Pure Invention

cover of audiobook for Pure Invention

First of all, this is not really review of Matt Alt’s new book Pure Invention: How Japan’s Pop Culture Conquered the World. The book is great, it is a fun romp through Japanese history using the lens of some of its most popular products. Go get it, you will love it. What I want to do here is to engage with a specific set of ideas as presented in the book. As a pop history of Japan and a selection of Japanese products, I think this book is wonderful. But there is a (small) aspect of the book that I found jarring, and I think it comes down to the framing — “conquering the world.” The commentary below is pretty in the weeds (not to mention possibly pedantic), and assumes that you are familiar with the content of the book. So, if interested, go read the book, then come back and check this out. I’ll wait. 😉


I am square in the target demographic for this book. Matt Alt is just a few years older than me, but I too am a white guy with parents who owned a house with a basement suite that I could use freely, inviting my nerdy friends over to play on my SNES and watch anime on VHS. While listening to the audiobook1 I experienced a lot of rosy nostalgia. He really captures what it was like growing up in the US and Canada in the 80s and 90s as a young person whose eyes were ever directed over the Pacific toward Japan.

This is the first part of my problem with the framing of the book as a global phenomenon. Matt does the thing that many American authours do: equate the US experience with the world. The book is pretty America-centric, and he doesn’t really offer any views from any other people from other countries. At first I thought maybe he was just a victim of a publisher’s bad book title, but there are a number of times it comes up. For example, in describing why the VCR is not one of his “fantasy delivery devices” he says it is because it was used to consume “…one’s own countries movies, in the form of Hollywood films.” The final line of the book he dubs the world affected by Japanese products “a planet of dreamers.” And that is just at the macro level. Even with the American experience he doesn’t really offer up any other perspectives than those of basement-dwelling white dudes. Unfortunately this culminates in the final chapter, the most traumatic and difficult chapter, where he describes the Japanese connection to Gamergate and the rise of the Alt Right in the US, the absolute worst strain of white, basement-dwelling nerds. This is really unfortunate since I know from other parts of the book that Matt is sensitive to other identities within the US polity (I especially appreciated his slapping down of Gamergaters). Adding a wider range of American perspectives and experiences with Japanese products could have made the book stronger.

Pure Invention works really well as a pop culture history, but it struggles with political analysis. My expectations might be unreasonable, since I am pretty sure this was meant to be a popular book and not the publication of a thesis or PhD dissertation (despite the voluminous endnotes). However, in the first chapter he asserts that we should put products up with economic and political analysis when describing the international influence of Japan, arguing that is the way most of us interact with Japan. I get where he is coming from, but he doesn’t provide any kind of analytical framework to support this type of analysis.

Thankfully, that framing only really shows up in the first and last chapter (and epilogue). The final chapter, titled The Anti-social Network, is where the assertion of Japan’s influence on America reaches the breaking point. Yes, the infamous moot of 4chan copied the 2ch software, and there is certainly a Venn diagram for hyper-rationalist ideologues and hentai anime, but I think the rise of the Alt Right has a lot more to do with phenomenon of anonymity on the internet. Cypherpunk and libertarian ideology predated anime bulletin boards.

I get the comparison he is trying to draw: Japan has gone through this cycle of boom and bust, and is now dealing with an aging society of isolated people who are not as prosperous as their parents. Matt Alt’s argument is that American consumer’s tastes became more and more like Japan’s, and that their politics and economics might also be too. In the end he describes “us” as having caught up to Japan, saying we are in a “a strange, post-capitalist, techno-political hellscape.” I certainly think that captures the US,2 but does that mean he thinks Japan is a hellscape? Well, not really. Decent healthcare, more egalitarian pay (except for those poor animators!), and a centralized school system are all examples he gives to show how Japan keeps from flying apart. It is not really clear to me what Matt wants us to do. Are we to emulate Japan more? Less? He says create… but what?

This brings be to another question about the purpose of this book: is Matt trying to make Japan relevant? He says Japan is no longer ahead of the curve, nor behind it, and that he doesn’t think “the future will be made in Japan.” Products like Pokémon Go will still make a splash, but as it continues its long, slow, economic decline Japan has also been suffering from a decline in political influence, at least in the West.3 It has been overshadowed by other powerhouses in Asia.

A few years ago the blog Neojaponisme wrote the following for their annual roundup of Japan:

We are not doing an annual look back piece this year, because nothing really happened in Japan. But maybe that is what makes Japan so great right now.

I think about that post a lot.4 As Matt describes in his book, when I was a kid Japan was very relevant, and seemed to be a roiling font of creativity and… well… the “future.” A key question for western Japan hands might be: How do we measure Japan’s relevance these days?

I recognize it is really difficult to do a book like this: attributing any causality to cultural influence is a tough job. He illustrates a number of products that made a big splash in the US, but doesn’t describe the many trends in Japan that did not land on the shores of America (I mean, come on namen’na yo cats!). So much of Japan is unknown to Americans. Think of all the “weird Japan” articles out there… they are mostly BS, but Americans seem to believe anything about Japan. It probably would have been better to back away from any possible causal links and just discuss “influence.” Furthermore, I think it would have been better to scope it exclusively to the US, sort of an inverse of W David Marx’s Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style, but like “Pure Invention: How Japan Won Over America’s Youth” or something a little less grandiose like that.

Anyways, I really enjoyed the book. It is filled with funny anecdotes and awesome behind-the-scenes stories of some of your favourite products. Plus Matt has great storytelling skills, and delivers some great one-liners. It is a really good listen. What did you think?


Footnotes

  1. narrated by Matt himself, who does an excellent job, but for some reason he really leans into pronouncing R’s like an American… which I guess is understandable, but sounds weird to me. ¯\_(ツ)
  2. Hey! I am Canadian, and our biggest export is smugness! 😉
  3. I can tell you this is not so in developing countries, especially those where Japan is competing with China in infrastructure deals.
  4. They have updated their blog just twice since then, but that probably has more to do with the medium than the lack of anything interesting happening in Japan.

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