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Dr. Cosima Wagner has been a faculty staff at the Goethe University Frankfurt since October 2003. She has done much of her undergraduate and post-graduate studies in Kyoto and has spent two years working under Sony Europe before joining the Japanese Studies department at Goethe University Frankfurt. Dr. Wagner has a keen interest in the research of roboticsin Japan as a form of cultural technology, having written her doctorate dissertation1  (abstract) as well as many subsequent essays on the topic. Her other research interests include Japanese popular culture and Japanese consumer culture in Japan.

In her upcoming presentation at the National University of Singapore, Dr. Wagner will be introducing the Cool Japan-AG, an initiative pioneered by her back in 2007. Cool Japan-AG is a working research group made up of Japanese Studies students pursuing their personal interests in various aspects Japanese popular culture, the purpose of which is to allow students to work out their individual research projects that will culminate into a Bachelors or Masters thesis. With the initiative successfully reaching a 5-year milestone since its inception, Dr. Wagner will reflect on the journey of the research group and share her invaluable experiences on teaching popular culture during the seminar.


1. As a fan of popular culture as well, I would like to ask what is your favourite among the various categories of Japanese popular culture? How has your love of Japanese popular culture led you personally to the path of becoming a researcher on Japanese popular culture?

It was not my love of Japanese popular culture, which led me to the path of a researcher, but my interest in the meaning of Japanese popular culture for the Japanese and the global youth, as well as for institutions like the Japanese government and how the cultural industry production is functioning in Japan. Furthermore, as a researcher of Japan’s technology culture, I am interested in how, for example, popular culture robot-characters are used as an interface for the development of "real" robots like ASIMO and others, as well as how popular culture is being instrumentalized for communicating futuristic scenarios of a high-tech Japanese society. After the triple disaster of March 11, I also analyzed communication strategies of the nuclear power lobbyists and their instrumentalization of popular culture.


2. Could you share with us what was the spark that inspired you to form the Cool Japan-AG? Are there any difficulties or unique circumstances that you have faced in the formation of the research group?

The establishment of the “Cool Japan”-working group in the year 2007 had two reasons: one was the idea to give students an extra-curricular framework and more room for pursuing their own research interests in popular culture and the other to enable a communication between students of different year groups (freshmen, sophomores etc.) on the subject. This was meant to “break” the strict Bachelor-Master-curricula, which were introduced to all countries of the European Union since the beginning of the 2000s.


3. What do you think has been the greatest reward for both yourself and your students in the research group for these five years? What do you think will be the "next step" for Cool Japan-AG?

The greatest reward for me as a teacher was the realization of our "Goethe explores Cool Japan" excursion in 2010, improving the knowledge (both the students and myself) on the background of popular culture production and discourse in Japan. It was a great inspiration for the students and had a long-lasting, positive impact on their performance as young scholars of Japanese Studies.

As the working group is essentially an extracurricular activity, only students who are really interested in the subject join the group, leading to a very productive atmosphere with students from all grades. For example, senior students have to explain to first grade students who Azuma Hiroki is and in the process, they train their competence as Japanese Studies scholars. Junior students, even though they have barely learned 200 kanji, are encouraged to read Japanese texts with the senior students. This classroom atmosphere is completely different from my other regular classes, where there is often little enthusiasm despite a larger class size.

The next step for us is to work hard on our web journal, which was created to publish student essays and information about Japanese popular culture in general, particularly the globalization of Japanese popular culture.


4. How do you personally feel about the prospects of the Cool Japan movement for the next decade, considering that the movement appears to be faltering in socio-political atmosphere of post-Fukushima Japan and somewhat eclipsed by the current Korean popular culture wave that is surging across East and Southeast Asia?

I think it makes for an even more interesting study as a interdisciplinary research topic. It leads to basic questions, like how cultural globalization is functioning and whether popular culture can be unifying or separating nations in Asia. In this regard it would be very interesting to compare the “Cool Japan” strategy of the Japanese government with the "Cool Korea" strategy of the South Korean government, or the impact of the Japan Creative Centre in Singapore on local youth culture as well as the analysis of historical antecedents like “Japonism” as a fandom of “Things Japanese” (see Susan Napier's From Impressionism to Anime2 for more reading)..

Therefore, I think it will continue to be a very fascinating and engaging research topic for the analysis of post-capitalistic societies and cultural flows in the 21st century.


5. Finally, what advice would you give to students who are interested in pursuing further studies beyond a Bachelor's degree on Japanese popular culture?

From the experience with many students in Frankfurt, I would advise them to develop a more open-minded interest in popular culture from a scholarly perspective and an interest in research discussions of the methodological fields of Cultural Anthropology, History, Social Sciences, Cultural Studies etc., in order to see more in popular culture than just a very specific and self-centered fandom of one very particular anime or manga. Also, I would encourage them to look at popular culture as a "text" which contains messages, which might be enjoyed but sometimes also have to be commented on very critically despite their super-kawaii appearance or mystic story outline.


Ref Notes
1 Wagner, Cosima (2012). Robotopia Nipponica – Recherchen zur Akzeptanz von Robotern in Japan. Marburg, Germany: Tectum Verlag.
2 Napier, Susan J. (2007). From Impressionism to Anime: Japan as Fantasy and Fan Cult in the Mind of the West. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.


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