ASIAN STUDIES CONFERENCE JAPAN

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     Seventh Asian Studies Conference Japan
    Saturday, June 21-Sunday 22, 2003
    Ichigaya Campus of Sophia University

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Contact the organizers: Asian Studies Conference (ASCJ) c/o Institute of Asian Cultural Studies, International Christian University 3-10-2 Osawa, Mitaka-shi, Tokyo 181

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Session 4
The Character Industry: Consuming Objects and Images in the Global Cultural Economy
Organizer/Chair: Martin Roberts, New School University

This panel will examine a shift within the global culture industries which has become increasingly evident in recent years, from a cultural economy organized primarily around the production and consumption of narratives--whether textual, cinematic, televisual, or virtual--to one increasingly organized around characters. A great deal of ingenuity today, indeed, is devoted to the design and production of distinctive, compelling, and of course marketable characters. While the character industry is not exclusively Asian in origin, its has been especially dynamic in countries such as Japan and Korea, and the panel will accordingly focus primarily on the production, consumption, and exchange of characters in these countries. Exploring historical, economic, sociological, anthropological, and technological dimensions of the character industry, it will consider the relation of the character industry to other global culture industries (advertising, fashion, cinema, television, popular music) and issues such as branding, logos, convergence; and the relevance of identities-- race, nation, and gender--in the consumption of character products, especially in global/transnational contexts. The panel will also consider: the distribution and circulation of characters across socio-cultural hierarchies, institutions, and discourses, from department stores to art museums, children's television to avant-garde art; and the role of digital media and communications technologies in the production, consumption, and exchange of interactive characters in videogames, computers, and portable/wireless media. Bringing together scholars from media and cultural studies, the anthropology of consumption, and the sociology of communication, the panel seeks to initiate a cross-disciplinary dialogue that will lead to a better understanding of this multi-faceted phenomenon of the global cultural economy.

1) Martin Roberts, New School University. "Chappie: Software Characters and the Digital Culture Industry"

This paper focuses on the Japanese design collective groovisions (www.groovisions.com), whose work was featured at the Superflat exhibition organized by Takashi Murakami at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, in 2001. A graphic design company working primarily in the music industry, groovisions is best known for its creation of Chappie, a series of identical, sexually-ambiguous mannequins differentiated only by outfits and hairstyles, which have proliferated with a virus-like speed surprising even by the standards of the Japanese culture industry. In addition to Chappie artwork, stationery, dolls, clothing, CDs, and websites, there is Chappie furniture and even a Chappie currency. While the Chappie phenomenon clearly has similarities to familiar forms of character branding, the concept itself can best be understood in relation to the impact of digital media technologies on the fashion, design, and popular music industries. The Chappie concept recalls the iconography of catalogs across the spectrum of the culture industries, including sample books, pattern books, mail-order catalogs, or magazines cataloging seasonal fashion shows. While such analog catalogs are still widely used, in many cases today they have migrated to virtual environments, whether in CAD software or online fashion collections. The Chappie characters graphically recall the icons or avatars now common in digital sample catalogs. In conclusion, the paper suggests that the Chappie concept is best seen as a form of software, an application which can be run on/applied to potentially any image or object. Both cultural interface and semiotic virus, Chappie provides an interesting glimpse of the future of the digital character industry.

2) Jiwon Ahn, University of Southern California. "Banzai! Toward a Textual Analysis of Non-Existent Character Texts"

This paper examines some of the most popular and successful character products of the current global character industry such as Hello Kitty, Afro Ken, Mashimaro, and Pucca, focusing on the unique "textless" nature of what may be called character-icons. Such characters may be considered as "textless" texts, in the sense that they can be distinguished from the products of conventional character merchandising based on other existing narrative media such as animated TV series, films, video games, comics, etc. Instead, these character-icons are largely lacking in conventional character definition and circulate independently of any forms of dominant narrativization on the producers' side. This textless quality in character texts can be seen as a marketing strategy developed in response to the border-crossing demands for media products in the process of globalization, yet in turn, it has functioned to stimulate a more active consumption on the part of the user, inspiring diverse readings to fill the narrative void. Through a comparison of the classically ambiguous Hello Kitty and some of the new, more specifically narrativized characters such as Mashimaro the Perverse Bunny, the paper aims to recognize both semiotic flexibility and planned recycling (rather than obsolescence) in character texts as key dynamics in the production and consumption of global media products.

3) Christine Yano, University of Hawaii. "Worldly Kitty: The Global Marketing and Consumption of Japanese Cute"

Since the late 1960s, Japanese economic focus shifted from production to consumption, from salaryman workers to housewives, office ladies, and young teen female consumers. Embedded within these shifts has been the development of kawaii (cute) culture for domestic sales, followed by its rapid exportation to the United States and beyond. This paper examines that "pink globalization," focusing on products emanating from Sanrio, Japan's premier purveyor of such goods. In particular, I analyze the marketing and consumption of Sanrio's flagship character, Hello Kitty. From its inception in 1974, Hello Kitty was meant as a global product--a Japanese feline challenge to the American rodent, Mickey Mouse. That cat--with its notoriously mouthless expression--decorates goods from pencils to vacuum cleaners to cars. With net sales of 114 billion yen (approximately $912 million) in 2001, Sanrio stands at the apex of kawaii consumer culture marketed to young children and female adults alike. Sanrio entered the United States market in 1976, the European market in 1980, and the Asian market in 1990. Since its introduction to the American market, it has gradually insinuated itself upon the consumer scene, first as a small niche market of primarily Asian American consumption and now as a larger market with stores in key urban centers such as Times Square, New York. The question arises, what meanings may be given the global marketing and consumption of Kitty kawaii? Does kawaii suggest a new kind of female consumer empowerment or a reproduction of female stereotypes? By focusing on the various consumer meanings given Hello Kitty, this paper addresses "pink globalization" as an unruly bundling of neo- and non- feminisms, led by a Japanese product, but taken to a number of competing and sometimes contradictory directions by local consumers.

Discussant: Merry White, Boston University

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