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Japanamerica: Hairy-faced Americans & spindly-legged Japanese

By Roland Kelts.

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Less than a week before U.S. President Barack Obama touched down in Tokyo last Friday, I took the train to Shimoda, Shizuoka Prefecture, the tiny port city at the tip of the Izu Peninsula famous today for its beaches, seafood and hot springs. But 156 years ago, Shimoda earned fame for another reason: it was the landing site of U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry and his Black Ships, a squadron of four military vessels equipped with threatening cannons and aiming to open Japan to international trade.

At the time, Japan’s Tokugawa shogunate had successfully shut the nation’s shores to the world for nearly 300 years. Perry, with his technologically advanced hardware and a letter of peaceful intentions from U.S. President Millard Fillmore, succeeded in his mission. The first Japan-U.S. treaty was signed, and Japan opened to world trade, partly in response to Western technological prowess, and partly in reaction to the press of what we now call globalization.

Today, Shimoda is a quiet place, and I was warmly welcomed by smart hotel clerks who helped me visit the area’s major historical monuments and museums. My hotel room overlooked the ocean. The food was excellent, and a hot spring was offered at no extra cost on the top floor, with a picture-perfect view of the Pacific.

Among the displays of early encounters between the Japanese and Americans, I focused on the graphics – numerous mangalike watercolor portraits of big-nosed, hairy-faced Americans with long legs and vast heads of wild hair wandering amid lean, spindly-legged Japanese. One sequence is particularly memorable: American soldiers laughing at a display of Japanese strength, featuring two sumo wrestlers grappling on a beach, and a subsequent portrait of a sumo wrestler flipping an American soldier over his shoulder – eliciting laughter from all on hand.

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Other paintings portray the early stirrings of what we now call “soft power,” thanks to Harvard University Prof. Joseph Nye. The Americans introduced Japan to the virtues of milk and soap, and a cow was slaughtered in Shimoda to convey the delicious properties of beef. The Japanese showed off their manifold uses of seafood and seaweed, and shared the sento, or public bath, which caused Perry to criticize his hosts – since nude women and men bathed communally.

I couldn’t help but construe the displays as evidence of three essential truths. First, Japan’s relationship with the West is, relatively speaking, still quite young. Second, American puritanical values were altering Japanese culture even then. And visual representations of Japan’s encounter with American sensibilities have been legion, right from the start.

I was visiting Shimoda with my parents. My mother is Japanese, my father American. Their reactions were equally telling. My father reflected on how the two nations would be at war less than a century after Perry’s arrival. My mother wondered aloud at the gulf between the two competing cultures in the 1850s.

Of course, Japan is still misunderstood in the United States, and vice-versa. But as Obama said last week, progress will be achieved by cultivating spheres of cooperation rather than spheres of influence, and the Pacific Ocean binds us more than it separates us. “I am America’s first Pacific president,” he said.

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If Japan embraced the United States in 1853 as an ambassador of change, and a century later as an occupier of modernist dreams, then it’s fair to say that the United States now needs to embrace Japan, China and other Asian nations to secure its place among them.

Some of this collusion is born out of economic pragmatism, of course. China and Japan are the world’s largest holders of U.S. debt. Overblown American consumer materialism, which may finally be nearing its overdue end, means that those two Asian nations will be among the United States’ most vital economic allies in the 21st century.

But something else is at work. China and Japan are home to millions who have largely embraced American soft power for years. Hollywood depends on receipts from both nations to fulfill its profit projections, and Japan may now need to rely upon American fans of manga to sustain its domestic industry.

I watched my Japanese-American parents stroll through Shimoda last weekend. Then I watched Obama tell Asians that he is one of them. And this weekend, Singapore will welcome Japanese pop culture in the form of their second annual Asia Anime Fest. The East that Perry sought is finally here, Pacific presidents and all.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Roland Kelts is a Tokyo University lecturer who divides his time between Tokyo and New York. He is the author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S. This article is hosted by 3:AM and Daily Yomiuri.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, November 22nd, 2009.