Made in Translation

LA-Japan Mobility Networks and the Emergence of ‘Offshore’

Japanese Creative Industries in Art, Music, Fashion and Food


Adrian Favell

Associate Professor of Sociology, UCLA


A number of western journalists and writers have commented recently on the how the export of contemporary Japanese pop culture – the extraordinary global influence of Japanese manga, anime, street fashion, electronica, toy design, art and cuisine – has in large part made up for the relative decline of Japanese manufacturing power amidst economic crisis since the 1990s. ‘Gross National Cool’ has arguably become the key to Japan’s economic future, with its world role now guided by the ‘soft power’ of cultural innovation. The heads and hands behind these business trends are the growing number of successful East-West cultural entrepreneurs, whose innovative reworkings of Japanese ideas and images are creating huge new markets across the Pacific.


Insofar as J-pop has attracted scholarly attention, it has done so mainly within cultural studies, as textual based studies on Japanese animation, comics, or ‘cute’ design and fashion. Anime, manga, toys and computer games have also inspired a handful of books by sociologists and anthropologists, but relatively less attention has been paid to the more adult-oriented creative industries of art and music, or the explosion of interest in Japanese fashion and cuisine. Sociologically speaking, there is a missing link in this research, which might instead study the actual people behind these trends: who they are, their social backgrounds, their networks and spatial trajectories, their business initiatives and careers, their views on global culture, and the facts and patterns of their international mobility. In other published work, I have dubbed this kind of research, studying the ‘human face’ of global mobility: the real life avatars of an emergent global culture who deserve our ethnographic attention.


A key dimension of much work on globalization has been the study of economic and/or social flows and transactions between ‘global cities’, a dynamic said to be at the heart of globalization processes and centered on migrant and mobile populations. Various connections of this kind can be traced between Los Angeles and major Japanese cities such as Tokyo or Osaka. Los Angeles, of course, is a major global hub often studied for its ethnic diversity and large immigrant communities. Regarding Japanese-Americans present in the city, there is indeed a large literature on these older generations. Very little, however, is known about recent younger, mobile populations (the hi-imin), who might be present officially in the city on temporary business, tourist or student visas rather than as residents. Their relative invisibility and their ease of entry also often leads to overstaying, and finding work in informal businesses or new creative ventures. But it is not difficult to find them. One focal point is LA’s hip Sawtelle neighborhood, where numerous shops, cafes and restaurants provide a hang out and employment source for young Japanese in the city. Alongside the many Japan-fans attracted to the area, they are, moreover, the major consumers of the various outlets there for new manga and anime, art and design, techno and electronica, or fashion and cuisine.


The intriguing part of the influence of the new offshore Japanese culture is the link between the international mobility of these younger generations and their cultural entrepreneurship. It has been well noted how the downturn in the Japanese economy, and the end of the ‘miracle’ years, has forced a questioning of stable corporate careers, and the emergence of a freeter generation, who have stepped off this path to pursue independent careers and lifestyles. Although there is much criticism of the so-called ‘parasite singles’ in conservative public opinion, entrepreneurial and/or creative individuals of the otaku generation might equally be seen as an emergent ‘creative class’, in the terms established by regional studies geographer Richard Florida. A look around some of the flourishing cosmopolitan streets off Omotesando in Tokyo suggests their activities and interests may even be now at the heart of regional urban development, driving the city’s growing fashionability. The strong connections between LA-Tokyo and LA-Osaka in turn suggest that this phenomenon might also have a significant transnational dimension. In other words, some of the most creative in the new generation are using the spaces and freedom enabled by a move to LA, to engage entrepreneurially in the reworking of an offshore contemporary Japanese culture.


Those who come to LA often see it as a ‘land of opportunity’ and as a place for ‘self-search’ (jibun-sagashi), that can have a profound affect on their lives in both places. This is seen most graphically in the gendered dynamics of young Japanese women able to get breathing space away from traditional expectations by studying or working abroad. When translated into creative ideas and activities, it manifests a kind of alternative, liberated version of Japanese culture, that may unlock the key to successful East-West cultural transmissions. The other side to this story are the western entrepreneurs going to Japan, observing the culture, setting up business links and bringing it back into a newly receptive environment, both commercially and creatively. Among these, there is a considerable participation of Japanese-Americans, rediscovering family culture or personal roots in creative ways, or Japanese-educated Americans, with romantic or marital links with Japan and the US.


For a couple of years, I have been developing a multi-sited research project that would be able to encompass these ambitions and address the hypotheses raised. The first part of this research, now underway, is the study of the ‘new Japanese LA’: an exhaustive inventory of the individuals behind the explosion of these contemporary creative industries in the city. The project has attracted UCLA seed money, and an SSRC/Japan Foundation Abe Fellowship to provide me with a year’s leave to do the parallel research in Japan. I aim to publish a book on Offshore/Transnational Japanese Culture that focuses principally on LA, but will also feature comparative material gathered on the Japanese influence and presence in other major cities such as New York, London, Paris and Copenhagen.


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