Book Review: The Power of (Pop-)Culture, Benjamin’s COOL JAPAN – 日本のことは、マンガとゲームで学びました。by Benjamin Boas

DSC05952Publisher: 小学館

ISBN-10: 4093883955
ISBN-13: 978-4093883955

Language: 日本語・Japanese
Pages: 143
Price Tag: 1188 JPY

While in preparation for a next extensive research project of mine, I took the time to review another COMIC ESSAY. It is the one of BENJAMIN BOAS, which I announced in my previous post of NORDIC GIRL ÅSA DISCOVERS THE MYSTERIES OF JAPAN VOL. 2 ・北欧女子オーサが見つけた日本の不思議 2, in which he has a quick entry.

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A scene out of ‘Nordic Girl Åsa discovers the Mysteries of Japan 2’, where the two exchange on GIONGO (擬音語・ぎおんご; onomatopoeia)

Just a brief foreword about the two, since they happen to know each other and I read both their books. Åsa and Benjamin’s paths crossed through their respective projects in Tokyo and they seem to share a lot of common ground, when it comes to their affection for Japan and Japanese pop-culture. TAKAHASHI RUMIKO’s (高橋留美子・たかはしるみこ) RANMA ½ and MAISON IKKOKU (めぞん一刻・めぞんいっこく), being just one such an example. Since they were born in the same year of 1983 (which happens to be my own as well) they grew up with the same anime/manga series of the 80’s and 90’s, the heydays of the genre, as I like to call it myself. Although they grew up with different backgrounds, she in Sweden, he in the United States, I think they have a lot of similar sentiments and memories of the years they immersed into their favorite pastimes. Ultimately the same passion for the pop-culture led them go to the country of their admiration to pursue their dreams and to shake things up. From both stories it becomes clear that Japan represents a turning point in their lives, which they could crown with their own book releases.

How did I come across Benjamin’s ‘Everything I know about Japan I learned from Manga and Video Games; 日本のことは、マンガとゲームで学びました。’ and who is the author? – After I read the first volume of ‘Nordic Girl Åsa discovers the Mysteries of Japan’, I looked around on AMAZON.JP for a next book I could review. His essay was published around the same time, whereby I could hardly miss it among the recommended titles with its striking yellow cover and the bold drawings of his profile. The striking design actually seems to fit well the self-branding he pursues. Like the book itself, if you would go through the streets of Tokyo, Boas with his indigo blue SAMUE (作務衣・さうむえ; monk’s working/non-spiritual clothes), would even stick out among a crowd of foreigners. This is definitely not the common wear there, but his clear fashion-statement. Person and book alike, definitely not a ‘NEEDLE IN A HAYSTACK’ (干し草の山の中の針を見つける・ほしくさのやまのなかのはりをみつける; page 133).

Benjamin Boas, currently translator/writer off his own bat and visiting researcher at KEIO UNIVERSITY, wrote the story himself. By now he also holds a representative role for the NAKANO WARD in Tokyo and is engaged in a variety of activities in different fields. I surmise quite a busy fellow, who finds balance in practicing AIKIDO (合気道・あいきどう; Japanese self-defense martial art) and ZAZEN (座禅・ざぜん; seated Zen meditation form).
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Abundantly exposed to video games, manga and anime in his youth half of the blood running through Benjamin’s veins seems to be made up of the matter ‘pop-culture’. As a result, he sees his own existence as that of a developing manga story in itself. The manga essay will lead readers through the different stages of his ‘incarnation’ process and will also discuss what the concept COOL JAPAN (クールジャパン) means from an individual point of view and what power it can possess for anyone open to it. Be ready for an unusual, unpredictable journey, as you follow Benjamin Boas’ tracks on the way of becoming a master of his trait. After reading through, you may as well have advanced yourself in (pop-)cultural regards ;). Then here we go with the book review for ‘Everything I know about Japan I learned from Manga and Video Games!’
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Thanks to (pop-)culture, he is what he is today and allowed him to find his own Cool Japan that he lives out today.
For his book, he teamed-up with seasoned mangaka and illustrator CHIKA AOYAGI, who was in charge of the drawings. How the two, who have a kindred spirit for SHOUWA MANGA of the 80’s, came to know each other is then subject of the introduction. Aoyagi-sensei (for teacher), like he tends to call her is at first vary to meet this foreigner, who studied in two of Japan’s most prestigious universities of Tokyo and Kyoto. Almost a bit intimidated by that スーパーインテリアメリカ人 (super intelligent American) she wonders what sort of business he might have with her, not less how to communicate with that stranger that will soon knock on her door. However, Benjamin speaks fluent Japanese and her concerns soon fly by as she is astounded by this ‘outlandish’ foreign fellow with profound knowledge and enthusiasm on subculture topics. The two catch on quickly and so they decide to embark this project together.
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The book comes in typical manga manner with contents all black and white. Aoyagi’s strips I would describe as playful and abstract, with bold linings, managing with less details. A style more characteristic to comic essays than the mainstream manga, I would say, but then I am not an expert on such things. What it looks like you may see from the embedded images. The content is divided in 3 MAIN PARTS, which are each give or take 40 pages long. Those 3 parts in turn consist then again of chapters that contain discussions between BOAS AND AOYAKI (ベンとマンガ家) and episodes out of his life, which are concluded with sections BEN NO KOKORO, KOKO NI ARU translating to roughly ‘This is what’s dear to Ben’ (ベンのココロ、ここにあり) , basically where he conveys his messages to readers. Those columns are based on his personal findings and experiences.
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The FIRST PART focuses how he learned about certain aspects of the culture through pop-culture. In the initial chapter for instance, he talks about his internship in a Japanese company. Even with some Japan experience under his belt, he realized eventually that manga and reality are not always one-to-one conform and that a DEKICHATTA KEKKON (できちゃった結婚・できちゃったけっこん), although not preferred for the ones involved, doesn’t necessarily lead to dismissal of ones job ;). But as he assesses later on in his column, while there is obviously a lot of fiction involve, Japanese manga in fact are not only a plain medium of entertainment for all ages, depending on the series, manga can provide insightful material of established customs, cultural references and language on almost any interest out there. One can’t survive on manga alone in Japan, but if used wisely it can be an effective tool to gain and consolidate knowledge.
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One of the discussion between Benjamin and Aoyagi-sensei, where she wants to know from him, when he started to become aware that books he read and the games he played are part of Japanese culture. It came from a fateful encounter during summer camp when he meet that pretty girl…ahem, or wasn’t it actually a guy 😀 (page 64)
In the following chapters Benjamin explains further how he could brush up his language skills by visiting the JANSOU (雀荘・じゃんそう), or the MAHJONG PARLOR and his dilemmas of dating 2D girls at the lack of language proficiency, which though turned out to be an incentive to learn harder. However, mastering virtual love is one thing, pushing the buttons of a real girlfriend a whole different story ;). Similar to Åsa Ekström’s book, he talks about certain characteristics unique to manga, like the role of GITAIGO (擬態語・ぎたいご; word that mimics sth. that doesn’t make actually sound), the incomprehensibe way of the love confessing ritual and the ambiguity of language, such as the word WARUI (悪い・わるい) that has two meanings; bad and excuse me/thank you.
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Out of the first part I like the most when he recounts his encounter with some of the most iconic manga protagonists of old, GOLGO 13 (ゴルゴ13; also known as Duke Togo) and OGAMI ITTOU (拝一刀・おがみいっとう; main character of Lone Wolf and Cub). One a professional assassin and the other a ROUNIN (浪人・ろうにん; masterless samurai) roaming the lands for revenge. Both relentless in their missions and unfaltering in their determination. Men of action rather than word, men only the 70’s and 80’s could draw them. Both of them left a lasting impression on him to not waver in one’s endeavors and to pull things through all the way.
DSC05951
I am pretty sure somewhere in the attic of my parents home, those cherished MARIO comics/manga are still stowed in a cardboard box, just waiting to be discovered again. We didn’t have NINTENDO POWER, but a similar dedicated game magazine.

The SECOND PART, which is also the longest, first takes the reader back into the Ben’s childhood years, when all his fondness for the pop-culture was sparked with the arrival of the NINTENDO ENTERTAINMENT SYSTEM (NES). It is the part of the book I could relate to in many episodes, since it pretty much started out the same for me and my colleagues back in the days. We also had our hideouts in the attics or the cellars, where we would play for hours until our mothers could finally track us down and made us do our homework.

But this was just the starting point and as the gaming fever gradually began to subsided, anime and manga became a new, enchanting diversion for the teenager of the 90’s. For Benjamin this whole new world was opened up as he came across Ranma ½, with which he literally fell in love head over heels. Western cartoons and comics obviously existed, yet what came over from Japan; the drawing styles, the characters, the settings of the stories, everything was so significantly new and unfamiliar from the ground up. Not only talking about tentacles or the exposure of naked skin here, which was definitely a novelty with manga/anime and that could without doubt stir up a teenager boy’s hormones.

I agree what Ben mentions in the 5th of his columns, the subculture outside Japan could probably only diffuse so rapidly thanks to dedicated fans, who spread the word by exchanging copies subtitled on their own. I think to some extend this is still true today. Although more material is being translated and available to official platforms, way lesser people could actually afford access to it otherwise. Yet, fan subs and scanlations are not always done well enough and die-hard fans will not get their fill from it. Except for translations by professionals, the only way to get to the real deal is to learn the language. This was also the case for Benjamin and together with his friends, he convinced the principle of his school, the HOPKINS SCHOOL, to set up a Japanese course. In the remaining pages of the second part he also recalls his early visits to Japan, which not quite turned out the way he had imagined. On pages 72 + 73, half way into the book, there is a timeline of his called ‘BENAJMIN’S THE ROAD TO POP-CULTURE MASTERY’, which provides for some additional details on his background and highlights all significant events for him from a pop-culture perspective all up to the date of the book publication.

The THIRD AND FINAL PART opens with a pensive episode when Benjamin, then 20 years, finds himself in a crisis caused through various circumstances around him. He questions about life and holds little confidence what future will hold for him. At the time he hit the rock bottom and is probably the complete opposite of what he is today. Day in day out it is just a burbling along in life and the outlook of betterment is not in sight. He resorts to surfing the internet and escaping into the reign of manga. Not knowing how days pass and how many books he paged through, he takes one book to hand that should change things around for him.

It was HARETA HI WA GAKKOU O YASUNDE (はれた日は学校をやすんで; On a sunny day take off from school) by SAIBARA RIEKO (西原理恵子・さいばらりえこ). From now on it shall become is everyday lecture and accompany him everywhere he goes. With it, emotions seemingly lost, returned and he could look again at the brighter side of life. It went as far as, he bringing it all the way to Tibet, where he practiced meditation in solitude, reading the book over and over again. While residing in Tibet he would discover a new passion of his, MAHJONG (麻雀・マージャン; strategic, multiplayer tile board game popular in South-East Asia). What he didn’t know at the time, coincidence had it that this same Saibara Rieko actually is an enthusiastic mahjong player herself and published books about it. Not less would he have ever dreamed of meeting her in person at a mahjong tournament, where he would rank 4th – one position above her!

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「今日はラッキーだな。・ Today must be a lucky day.」If in Japan lucky means, seeing panties of a lady by chance, then I guess, sadly I only really had about two lucky days :D.

There is also an amusing episode of several pages about his view points on the ‘controversial’ topic of PANCHIRA (パンチラ; showing underwear) featuring prominently in manga/anime, which he believes to be one of the reasons the medium being considered inferior and perverted. Spinning it even further, he sets it in relation with Japan’s chronic problem of demography amongst others caused by the DECLINING BIRTH RATE (少子化・しょうしか). If it was for him, he advocates a ban of panchira from the medium and rather calls to manly action in the bedroom than just getting satisfied with taking sneak peaks at panties, since that alone won’t bring up that stagnating population. I wouldn’t go that far, but surely man does not live on panties alone. I too think that the ECCHI (エッチ・lewd) feature has become a bit too exaggerative, but giving it a second thought, Japanese anime/manga would not be quite the same without :P. If it would disappear, along with it, another distinct feature would run out as well – the one of the fictional, yet hilarious HANADJI (鼻血・はなぢ; sudden gush of blood from the nose caused by over excitement) and that would really be a loss :).

Almost at the end of the book, at page 135 to 137, he invites some prominent fellow foreigners of his network to take word, i.e. notable contributor of the promotion of manga/anime culture around the world, interpreter and translator FREDERIK L. SCHODT, to explain the connection between the foreign language and the culture, as well as how pop-culture influenced their lives. The last discussion panel between Benjamin and Aoyagi is on the meaning of the term Cool Japan. Even though it is a goverment initiative to appeal Japan to the masses worldwide and to exploit commercial values from it, Cool Japan can only really be deeply individual, a part that slumbers somewhere inside to be ignited to something beautiful, like in Benjamin’s case. From a pop-cultural OTAKU (enthusiast), his own Cool Japan opened him the doors to many other, unforeseen aspects of Japan’s rich cultural assets. Cool Japan can’t be measured or promoted, it is something for everyone to discover for her-/himself in person.

With this, I come to the wrap-up this book review. The book I could complete fairly quickly, considering my previous readings. Actually it took me longer to write and edit this article then reading the book itself – oh what am I complicated! There were parts I could proceed swiftly other times it took more time, since the progress of the reading for me depended on the particular topic. If I was not familiar with the subject, I had to look more words/expressions then elsewhere. In the process though I could again learn some useful vocabulary. Reading is decidedly a useful tool in acquiring word pool and proficiency. If I had only more opportunity to read these days :(. On top of new vocabulary, through Benjamin’s story I came to know about some topics I was not familiar with before, like the one of mahjong or certain manga series and their artists. The manga made me cracking a couple times and I enjoyed the diversity in the episodes. With it I could also go back into my own past, reflecting on some precious youth memories. Benjamin and Aoyagi made a good job together and I like to recommend the book to others, to who I hopefully could appeal it to with this review. It is easiest to obtain within Japan. It is not available through AMAZON KINDLE yet, but perhaps in abroad stores in your region specializing in Japanese literature might have a copy. Otherwise, it can be ordered through AMAZON.JP. More about purchases at the marketplace in my other section FUN WITH COMIC ESSAYS.

For people, who have read the book, please feel free to share your impressions via the comments below. Also please feel free to drop me a line about this article. I am always happy to get some input. Then I am closing up for now. When I will be able to post my next article I can hardly predict as I have some projects running on the side. Please check in from time to time though. Thanks for dropping by this time around and till next time.

©MyLittle Dejima

4 thoughts on “Book Review: The Power of (Pop-)Culture, Benjamin’s COOL JAPAN – 日本のことは、マンガとゲームで学びました。by Benjamin Boas

    1. Hi Benjamin, thanks for stopping by and checking out the article. Also cheers for the links. ‘Hareta hi wa gakkou o yasunde’, the one mentioned in the article. I hope to be able to free some space to catch up on my pending books and also get some new reads in. There are sure a lot of books I like to read in Japanese :).

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  1. Hey Dejima-san have you had a chance to check out Haretahi or any other books in the past few months? I don’t mean to pressure you but I do enjoy reading your posts! They’re always very well written and researched.

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    1. Hi Benjamin, thanks for dropping by and leaving your kind comment. Pardon, when I could’t return to you sooner, finally got a breath from things. Firstly, congrats on your latest achievements and the new book release as well as the representation roles you are holding by now. Keep the good work up, you will be busy towards 2020 :). Best of luck for all your undertakings in advance. As for myself, as of the past months, I hardly get down to read anything or immerse in my project, which is quite a bummer. The project is dear to me and I love to devote a greater portion of my time, however, work has been having me in its firm grip all along, making it difficult to struggle myself free from it sometimes. Research taking up a lot of time and writing didn’t get easier recently for me, but I will see how I can arrange upcoming weeks and months, so that things might get off hand more easily :). Always delighted you visiting, take a peek every now and then to see, if something new gets posted out here. Talk to you soon.

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