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Kwok 1

Jolin Kwok

AMST-A350

Karen Inouye

November 11, 2010

The East-West Flow of Pop Culture

Being in the same world, Eastern and Western cultures have influenced each other since

the dawn of human civilizations, even more so since the age of industrialization and

globalization. In the advent of capitalism and democracy, marketers of various corporations have

seen the fiscal benefit of investing in popular culture, in ways that encourage consumerism. In

this context, popular (pop) culture is culture that is well received by many people in general, is

mass-produced, and commercially provided (Storey 4-8). Three major kinds of pop cultural

influences America and Asian countries have on each other, in general, manifest themselves in

the fields of music, fashion, and beauty trends. While Asian influences on the American pop

culture are evident and contained, the influences of the American culture are more subtle yet

pervasive in Asian countries with regard to pop culture (especially in Japan when it comes to

music and fashion).

Music

With a global medium like the Internet, one can easily explore different music genres

unlike before. A pop music lover may enjoy rock music, jazz, hip hop, and classical music as

well. Hence, while it is easy to identify pop music as an obvious part of popular culture, there are

various genres of music that many people listen to in general.

Historically, music in America has been influenced by the East mostly with regard to

Eastern philosophies and worldviews as well as what many Americans find to be exotic in
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Eastern musical elements. Henry Cowell, regarded by many to be “the father of American

music”, concluded that in order for Western composers to progress in music creativity, they have

to integrate musical elements from other cultures (Gann). In postmodern times, “Aqueous

Transmission” and “Echo” by popular alternative rock group Incubus feature sounds of silence

and crickets quietly chirping as well as Eastern musical instruments like the pipa, showing how

Americans equate a sense of timelessness to Asian musical influence in general (Gann). “Eight

Easy Steps” by alternative rock artiste Alanis Morissette features Indian beats and rhythms in the

beginning of the song. Beardyman, a musician known for his beatboxing1 skills, has worked with

Indian-inspired electronic hip hop music by beatboxing a famous desi song like “DesiRock”2.

Although these Western artistes may feature a few songs with Asian influences, they tend to treat

them as songs of novelty, while preserving their original Western styles.

On the other hand, Eastern music started out by imitating American music before creating

local versions of entire genres. Some of the elements of American music culture imported into

the East include the American dance hall, vaudeville, jazz, the Broadway musical, AM radio,

juke boxes, vinyl records, etc (Henderson). While American pop culture has great influence all

over Asia with regards to music and fashion, the focus here shall be on Japan because Japan in

turn is a leading influence on many other Asian countries for popular music and fashion trends.

Furthermore, Japan has always idolized what was popular in America (Kinney). Moreover,

consumerism in Japan is reflective of the general way others consume in the urban areas of Asia.

When the hip-hop documentary Wild Style (1983)—featuring New York City graffiti

artists, MCs, Djs, and breakdancers—was played in Tokyo, Japan became very interested in hip-

1
Beatboxing is a kind of vocal percussion which primarily uses one’s mouth and voice to
produce beats, rhythm, and musical sounds, oftentimes to simulate musical instruments in
general.
2
http://swamimusic.com/v7/2010/05/beardyman-beatboxes-swami/
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hop. Known locally as hippu hoppu, nip-hop, or J-Rap, hip-hop is one of the most popular types

of music in Japan. Japanese hip-hop lovers can enjoy hip-hop music without understanding a

single word of it. The use of a Disc Jockey (DJ) as a venue for playing hip-hop cuts down the

language barrier between American and Japanese hip-hop. This is because the DJ primarily

mixes different tunes and songs from various sources into a stream of music, so that the audience

focuses on the flow of the music instead of the lyrics of the songs. Initially Japanese rappers

relied heavily on American influence. This allows one to wonder how the former culture can

relate to the latter, as Japan is relatively more homogenous than America. In Japan, there are

relatively less cases of urban poverty and racial conflict, both of which themes are the backbone

of American hip-hop music. Eventually, Japanese rappers added new styles and twists to relate

hip-hop even more to their own culture, experimenting with different flows and rhyming styles

(Kinney). The lyrics of Japanese hip-hop also matured as they started to revolve more around the

local culture, singing about reality, hence striking a chord with their listeners. As a result, this

independent, innovative approach helped set Japanese hip-hop apart from its American

counterpart, that the former even outsells the latter in local record stores (Takatsuki).

Hip-hop music became a gateway into the hip-hop culture in Japan. Breakdancing is

common on street corners, graffiti artists are making big names for themselves, while hip-hop

clubs are still attracting maximum capacity each night. Furthermore, video game big wig Sony

Playstation even invented a game about American hip-hop called “Parappa the Rapper”. While

American hip-hop music is well-received in Japan, the exchange is not mutual in America. Yet,

this does not seem to bother both Japanese hip-hop artistes and lovers. Their deep love for hip-

hop allows them to be thoroughly innovative with a genre they enjoy, thus influencing the region
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at large through the spread of the media (Kinney). Although their concept of hip-hop is

influenced by America, gradually, it is restyled as uniquely Japanese.

Fashion

As mentioned above, hip hop is so pervasive in Japan that it even infiltrates the local

fashion industry. To imitate the appearances of the American hip-hop artistes they admire,

Japanese youths would spend lots of money on hip-hop clothing staples like baggy pants and

oversized sports jerseys. In Shibuya, Tokyo, Spike Lee—a well-known film director and hip-hop

supporter—sells sweatshirts with English catchphrases like silver ‘X’ jackets for $794 at one of

his retail stores on a shopping street called “Malcolm X Boulevard”. Made famous by American

rapper “Nelly” and his chart-topping ode to the sneakers “Air Force Ones”, Nike’s Air Force

Ones are preferred by Japanese teenagers to any other brand of sneakers even though they cost

$200 a pair. Even though a Japanese teenager could barely converse in English, he could be

wearing a cap featuring American hip-hop artiste Snoop Dogg and be fluent in “street slang”

(Kinney).

This peculiar obsession with brand or genre identification is associated with the Japanese

phenomenon of otaku. Contemporarily, otaku refers to someone with a fanatical interest in

computers or fashion. Otaku fashionistas to pay hundreds to thousands of dollars for their

clothing, even for something like a second-hand T-shirt, that Japanese fashion designers lament

that Japanese people generally cannot make up their own mind and have to have opinion leaders

to follow (Mead). In this case, the opinion leaders popularize Western brands. On top of their

high yearly earnings and healthy growth in the Japanese economy, Japanese consumers are

peculiarly attentive to quality and image that they become targets of Western luxury brands such

as Bulgari, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, and Tiffany and Co., to name a few. As of May 2006, Japan
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became the world’s best investment for the revenue of luxury brands ("JETRO USA - Japan

External Trade Organization").

Outsiders of Japan may deem this Japanese obsession with fashion as self-indulgent and

amoral. However, the fact that Japan is a classless society in relation to America indicates that

Western-derived identities such as surfer, punk, rapper, raver, skater, and etc., are but some of

the ways Japanese youth can adopt to differentiate themselves among the masses. The outfits

they wear are merely expressions of the identities they see themselves belonging to (Mead).

Moreover, consumers in Asia strive to identify with a brand so much that not only is there no

shortage of Western-styled clothing—especially T-shirts, suits, and denim jeans—in Asia,

alongside with the costly real deals, there are many fashion knockoffs of luxury brands for the

less affluent (Menkes).

While people in Asia are mostly conscious about the fashion brands from their Western

counterpart, the West is more intrigued by East Asian designs and patterns in general. East Asian

influences in American fashion include the tunic from Southeast Asia, and the V- neckline and

off-shoulder tops based on Japanese traditional outfits (Menkes). American major fashion

magazines like Cosmo, Vogue, Elle, and Harper’s Bazaar have published spreads promoting

chinoiserie, which means European artistic styles with Chinese artistic influences. They use

terms like “Oriental-inspired” and “modern mandarin” to describe fashion items with decorative

geometry like Chinese latticework and exaggerated ornamentation (Cho 9). Other East Asian

subject matter like lotus blossoms, pagodas, phoenixes, and especially dragons, have graced

American fashion from garments and perfume to tapestries and furniture (Menkes). Based on this

observation, one can see how American culture enjoys Eastern designs as something foreign and

exotic for the purpose of decoration.


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Beauty Trends

The American appreciation for the ‘exotic’ aspect of the East extends to beauty trends.

Even in the 21st century, articles about beauty and appearances in the American media focus on

Eastern beauty rituals by portraying them as awe-inspiring sacred wisdom in an other-worldly

light. In general, what seems to intrigue Americans about these beauty traditions is that they are

usually nature-oriented with elements of flora and fauna and—sometimes—the spiritual or the

supernatural. General examples include detoxifying teas, massages like reflexology, oil treatment

for nails, hair, and skin, as well as other environmental-friendly traditional remedies

(BecomeGorgeous.com), with the origins of inspiration being countries like Indonesia, China,

India, and Japan (Naidu). It is also quite common to see East Asian flora and fauna subjects as

tattoo designs on the skins of Americans who want to show off a sense of worldliness. Makeup-

wise, the East Asian or Middle-Eastern ‘cat-eye’ look is a favorite among American females who

want to add a hint of exoticism and mystery to their looks. Of all traditional Asian makeup looks

American pop culture appropriates, the Kabuki make-up ritual of the geisha is one of the most

striking (Montano). Prominent brands in the American beauty market that cater to Asian-inspired

beauty products include Shu Uemura, Aveda, and Shisheido, to name a few. In the realm of

exercises, supermodel Christy Turlington, who is a serious practitioner of yoga, laments that

some of her friends—like many Americans—turned to yoga not for the search of enlightenment

but to achieve “a yoga butt” (Corliss), highlighting the aesthetic appeal of a traditional Asian

spiritual discipline in American pop culture.

While Americans look towards Asia for beauty advice with regard to natural healthcare

in general, East Asians on the contrary seek to fulfill cosmetic concerns according to popular

Western beauty standards through artificial means. This started with the desire of Asians to look
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more like Caucasians. Ever since Hollywood became more receptive towards actors with Asian

heritage like Keanu Reeves and Dean Cain by casting them in leading roles, one could see that

Eurasians—people with Asian-Caucasian heritage—are being portrayed by the mainstream

media in positive light. Moreover, since 1994, Channel V—the Asia-wide music television

network owned by Fox International Channels and STAR TV—joined the first batch of media

outlets that broadcasted the message of “homogenized hybridism”, popularizing faces that reflect

Western and Eastern parentage which both sides of the world can relate to (Beech). In effect,

many Eurasian media personalities—like Tata Young of Thailand, Karen Mok of Hong Kong,

and Asha Gill of Malaysia—are hailed to be the global faces of Asia, representing even Asians

of pure blood. Gradually, Asian artistes with no mixed blood perceive this growing domination

of Eurasian artistes in the local entertainment industries to be a threat to their own successes,

additionally feeling a pressure to “look mixed” (Beech).

Subsequently, media artistes and audiences in Asia deduced that looking Eurasian

guarantees more career success because the Occidental part of it looks more attractive than its

Oriental counterpart. Many Asians then want to change their physical appearances to look more

Caucasian by changing their eye, hair, and skin colors. Colored contact lenses and skin

whitening cream are popular among native Asians who tend to have darker physical features. At

the extreme end, many Asians resort to cosmetic surgery in Thailand, Malaysia, Japan, and South

Korea for quick beauty fixes. As recent as 2007, Japanese residents have received over 50,000

plastic surgery procedures for aesthetic purposes (Nomura). Popular surgical alterations include

breast-enlargement, double-eyelid surgery (to stitch a crease in the eyelid to make the eyes look

rounder and bigger), and rhinoplasty (to raise the bridge of the nose for a more Occidental-like

profile). The desire to look Eurasian is so great that those who seek cosmetic surgery range from
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Asian artistes—even those on Channel V and MTV (Beech)—to Asian high school students

(Yoo).

As the world is further propelled into the age of globalization, one must consider the

implications of this trend. In Indonesia, it is common for the media to celebrate images of

Eurasians in prominent social roles and not in modest roles like drivers and maids (Beech). This

manipulation of social roles in the media gives the impression that Eurasians hold a higher social

status than Asians. Moreover, it is one thing to dye one’s hair blonde and put in contacts of

iridescent blues and greens as this is only a temporary artificial change to the human body.

However, it is another thing to go under the knife to permanently change one’s natural born

features, for the act eradicates physical connections to one’s Asian past. Ultimately, from this

intercultural comparison on beauty trends, one can observe that Americans aspire to enhance

their features through natural methods based on Asian traditions whereas Asians intend to

modify their appearances to conform to Western beauty standards.

Finally

America’s selective imagery of the East encourages the media to portray the East as an

alternative culture the distinct exoticism of which marks it as chic and forever foreign at the

same time. This disallows any Eastern influence to assimilate into the American mainstream

culture. Essentially, Americans utilize certain Eastern ideals and symbols to decorate their music,

fashion, and appearances. On the other hand, people in East Asia popularize American influences

by celebrating their passion for American music and fashion styles, as shown by Japanese hip-

hop fans and fans of Western brands in general. For instance, not many people in the urban areas

of America and Asia wear trousers of Asian-inspired cutting as often as they would wear
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American-inspired denim jeans, even in hot weather. When it comes to beauty, more Asians than

Caucasians in general seek cosmetic surgery to look like the ethnic other.

In conclusion, while Americans appropriate the Asian culture, they generally contain

their appreciation of the Asian culture to specific aspects they admire. Conversely, people in East

Asia seek not only to appreciate, but to emulate the American culture too. Perhaps this dynamic

of transnational cultural appropriation has to do with the American value of individualism and

the Asian value of collectivism. In general, Americans embrace differences in order to stand out

in their own ways whereas Asians prefer the harmony that comes from a sense of belonging

found in established brands and identities. Eastern styles then become marks of individuality for

Americans while Asians find a sense of value through widely appreciated international—and

usually Western—standards of beauty, brands, and designs. Either way, as the world grows

increasingly global, Asia and America will continue to mix, blend, and overflow into one another

that soon enough it may be hard to tell what is culturally authentic, as what were once exclusive

differences become mere historic past.


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