You Might Want to Read: Pure Invention by Matt Alt

Origin Story

This will be the first in a series of blog posts where I review books that are specifically about Japan and Japanese culture that I think fans of anime might enjoy reading. I found each of these books helpful in getting a deeper understanding of Japan. Relative to the popularity of Japan's products, there are few good books on Japanese society written for an English speaking audience. The problem of finding quality information is complicated by the existence of many hastily written books with a very shallow depth of information that attempt to cash in on the trendiness of Japanese media. 

I have been interacting with Japanese media for literally as long as I can remember. I was born in 1988. I grew up watching the pseudo-anime, Thundercats. Thundercats is an American cartoon that was animated by a Japanese studio, and introduced many to anime tropes. Following Thundercats, came The Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers. Power Rangers was based heavily on, and reused footage from, the Japanese live action children's show Kyoryu Sentai Zyuranger. I would then get into anime properly with Sailormoon. All the while, in my background, lingered products I was barely aware were Japanese: Nintendo, Sony, Toshiba, Subaru, etc. 

I've talked about this a little bit on the podcast, but in the early days the people in charge of bringing Japanese media over to America were heavily focused on localizing the content. We were quite a long way from manga volumes being printed in their original right-to-left format. Names would be changed to sound more "American", references to Japanese culture and landmarks would be removed, any trace of Japanese writing in the backgrounds would be painted over. It wouldn't be until I started getting into Dragonball Z that I realized how heavily modified these shows were. 

This may seem a bit dramatic but I felt betrayed. I felt talked down to. There was a censor out there deciding what I was intellectually capable of understanding and relating to. They thought that I as an American child could not relate to the main characters of a children's franchise if they were named "Satoshi and Kasumi." So instead, I was told they were "Ash and Misty." I hated that. This is ultimately why I started learning Japanese and why I started seeking out these books. 

Who is Matt Alt and What is Pure Invention


Matt Alt started his career as a Japanese translator working in the US Patent and Trademark Office. He then moved to japan to co-found a company that specialized in localizing Japanese entertainment in English. He has written for several magazines and newspapers, both English language and Japanese. He has written several books. He was the co-host of Japanology Plus, an NHK World television show, from 2015-2020. Alt's combination of fluency, industry experience, and access to influential people in Japan's media landscape make him eminently qualified to write on Japanese media. 

Pure Invention is a look at Japan's influence on global culture in the modern era as viewed through the products that it exports. I think this is an excellent starting point, as this is how the vast majority of "western" Japanophiles interact with the country. Pure Invention is split into two parts. Part 1 focuses on the post World War 2 period to the 1990's. Part 2 focuses on the 1990's to the present. Each chapter focuses on a different sort of Japanese export ranging from toys to manga to 4chan. Alt provides an in depth history of each export, answering questions such as: how it came to be, who it was for, what cultural forces shaped it. 

Strengths and Weaknesses

Pure Invention is a book that places a lot of the products that anime, manga, and video game fans have consumed for decades into a broader cultural context. Matt Alt does an excellent job of examining the modern west, particularly America's, reaction to these products. For many readers, I suspect this will be a first introduction to many of the historical events and economic realities that make up Japan's post-war journey to economic super power. 

In many ways the strength and weakness of the book is the emphasis placed on Japan's relationship to the west. As an American myself, I cannot help but to view Japan through the lens of our countries' political and economic relationships. Using exports as a reference point for entry into Japanese culture is an excellent approach that is likely to engage many people. However, I think it's important to stress that this is very much the tip of an iceberg. 

Japan is not its exports. Japan is not a nation of products. It is a nation of people. Further, Japan is not defined by its relationship with the west, though that is an important influence. Japan also exports to Asia. Arguably, Japan's relationship with Asia is as important, or more important, to understanding Japan's culture and history than its relationship with America. This book, because of its focus on products that have achieved popularity in the west, must paint people with a very broad brush. If the reader is looking to understand Japanese people on their own terms, this book will not satisfy. With that said, I do believe this book will give readers some direction for future exploration. 

Should You Read It?

In my opinion, this is a great primer for an anime, manga, or video game enthusiast who is interested in learning more about Japan. Serious students of Japanese history and culture may find a few topics here which they were unaware of, but there probably won't be many mind blowing revelations. You could do much worse than to start your reading here. 

Comments

  1. This is an cool book recommendation and definitely seems like something I might be interested in reading! Your preamble about being frustrated by early localized media and the podcast episode you guys made on translation and fan translations reminds me of a really interesting video essay I saw called "Translation, Localization, Censorship and You" created by Red Bard on YouTube. It basically gets into the modern state of translation of Japanese media and misconceptions Western anime/manga fans have about the process. It kind of reshaped my own perspective on what 'localization' is and also opened my eyes to some of the real issues professional translators encounter when they work to give fans official translations. If you haven't already seen it you might find it interesting as a fan who learned Japanese!

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    1. I have seen some of Red Bard's stuff, but I haven't seen that one. I will definitely check it out.

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