Peter Hoskin

How Japan became a pop culture superpower

Virtually every childhood craze of the past 30 years has its beginnings in Japan. Today its influence is stronger than ever

There is an island nation, just off the main body of a continent. It gained an empire from the force of its military and the finesse of its trading contracts. The empire withered, as they all do, under the gaze of history. But that didn’t finish the island nation off. It simply took over the world in a different way, with something greater than arms and economics: popular culture. Its territory is now the television in your lounge, and the headphones in your ears.

Sounds like Britain, doesn’t it? We often boast of how, from the Beatles to this year’s Oscar nominations, our country punches above its weight culturally. But I had another island nation in mind. One with twice as much weight, in terms of population, and a hell of a lot more punch: Japan.

If you want to see a totem to Japan’s influence, then pop down to your local cinema this week. Among the new releases is the latest Disney movie, Big Hero 6. Its plot, about a boy and his robot taking on a supervillain, doesn’t really stand out. But its style and its setting sure do. Here is the splendiferous future-city of San Fransokyo, a perfect hybrid of …well, you guessed it. Huge neon cats grin from the top of redbrick offices. The cable cars have paper lanterns fluttering from their corners. Even old Uncle Walt is turning Japanese.

Nerds will point out that the immediate forebear of Big Hero 6 is actually an American comic book. This is the first Disney cartoon to use the Marvel characters that Walt paid billions of dollars to acquire for himself. But a quick read of that comic — particularly the five-issue series drawn by David Nakayama in 2008 — reveals a definite Asian ancestry.

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