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Japanamerica: Our hybrid future is here

By Roland Kelts.

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Diana Yukawa, 24, is a violinist whose story is film worthy, melodramatically so. In 1985, her Japanese father died in the crash of Japan Airlines Flight 123, the deadliest single-aircraft accident in history. Born a month later, Yukawa was moved to her mother’s home country of Britain, where she was raised. But she performed in her early years in Japan at a memorial service for the victims of the JAL crash – and was promptly hailed as a child prodigy.

I first met Yukawa about five years ago, when she stopped by my Tokyo office. I found her remarkably level-headed and sincere, and I was impressed by her reviews and credentials. So I paid attention when her latest CD, The Butterfly Effect, landed in my mailbox this autumn.

Pop and classical music are uneasy bedfellows, as most attempts to meld the two demonstrate. But Yukawa brings a personal angle to the hybrid form: she is also a blend of two distinctive strains.

“I think it’s something I’m lucky to have,” Yukawa told me by phone from Britain. “It’s something really wonderful that I can tap into and explore further.”

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Butterfly boasts hypnotic dance club rhythms behind aching and sometimes otherworldly violin leads. The effect is sometimes quirky: French techno musician Jean Michel Jarre filtered through a quasi-Eastern voice.

It makes perfect sense to Yukawa. “When I was writing music with [collaborator] Andy [Wright], it was quite natural that some of the music sounded quite Japanese. It happened organically, it wasn’t something I was consciously trying to do. I think it’s because I’m really proud of my Japanese side and fascinated by Japanese culture that it just emerged naturally.”

Hybridization has been the subject of this column from its inception. Since then, the United States has elected its first biracial president, and Asian influence continues to expand in the West. Japan-born Heroes star Masi Oka, South Korea-born Star Trek actor John Cho, Vietnam-born U.S. Rep. Anh “Joseph” Cao, Indian-American Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Chinese-American Energy Secretary Steven Chu are among those making ever bigger waves, whatever the misgivings of racial or cultural purists on both sides of the Pacific.

This past May saw Yukawa performing before 60,000 soccer fans in Qatar, a stellar moment for both violinist and host country in its bid to host the 2022 World Cup. “It was a pretty big match, and I have to admit, I wasn’t a huge football fan,” Yukawa told me. “But when I was there, the atmosphere was most amazing. The crowds were intense. When I came off the pitch, I wanted to go out and play again immediately. And when the game was on, I was totally shouting and getting really into it.”

Passion is hard to measure, especially when it comes in hybrid forms. As Barack Obama gave his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in Oslo last week, many liberal supporters were taken aback by his formulation, rooted in the thinking of American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, that war, at times, is necessary, and that who we are often falls far short of who we ought to be.

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Looking back, 2009 is a year that will probably be remembered as a turning point for such reckonings, in pop and politics. The world is increasingly becoming mixed up and malleable, with Alaskan Patrick Galbraith delivering books on otaku (The Otaku Encyclopedia), Briton Simon Reynolds giving us the expansive Rough Guide to Anime, and Missouri-born American Jake Adelstein, a former Yomiuri Shimbun reporter, providing some of the sharpest insights into Japanese journalism and organized crime in his book Tokyo Vice.

As for me, being mixed remains a mixed blessing. Never at ease in one land or the other, you live in limbo, half this and half that. But perhaps that’s the best place to be as we enter the second decade of the 21st century, where paradigms and climates are changing faster than we can process them.

“This is just the first step of a longer journey,” Yukawa told me from London. “I can’t wait to get back to Japan – to see where I’m going.”

In July, when I had the privilege of interviewing master Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki in California, I tried to unlock the secret of one of his most iconic characters, a furry creature named Totoro, from Tonari no Totoro (My Neighbor Totoro).

Some viewers think Totoro is a strange bear. Others think he’s an oversized rodent. What is he? I asked.

“Nature is beyond understanding,” Miyazaki answered. “I only focused on his eyes. [Totoro] could be thinking deep thoughts, or nothing at all.”

Neither here nor there. Get used to it.

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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: Wednesday, December 30th, 2009.