The Hand that Crafts the Toy Rules the World

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?

The Japanese.

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.)

11 thoughts on “The Hand that Crafts the Toy Rules the World”

  1. Shannon, Perhaps world culture is simply becoming more diverse. Japanese cultural themes and ideas are being accepted by an increasingly open and globalized Western public, but I would argue the traditional Western European influence is still the predominant cultural force in the USA – by a large margin.

    We still read or reenact Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Every child knows the stories, even if they’re not aware they are Grimm’s tales. The same can be said for Aesop’s Fables and Biblical parables. These stories form the themes of many movies, even if they’re carefully hidden. Dickens ‘A Christmas Carol’ is still being retold in various and tangled forms.

    European philosophy, from the Greeks onward, is still the basis for the Western Cannon.

  2. “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.”

    Uuuuuurgh… urge to kill all pretentious little otaku… rising…

    A Japanophile is someone who doesn’t really know Japan.

  3. I dispute your contention that video game production is primarily Japanese. I couldn’t find game sales rankings online, but the top ten current rentals are, by country of production:

    Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (USA)
    Halo 2 (USA)
    Need for Speed: Underground (Canada)
    [Appears twice for different platforms]
    Call of Duty: Finest Hour (USA)
    [Appears twice for different platforms]
    Metal Gear Solid 3 (Japan)
    WWE Smackdown vs. Raw (Japan)
    Dragonball Z Budokai 3 (Japan)
    Tony Hawk’s Underground 2 (USA)

    These are console game rankings – the PC market is almost completely dominated by US and some Canadian developers. Japan may produce a greater number of console games, but I’d bet American developers have a majority of the market share in North America.

  4. Okay, I found a source for top ten console *sales*:

    1) Grand Theft Auto San Andreas [PS2] (USA)
    2) Halo 2 [Xbox] (USA)
    3) Need for Speed Underground [PS2] (Canada)
    4) Metal Gear Solid 3 [PS2] (Japan)
    5) Madden NFL 2005 [PS2] (USA)
    6) Need for Speed Underground [Xbox] (Canada)
    7) Dragon Ball Z: Budokai 3 [PS2] (Japan)
    8) Ghost Recon 2 [Xbox] (USA)
    9) Call of Duty: Finest Hour [PS2] (USA)
    10) Metroid Prime 2 [GameCube] (USA)

    The nationality is that of the development company, not the distributor. While Metroid is a Nintendo IP, the Metroid Prime games were written by Retro Studios in Austin.

  5. I’ve been in The Hobby for about 15 years now… I agree with Shannon that there are lots of different story lines out there. One of the interesting things i find, particularly in stories aimed at young women, is that recognizing and accepting responsibility is a major theme. Whether the heroine needs to win at sports to support her brother (OK, that was aimed at guys…), find her inner strength to rescue the two worlds, or just find the courage to admit her love, it’s a very pervasive theme.

    Well, i find it encouraging any who.

    torchpraise: GAACK! You mean someone else on this list has watched Toy-a???? How did you like it?

    Matt: Yes, i admit it… i don’t know Japan, not really. Not after reading manga and translated literature for years, not after listening to J-Pop as my primary audio wallpaper, not after my visit. To me, Japan’s pop culture is still The Hobby.

    Maty no baka

  6. Michael,
    I think you’re right, but Shannon was talking about the future so the question is how far the trend would go before it reaches the tipping point moment and what it would take for such a moment to occur. One thing to note is that a lot of American comic book writers and even some Star Trek script writers have been influenced by manga ever since the time of Frank Miller. The most extreme example of such influence may be Antartica Press’ “Ninja High School” series although MegaTokyo at is also worth reading. So it could be argued that the tipping point moment is approaching within American comics if not in our culture as a whole.

    OTOH, even if this were the case there is still considerable support for your contention of traditional European thought remaining predominant by virtue of the fact that Manga/Anime from the time of Osamu Tazuka to the present day has been openly and cheerfully influenced by ours as well. “Licensed by Royalty” is an anime that’s a good example of this – in the course of the series it pays tribute to just about every spy show of the 60s that you could name and the show’s initial format was not unlike that of “Man From Uncle” or “The Avengers”. So it may be that our fascination with manga is not *entirely* innocent of our enjoyment of our own culture and cultural values. ^_~

    Zak’s post was interesting but unpersuasive. He sounds too much like someone who would hate any place that wasn’t the neighborhood where he grew up. My feeling is that if you hate a culture merely because it doesn’t require everyone in it to think the way you do then you aren’t going like your own very much either. Still that was Zak’s opinion. Why not form one of your own instead of just adapting his? Is disliking a culture merely because he told you to what to think really all that clever? o_O

    15 years? I’m impressed. I fell into the Pool of the Drowned Manga Addict in 1997 when I encountered AMG so I’m definitely a neofan compared to you. ^_^

    You’re very right about the storyline angle. Based on what I read in the CBG, as well as the comix of the day, it seems to me that one weakness of our own comics is that anything that wasn’t superheroes was dropped which limited the storylines and then, by the late 1970s and 80s, too many of the superhero comics were written by people who hated superheros which took the number of possible plots (& the quality) down even further. >_

  7. Small Pink Mouse

    Yes, i got started on Shuriken as much as Ben Dunn’s stuph. The key events for me were Dark Horse translating Outlanders! and Anime Eigo releasing Vampire Princess Miyu. I bought an LD player just to watch the Miyu LD, because i liked the first VHS tape so much. I still like LD better than DVD…

    Do i hope girls’ comics and boys’ comics prosper alike? Well, i guess i’m prejudiced. Boys’ comics in Japan tend to be more combat oriented (not that shoujo can’t have combat), and women draw women prettier than men do. But you are of course right; AMG is a great read. It was even before it was translated…

    Can comics bridge the literacy gap? When i was growing up, we had Classics Illustrated, which had old, well known, not copyrighted stories in US comic form. I enjoyed it, but it never inspired me to read Ivanhoe, or anything else for that matter.

    It did not work as well as an equivalent manga series would have worked, because it was inspired by the work of DC, while manga tended to be inspired by cinema. There is a very different pacing in these two orientations, and Tezuka-sama is not the only example. Even Takahashi Rumiko and Watase Yuu tend to have larger panels with more detail and / or closeups as the action abates and you move to interior monologue and small groups conversing. Kouga Yun, Kakinouchi Narumi, Adachi, Clamp and Takemiya Keiko are even clearer examples, though not as readily available in English.

    But even with the more cinematic style, literature oriented works like Tezuka Osamu’s Faust were not exactly commercial successes. I don’t know that i think this is a route to literacy.

    Matya no baka (Mark the Idiot) is a name i tagged myself with in the ancient days, the before time, when i collected manga in Japanese without being able to read any of it. The owners of Sasuga found the name quite humorous. But not as amazing as the group of MIT Anime folk who regularly bought their takoban just because the art was stunning. Or as amazing as some of us actually starting to memorize kanji to be able to follow the stories, not just follow the drawing.

    mata ne,
    Matya no baka

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