An article up now on Metropolis lists the all-time best Japanese songs, as chosen by a variety of editors living in Japan. The one that really caught my attention was Frank Chickens' "We Are Ninja," a throwaway '80s dance track with a very silly video. What grabbed my attention wasn't so much the makeup, or the fake Godzilla, or even the awesomely '80s video effects, but the fact that it was obviously made with the foreign market in mind (the English-language lyrics are a big clue). And suddenly I remembered how '80s Japan was.
In the '80s, Japan had unparalleled visibility in Western media and fashion. Now, I don't mean that Japanese fashion designers like Issey Miyaki were on the lips of the kids at the mall (although he was pretty famous at the time) but I mean that imagery that recalled Japan was all the rage. Take, for example, the Rising Sun. The symbol for wartime Imperial Japan suddenly appeared on muscle shirts, on shoes, even on those ubiquitous painter caps with desert flaps that have thankfully not had a comeback.
So how did it come to this? How did Japan go from being the butt of jokes about poorly made electronics ("Made In Japan" is the old "Made In China") to being the height of urban fashion? I'm not an expert (although I act like it sometimes) but if I was going to trace a time line, it would start with the Germans.
Kraftwerk's 1981 Computer World changed the game for electronic music. It was incredibly influential amongst the burgeoning inner city hip-hop scenes, particularly with the track "Numbers," which actually broke through into the R&B charts for a brief period. This is amazing in and of itself, that a minimal track comprised of little more than a beat and robot voices counting to four in different languages shoud be a hit with anyone, let alone inner city breakdancers. But hit it was, and it was likely the first time for many Americans to hear Japanese spoken. I know it was for me. I remember in 7th grade, thinking, "Now I know how to count to four in Japanese."
It didn't stop there. Afrika Bambaataa took Kraftwerk's blueprint and tweaked it for US clubs. The result was "Planet Rock," a massive hit that still gets regular play to this day. In amongst his free-form rapping, Bambaataa hypes the crowd by encouraging: "Everyone say ichi, ni, san, shi!" It was the Japanese numbers he latched on to, and not the Italian or French, perhaps because they were the most exotic sounding. But whatever the reason, what started as a fluke had now become a trope. Everyone did indeed say "ichi, ni, san, shi" and breakdancers were now aware of Japan. Rising Sun logo shirts would soon follow.
White kids were learning about Japan too. Now you can't throw a rock without breaking the front window of a bad sushi restaurant but there was a time not so long ago when sushi was completely unknown outside of Japanese expatriate enclaves. I distinctly remember the scene in the movie Valley Girl when Nicolas Cage crashes a party in the San Fernando Valley and balks that they're serving sushi. It was the first time I had ever heard of it and wondered why anyone would want to eat raw fish. Before the early '80s, sushi was a specialty item only, but by the mid '80s it would be everywhere. To take a phrase back, it was a sushi boom.
Also experiencing something of a boom in the West during the '80s was Yellow Magic Orchestra member Ryuichi Sakamoto. More than any other Japanese musician, Sakamoto broke through into international stardom and was accepted as a kind of Japanese David Bowie, with whom he appeared on screen in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (also a sign of expanding Japanese visibility). The makeup and international fashion sense fit right in with the way the West wanted to experience Japan—that is, as an exotic and slightly feminine other—and collaborations with David Sylvian, another androgynous performer, followed.
Being big in Japan became a "thing" in the '80s as well. Although it started in the '70s with Cheap Trick and its runaway success Live at the Budokan album, things really peaked in the '80s. Western bands could become bona fide superstars in Japan when they couldn't even get run over in the West. Although already popular outside Japan, INXS experienced a different kind of popularity in Japan when its nerdy, bespectacled sax player became the band's sex symbol there, not Michael Hutchence.
Of course, no article on Japan in the '80s would be complete without a mention of anime. Although the popularity of Japanese cartoons then was nothing like it is now, it was still popular among a certain group of pre-teen and teenage boys, albeit in dubbed, TV broadcast form. I remember rushing home from middle school to watch Robotech, actually three different shows crammed into one, and of course Voltron. It wasn't until the theatrical release of Akira in the early '90s that anime would really get going over here, but back in those '80s days there was nothing else like it.
The same thing that contributed to Japan's international visibility in the '80s, mainly its economic miracle, eventually led to a backlash in America. The feminized other, bolstered by a strong yen and unprecedented economic growth, suddenly became the aggressor (in the eyes of many Americans) with its buying up of American properties. No matter that European companies owned more property in the US at the time than did Japan, our pride was wounded beyond rational reasoning, and pop culture followed suit into Japan-bashing territory. Movies like Gung Ho were indicative of the time, as were—inexplicably—ninja movies starring white actors. Perhaps seeing one of our own claiming the title of "ninja" made the humiliation of losing (pieces of) our homeland to our former defeated foes a little easier to bear.