Tradition says that “the hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world,” conveying the idea that those with the most influence on children are those with the most long-term and widespread influence on the world in general. Everybody intuitively recognizes the rough truth of this idea. That is one reason why public schools become the focus of so many political battles.
What about other influences? If “play is the work of children” then surely toys are their tools. The toys and entertainments we give our children profoundly influence the adults they will someday become. Battles over Barbie dolls and toy weapons reflect an awareness of this. Toys and childhood entertainments are powerful vehicles of culture. Just as the mother unconsciously passes on her cultural traits to the children she raises, so does the toy maker.
The production of toys and children’s entertainment is also a marker for cultural dominance. From the early industrial era through WWII, the principal makers of toys were in Europe. Most fairy tales and nursery rhymes were of European origin. In the post-WWII era, American toys and stories swept over the entire non-communist world. Children everywhere played with Barbies and G.I. Joes, and they watched American-produced movies and cartoons. American values spread with the toys. Whereas European toys reflected values of communalism, tranquility and social hierarchy, America’s toys reflected its values of individualism, dynamism and social equality.
So in this, the season of toys, it behooves us to ask: who makes our toys and tells our children stories today?
Currently, the entire world is being deluged with toys and children’s media created in Japan. I would estimate that the average American child probably spends about half his play and entertainment time consuming Japanese product.
First, there are video games. Children spend a large amount of their time playing video games and, depending on how you draw the lines, Japan produces between 50 and 70 percent of the video games sold world wide. Of the major game consoles, only the Xbox is not Japanese, but most of the games for it are. All of the handheld games units and most of their games are made in Japan.
Second, there are toys like transforming robots, robot pets and collectable card games like Pokemon and Yugi-Oh. Even “Tickle Me Elmo” started out as a different character in Japan. Of Toy Wishes magazine’s top ten toys for 2004, two are explicitly Japanese in origin or influence (Bratz Tokyo-A-Go-Go Dance N’ Skate Club, Tamagotchi Connection) while it is a safe bet that most or all of the four video game systems on the list originate wholly or partially in Japan.
Third, there is the rapidly increasing popularity of manga and anime, Japanese comic books and animation respectively. Manga, which unlike their American counterparts are used to tell stories falling in every genus, are exploding. My local Borders has three half-height shelves of American/European-style comics and 10 half-height shelves of manga. At least a third of the Saturday morning cartoons now are anime produced for the world market. Anime produced for the Japanese market is also very popular on video and cable, in both dubbed and subtitled form.
I was recently surprised to hear a gaggle of teenage girls I passed in a store saying, “Nanni?”, which is a common Japanese word translating to English as an exclamatory “What” (perhaps “What the Hell?” is a better translation). I have also heard kids saying, “baka”, which is Japanese for “idiot.” The kids must be picking these phrases up from subtitled Japanese anime.
A lot of Japanese cultural traits show up strongly in anime. The idea that sincere effort is the highest good comes across quite strongly. Many shows, especially those based on games, showcase the martial-arts idea of spiritual improvement through competitive struggle. The idea of loyalty to one’s immediate group of friends or workers is also strongly shown. Strangely, the Japanese deferential attitude towards authority doesn’t come through very strongly, perhaps because most of the stories represent childhood wish fulfillment.
Japan influence in toys and children’s media will spread to other areas. Tokyo is becoming a city of fashion to rival Paris and New York. Japanese movies get remade into Americanized Hollywood blockbusters.
Japan will be the place to watch in the next decade or two.
(P.S. Libertarians will note that Japan’s big successes that I describe above have occurred in areas that have escaped the notice of Japan’s vaunted industrial policy.)