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William M. Tsutsui is Dean of Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences at Southern Methodist University.

Having graduated from Harvard University (summa cum laude) with a Bachelor of Arts in East Asian Studies, Dr. Tsutsui received a Master of Letters in Modern Japanese History from Oxford University's Corpus Christi College. He received his Master of Arts and Ph.D. at Princeton University. Areas of his diverse research interest span across modern Japanese business, Japanese economic history and Japanese popular culture.

Dr. Tsutsui has authored books on a wide range of subjects. His publications on Japanese popular culture include:

  • Godzilla on my Mind: Fifty Years of the King of Monsters (2004)
  • In Godzilla's Footsteps: Japanese Pop Culture Icons on the Global Stage (2006), co-edited with Michiko Ito
  • Japanese Popular Culture and Globalization (2010)

In addition, Dr. Tsutsui has also participated in conferences on popular culture and given numerous talks on the subject, one of which entitled Godzilla and Postwar Japan can be accessed here.

 

Interview with Professor Tsutsui

1. Traditionally scholars and theorists were rather cynical towards popular culture, with notable figures such as Theodor Adorno critiquing the consumption of popular culture as a mindless and degenerative activity. What do you think accounted for the relatively recent shift away from what used to be such a predominant mindset?

For a very long time, pop culture got no respect from either scholars or policymakers.  But over the past half century, and especially over the last couple decades, we have seen an unmistakable blurring of distinctions between high and popular culture.  Technology has accelerated this process, as innovations from television to cable to the Internet have facilitated the ubiquity, diversity, and creativity of mass entertainments.  Today, the global vitality of pop culture is stunning, while the general infirmity of what has traditionally been considered high culture–with symphonies and opera companies struggling to survive, art museums striving to redefine themselves–is accepted as inevitable.  Not surprisingly, scholarship has adapted to reflect these sweeping changes in culture and society.

But, I would hasten to add, high culture is not dead yet.  Every year, the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs creates lovely glossy calendars that are distributed internationally through embassies and consulates to government officials, community leaders, and academics like me.  And for as long as I can remember, these calendars have always depicted ikebana, the spare and elegant Japanese art of flower arranging.  I am still looking forward to the day when the Japanese consulate sends me an official calendar with pictures of Hello Kitty or Gundam or Godzilla. 

Trends within the scholarship have also conditioned the recent academic embrace of popular culture.  Most importantly, scholars have increasingly problematized consumption, which traditionally was seen as essentially passive and inconsequential culturally or politically.  Now, however, we recognize that consumption can be complex, creative, and even subversive.  Fandom, meanwhile, is no longer perceived as a mindless, solitary pursuit but is appreciated as a form of social engagement that is often highly imaginative and constructive.  Geeks have joined pop culture in the mainstream of scholarship and twenty-first century life.

 

2a. In your paper you have noted the general lack of historians registering academic interest in the study of Japanese popular culture. As a historian, what do you think a more active participation from historians would be able to bring to the existing discourse on ‘Cool Japan’? 

Historians are some of the most conservative members of the academy and have been confoundingly slow to integrate popular culture into their narratives of modern Japan, either in research or their teaching.  This is a real shame, since one of the weaknesses of the existing literature on Japanese popular culture (at least in English) has been the dearth of historical analyses of the development of major pop forms, the evolution of Japan's creative and media industries, and the role of the state in the making of "Cool Japan."  Above all, more research is needed that contextualizes the rise of Japanese pop culture within the larger transformations of Japanese society over the past century and a half.  This critical historical perspective has not been fully provided by the anthropologists, literary scholars, and media studies specialists who have largely dominated Western academic studies of Japanese pop culture so far.

2b. Additionally, what are some ways in which the incorporation of pop culture in Japanese history classes can be pedagogically beneficial to students?

Including more popular culture in Japanese history classes would offer students a fuller picture of Japan, including the complexities and contradictions of contemporary society, the limits of civil discourse and the opportunities for subversion in mass entertainments, and the riotous imaginative diversity of a culture often painted in subtle shades of grey.  Students would also benefit from learning to "read" pop culture products, be they Miyazaki Hayao movies or cell phone straps, as primary sources for historical analysis.  There is a common misunderstanding that pop culture can provide a transparent window into "Japan," unmediated by authorial intent, commercial interests, or adaptation for overseas markets (among many other things).  Using the tools of history to situate pop commodities politically, economically, and socially could benefit students, not just in better understanding "Cool Japan," but also in approaching today's media-saturated world more confidently and critically.

 

3. You have always been extremely interested in Godzilla, and have written extensively on the symbolic figure in Japanese popular culture. What in your opinion is the x-factor that has enabled Godzilla to retain such an enduring appeal not only to the Japanese but also the global community?

Godzilla's longevity is certainly an important part of his success.  As the star of 28 movies between 1954 and 2004, most of which have been widely distributed internationally, Godzilla is a familiar figure to the "baby boom" generation (and its successors) around the world.  Especially to those of us who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, when it was common to see Japanese monster movies at Saturday double-features or in late-night slots on television, Godzilla is a reminder of childhood and a past that we idealize as simpler, gentler, and less complicated.  I have met lifelong Godzilla fans from many parts of the world—North America, Japan, Southeast Asia, Europe, South America—and almost all of them feel a strong sense of nostalgia every time they see the King of the Monsters up on the screen.

Of course, Godzilla has also become a global cultural icon, appearing in countless advertising campaigns and New Yorker cartoons, inspiring tributes and parodies in movies and on television, and even contributing to the English language (through the now common -zilla suffix).  Interestingly, Godzilla today may have a higher prolife in the popular imagination outside Japan than in the country where the monster was created.  This may be because Godzilla has come to represent Japan so closely in the global imaginary, even though relatively few Japanese seem to consider a radioactive movie monster an important symbol of their nation.

 

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