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The Herald-Leader Interviews Kjeld Duits

Kobe, February 6 2005 – The Herald-Leader writes about the rising popularity of Japanese pop culture in the US. Includes an interview with Kjeld Duits.

American and Lexington teens latch on to Japanese culture

By Mary Meehan
Sun, Feb. 06, 2005

Transported half a world away via a digital connection, best friends Emily Coovert and Simone Boissonneault drift into their own head-bobbing universe of sound as they watch a Japanese stadium show, a furious mix of hard guitar licks, operatic Queen-like vocals, the occasional classical flourish and bouncy beats. It is one of, give or take, 500 J-rock — or Japanese pop — songs they’ve burned onto CDs.

It’s not the kind of stuff you’ll hear on MTV.

The music twangs out of a computer vibrating with the shrieking screams of teen girls and the vision of skinny, androgynous Japanese men prancing across a stage, howling into microphones like David Bowie in his heyday.

But the Lexington teens are into more than just music. Emily’s hard drive is crammed with 800 to 1,000 pictures of their favorite Japanese fashions and singers. Her closet, and floor, are carpeted with brightly colored scarfs, shirts and printed skirts that, when assembled, are all the necessities for creating a kind of Japanese street fashion favored by a group known as “fruits.”

The Idiot’s Guide to Buddhism is on a shelf, next to a dozen or so Japanese graphic novels known as manga. Memoirs of a Geisha is in a tangle of covers on the bed, and on the back of Emily’s door is information about the foreign language and international economics program at the University of Kentucky.

Other teens might swoon over rocker John Mayer, but these girls are gaga for guys named Mana and Gackt.

Emily, 17, and Simone, 16, are part of a growing, Internet-influenced trend that has American teens coveting Japanese culture. According to the Japanese External Trade Organization, $4.4 billion worth of animation products were exported to the United States in 2002. The manga market itself grew from $50 million in 2002 to $110 million in 2003. According to the English-language fashion e-zine www.japanesestreets.com, the site had 24 hits the day it was launched in November 2002. Now more than 30 million visitors have checked out the site.

It can be an expensive hobby. Many of the fashions, for instance, generally are available online only from Japanese stores. Shipping can cost as much as the item. For Christmas, Simone got two porcelain dolls that cost $400. That’s without clothes, which would have been hundreds more. The girls’ passion has been funded, primarily, by their parents.

Kjeld Duit, who created www.japanesestreets.com, said what makes the trend unique is “it is probably the first time that a large number of Americans are truly embracing cultural influences from abroad. After decades of exporting American culture all over the world, the country is now finally mature enough to welcome and accept culture that is not homegrown.

“After only seeing geisha and woodblock prints, culture-savvy Americans are finally seeing the value in the modern creations coming out of Japan.”

We gave them Mickey Mouse, a rodent in a black and white tux. They give us Gothic Lolita — girls dressed in black, Victorian-inspired fashion and severe makeup.

Henry Clay junior Sam Hunter, who spent six weeks in Japan as an exchange student and is into kendo, a form of sword fighting, said “a lot more people are getting interested (in Japanese culture) in general.”

Sam, who taught himself to read and write Japanese, has a theory.

“A lot of it has to do with sushi,” he said. “It is the gateway drug to Japan.”

It was sushi, a tuna roll to be precise, that first lured him. He was maybe 5 or 6. It was slightly spicy, wrapped in seaweed. But it was his entry into Japanese culture. He moved from sushi to martial arts to reading up on-feudal history to teaching himself to read and write the beautifully complex Japanese characters. He has several of what he calls “Japan-ophile” friends and is planning on a career in international medicine.

“It’s just a completely different history and culture,” said Sam, 16, who sometimes starts writing in Japanese when he gets bored in class. The appeal is that it is just so far removed from American culture. Sam said he appreciates the rich, centuries-old traditions that developed in near isolation because of Japan’s long separation from the western world. It’s so un-American.

But even Sam is drawn in by the pop-est aspect of Japanese pop culture — the music.

“It’s a guilty pleasure,” he said.

Emily and Simone say the music is appealing because it’s looser, more original than what they find in America.

“They just have fun,” said Emily, a senior at Lafayette High School, of her Japanese pop idols. “Here you have to have an image. Here you have to be perfect. Here you have to have choreography,” she says as she does a sneering rendition of NSync’s Bye, Bye, Bye, punctuated with arm movements.

Most weekends, however, the girls get dressed in their wildest outfits to go out to a poetry slam, the coffee shop or a book store. Emily chooses a seemingly mismatched “fruit” effect that she says is actually difficult to achieve. Not matching, apparently, is harder than you’d think.

It’s all about accessorizing and making sure things work just so. If she had the skirt and the shirts and the scarf, that’s not enough.

“If I wasn’t wearing the boots and the jewelry and the gloves. It would just look stupid,” she says.

Simone, Lafayette junior, favors the “sweet Lolita” look — a tarty, Shirley Temple-like look that includes short, flouncy skirts, puffy sleeves and knee-high socks. Like many American teens, the girls began their cross-cultural journey before middle school through anime — the stylized, vivid-color cartoons in which the characters have large eyes. Starting around middle school, they’d have anime-thons, eat cookies and watch their favorite movies over and over.

“They are better than the crap that we have here like SpongeBob,” Emily said. “You actually want to see the whole show.”

From there they moved to manga, which soon evolved into affection for the quirky Japanese music and fashion. They thrive on the fact that it is all so different from everything around them.

“It’s really had an impact on our lives,” said Emily, adding that she and Simone plan to study Japanese in college.

“It’s almost like we were supposed to do this,” said Simone, who sews her own sweet Lolita outfits and wants to be a designer.

Some kids at their school are starting to copy parts of the girls’ funky style.

“One guy the other day came up and said I looked hot,” Emily said.

Not everyone, however, is a fan. Emily’s dad refers to her J-rock idols as “Japanese transvestites.”

A visit to a bookstore is likely to draw quizzical looks from strangers. People stare. They sometimes take pictures.

“It’s almost like people forget their manners,” Emily said.

“People ask me a lot if I am going square dancing,” Simone said. She is clearly not amused.

Duit said the only thing that would kill the trend is, ironically, if it gets too popular.

“If the local Gap store ever starts selling Gothic Lolita outfits and the like, it is a sure sign it is dead,” he said.

Reach Mary Meehan at (859) 231-3261 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3261 or mmeehan1@herald-leader.com. News researcher Linda Niemi contributed to this report.