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Millennial Monsters

In order to explain why Japanese toys and associated character mechandising are winning over the world, it’s of course essential to take a long hard look at Japan and the Japanese. That’s what Prof Anne Allison did at the beginning of her book, Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination.

The commonly held view of Japan is it’s a country which places the collective before the individual. This can be taken to extremes. Work yourself to death for the good of the company. Forget your dreams, marry a man you will hardly ever see, stay at home, submerse yourself in family and raise a child for the country’s future. Study hard, little child, enter a good university in order to secure a future which might see you work yourself to death.

But Japan, a country that has previously seen society-wide transformations during the Meiji era and following the end of WW2, is now undergoing a transformation which sees the rise of individualism. This, too, can be taken to extremes.

Reject society and shut yourself in. Reject the empty promise of a job for life and jump from job to job. Reject marriage and family. Immerse yourself fully in the goods you buy for you are the goods that you buy.

(As one Japanese woman put it, “We go to brand-name universities, enter brand-name companies, and wear brand-name goods. And this isn’t just on the outside. On the inside, too, we’re ‘brand-name people.'”)


The transformations Japan is going through as a result of the flux, fragmentation and fast pace of millennial times has also influenced the toys the country produces for its youth.

The disaffected Japanese youth with no dreams, no hopes and without the safety nets the previous generations enjoyed are deemed millennial monsters because their behaviour deviates from previously established standards of normalcy.

But the Millennial Monsters of the book’s title are the sentai and sailor scouts, the monsters of Pokemon and the creatures born and raised in a Tamagotchi. These, too, are entities that deviate from normalcy in that they’re capable of transforming their forms and identities.

As you might gather, transformation is a recurring theme throughout the book. (Transformers with a capital “T” is referenced once or twice as well.) Discarded tin cans from GI rations were transformed into toys which were exported to the US and the revenues earned were used to buy food for Japanese kids during the US occupation of Japan. Japanese pop culture was once seen as cheesy (e.g. Godzilla in the 50s) but it’s now cool. The US once removed anything overtly Japanese from Japanese fantasy imports (e.g. Power Rangers in the early 90s) but it now accentuates Japanese elements.

The rise of Japanese cool

The key question, of course, is: what makes Japanese fantasy goods so special, so different? Prof Allison argues two elements, techno-animism and polymorphous pervesity, distinguish them from the rest. From page 91 of the book:

This is fantasy-ware with a mass array of spirits and parts (techno-animism) that continually transform, come apart, and recombine in a variety of ways (polymorphous pervesity). Further, such a logic of play has been packaged in forms that suit the tempo and lifestyle of these postindustrial times. Gameware is portable (making access convenient and continual) and adjustable for personal use (anything can be listened to on a Walkman), while the fantasy making conjures up playmates that “heal” the ills of materialism, all the while generating an addictive frenzy that literally buys into the same thing, of playing, wanting, and buying more and more commodified stuff.

The addictive quality of these goods will come as no surprise to anyone who buys them. A “gotta catch them all” mentality does indeed take hold rather quickly.

As a franchise which epitomises obsessive-compulsive collecting, Pokemon gets a lot of mention in the book. If there was a drinking game which required a sip of your favourite alcoholic beverage every time the P-word is seen, you’d be dead of alcohol poisoning pretty quickly. But that attention is warranted. It was and is a major hit.

Pokemon is also contradictory in many ways as the author shows. It offers a private space for children but it’s also a gateway to new friendships. It’s consumer capitalism for children but it’s also enchanting fantasy. It’s kawaisa but also involves hard data.

The contradictory aspects of these toys is certainly a cause for ambivalence. Their enchanting nature relieves stress but the flip side of that is the cost and difficulty in acquiring them cause stress as well.

And ultimately, you can never catch them all, can you? There’s always a new sentai team, a new Pokemon game.

Pikachu and Foucault

The book is at its best when discussing research and insights about the production, marketing and consumption of Japanese fantasy goods. The author has conducted extensive research both in Japan and in the US and supplemented this with translations of Japanese research. There’s a lot to take in but it’s always fascinating.

The book isn’t a quick, breezy read — few books by academics are — but it was an engrossing one for me. Books on toys aren’t all that common and books on toys that are well-researched, insightful and thought-provoking are a definite rarity. I enjoyed the book and if you’ve got a keen interest in Japan or Japanese toys, I expect you will as well.

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Posted in Books, Reviews, Toys.

2 Responses

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  1. Tan Lee Seng says

    Hmm… never occur to me that simple Japanese toys can have such thought provoking influence.

  2. Gobi says

    Toys are no longer only for kids and you have to remember even toys for kids are still designed, manufactured and marketed by creative and canny adults.

    The money involved is substantial — USD22.3 billion in the US and USD5.7 billion in Japan and that’s only in the traditional toys category — and the cultural influences are significant as well.

    This summer audiences worldwide will be sitting in cinemas watching a major movie with roots in Japanese toys.

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