrown fantasies” (pp. 19-20).   The full meaning of this statement is vague without a clear explanation, and could be misunderstood as insulting to both Asian and non-Asian cultures.  Firstly, Japanese animism is not at all “familiar” to all Asians; Allison’s very argument on “paternal signifier” has put Japan’s culture and aesthetics to be unique to Japan due to its unique history.  Concurrently, many Asians have a love-hate relationship with the Japanese culture that is complex yet very relevant when talking about Japanese entertainment products in Asia.  Furthermore, the recent emergence of Hallyu (Korean cultural wave) has had some interesting effects and significance in Asia with respect to the entertainment market and Japanese cultural exports, and it is disappointing to miss the entire topic, along with the topic on Asia’s precarious relationship with Japan, in Millennial Monsters.  Also, Allison failed to provide a tangible explanation for why Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck of Disney sell less than Pikachu and Hello Kitty of Japan, for Disney characters should in reverse be considered “cool” for Asians according to Allison’s very logic of non-homegrown products.  This contradictory nature of the argument is left hanging dangerously as if to suggest that Asians need to fill an assumed identity gap that could only be satisfied with Japanese culture while non-Asians, having no identity crisis and simply bored with their own culture, are contently venturing into new things; she gave an example that “many U.S. fans of the various properties discussed in this book have said they like Japanese mass culture precisely because it is so “unlike” anything American” (p. 20) as if to suggest that those fans preferred non-American culture.  Such ugly loose ends that are not dealt with clarity undermine many justifications followed upon by these assumptions, and ultimately lead to failure in providing a convincing argument as a whole.

Allison also mentions animism to explain why Japanese toys and play-goods induce fascination from the Americans.  Animism is about believing that all earthly things are bound with “spirit” - rivers and mountains and iron ores are all possessive of a spirit of their own; this brings about the fantasy that all objects are “alive” in their own way.  According to Allison, “investing in material objects and now consumer items with the sensation of human/organic/spiritual life, such New Age animism perpetually re-enchants the lived world” (pp. 12-13).   This, says Allison, is contradictory to Max Weber’s famous theorem which states that modernism and capitalism comes at the price of disenchantment, as enchantment can exist within technology itself.  But Weberian view on disenchantment assumes that science and rationalism is the cause of the diminishing role of religion/enchantment, for the “unknowing” from the lack of science gave birth to religion and produced enchantment (dis-knowing) in the first place.  With the creation of the Internet and the emergence of the concept of infotainment, people are at awe of technology and they hunger for information – this is different from deciding to ignore the logic of proof and derivation and give in to becoming “enchanted”.  Animism too is a religion, and under Weber is also dead – Pokemon, Godzilla and Yu-Gi-Oh! are all stories that entertain, not instruments of re-enchantment.

Allison does briefly link animism with utopianism however, and this is more plausible as a driving force for the interests in the resulting toys and other entertainment.  She states that “aesthetic or technological manipulation of nature has a spiritual dimension” (p. 21), and that “intervention by human hands can be seen to enable the ideal or potential of life to be more fully realized” (p. 21).  She gives examples of the bonsai tree and the artificial dome-beaches as “practices [that] enchant everyday life,” and that they are “neither discredited nor devalued for being at odds with the “real” or “authentic” (p. 21).  This theme of technology having a spiritual entity that drives and aids humankind in building a better world can be seen in various Japanese comics, movies, and TV programs, and Allison does well to point this out in her book.  As utopianism, whether serious or simply escapist in nature, is a universally fascinating concept, it explains well the global success of the animistically-charged utopian Japanese entertainment products.

On the other hand, if this is true, it is a serious friction with the old ways in Japan where nature was upheld for is transcendental beauty that can only be tainted by the human influence, which can be observed in their tea ceremonies and the like in their aesthetics of the past.  This obvious friction is not mentioned by Allison.  Also, in her disenchantment argument Allison mentions Walter Benjamin’s views on technology as being the “new gods capable alone of producing peace, progress, and happiness” (p. 28) with examples of “department stores arrang[ing] goods in carnivalesque dream form” (p. 28) which are “urban space[s] transformed by (and into) markets for selling dreams" (pp. 28-29).   Benjamin wrote this with the department stores in Paris and the Western modernization in mind; Allison, though having mentioned that Japan’s development was different from that of the West and quite unique, freely applies Benjamin’s views to Japan with no explanations on their application to Japan other than that the Parisian department stores and Pokemon share an ability to “mesmerize” (p. 29).  This lack of a comprehensive explanation undermines the plausibility of her disenchantment argument even further.

An interesting observation can be made as Allison explores polymorphous perversity and animism with concepts of transformation and duality that Japanese toy makers use to add to the mystery, and hence interest, of their products “Japanese style”.  Allison gives examples such as Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, Sailor Moon, and other such products whose characters have an alter ego that is brought upon by animistic or technological powers.  But this “Japanese” property of fantastical transformation is present also in American characters such as Fantastic Four, Spider-man, and Hulk whose road of conception is quite different from Japan’s polymorphous perversity, originating from as far back as the Victorian literature in the late 19th century.  In fact, multi-ego protagonists have been around in USA longer than in Japan – Superman debuted before WWII.  What exactly, then, materialistically differs Japanese characters from American characters is not clear.  A Power Ranger’s power being bestowed upon by an alien race and Peter Parker having gained superhuman powers from a radioactive spider seem to be within the same realm of imagination, especially from a child who may not be educated in animism.  Also, Allison mentions that Japanese characters are seldom even Japanese: “scenes are frequently set in other countries, and characters often appear Caucasian…” (p. 22).  These points fail to explain why an animism specifically would make an American child prefer Japanese products while at the same time undermining even further her argument that Japanese characters are familiar to Asians and also that Americans find them interesting for their being unfamiliar.

One aspect of Japanese play-products that does explain well its success is mentioned by Allison, despite it having been mentioned by many others in different contexts previously. The cover for the New Yorker March 18th, 2002 shown by Allison on page 18 clearly brings its viewers’ attention to the ubiquitous quality of Japanese entertainment products The Japanese marketing stratagem for their play-goods is quite unique in its field.  Allison borrows words from Nakazawa Shin’ichi who describes the success of Japanese play-products in terms of the properties of the products themselves, arguing that a certain “healing” ability of the toys and their “portability” play important roles.  According to Nakazawa the Japanese toys “heal” by “offer[ing] children a way of imaginatively engaging a world beyond that dictated by the rules and rationality they must usually abide by” (p. 24).   He also adds that the Japanese toys, charged with animistic qualities, soothe the wounds of the Japanese people and their loss of culture caused by the Western cultural invasion, and appeases the Japanese people’s “primitive unconscious”.  While this may raise the question of how whether the first part may be unique to Japan (Disneyland is the American tribute to the “magical world”) and whether the latter part may be applicable to American children, the second property of Japanese play-products mentioned by Nakazawa is quite convincing.  Portability of the products makes them ubiquitous, and thus becomes much more personal as they accompany their users everywhere.  It “allows its user to experience a “singularity” that interlaces with other singularities to form what there is of the “self”” (p. 25).   By carrying different portable products they in turn appeal to their users’ ego and become a part of the projection of the users’ very being, and thus become something that their users simply cannot be without.

On top of Nakazawa’s arguments Allison adds another aspect, or rather, derives from the previous two aspects, which is the “addictive frenzy”.  The play-products are contrived in a certain way to engage the consumer’s interest almost indefinitely, with ever-proliferating denominators and/or variants following with the idea of Allison’s polymorphous perversity that always has something new and fashionable in store.  Engaging with the Japanese play-products, according to Allison, “replicates and reproduces the very conditions of a post-industrial capitalism (fragmentation, speed, flux, flexibility), with its effects on subjectivity (anxiety, atomism, and alienation)” (p. 26)   This explanation does well to show both the extent of the savvy Japanese marketing and its relevance and compatibility to the capitalist world today.

Another explanation given by Allison to explain the success of Japanese play-goods is what Allison calls the “enchanted commodity” effect.  “Packaged to feed consumer fetishism in the age of millennial and global capitalism [that] penetrates the texture of ordinary life” (p. 16), it is the culprit of the infamous “cute craze”, also known as “character craze” for its wholesaling of “cute” characters.  This character marketing is, of course, in lieu with previously discussed ubiquity stratagem, which is on shirts and shoes to cell phones and cereal boxes.  Allison states that the girliness, fun, and childlike aspects of Japanese characters are the main cause for success of the “cute craze” (p. 16) .  This argument, of course, has a major problem that Allison failed to elaborate upon: the presence of Disney characters.  Long before Hello Kitty and Pikachu came into being, Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck were present, who, despite a vice president of Sony Music (who is not even qualified to comment on character goods, being a music division VP) saying that they were “simply not cute” (283, note 14), are even today still beloved all over the world (perhaps more so than Pikachu to certain extents).  Disney shops all over the world still sell character goods, and the excuse of “lack of cuteness” should not be tolerated for the spite of millions of Disney fans.  Mickey and Donald’s problem when it comes to competing against Japanese characters is lack of ubiquity.  Disney characters are not presented enough in games, clothes, pencils and other child-related things, whose adventures are outdated and in need of evaluation to accommodate today’s world trends.  Also, not only are Disney products harder to find, they are more expensive as well.  These simple facts are much overshadowed by Allison’s foregrounding of the more “fascinating” issues of culture and psychology.

Allison mentions that it is customary for Japanese office workers to own character goods.  It is well known that even adults, traditionally not in the demography of play-goods consumers, in Japan play with play-goods widely accepted elsewhere in the world, namely USA and many parts of Asia, as immature.  Allison really does not explain fully why Japanese adults are drawn to Japanese play-goods so deeply compared to American adults, who are not as drawn to Spider-man or Fantastic Four to the extent of decorating cell phones with a Superman logo or a t-shirt with a picture of Batman.  In America this attitude towards play-goods would be classified as either being “dorky” or utilizing a strange sense of self-projection; clearly the concept of social acceptance is different between Japan and USA.  This cultural, and perhaps also psychological, difference of not just adults but also of children is never fully explored even though it raises an important question regarding the reason of success of Japanese play-goods in USA.

In the end, the most convincing of Allison’s arguments is the brilliance of Japanese marketing that took America by storm and overtook Disney in some categories of children entertainment.  The “addictiveness” of the Japanese toys and play-goods that drive consumers to buy them are described by Allison as the very “logic of fantasy” (p. 32) .  Interestingly yet predictably, the absence of ubiquity of Disney products did stimulate the coming of throngs of knockoff goods that produced below-par standard products; cheap t-shirts with terrible imitations of Mickey Mouse are just some of the vast variety of goods that surfaced in Asia – this fact also failed to capture Allison’s attention.  Much of Millennial Monsters is great as a light read but fails to be a serious anthropological work for all the reasons given throughout this essay.  It is too narrow in view on too dauntingly vast a subject; many important factors are either left out or inadequately explained, and only the agreeable side of the story is told.

Works Cited

Allison, Anne(2006) Millennial Monster: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Tsutsui, William (1994) Godzilla on My Mind. NY: Macmillan, 1994.

Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amae

[Citation Reference: Han Man Woong, "A Critical Look at Millennial Monster: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination 2(2007):#2.]


Summer Dig in Lloyd Manor