Japan and its Others / Cool Japan is Dead

dex digital
16 min readSep 21, 2022

…wait, what is this?

You’re looking at a syllabus for JPN 116, a course officially titled ‘Japan and its Others’. This is a class being offered at UC Riverside, in the Fall 2022 Quarter. The course will be held on Tuesdays and Thursdays, from 5:00 pm to 6:20 pm Los Angeles time, starting on September 22nd, through December 3rd.

It’s taught by me. My government name is Dexter Thomas, Jr. I used to study Japanese hip-hop for a living.

I’m interested in cool stuff, and hope you are too.

Anyway, on to the syllabus.

Who gets to be cool in Japan?

The Japanese government is spending billions of yen on ‘cool’ per year. So where is all that money going..and why?

The focus of this course is about ‘others’, or ‘minorities’, in Japan: who gets to be ‘Japanese’, and who makes those decisions.

But the method we’ll be using here is by looking at a second question: who gets to be ‘cool’ in Japan, and who makes those decisions? The answers to the above are constantly shifting, and they aren’t always clear, but that’s what we’re here to talk about.

We’ll spend some time working through how age, race, gender, and nation might figure into the ‘cool’ equation. We’ll likely end up turning the lens back on ourselves at some point, and ask why we find things cool.

These are difficult questions, so you’ll have to be ready to work hard — but you’ll leave the class with a better idea of what ‘cool’ is. You may even find yourself thinking differently about Japanese pop culture.

If you’ve ever gotten into an argument over the Hamon Kyoshi Lisa Lisa arc, or if you think that stuff is for weebs, or if you have no idea of what the first half of this sentence is even about — this class might be for you.


What we’ll be learning here is a modern history — that is, one history, of many histories, of Japan. I expect that you’ve learned a history of Japan before, maybe even a couple. The one we’re working on here happens to be focused on how the concept of ‘cool’, or kakkoii / カッコいい has developed in Japan, and what that means to the outside world.

Unfortunately, coolness isn’t studied all that often (I have some theories on why, and I’d love to hear yours), so we are going to have to work harder than you might expect. That is to say: I can show you some things to read, watch, and listen to, and help you to put them into context, but in order for it all to truly have any relevance to your life, you’re going to have to put that puzzle together yourself.

Or, in other words: like any college class, I expect that you’ll learn some things that you didn’t know.

But here’s the good news: this course is not one in which an instructor feeds you information and you regurgitate it for a good grade. You (the student) and I (the instructor) are almost certainly going to disagree on some things, and that’s just fine. As long as you are writing and participating in good faith, you are essentially in control of your grade (see the Grades section below).

It’s probably easiest to think of this course as a small book club / independent publication focused on the concept of ‘cool’, with a particular expertise on Japan. Your job is to look carefully and thoughtfully at the material, and the world around you, and produce a series of essays/projects that would help a potential reader/viewer understand your stance on what ‘cool’ means to you. You’ll be using the process of writing and editing to help you define, and refine, that stance for yourself. You’re also responsible for helping your fellow writers do the same.

My job is to provide whatever support everyone needs in that process.



Your two major projects are going consist of writing. The first will be a 800+ word Save Point essay due during Week 6, and a 2000 word final essay due Dec 9.

Most of your work will be ‘turned in’ via Medium.com (the site you’re looking at now). We’ll discuss this in class if you’re not familiar with it. When you submit an essay, it will only be accessible to me, and other members of the class. We’ll take advantage of that closed space to read and comment on each other’s work via the commenting function. Your work will never be made public without your permission. But if you’re particularly proud of something you’ve done, you’re welcome (and encouraged) to share it with the world.

Because you’ll be writing online, you’ll also have an opportunity to get experience working with digital publishing. I want to see good writing, but I also want to see good use of the format. That means I’m less interested in perfect APA style than I am in embedded images, audio files, YouTube videos, and linking to all your sources.

The good news is that as long as you do your work in good faith (that is, hitting the word requirements and showing a clear effort to engage with the material), that is an A in my book.


This is a big part of your grade (see below). Presence includes being involved in class discussions on assigned readings/videos, as well as reading other’s work and providing feedback.

I call this ‘presence’ instead of ‘participation’ because it isn’t granular: You’re either here, or you’re not. I expect you to be both physically and mentally present for each session. If you show up later than 15 minutes after course starts, I’ll consider you physically non-present for the day. If you’re not participating in the chats on the material, I’ll consider you mentally non-present for the day. Also — and this is important — if you don’t turn in your Response Essay on time, you risk being counted as non-present, because you’re not able to be there to help your classmates during the discussion.

Similarly, if you are not holding up your end of the load in peer reviews — either by leaving thoughtless comments on fellow student’s work, or by not participating at all, I’ll consider you mentally non-present for that session.

You get one free absence. Anything after that will result in one half of a letter grade reduction per session. If you are going to be mentally or physically not with us for a session, let me know (via Discord — see below) before the session starts. If there’s an emergency, again — just get at me asap, we’ll talk it through. I’ll do my best to make arrangements so that you’ll be able to catch up on things, but you’ll be responsible for checking in with me and/or your fellow students to see what you missed.

Writing may seem like a lonely journey (sometimes, it is), but we’ve got a room full of people that are all heading the same direction. Let’s take advantage of that.


At the end of the quarter, we’ll have a meeting about your grade, and you’ll tell me what you think you have earned — and that’s that.

The only things that will cause me to override your self-evaluation will be incomplete or late projects, or lack of presence. Here’s how that breaks down:

60 percent of your grade will come from the two large Projects.

The other 40 percent is from Presence. Remember that your ‘presence’ also includes the short essays due most Tuesdays. If that’s not in by class start, you risk getting marked ‘non-present’.

But, if you’re always present, and you do both of your projects in good faith, you’re in control.


We’ll be discussing topics that may be new, unfamiliar, and/or uncomfortable for some — race, gender, and sexual orientation being among them. Come to class ready to learn and listen with respect. We don’t have time or room for put-downs, or talk that disregards the lives or experiences of anyone, for any reason.

Also, there’s a difference between contributing to the class discussion and talking over your classmates. Debate is great, attacking and shutting others down isn’t. This little trick might be helpful. Let me know if you feel like you might be on the delivering or receiving end of this, and we’ll address it in private.

(a note on content)

Because ‘cool’ often involves the fringes of what is acceptable in polite company, this class is necessarily going to include subject matter that some would find objectionable, or difficult to watch or read. This includes racism, sexism, violence (including race and gender-based violence), and a lot of otherwise unpleasant subjects. I’ll always do my best to give a heads-up before we get into something like that, and if you need to skip something, or to tap out for a bit, no problem. It will never affect your grade.


For your final project, you’ll have the opportunity to pick a topic of your own interest and dive deeper, and produce a 2000-word essay on the topic. Do you have a grand unified theory of robot anime? Great. Can you explain why rappers started wearing Naruto headbands? Go for it. Are you going to be the hero that finally gets to the bottom of vaporwave? I salute you.

Need help coming up with a topic? Let the class know, and we’ll work with you. This will be half of your Projects grade (so, 30% overall).

For two sessions in class, in Week 6, we’ll have a Rapid-Fire Presentations section. You’ll get about two minutes to tell the class about what you’re working on. (You’ll want to practice beforehand). Then, you’ll get feedback from the entire classroom in text form — encouragements, suggestions, and best of all — questions. I’ll also add some of mine. You can then take the feedback you get from your presentation and use that to improve your final research project, which you’ll have another chance to present in Week 10, and then finally turn in, on Dec 9th.


No two members are going to find the same exact thing interesting. So while there is a core body of work that I’ll expect everyone to read/watch/listen to, I won’t expect you to spend extra hours thinking about rap music when the thing that drove you to take this class was your curiosity about Death Note.

This means that at least once during this course, we’ll meet during office hours, and based on what you tell me you’re interested in, we’ll come up with something tailored to you, for you to check out on your own. Bring me your questions, doubts, and curiosities, and I’ll find something that might help you think through that. I’ll ask that you be prepared to share what you got out of it with the rest of the class, and hopefully work it into your final project.


Often, writing is the best way to organize your thoughts. But sometimes, it’s not the best way to present them. At least once, you’ll have the opportunity to create an ‘internet-native’ version of one of your essays. Have you ever seen the ‘he just tweeted it out’ meme? This is that.

The format is up to you: a video essay on YouTube, a podcast featuring music clips that you’re analyzing, a series of stitched TikTok memes, a image slides carousel on Instagram, or a Tweetstorm. Your goal is to do what the best serious-but-funny memes do: hook your viewer long enough to want to know more. Let’s be honest: you’re not going to get your friends to read your essay if you send them a PDF. But if you hit them with a short video explaining the premise, with a link that says “want to know more? check this link out” — you’ve got a shot. And yes, a thoughtful digital accompaniment to your essay will likely result in a better grade. We’ll discuss this in class. (Note that if you’d rather keep your personal and school personas separate, you’re free to make a new social media account.)

And, if you’d rather do a multimedia project than a final written essay, this is also an option! But give me a heads up early, so we can make sure that you’re on track to accomplishing the depth worthy of the subject matter.


There are no language requirements for this class. If you speak zero Japanese, you’re absolutely welcome to take this class — just about everything we’ll be reading and watching will have English translations. But if you do understand a bit of Japanese, or if you’re fluent, you’ll get that much more out of things! If language proficiency is a goal of yours, I encourage you to push yourself a bit and try to read/watch things in the original as much as possible.



We will be using computers to write in just about every session, especially in the beginning of class. So, please bring either a laptop, or if you’re able to type quickly with your thumbs, feel free to just use your phone. If you don’t have reliable access to a digital device, see me and we’ll work something out.


This course is set up to be accessible remotely. If are unable to make a session in person for any reason, just let me know, and we’ll make sure you’re set up to participate. There’s also the chance that your instructor (me) will need to occasionally move a session online-only. If that happens, you’ll be given plenty of advance notice, and we’ll conduct things as usual, just on Discord (see below).


All digital communication for this course will be conducted via a chat/collaboration application called Discord. Some of you may already be using it in your daily lives, especially if you’re a gamer. It’s what you’ll use to contact me, collaborate with other students, and occasionally turn in short assignments. We’ll use it to collaboratively watch films and videos and discuss them. I’ll also use it to distribute readings that aren’t available online, and send you extended comments on your essays.

You’re also required to meet with me at least once during the semester for a scheduled one-on-one conference, but you’re encouraged to meet with me more often if you like. I’ll make sure to have a two-hour window open every week where I’ll just be hanging out in the Discord. Times TBD.


We’ll be using a combination of videos, online articles, and individual book chapters that I’ll be able to share with the class under fair use conventions, so there are very few required texts that you’ll have to purchase upfront. Most will be available at the library. If you’re interested in a particular book we sample, though, it might be worth buying it — especially if you think you might use it for your final project. Just about everything we’ll be using in this class is available online or local stores for $10 or less.


Well, maybe it is, I don’t know. But I’m here to read your writing, not someone else’s. So, please do your own work. If you’re borrowing from someone else, give them credit, either via a link or citation. Otherwise, you risk getting a zero. We’ll go over that in class, but if you forget, or anything is unclear, feel free to ask.


Occasionally, we’ll have an expert to come in and chat with us about a particular subject. Right now, I’ve tentatively got a few scholars, and people who work in ‘culture’ that have kindly agreed to share their time and expertise with us. Schedules are subject to change, but I encourage you to take advantage of these opportunities. Bring questions, and keep them (and their email addresses) in mind when you’re preparing your final project.


At the end of some sessions, we’ll watch part of a film together. Take this opportunity to do what you can almost never do in a movie theater — be noisy! You can talk out loud, or post in the Discord. Point out an interesting shot, or if a scene makes you think of a passage in the reading, or make fun of corny music or dialogue (if you’ve ever watched a Twitch stream, or a video on Nico Douga, you’ll know what I’m going for).But: we’ll only watch part of it, and you’ll be responsible for watching the rest of it. I recommend you re-watch any film in its entirety at least once on your own — more if you think you might be using it for an essay.


Everything below is subject to change. Actually, there’s a very high probability that it will!

For each session, there is a ‘Required Input’ section. Come to class having read, watched, or listened to the media listed. I won’t test you on anything, but I may ask you to write a 100–200 word response to some aspect of the assignment. If you’re unable to do this, you run the risk of being considered non-present.

On most Tuesdays, I will also be requiring you to turn in a Response Essay. That will be written via a private link here on Medium. The prompt will be given out during the previous class, and will generally be under 400 words.

If something is listed as ‘due’ on a particular day, that means that it must be completed and digitally accessible by me at the beginning of class.

As we progress through the course, readings/focuses may change slightly, based on discussions and interests of the class. Those specific updates will be made within the Discord. Please treat everything below this as general roadmap only.

Week 0: pre-introduction.

Thursday (Sept 22)

- introduction, tech set-up.

Week 1: An Introduction to Cool Studies/カッコいい学

Tuesday (Sept 27)


  • have your Discord account set up

— [in-class preview]

- Cool Japan — Songs

Thursday (Sept 29)

— [required input] (process this all before coming to class)


  • have your Medium account set up


- finish watching Cool Japan video
- Gucci Mane — ‘Lost in the Sauce’ feat Wilbert Cooper [link]


- Play ‘Game Chronicle’ (free on the ANA website). Only the first level is mandatory, but feel free to go further!


- 平野啓一郎 HIRANO Keiichiro — selections from 「カッコいいとは何か」What is Kakkoii?: (unofficial translation by Dexter Thomas, or read the original if you’re up for it!)

— [due in class] (be ready to hit ‘send’ by class start!)

- Essay:

Pick two or three of the below questions, and answer in a ~400 word essay:

What surprised you most about the Cool Japan video? Would you recommend this program as a way to get someone ‘into’ some Japanese cultural ‘cool’ culture that you personally like? Who do you think is the audience for this program? Why do you think K-pop was brought up?

And most importantly (this question is mandatory): did you feel ‘seen/spoken to’ in this video? Why or why not?

— [in-class preview]

  • Crazed Fruit・ 狂った果実 (1956) [link]


Tuesday (Oct 4)


  • Finish watching Crazed Fruit (1965)
  • read Michael Bourdaghs — Sayonara America, Sayonara Nippon Ch 3

{response essay due}

Thursday (Oct 6)

- read Michael Bourdaghs — Sayonara America, Sayonara Nippon Ch 4

{revised essay due}

in-class preview (if there is time):
Isao YUKISADA/Kazuki KANESHIRO — GO! (2001)


Tuesday (Oct 11)

{required Input}

  • finish watching GO! (2001)

{essay due}

Thursday (Oct 13)

{required input}
- read KANESHIRO Kazuki — Go! (novel version) Ch 1

{revised essay due}

in-class preview (if there is time):
Golden Kamuy (TBD episodes)


Tuesday (Oct 18)

{required input}
- Finish Golden Kamuy (episodes 1–2)
- read Golden Kamuy manga (vol 1–6)
- read Reading Colonial Japan — Ch 2

{response essay due}

Thursday (Oct 20)

{revised essay due}

preview (20m): game TBD


Tuesday (Oct 25)

{required input}

  • Play some Street Fighter. Here’s a link to play the Super Nintendo port of SFII (1992) for free, but feel free to play another version if you have preferences/access. Try a few different characters. You are required to win at least one match — and take a screenshot as proof. I’ll ask for you to send me the screenshot in class.
  • read Naoki Sakai — Translation and Subjectivity, Introduction
  • read Rachael Hutchinson —Japanese Culture through Videogames, Ch 3

{response essay due}

Thursday (Oct 27)

(no additional reading)

{revised response essay due}


This week, in lieu of midterms, we’ll be focusing on getting together and working out what your final projects will be. Part of this will take the form of rapid-fire, mini-presentations. Each student will have about ~2 minutes to explain:

  • your topic
  • one or two things (readings, films, etc) from class you plan on referencing
  • anything you are unsure about

You’ll also have an opportunity to get feedback from your fellow students.

All of this is going to form the basis of your final project. If anything goes wrong in the next few weeks during your research/development of that project, you can always come back to this essay (hence the name: Save Point). But that means you’re going to want to make sure it’s good, so as to set yourself up for success at the end.

Tuesday (Nov 1)

{required input}

Stuart Hall — Representation and the Media

{written version of your presentation due: 800+ words}

Thursday (Nov 3)

(continuation of Tuesday’s presentation sessions)

preview: Stray Cat Rock (1970) [link]


Tues (Nov 8)


  • finish watching Stray Cat Rock (1970) [link]
  • Laura Mulvey — “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”

Thurs (Nov 10)


  • Karen Kelsky — Women on the Verge, Ch 1
  • TBD Kaneshiro Interview (translated)
  • re-read KANESHIRO Kazuki — GO! (novel version), Ch 3

{response essay due}

in-class preview: Kyoki no Sakura (2002)

Week 8: The Right to Cool / The Left Can’t Meme

Tuesday (Nov 15)

- Finish watching Kyoki no Sakura (2002)
- read David Z MORRIS— “Minzoku madness: Hip hop and Japanese national subjectivity”

{response essay due}

Thursday (Nov 17)

{required input}
- read TBD selections from Greg GUTFELD — Not Cool

{revised essay due}

in-class preview: KITANO “Beat” Takeshi — Brother (2000)


Tuesday (Nov 22)

- Finish watching KITANO “Beat” Takeshi — Brother (2000)

[Thursday (Nov 24) is a campus holiday.]

Week 10: Presentations

Tuesday (Nov 29)

TBD, according to interests of class


Thursday (Dec 1)

all presentations

All final essays/projects due by Dec 9