Doctor Who and the Trouble with (Cool) “Japan”

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One sweltering Sunday in August, my husband, kids, sister-in-law, her daughter, and my brother-in-law found ourselves in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo on the opening weekend of “Nisei Week,” a week-long celebration of Japanese-American life and culture in Southern California. My husband is Japanese-American – his grandfather was born in a suburb of Hiroshima City, and his great-grandparents on his grandmother’s side also hailed from that area (his grandmother, like his father and himself, was born in Los Angeles) – with a Japanese middle and last name to prove it.

But he’s also Korean-American on his mom’s side – she was born and raised in Seoul, living through two occupations (one of which was Japanese, and the reason she speaks Japanese fluently with my father-in-law) and three wars. Since my own family historically hails from Wales and England (with a smattering of Scotland, France and Germany), our children, with their own Japanese middle and last names, are ethnically Japanese/Korean/English/Welsh, with a bit of Europe on the side (parenthetically, my sister-in-law married a Chinese-Vietnamese guy, so her daughter (Chinese last name, Japanese middle name) is ethnically Japanese/Korean/Chinese/Vietnamese).

(It may also be worth noting that, paradoxically, I was by far the best speaker (and the only reader) of Japanese among us, for reasons)

Which is all by way of saying, there we were at the Nisei Week festivities, and to all appearances – our utter “Japanese” inauthenticity notwithstanding – we fit in just fine. Because Sunday at Nisei Week was all about LA Japanese culture, not “Japanese culture” – taiko drum ensembles featuring not a single “Japanese” person, a parade that owed twice as much to Fourth of July parades as anything you might ever see in Japan, and cosplayers, cosplayers, cosplayers.

At first, most of the cosplayers we saw were Caucasian, and to a one they were dressed, as you might expect, as anime characters. As the day wore on, we saw more and more ethnically East Asian cosplayers – Mandarin-speaking anime characters and girls in Lolita outfits, Asian-American anime characters – and this seemed to make sense. “Japan” has been synonymous with its elements of its exportable popular culture for years, particularly within East Asia, and the government money currently being poured into “Cool Japan” initiatives has only reinforced that association. And every ethnically non-Japanese person who passed us in yukata or anime costume or Lolita dress seemed, at least superficially, to be a testament to the success of this nation-branding project.

But then there was this guy. I saw him from across a shaded courtyard, talking with someone in anime costume. I recognized the unique combination of dark blue dress shirt and brown suit, the glasses and hair, and so I went up and, when I asked if I could take a picture, he whipped out his sonic screwdriver and struck this pose.

So what?

The thing that fascinates me about this cosplayer is that, within the context of the Nisei Week festivities, he utterly embodies the way transcultural fandom works. Doctor Who has no obvious relation to the Los Angeles Japanese-American community whatsoever. It has no apparent relation to “Japanese culture.” But fandom? Cosplay? That’s the link – that (I am presuming, in the absence of actual confirmation from the Doctor here) is what brought him out on a hot, steamy day to play. We like to think of transcultural fandom as a one-way transmission of popular culture from one place/group to the outside: Japan transmits anime to the world (simplistic, of course, given the transnational production contexts of anime), and, indeed, this is the ideology underpinning anime-centered events and activities within Cool Japan. England (or maybe Wales, today) transmits Doctor Who to the world, and neither the twain shall meet.

But they do meet, in the fans themselves, and fans (I’ll tentatively suggest) are what we might consider ‘nodes’ for the commingling of a diversity of popular cultures and texts. Each fan brings their own experiences and, in particular, affective interests – the things they like – to bear on their consumption of popular culture, and while fandom may begin in the transmission of popular culture from producer (be it a nation, corporation, or even individual) to fan, it seldom ends there.

In his book Fan Cultures, fan scholar Matt Hills works up an “autobiographical diagram” of his own fannish interests, noting intertextual links between several of them – horror writer Stephen Gallagher, Doctor Who, and Tom Baker among them (Hills, 82). When I was struggling to theorize my PhD thesis I did a similar exercise, first listing out my most memorable fannish interests, then considering what, if anything, they had in common. As opposed to Hills, whose linkages are comparatively linear (as he sets them out in the 2002 book), a number of mine – unrelated in any obvious way – seemed to hinge on a key commonality.

The List:

Bedknobs & Broomsticks/Super Friends/Star Wars/Raiders of the Lost Ark/Superman the Movie/Mork & Mindy/The Rocky Horror Picture Show/The A-Team/Phantom of the Opera/Touch (manga/anime)/Jackie Chan/Moonlighting/Batman/Leslie Cheung/Farewell My Concubine/He’s a Woman She’s a Man/Sense and Sensibility/The X-Files/Harry Potter/Sherlock*

There are others, but these are the big-hitters of fictional stories (and a couple of stars). And there are a few affinities that link any number of them, but the one that currently interests me the most centers on the bolded titles above. None of them is related to the others in any obvious way, but for me they connect in one – for lack of a better term – bulletproof kink: one of the characters is ‘normal’, apparently (if not actually) emotionally stable, often a stand in for ‘every person’: Mindy, Christine, Minami, Maddie, Xiaoluo, Scully, Harry, John. The other (and even if there are many characters, my own interest tends to hinge on pairings) is emotionally awkward in one way or another – stunted, repressed, naive/innocent, etc.: Mork, Phantom, Tatsuya, David, Dieyi, Mulder, Snape, Sherlock.

I like that.* I like the juxtaposition and, really, almost magnetic attraction of emotional opposites – especially when they turn out not to be so opposite as all that. Within each of these pairings, there’s some underlying affinity – often hidden beneath the surface in the ostensibly ‘normal’ character – between the two characters that draws them together, even if only in antagonism (there is, after all, a fine line between love and hate). And that gets at my really bulletproof kink: I love characters that aren’t what they seem to be on the surface. Hidden identity? I’m there – Superman. Batman. Spiderman. Superheroes who have to hide who they really are; I love those, but I really love it when what has to be hidden isn’t a superpower but humanness, vulnerability, difference.

Which is to say, what brings these things together in me, as a fan-node, are my idiosyncratic bulletproof kinks – my own affective interests, which are a product of my own experiences. And, I’d argue, the same is true of the good Doctor above. There was no obvious reason for him to be standing out in the 91-degree heat of a Japanese-American festival in the tenth Doctor’s suit, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a reason at all. The reason, I would hazard to guess, resides within him and his own affective interests – his presence there, in other words, wasn’t just (if at all) a result of his interest in “Japanese culture”; it was not evidence of the wholesale success of Cool Japan. Assuming he was there with other cosplayers, “Japan” was ancillary at best to his presence at the festival, which presumably would have hinged more on cosplay and fandom. “Japan” and Doctor Who meet within him through the commonality of cosplay – he is a node that enables their temporary linkage, from which an interest in Japan(ese popular culture) might ensue, but not necessarily, and only – I would tentatively suggest – if there were something specific within broader Japanese popular culture that spoke to his own bulletproof kinks.

And this, I think, is the trouble with Cool Japan or, really, any policy – governmental, corporate, or otherwise – that seeks to capitalize on fandom by transmission alone and, in so doing, attempts to establish itself as something discrete and bounded (with, pushing it a bit further, borders that ultimately serve to separate ‘us’ from ‘them’) and fandom as unidirectional. Transmission is only one small element of fannish consumption – it’s little more than that which puts the thing, whatever it may be, in our path. It comes with discourses that try to delineate and define it, and we may choose to accept them in toto, but we may not as well – we are under no obligation to fall in love with a specific Japanese anime and, from there, consume all “Japan”; if anything, someone of a fannish inclination is often singularly uninclined to do so, because fandom is first and foremost centered on what we love, and that’s a hard thing to harness.

* and I’m not the only one

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