The Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project interviewed 38,000 people in 44 countries last year. The survey’s unsurprising conclusion: “In general, people around the world object to the wide diffusion of American ideas and customs. Even those who are attracted to many aspects of American society, including its democratic ideas and free market traditions, object to the export of American ideas and customs.” No news there.
But something subtle — and, I think, hopeful — is now happening in American culture that may, over the long term, transform the image of America-the-overbearingly-ugly. We Americans are not only allowing in, but also enjoying unvarnished, non-Americanized elements of many cultures — Asian cultures in particular — in our daily lives. Having recently returned from a trip to Tokyo, Hanoi, and Shanghai, I can also report that indigenous cultures in Asia have not been overwhelmed by the wholesale import of Americana. Rather, East is meeting West, and the result is a kind of equilibrium: Our yang, if you will, seems fully balanced by their vital yin.
Although television is one of the media in which the United States is significantly reviled for exporting its own cultural values — hello, Baywatch! — an interesting counterphenomenon is occurring: On any given day, you can catch series like Yu-Gi-Oh! and Poké mon on the WB, Fighting Foodons and Kirby on Fox, and various other Japanese animated series, or anime, as the genre is generally known, on the Action channel and TechTV. The Cartoon Network offers Toonami, its popular afternoon block of distinctly Japanese animation with such series as Yu Yu Hakusho and Rurouni Kenshin.
In Yu Yu, the central character is a spirit detective improving the world. Kenshin is a samurai warrior who needs to right the wrongs of his previous life. Both premises are deeply informed by Japanese tradition and sensibility. And the animation itself isn’t culturally generic either. Instead, it gives American kids glimpses into lives lived by kids in an affluent but otherwise distinctly different country: small rooms, tatami mats, tin-box lunches. Kids instantly get it: People in other countries live differently.
And it’s not just happening on the small screen. Spirited Away, the animated film by director Hayao Miyazaki, is a kind of psychedelic Japanese crossbreed of the Brothers Grimm and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs that won this year’s Academy Award for best animated feature. It’s a tale that is complicated and full of ambiguity — no simple good-versus-evil Disney-like story here. The protagonist is a 10-year-old girl, at first spoiled, then rapidly maturing, who rescues her yuppie parents when their bad manners transform them into pigs — literally. Spirited Away is the opposite of lowest-common-denominator art. (Surprisingly, the old fogies who give out the Academy Award got it, and they honored it.)
And then there’s the world of fashion, where Marc Jacobs of Louis Vuitton had Japanese artist Takashi Murakami design an updated, whimsical version of the classic Vuitton bag for spring. Murakami is a self-described part of the poku movement — a mixture of pop (po) and otaku (ku), the Japanese animation-and-comics culture — and a hugely successful artist whose work is featured in museums around the world. From this Vuitton commission, I think we can infer a new fusion of art and commerce, the kind of high-low, East-West hybridization that propels opportunities for metaglobalization.
And while the Gap and Starbucks are all over Asia (I scored latte pick-me-ups both on my way to the Imperial Palace grounds in Kyoto and while waiting for my personal “chop” to be engraved outside the 16th-century Yu Garden in Shanghai), indigenous-to-Asia retailing has similarly taken root in the great mall that is America. Across the street from my children’s school is Sushi Garden, a takeout restaurant that has become a habit for many of the kids.
So as we begin the task of figuring out how we’re all going to live together in a post – Iraqi-war world, where the global market operates 24-7 and is ultraconnected, here’s one vision of the next phase of globalization: All cultures will thrive within all cultures, and, culturally speaking, globalization will no longer be mainly a euphemism for Americanization. Who knows? A hundred years from now, we could all be living in a world of cultural Esperanto, where the Darwinian best from all over the world thrive side by side. We can hope.
Anne Kreamer (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a media entrepreneur and consultant based in New York.