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Times Literary Supplement: Matt Alt, “Pure Invention: How Japan’s Pop Culture Conquered the World”

After overseeing the postwar occupation of Japan, General Douglas MacArthur made a blunt assessment of the cultural and emotional state of the defeated people. “If the Anglo-Saxon was, say, 45 years of age in his development, in the sciences, the arts, divinity, culture, the Germans were quite as mature,” said the former Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers. “The Japanese, however, in spite of their antiquity measured by time, were in a very tuitionary condition. Measured by the standards of modern civilization, they would be like a boy of twelve.” The popular mind now remembers MacArthur as having described Japan as “a nation of twelve-year-olds”, and many of the country’s high-profile exports – dizzying video games, trinkets and stationery branded with cartoon animals, cheaply produced comics and animation saturated with sex and violence – would seem to retroactively underscore the general’s perceptiveness.

In the annals of Western accounts of Japan, MacArthur’s pronouncement is not without precedent. “From the earliest days of contact, the effort Japanese devoted to devising toys and games shocked Western observers”, writes Matt Alt in Pure Invention: How Japan’s pop culture conquered the world. “One of the first was the British diplomat Rutherford Alcock, who in 1863 dubbed Japan ‘a paradise of babies’. They were even more shocked by how many of these babies grew into adults who unabashedly continued to enjoy the pleasures of childhood.” From here Alt, an American resident of Japan who has spent nearly two decades professionally “localizing” Japanese culture for Western consumers, goes on to give a history of his adopted homeland through the products it has designed to deliver entertainment – in other words, through its toys.

The most telling early example comes not from the mid-nineteenth century, when Japan re-opened to trade with the world after more than 200 years of isolationist government, but from the devastated years following the Second World War. Gathering discarded food tins and beer cans for metal, a toymaker named Matsuzo Kosuge began to manufacture tiny models of the Allied jeeps that had swept into Japanese cities after V-J Day. Impoverished though they were, the Japanese sensed in those utilitarian military vehicles the same alluring modernity Kosuge had, and from the start the toy jeeps sold more rapidly than they could be manufactured. In the 1950s, exemplifying the apparently infinite Japanese capacity for taking pains, Kosuge brought to market a miniature Cadillac so laboriously detailed that Japanese buyers couldn’t afford them. His real customers, the many Americans with the desire for a Cadillac but not the means to buy a real one, lay on the other side of the Pacific.

Read the whole thing at the Times Literary Supplement.

Korea Blog: Michael Gibb’s Island-Hopping Travelogue “A Korean Odyssey”

Modern South Korea made its orchestrated debut on the world stage with the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Since that time, the most memorable English-language travel narratives about this country have been written by Englishmen. Simon Winchester’s Korea: A Walk through the Land of Miracles, which came out the year of the Games, seems to remain the best-known, though as supplementary reading I always recommend Clive Leatherdale’s lesser-known To Dream of Pigs, the chronicle of a journey around the country taken in the same time and published in the early 1990s. Over the past decade, during which Korea has made a fuller return to the global zeitgeist, a few more such books have appeared: Graham Holiday’s culinary travelogue Eating Korea, for instance, or Michael Booth’s Three Tigers, One Mountain, an exploration of northeast Asia given over in large part to Korea. What keeps bringing these Brits?

For the London-born Michael Gibb, author of the new book A Korean Odyssey: Island-Hopping in Choppy Waters, the attraction feels atavistic. “Just as a hiker salivates at the prospect of scrambling over a mountain range or an equestrian glows at the prospect of galloping across a far-flung grassland,” he writes, “I get giddy thinking about ferry trips to remote outlying islands,” especially “the storm-ravaged, history-rich, guano-splattered archipelagos of South Korea.” Even when transplanted to the other side of the world, it seems, a man from an island not known for its pleasant weather will seek out more of the same. Gibb currently lives with his Korean wife and young daughter on Hong Kong’s Lamma Island, where he relishes each summer, which begins “dark and thundery, oppressive enough to transform the jolliest of friends into miserable wretches,” then turns into “clear blue skies and enough heat to melt your brains.”

In the 1990s, Gibb lived here in Seoul — or rather, in the altogether different Seoul that existed in the 1990s. “It was far from easy dealing with a complex language, a feisty cuisine, and complex social etiquette,” he recalls. “The shove in the back while boarding a bus was not welcomed. Testy nationalism and insular world views alienated me. Motorbikes roaring down sidewalks instead of on the street boiled my blood.” By all accounts, the still freshly developed nation was indeed more reckless and slipshod all around in those days. “Planes fell out of the sky, bridges collapsed, gas pipes exploded, the top of a bus was shorn off by a low bridge, and one of my former students and my wife’s cousin were both crushed when a shopping mall collapsed.” The collapse was presumably that of the Sampoong Department Store in 1995, which killed more than 500 people.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Books on Cities: Jeff Speck, Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time (2012)

Anyone with an interest in American cities today has heard of Walk Score. Launched in 2007, the web site calculates the proximity of any given address to various necessities and amenities — grocery stores, schools, restaurants, hospitals, movie theaters — and assigns it the eponymous numerical rating. When I first heard of it, I naturally punched in all my previous addresses. The neighborhood of Seattle’s eastern suburbs in which I lived throughout most of elementary and all of middle and high school rates a Walk Score of three. That’s three out of a possible 100, mind, but it still beats my first childhood home about thirty miles outside of Sacramento, California, whose Walk Score comes in at a perfect zero. This may go some way to explaining my subsequent choices of location in adulthood: downtown Santa Barbara (85), followed by Los Angeles’ Koreatown (“walker’s paradise” at 97).

Today I live in the capital of South Korea, a country not served by Walk Score. If it were, my address would surely blow up the meter: here everything one could need in life, from coffee shops and bookstores to gyms and shopping malls to major hospitals and universities, lies within a ten-minute walk. (When I say this to Americans in America, I usually have to add the words “without exaggeration.”) After five years, this feels as natural to me as being unable to walk to anything but another house once did, back when I was growing up in the suburban nation. There I borrow from the title of Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, a 2000 indictment of post-war U.S. urban planning by Andrés Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck, founders of an organization called the Congress for the New Urbanism.

The term “New Urbanism” seems to me something of a bait-and-switch, given how many of its advocates go in for labored small-town kitsch of the Truman Show variety. That film was shot, in fact, in Seaside, Florida, a master-planned community designed by the architecture-and-planning firm DPZ, which stands for Duany and Plater-Zyberk. But then they also founded Arquitectonica, the studio responsible for the early-80s sublime of the Atlantis Condominium as immortalized by the opening credits of Miami Vice. Clearly this husband-and-wife architecture team commands a serious Floridian aesthetic range. And if Speck, formerly DPZ’s Director of Town Planning, is to be believed, Duany in particular knows everything there is to know about how to create satisfying urban spaces. Having partaken of this knowledge, Speck frequently emphasizes an intellectual debt to his former boss in his first solo book Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time.

Read the whole thing at Substack.

Open Culture Posts on Korea

Since 2012 I’ve written about all manner of topics at Open Culture, and you can find a selection of some of my favorite posts over the years in the Open Culture section of my essays page. Sometimes write there about things Korean — South Korea being the country in which I live, and about which I regularly write on the Los Angeles Review of Books Korea Blog — and you’ll find those posts gathered below:

See also my Open Culture posts on Japan.

Korea Blog: Revisiting the Late Kevin O’Rourke’s “My Korea,” a Curious Memoir of a Land that Gets in the Blood

Western expatriates in Asia often see themselves as having missed out on their adopted homeland’s golden age. I arrived recently, just under five years ago, and have since heard much about how I really should’ve been here at the time of the World Cup, if not in the 1990s. Some time ago I met an American here in Seoul who’d first come to Korea in the 1970s as a Mormon missionary. He confirmed what I’d suspected: even back then, the Westerners who’d preceded him were telling him he really should’ve been there in the sixties. Many who came from the West in those decades came for missionary reasons, religious or otherwise. Some, like Kevin O’Rourke, stayed for the long haul, diversifying their activities all the while but never, of course, forgetting the prelapsarian age in which they’d arrived.

“You really had to see Korea in the sixties to know what it was like,” writes O’Rourke in the opening of My Korea: 40 Years Without a Horsehair Hat. “Korea time was the conceptual axis on which the culture turned. Modernization and the need for quick decisions has done away with this lovely, lazy, exasperating way of life.” Back then, “when you didn’t know any other way home, it was normal to ask the traffic policeman to reverse the traffic on a one-way street, and invariably he obliged.” This seems to have been a favorite memory: O’Rourke repeated it in the media interviews entailed by his status as a famous foreigner, and the Korea Timesincluded it last month in his obituary. Having made the initial trip form his native Ireland in 1964, he had by the end of his life spent 56 of his 81 years here in Korea.

Readers of Korean literature in translation may well know O’Rourke’s name, bring as he did more than 2,000 Korean poems, stories, and novels into the English language. These include “Wings” (날개), Yi Sang’s bizarre modernist tale of colonial humiliation (O’Rourke’s rendition of which I studied just a few years ago at the Literature Translation Institute of Korea), and The Square, Choi In-hun’s sweeping novelistic critique of Korea both North and South (the partial inspiration for last year’s sprawling exhibition at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art). He also taught English literature at Kyung Hee University in Seoul for nearly four decades, but he was at the core a man of the cloth, a priest brought to Korea by the Irish Catholic Missionary Society of St. Columban.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Books on Cities: Andrei Codrescu, “New Orleans, Mon Amour: Twenty Years of Writings from the City”

Andrei Codrescu moved to New Orleans in 1985, and Hurricane Katrina followed two decades later. “New Orleans will be rebuilt, but it will never again be the city I know and love,” he declares in the final chapter of his anthology New Orleans, Mon Amour: Twenty Years of Writings from the City, published the year after the disaster. I’ve heard variations on that sentiment from other observers over the past decade and a half, and I now wonder what part they played in my putting off visiting the place for so long. If post-Katrina New Orleans isn’t really New Orleans, I thought — and if I lack the pre-Katrina experience that would at least allow me to make a before-and-after comparison — why bother? I appreciate a good plate of red beans and rice, but felt little need to eat one in a city drained of its essence.

I finally bothered last year, taking a few days’ side trip to New Orleans with my dad as part of a longer visit back to the United States. Despite the occasional abandoned structure — and the one that made an impression on me, the inverted-looking midcentury Plaza Tower, was already sitting empty three years before Katrina — it didn’t strike me as a city that had been devastated not all that long before. (The most obvious signs pointed to broader devastation of the economic variety, and indeed were actual signs: judging by the billboards, the sole healthy industry between New Orleans and Pensacola, Florida is personal injury litigation.) But then, I stayed at the edge of the relatively undamaged French Quarter, on the other side of a bend in the Mississippi River from the likes of the Lower Ninth Ward, whose name the hurricane made a byword for sodden neglect.

“Tourists experience New Orleans by guidebook geography,” Codrescu writes in a piece from 1995, “which recognizes only three areas: the French Quarter, the Garden District, and Audubon Park.” This remains broadly true, in that I spent a good deal of time myself in the first two of those, though such French Quarter-adjacent neighborhoods as the music bar-filled Marigny hardly felt like sacrosanct locals’ turf. I’ve enjoyed enjoy beignets and café au lait at Café du Monde and will do so again, but I’m also considering how best, when next I visit New Orleans, to transcend the tourist city. The French Quarter has much to recommend it — not least a used bookstore from whose seemingly load-bearing floor-to-ceiling piles I managed to extract Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s Faire L’amour — but when I recently pulled it up on Google Street View, my girlfriend asked if I was looking at Disneyland.

Read the whole thing at Substack.

Korea Blog: An Introduction to Outsider Novelist-Essayist Bae Suah

Bae Suah has a dedicated readership in her native South Korea, owing to the unconventional nature of her fiction as well as her passage into literary fame. Over the past half-decade her work has begun to appear in English translation, and in that form it has met with bad reviews: not negative reviews but badly written ones, hazily abstract in their description and incontinent in their praise. “The amorphous logic of memory or dream, where things are both familiar and strange, connects physical and intangible worlds,” insists the Guardian‘s first consideration (under the Observer banner) of Bae’s Untold Night and Day (알려지지 않은 밤과 하루). Its secondlauds the book as “a hallucinatory novel propelled by the logic of dreams: the story resists conventional categorization and coherence in favor of instability, a shamanistic borderland of feverish disintegration between the physical and the spiritual.”

To critics in the English-language press, directly conveying the qualities of Bae’s writing has proven a challenge. Some of them have done better with the indirect method, name-checking such Western literary figures as W.G. Sebald, Peter Handke, Fernando Pessoa, and Clarice Lispector. All four are referenced in reviews by way of not just aesthetic comparison but professional introduction, since as a translator Bae has brought works by all four into the Korean language. Her ability to translate Sebald and Handke (as well as Robert Walser, Jenny Erpenbeck, and Franz Kafka) owes to years spent in Germany, a country in which she’s made annual sojourns since the early 2000s. Pessoa and Lispector she handles at a further remove, working from German translations: not an ideal arrangement, but a necessary one absent Korean Portuguese translators invested in Pessoa and Lispector’s remote niches of literature.

The first edition of Lispector in Korean, a collection of short stories translated by Bae, was published just last year. This says something about the foreign fiction favored, or more to the point disfavored, in South Korea, and that Bae was the translator to finally take the project on says something about the kind of writer she is. Bae is known, as Lispector is remembered, as a woman encumbered by few of her country’s social or artistic conventions, and her prose style, like Lispector’s, is described by both her appreciators and detractors as sounding persistently alien even in the original. In Lispector’s writing this quality admits of a degree of biographical explanation: as an immigrant to Brazil from modern-day Ukraine, albeit one who relocated with her family in early childhood, she could have retained characteristics that marked her as an outsider in Brazilian society, literary and otherwise.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Books on Cities: Owen Hatherley, “Trans-Europe Express: Tours of a Lost Continent” (2018)

The publisher of Owen Hatherley’s Trans-Europe Express: Tours of a Lost Continent sent me a copy addressed to “Colin Marshall, Cities Writer.” Though I’ve never worked under that title, I can hardly reject it; then again, it would seem to apply rather better to Hatherley himself, who despite being only three years older than me has published ten more books than I have. The volumes with which he made his name, 2010’s A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain and 2012’s A New Kind of Bleak, deal exclusively with the built environments of British cities. 2015 Landscapes of Communism sends him farther afield, to capitals such as Moscow and the former East Berlin, of course, but also Kiev, Warsaw, Bucharest, Vilnius, and Zagreb, among other smaller and more obscure ex-Soviet destinations. Trans-Europe Express, his eighth, represents the widest expansion yet of his architectural-urbanistic mandate.

Essentially an essay anthology, the bookcollects Hatherley’s writings on various cities across the European continent. The occasion was the United Kingdom’s “Brexit” vote of 2016 — hence, presumably, the “Lost” of the subtitle — and the structuring question is what, exactly, makes European cities different, usually better, than British ones. “The reason why I wanted to stay in the European Union was architectural,” Hatherley writes, though in his view the superiority of the European city doesn’t stop at its buildings but manifests in its streets, its squares, its transit systems, indeed its very sense of urbanity. Urban Britain did once seem about to Europeanize: “Bradford would be an Italian hill town, Gateshead would be the new Bilbao, Salford would become as outward-looking as Rotterdam, Sheffield would model its public spaces on Barcelona.” Yet “each of these towns and cities voted in the majority to leave Europe. What went wrong?”

Read the whole thing at Substack.

Books on Cities: Christopher Alexander, “A Pattern Language”

When urban theorists speak of “reading” the city, they usually leave the mechanics of the act to the reader’s imagination. In 1977, Christopher Alexander launched himself high into the urbanist canon by taking the opposite approach, creating with his team at Berkeley’s Center for Environmental Structure a set of verbal tools to make legible, discuss, and evaluate the city, broadly defined, as rigorously as they could without losing sight of human values. The result was A Pattern Language, a 1,171-page dissection of the entire built environment into its recurring components — or quasi-grammatical “patterns” — from “independent region,” “ring road,” and “promenade” down to “house cluster,” “sitting circle,” and “marriage bed.” The project is both descriptive and prescriptive: by the time Alexander declares that “bedrooms make no sense” on page 869, such a sweeping charge hardly comes as a surprise, nor does the analytical-romantic justification that follows.

A Pattern Language first appeared in the long post-hippie moment of the 1970s, which saw many a former seeker, high-profile and low, turn toward more practical concerns. The book’s synthesis of both the pre- and post-60s mindsets turned Alexander in particular, as architect-critic Witold Rybczynski puts it, into “something of a guru in the youthful Whole Earth Catalog-influenced counterculture.” Whatever value the era placed on the intersection of the visionary and the pragmatic, it wasn’t a golden age for major cities, especially in places long subject to anti-urban impulses such as Britain and America. Alexander cites a Gallup poll indicating that a mere 13 percent of the U.S. population then wished to live in a city, as against 32 percent who voiced a preference for a small town. (A startling 23 percent of the respondents dreamt of a life on the farm.)

Read the whole this at Substack.

Korea Blog: The Cinematic-Romantic Collaboration of Hong Sangsoo and Kim Min-Hee Evolves in “The Woman Who Ran”

If at all possible, do try to see The Woman Who Ran (도망친 여자), the new picture by Korean auteur and international film-festival habitué Hong Sangsoo, at Seoul’s Emu Cinema. I recommend that particular venue in part because it offers occasional English-subtitled screenings for non-Korean-speakers, but more so because it appears as a major location in the movie itself. Watching Hong’s films in Seoul is like watching Éric Rohmer’s films in Paris: the characters tend to encounter one another and fall into meandering, insistent conversations in places you recognize from everyday life, and indeed may have passed through on your way to the theater. But it’s one thing to watch a movie in the city where it takes place, and quite another to watch its protagonist take a seat in the very same screening room in which you’re seated yourself.

That protagonist, a 30-something Seoul florist named Gam-hee, is played by Kim Min-hee, star of seven out of Hong’s last eight movies. It says something about Hong’s prolificacy that these constitute only the latest period in his career, during whose 24 years he’s directed exactly as many features. For his dedicated followers, myself included, the wait for The Woman Who Ran felt worryingly long, his previous work Hotel by the River (강변 호텔) having come out all the way back in 2018. In that film Kim’s character checks into the titular small-town lodgings, some distance from the capital, after breaking up with her married lover. That same year also saw the release of Grass (풀잎들), an hourlong novella of a picture built around the eavesdropping conducted by Kim’s amateur novelist from the corner table of a Seoul coffee shop.

The year before that, Hong directed three films. In The Day After (그 후) Kim plays an assistant at a small publishing house physically attacked on her first day of work by the boss’ wife, who confuses her with the girl she suspects he keeps on the side. This also turns out to be her last day of work, and Kim’s character in Claire’s Camera(클레어의 카메라), a film-distribution company employee, experiences similar professional difficulties. Her boss fires her on a trip to Cannes with seemingly inexplicable suddenness, and only later does it come clear that both of them have been surreptitiously involved with the same film director. This followed the also partially Europe-set On the Beach at Night Alone (밤의 해변에서 혼자), which features another of Kim’s performances as an actress and erstwhile filmmaker’s mistress.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.