Cultural Diffusion Between the United States and Japan

This was my final project for my Human Geography general education University class. I'm releasing it to TAY since it looks like it will be a slow week for articles. Maybe this will help.

It has been adapted slightly to make it more palatable for the TAY community by adding images, parsing certain paragraphs differently, and slight alterations to tone. Other than that, it is unmodified from what I turned in. The requirements of the paper constrained it to no more than 6 pages (not quite, I went back and looked the requirements. There was no explicit limit on the length, but there is an underlying tone that suggests it should be kept short), but I had a ton of things that I couldn't get to, so I think the paper actually suffered greatly. I may be willing to revisit this later and further analyze the animation medium in particular.

I'm keeping this to my own blog since it is a bit off the usual anime topic. Sharing it to TAY seems within reason though.

Cultural Diffusion Between the United States and Japan

Please note that this is an adapted version of my final project for my general education class Human Geography this year.

One of the most intrinsic cultural bonds that the United States has formed in its long history is also an often overlooked one. The cultural ties between the United States and Japan are immense even at the most basic level and weave their way into dozens of subcategories of both countries' cultures. These can be from the mundane political level to the expansive entertainment level. As such, this paper will examine the intricacies of the diffusion that has taken place. In general, the focus will be around why exactly the diffusion has proceeded as it has, how the diffusion has affected both states, what categories of diffusion are involved, and visible examples.

The history of Japan's association with the west goes back to the 16th century when Portuguese traders arrived on the "Black ships" (artist portrayal pictured). The first contact with European traders became the first wave of cultural diffusion into Japan by the "west" (Lewis) and set a precedent for the relationship of Japan with the west. During the time between the 16th century and the 20th century, there was a rather significant diffusion of technology between Japan and the west, as well as some major examples of cultural diffusion. This, however, did not continue into the 20th century. It seems likely that, as nationalism and traditionalism in Japan rose, the cultural diffusion between Japan and the west slowed to a trickle, preparing for the inevitable Second World War.

The Second World War ended with Japan's defeat by the allied forces with specific emphasis on the United States and the use of the Atomic bomb (which had significant effect on the cultural of Japan, which, unfortunately, will not be covered in this paper). The United States began the occupation of Japan in the aftermath of the world war and stationed a large number of military forces within Japan. The United States established itself as an "overwhelming authority" in Japan (Yoshimi 436). In addition to their military presence, the United States played a large role in rewriting the Japanese constitution, effectively transforming the previously monarchical/feudalistic Japan into a democratic state. This is clearly an example of diffusion by conquest which resulted in the United States drastically altering Japan's culture.


The United States began to carefully alter Japan's cultural structure to make it more "western" through careful political maneuvering and relying on cultural diffusion from the military forces to get to their goal. The goal, of course, was the establishment of a western democratic stronghold with a close proximity to the rising Communist power of China (Yoshimi 442). This was successful and process came to be known as "Americanization" where the United States inserted itself as the "dominant" power in Japan. It is postulated by Lewis that the Japanese were keen to take on western (specifically American) traits in order to overcome what they viewed as flawed Japanese traits that caused them to lose the Second World War. This is supported to an extent by Japan's prince Akihito's letter in the weeks after World War 2, in which he said that Japan had been technologically inferior and the Japanese's inability to work together effectively in a group had caused them to lose the war (Dower). This contributed to their willingness to allow Americanization occur. With the United States' dominant status and this in mind, hierarchical diffusion became normal for the relationship.

Japan was influenced significantly by America during the era of Americanization. The Japanese took on clothing, music, and the English language in common conversation. In addition, products like Coca-Cola and Jeans were increasingly popularized by the United States within Japan (Lewis). This diffusion was encouraged by hierarchical diffusion (United States-dominant), relocation diffusion (U.S. military occupation), and stimulus diffusion (adaptation of American customs).


As years passed, the relationship stayed very much the same with the United States popularizing many cultural trends that diffused to Japan. By the mid-1950's, Japan's economy had stabilized and began to expand rapidly in relation to its neighboring countries. With their newfound power, they cemented their position as the United States' "democratic stronghold" in Asia alongside South Korea (Dower). By the late 20th century, Japan had grown out of its complete dependency on American culture and had invented itself as its own cultural power. While still influenced by America, Japan had become an exporter of culture in addition to an importer.

The ways that the United States has been altered by Japan is far more interesting, as one rarely considers the wide-reaching diffusion that actually has taken place. One such example is the "Fine China" porcelain tableware that has become a fixture of the American home. Ironically, Fine China was imported from Japan, not from China. This was an early form of diffusion, as it happened during the 19th century. A more recent form of stimulus diffusion takes root in Karaoke, which is an adapted American form of the Japanese's own "karaoke". It continues to be popular to this day (Lewis). Other items like the "California roll" are also popular in the United States. The California roll is adapted from the Japanese cuisine Sushi; it is another form of stimulus diffusion.


In recent memory, the Japanese cultural status became defined by its media. In Japan, the animation industry (commonly referred to as "anime") has a significant cultural presence. This presence was formulated throughout the 20th century and eventually it exploded outward as a major international phenomenon. In the late 20th century, many give credit to Neon Genesis Evangelion for popularizing the anime medium in North America. Neon Genesis was followed by the very popular Mobile Suit Gundam Wing, which experienced a high viewership in North America. This cultural phenomenon would give rise to the popular Toonami programming block on Cartoon Network in 1999. Toonami was a late-night programming block that is credited as being one of the first popular viewing platforms for anime in the United States.

This success in the anime scene coincided with successes in the animated movie market via Studio Ghibli and the manga market. Studio Ghibli films like Spirited Away were a hit in the United States and their films continue to be popularly distributed by the Walt Disney Company. As stated, the manga scene experienced a similar explosion with a variety of manga being translated into English and distributed across the country.

Japan eventually caught onto their cultural explosion and the Japanese government moved to capitalize on the cultural power they developed and their ability to exploit the mass media (contagious diffusion) put them in prime position to do so. With the Japanese economy stagnant in at the turn of the century, the Japanese attempted to transform their cultural status into a cultural power, with all the financial benefits it afforded them. This political push became known as "Cool Japan". The goal of Cool Japan was to provide a concerted strategy for the cultural expansion worldwide to become a global cultural superpower. Cool Japan is still an active program in Japan as of today and it sponsors projects worldwide (Nagata).


In addition to imports, American animation itself has been influenced to varying extents by Japan. The earliest popular instance of diffusion into our animation is likely Batman: The Animated Series. While the series was written and produced entirely by American interests, the animation-level production was outsourced to Japanese animation companies like Sunrise (creators of the aforementioned Mobile Suit franchise). This becomes a rather difficult-to-define method of diffusion that has aspects of both relocation diffusion and contagious diffusion.

A clearer cut example of diffusion is the series Teen Titans. It was produced by American interests but took on clear anime aspects in both the animation aspect and the overall themes of the series (which were generally more mature than American animation usually was). The best, and most recent example, of American animation taking on anime aspects, was Avatar: The Last Airbender. Avatar was an extremely popular Nickelodeon animation series produced by American interests that not only adapted Japanese animation techniques and complex plots, but also adapted Asian traditions like martial arts within the series content itself. In this way, the series itself might be considered a form of contagious diffusion for the audience watching it.


In addition to animation, live-action films have seen a major form of diffusion as of late. The popular summer movie Pacific Rim is a popular adaptation of the "Kaiju" (giant monster) genre. The film is considered an homage to the giant robot/mecha genre in Japan as well as the Kaiju movies themselves.

To conclude, the relationship between Japan and the United States is complex and spans decades. Some will argue that it spans for centuries. The early cultural diffusion between the countries has its roots in the 19th century, but the majority of the diffusion occurred during the occupation of Japan in the aftermath of World War 2. Since the occupation, the unique relationship between the two states has become a major highway for two-way cultural diffusion through every major form of cultural diffusion. Contagious diffusion became important in the late 20th century by way of mass media. Hierarchical and Relocation diffusion were important components to Americanization. Stimulus diffusion has been a major part of cultural importation in both countries. This diffusion has gone on to intrinsically affect nearly every level of culture in both countries to some extent. Everything from food to animation has been altered to some extent. Japan and the United States represent one of the most successful and active cultural relationships in the Pacific Rim countries and arguably, the world.

Source Information:

Dower, John W. "`Culture,' Theory, And Practice In U.S.-Japan Relations." Diplomatic History 24.3 (2000): 517. Academic Search Premier. Web. 8 Dec. 2013.


Lewis, George H. "The Somersaults Of Monkeys: Diffusion Of Culture And Meaning Across The Pacific Rim." Journal Of Popular Culture 30.1 (1996): 263-276. Academic Search Premier. Web. 8 Dec. 2013.

Nagata, Kazuaki. "Exporting Culture via 'Cool Japan.'" The Japan Times. Japan Times, 15 May 2012. Web. 15 Dec. 2013. .

Yoshimi, Shunya. "'America' As Desire And Violence: Americanization In Postwar Japan And Asia During The Cold War. "Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 4.3 (2003): 433-450. Academic Search Premier. Web. 8 Dec. 2013.


If you want me to revisit this topic, don't hesitate to let me know in the comments. Audience participation is a big part of how I decide on what to do next.

You can see all my articles on Dex's Corner.