Thursday, January 14, 2010

That's Entertainment

Being an American, it seems I've been lead to think that the world copies what we do. That we're the fashion leader and everyone else can't wait to mimic us. This may be true on some level, particularly when it comes to movies and television, but we are not the only force of influence in the world. Far from it. I personally was influenced by British mod and skinhead (this is late '60s skin, not '80s flight jacket skin) looks. And of course Europe, particularly France and Italy, continue to be high fashion leaders. And then there's Japan.

In Asia, Japan seems to be the culturally dominating force. Its music is popular all over Asia, despite the language barrier. It exports its fashion sense, through magazines. I'd even go so far as to claim that—particularly for women—it's the Japanese facial structure that is most desired.

First, music. Like Europe, Asia is comprised of a lot of small (and some not so small) countries in a relatively close area. It makes sense then that cultural products would go back and forth. Being from America, where everything not American is faraway and even undesirable, it's sometimes hard to grasp this. We might get a few British bands reaching into the Top 40, but when was the last time a foreign-language song was popular? The '80s? Japan has been selling its music into Asia for a long time with little trouble overcoming the language barrier.

In the past, concessions to local languages were occasionally made, like Puffy's Mandarin-language versions of its bigger hits. But now, the trend seems to be to co-opt and sell back. Take Morning Musume for example. The decade-strong all-girl J-pop group, like Menudo, graduates its members when they get too old. A few years back the group's producers held auditions in China to find new members and, one can assume, expand its audience. The new members sing in Japanese and are, for all intents and purposes, interchangeable with the other members. But they're there, and China knows it. Likewise with Sweet Vacation, a techno-pop duo comprised of a male producer and young female singer. Same as it ever was, except the singer is actually Thai.

While May sings in Japanese almost exclusively, they have released Thai-language versions of some of their songs in Thailand. Discovered in Thailand, groomed in Japan, and sold back to Thailand. (And, although I don't remember her name, there's also another singer, discovered in her home country and now working in Japan with Japanese producers. I think she may be Nepalese.)

Japanese media available in other Asian countries are not restricted to music. Japanese magazines are readily available, depicting Japan's unique, homegrown styles and fads, which are soon adopted throughout Asia. One example is the recent school girl fashion boom in Japan, as worn by groups like Scandal and AKB48. May, Sweet Vacation's Thai-transplant singer, has even been hired to model school girl-inspired outfits.

Of course, along with clothes comes personal appearance. The Japanese "look," that being light skin and wide, doe-like eyes, is popular throughout Asia. However, for the Japanese this is as much of a construct as it is for non-Japanese, with everyone using skin whitening creams, eyelid glue to hold open the eyes, and contacts for maximum doe-eyed effect. I'm not sure where exactly the blame can be placed. Certainly there's a Western effect happening, with large eyes and white skin valued over Asian eyes and brown skin, but that's too simple. Japan has long valued white skin, centuries before ever encountering Caucasians. And in the West, we're more interested in being tanned brown, images we eagerly broadcast back out to the East. I suppose the stylistic hallmarks of anime and manga are somewhat to blame too.

As in the images in the picture above from a personals site, you can no longer tell whether someone is Japanese, Chinese, Thai, or even human. Japanese style may have been the jumping off point, but where it's going is somewhere else entirely. More than human? Time will tell.

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