"Genki Dama Saves the World": Japanese Popular Culture, Globalization, and Relief Efforts

Curator's Note

In the aftermath of the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, the internet has become a place where people from around the world can come together to offer their support to those in need. YouTube has become a hotspot for such pleas, with several coming from the editors of the popular manga magazine Shonen Jump and renowned manga artist Toriyama Akira. Toriyama’s acclaimed manga and anime series Dragon Ball is frequently seen as being one of the catalysts for the explosion of Japanese popular culture in the West, and this clip (titled "Genki Dama Saves the World") illustrates how that recognition can serve a function beyond solely that of entertainment.

Popular culture is a window into exploring the society that produced it, the people who consume it, and the ways it is integrated into cultural practices around the world. Japanese popular culture, once rare in Western shopping centers, is now a common sight. Pop-cultural icons like Son Goku are now recognizable in the international community. As this clip shows, these characters can begin to mean something more than just entertainment in times of crisis; it embodies a moment where Japanese popular culture and real-world tragedy intersect in a single message that is aimed at the international community in the time of Japan’s greatest need. As Paul du Gay et al argue in Doing Cultural Studies: The Story of the Sony Walkman, cultural meaning is, as Baudrillard proposed, not found in an object itself but in how that object is used (90).

This week of In Media Res is an exploration of globalization and Japanese popular culture in the wake of a terrible tragedy. Post-WWII Japanese popular culture has frequently reflected a need to come to terms with the atomic bombings and the nation’s changed presence in the world. A question that continues to come up in light of recent events is how the earthquake and tsunami will impact popular narratives in the years that follow? How will those representations be understood on a global scale?

Japan needs the support of the international community. Let this week’s theme be a celebration of that nation and the functions of popular culture, both locally and globally. Please remember to take the time during our discussion to send Genki Dama to those in need.



A nice introduction to your week. 

What strikes me most about the video is how it mobilizes the notion of Goku and his trademark move to help with relief efforts. The video doesn't provide a link to relief aid organizations, and instead says that simply by watching the video, relief is sent as the money garnered from the small ads go to relief funds.

It's one of the most obvious forms of slacktivism I've seen come out of the event which brings me to the larger idea behind it: It's pretty solid global marketing on the behalf of Shueisha as it uses one of its most recognizable characters (as you note) to raise awareness of the disaster. Despite being for relief funds, it's also a short ad for the Dragon Ball franchise, creating a positive connection between commerce and charity.

Without knowing how much Shueisha donates from each view, I wonder if the money trickles to relief funds as slowly as it would often take Goku to form his own genkidama.

Eager to see what your other contributors have lined up!

A very interesting point, Noel.  Any use of popular culture will be inherently linked to some form of advertisement for that product.  In this instance, you are correct in observing the marketing link between charity and Dragon Ball. However, I think that instead of looking for relief in terms of funds, in this instance I think they are more interested in sending positive "energy" to those in need, and uses Goku and the Dragon Ball text as a means of doing so.  The "donation" is made just by thinking about those who have been affected by this crisis.  This is not to say that marketing isn't also a factor here, but it is also illustrative of how popular culture can be used as a means of rallying interest in a cause, and how those fictional characters can take on additional roles.

But what you have asked is at the very crux of the matter when considering this sort of connection. Does the commercial aspect overshadow other potential positive intentions? Can you have charitable intentions when commerce is present?

While undoubtedly being an example of slactivism, this video also garners a feeling of solidarity among global fans; a belief in a global community. I am reminded of Henry Jenkins' optimism in fandom as a participatory culture where fans embrace media as a means to represent themselves; as a resource for the ongoing productions of meaning. Japanese popular culture has become globalized to the extent that fans from all over the world feel connected via their interests, yet that interest has a recognizable origin, Japan. Thus for them, the earthquake and tsunami really hit home; it hit at their identity. Despite the commercial aspects, it is a means for many fans to feel they are doing something rather than nothing. Though I have no doubt that besides giving "genki dama," several fans have gone beyond their computers to do more, such as donating directly to the Japanese Red Cross.

I think you really identified the main point here, Laura. This video really embodies this duality between commercialization and community building.  Identity is at the heart of fandom, and Japanese popular culture (like all nationally-identified popular culture) embraces the concept of identity and the formation of community on a local and global level.  The internet has allowed for this group of people to come together without geographical restrictions.  While there is definitely a commercial aspect present here, it is that aspect that originally formed this community and continues to bring them together in this tragic time.  As Laura pointed out, there are still charities such as the Red Cross where monitary donations can also be submitted in addition to these actions of community support.

What I find fascinating about this video is that they refer to Spirit Bombs as "genkidama." My understanding is that English-language fans of Dragon Ball (Z) have accessed the series as a localized verison of the anime, so the Japanese term elicits no nostalgia when thousands of fans know it as Spirit Bomb. For the Japanese publishers, this probably isn't a critical issue; for them, using "genkidama" might even appear more appealing. But for foreign fans (ie., English-language localized fans) watching this video, the term holds less meaning. There's probably been a lot said about the localization industry in terms of translation, but I'm not sure much has been analyzed in terms of cultural pivot points around specific terms with anime and manga as they're sent out across the globe. For example, you can look at English-language fans' knowledge and appreciation of "bankai" in Bleach (rather than a translation of the word) in the past few years opposed to the localization efforts against "onigiri" within Sailor Moon and Pokemon in the late '90s.

That's a very interesting point, Alex. Many of the fans who grew up watching anime in the West (up until a few years ago) dealt primarily with localized texts. In recent years (thanks primarily to DVDs) there has been a significant move towards viewing the Japanese language versions with subtitles, which (depending on the subtitles) oftentimes keep the specifics that were lost in the original localization ("mochi" are no longer "chocolate truffles" and similar changes). Anime and manga fans are by no means homogenous, and the community includes fans of both the localized and the subtitled versions.

You have definitely identified another key question here: is this sort of message aimed at a specific type of anime fan? A longer version of this message has also been produced that primarily defines what Genki Dama actually means. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1ig2yrZmUqw.  However, as a result of this short story, a viewer who may not be fully aware of the entire Dragon Ball saga may not be able to follow the narrative specifics of the piece.  Consequently, the question you raised comes full circle.  How do we define the intended audience of these messages?  Also, do you need to necessarily need to be fully versed in this narrative to participate in the sending of Genki Dama energy?

 Great post, Ian!

Where my mind immediately headed (as is often the case) is to video games. Gamers have been rallying strongly for Japanese relief efforts because of the country's role in their favorite hobby.

I would suggest it runs deeper than this though. Not only is the current video game industry deeply connected to Japan, but their position in the medium's history is especially significant for Western (and more specifically, American) gamers. Back in the 1980s, it was the Japanese Nintendo and Sega who revived the industry in the U.S. after the market collapsed. A huge portion of gamers today thus look back fondly on their childhood gaming memories with nostalgia supported by Japan.

Because of this life-long relationship, gamers truly do "Heart Japan" as one of the relief groups suggest. With this dedication, groups like Play for Japan have raised over $100k, while Team Fortress 2 players spent over $430k on Japanese-themed in-game hats, and Playstation Network users donated over $1.3m through the service.

I truly do applaud all of this generosity and support, and as someone who loves games and loves Japanese games, it's easy to become invested in a cause that directly impacts my popular culture. That definitely speaks to the power of popular culture, not just as something we do, but as structuring identity.

However, I can't help but worry about some of the ramifications of defining engagement in a disaster through popular culture. At some point, shouldn't plain ol' human empathy be enough? Of all the fantastic things popular culture does provide, do we really need it to tell us to help others in need?

Moreover, this rests on a very specific, ideologically-structured version of popular culture.  Do they "heart" Mexico, where Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft have all used maquiladoras to manufacture their products (similarly for Indonesia, Vietnam, China, etc)? Do they "heart" the DRC where (at least during the PS2 era) the coltan in their favorite consoles was mined while destroying the environment and fueling warfare? These countries also play a significant role in making popular culture, but certainly do not garner the same adoration as those countries in charge of content (and where the corporations are based). 

All of that said, gamers have proven themselves to be incredibly generous without needing the prompting of a disaster.

What a fantastic example to bring to the discussion, Steven! Video games are arguably the most popular aspect of Japanese popular culture around the world (although still often dependent upon localization tactics).  Constructing national identity through these pop-cultural artifacts is a fascinating process because, as you pointed out, a good portion of the products people own around the world were actually manufactured outside of Japan.

You also raise an interesting point about engaging with disaster through elements of popular culture and our current consumerist mentality and this need to "get something" in order to "give something." That's why I found this particular video so intriguing. The producers have started a fund separately, but use this video as a means of gathering "energy" to send to the people of Japan without offering a particular product in exchange.  At the same time, as Noel, Laura, and Alex have also pointed out, there is still an aspect of commercialism that remains by connecting Dragon Ball to this act of charity.  I wonder, is this connection something that we can actually escape?  Whenever popular culture is present in one of these campaigns, we are either buying something physically (such as t-shirts or even digital in-game hats) or ideologically by connecting a major brand to the relief efforts.  This is a question that I strongly feel needs to be explored further.

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