Why is Japan so Cool?

dex digital
17 min readMay 28, 2021

…wait, what is this?

You’re looking at a syllabus for a course called why is Japan so cool?’. Yes, that is the official title. This is a class being offered for the 2021 UCLA Summer Session. The course will be held on Mondays and Wednesdays, from 5pm to 7pm Los Angeles time, starting on June 21st, through July 30th.

The course is open to everyone, even if you are not a UCLA student.

You can see the course here, and register at summer.ucla.edu. Everything is remote.

It’s taught by me. My government name is Dexter Thomas, Jr. I used to study Japanese hip-hop for a living. Here is my website if you have any questions.

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

Anyway, on to the syllabus.

Is Japan cool? Why? How do you know?

Nobody I know seems to have a clear answer. But the Japanese government is spending billions of yen on it per year.

Okay, here’s an easier question: do you listen to cool music? Do you wear cool clothes? Why?

In this course, we’ll talk about how ‘cool’ has developed in Japan, and how this process has been a truly trans-Pacific one. We’ll also talk about how race and gender 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, and American pop culture.

If you’ve ever gotten into an argument over the Ripple Teacher 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.

CLASS PHILOSOPHY

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.

The bad news is that 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 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 (see the Grading section below).

It’s probably easiest to think of this course as a small indie 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.

THE WORK.

WRITING.

Written assignments will make up 60% of your grade.

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 medium (sorry). That means embedding images, audio files, YouTube videos, and linking to your sources.

PARTICIPATION.

40% of your grade will come from your participation. This will include participating in class discussions on assigned readings/videos, as well as reading other’s work and providing feedback.

I don’t grade for participation per se, but I do take attendance. 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. You’re either here, or you’re not.

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 third 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.

REGARDING DISCUSSIONS.

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.

AT LEAST ONCE, YOU’LL GET TO WRITE ABOUT WHATEVER YOU LIKE.

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 Assignments grade (so, 30% overall).

For two sessions in class, in Week 4, we’ll have a Rapid-Fire Presentations section. You’ll get 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 will be due during Week 6.

YOU’RE RESPONSIBLE FOR FIGURING THAT OUT

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 curiousity about Death Note.

This means that at least twice 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 curiousities, 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.

OR MAYBE YOU DON’T WANT TO WRITE?

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 hijacked 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.

日本語が読めるともっと楽しいとは思うけど、

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.

THE LOGISTICS.

COMMUNICATION.

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 twice 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.

INFORMATION IS FREE, SORT OF.

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. 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.

CHEATING ISN’T COOL.

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.

GUEST LECTURES.

Occasionally, we’ll have an expert to come in and chat with us about a particular subject. Right now, I’ve tentatively got a lineup of artists, 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.

By the way, if you know of someone that might be interested in talking with our class, drop me a line.

GROUP VIEWING.

At the end of some classes, we’ll watch part of a film together. This will be streaming in the Discord chat, and the chat will be open for you to chime in. Take this opportunity to do what you can almost never do in a movie theater — be noisy (via text)! 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 whole at least once on your own — more if you think you might be using it for an essay.

CLASS SCHEDULE

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.

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

Some sessions will have a ‘Bonus’ listed at the bottom. If you find yourself particularly interested in a certain subject, I’d encourage you to pick up the extra chapters or videos and give them a try. Doing this is completely optional, though I’d imagine that getting a good grade would be easier with the breadth that these extra readings/media will provide.

And seriously: if you’re reading this before June 20th, 2021, this is all extremely subject to change! I may remove/add/shift things around. This is purely here to give you an idea of what we might be looking at.

Week 1: An Introduction to Thinking about Cool

MONDAY (June 21)

— [in-class writing prompt]
What is the coolest Japan-related thing you watch, listen to, read, or participate in? What makes this cool? Is it objectively cool, or is it just something you like? Explain.

— [in-class preview]
-
Cool Japan — Music [link]

WEDNESDAY (June 23)

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

[visual]

- Cool Japan video (finish watching)
- Gucci Mane — ‘Lost in the Sauce’ feat Wilbert Cooper [link]
- Stuart Hall — Representation and the Media [video on Kanopy] and [pdf transcript]

[music]

- Mariya Takeuchi — “Plastic Love” [link]

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

— [optional, but not required]

[visual]
Yasuke, Episode 1 [on Netflix] (we’ll be talking about it in class!)

— [due in class] (be ready to hit ‘send’ by class start!)
-
have Medium account set up
- have Discord account set up
- Essay 1:

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 (very brief preview).
- 野良猫ロック セックス・ハンター Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter (very brief preview)

— [weekend bonus]
-
if you’re interested in anime, then
watch more Yasuke, or Samurai Champloo, and/or Afro Samurai. Cowboy Bebop is also a solid choice, as is Ghost in the Shell, or Akira. If any of the above are new to you, pick one that seems interesting and watch!

(if you find Crazed Fruit・ 狂った果実 interesting, watch the rest of it! Totally up to you, though I will say that it makes for an interesting contrast vs Stray Cat Rock.)

Week 2: OKAY, BOOMER

{class canceled for Monday, June 28}

WEDNESDAY {June 30}

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

[game]
-
Play ‘Game Chronicle’ (free on the ANA website).
Beat at least the 1st stage, though you’re free to keep going!

[visual]

- Watch Crazed Fruit・ 狂った果実 (you can stop after 10 minutes — or keep going if you’re interested!).
-
Watch all of 野良猫ロック セックス・ハンター Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter

[text]
1.
mandatory: Karen Kelsky — Women on the Verge (Chapter 1 only. Most important part is ‘The US Occupation and Women’s ‘Liberation’’ onwards.)
2.
optional: Laura Mulvey — Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. (I also recommend watching this video as well, it’ll help make sense of the text if you’re having trouble.)

— [due in class]

[see class Discord for details.]

IN CLASS Preview

行定 勲 YUKISADA Isao — GO! (film)

— [office hours note]

As discussed in class, you need to have met with me in office hours at least once by the beginning of class on Week 3 [that is, your last opportunity is on Friday ]! If you absolutely can’t make the hours listed, drop me a message and we’ll find a time that works.

— [weekend bonus]

if you find the topics of gender and race in general interesting, let’s talk about what genres you’re into (eg anime, film, etc) and I’ll hook you up with something to read and/or watch.

Week 3: GO! MINORITY COOL

{no class on Monday June 5, due to holiday.}

— [instead, office hours will be held during the normal class session]

WEDNESDAY (July 7)

— [required input]

[text]

  • -read John Leland — Hip: A History (Intro, Ch 1, Ch 3)
    - watch GO! (the film)
    - read GO! (the novel) (Ch 1, Ch 3 are required. If you find it interesting, feel free to read all of it.)

— [due in class]
see class Discord for details.

— IN CLASS

— Preview: 薗田賢次 SONODA Kenji — 凶気の桜 Madness in Bloom

Week 4: THE RIGHT TO COOL

Monday (July 12)

— [due in class]

Rapid-Fire Presentations

Essay (see Discord for prompt)

— [required input]

[visual]
- 凶気の桜 Madness in Bloom

[text]
-
David Z Morris — “Sakura of Madness” [15 pages]
- Greg Gutfeld — Not Cool (only the following: “How Heathens Became Hip”. [~5 pages]

[music]
キングギドラKing Giddra — 空からの力Sora Kara No Chikara (full album)

Optional, but recommended input

[visual — documentary]
-
The Strange Case of Yukio Mishima [link]

[text]
more Greg Gutfeld — Not Cool (take a look at: Nuking the Nuclear Family, Southern Discomfort, The Rebel Bootlicker, The Rise of the Free Radical)

WEDNESDAY (July 14)

— [due before class starts]

Written version of your presentation. This can be a simple script of what you are going to say (I recommend you at least have this), or a more fleshed-out version that includes embedded images, videos, etc where appropriate.

— [required input]

[tiktok]

Take a look at this tiktok, and this one, and this one. Spend some time in the comments.

[text]

  • “Ch 8: Techno-Orientalism” in David Morely & Kevin Robbins — Spaces of Identity.

[And yes, this is today’s only required input, as of now. For the text, may find yourself needing to look up references to people/events you’re unfamiliar with. Some of you may find it a bit dense. Don’t worry, we’ll go through it in the second half of class, but please do give it a try and see how far you can get. We’ll revisit it next week. But also note: there’s a lot of reading for next week. So make sure to get a head start now while you can.]

— [in class showing (after presentations)]

— Preview: 88 Rising documentary

— [weekend bonus]

  • if you’re interested in more history of Japanese hip-hop: Dexter Thomas, Jr — Can the Japanese Rap?
  • if you’re interested in more recent Japanese hip-hop Ty Demura — Rising from the Tokyo Projects [link]
  • if you’re interested in Mishima, and specifically a recent Japanese take: Mishima — The Last Debate (documentary)
  • if you’re interested in the history of jazz music in Japan: we’re already reading ch 1, but also read ch 2 of E. Taylor Atkins — Blue Nippon
  • if you’re interested in punk music in Japan: listen to INU — Meshi Kuu Na!, and The Stalin’s first record, and talk to me. We’ll set you up with some Hebdige.
  • if you’re interested in something else and are haven’t yet quite found your angle of attack for your final project: let’s talk.

Week 5 American Eyes / Americanize

MONDAY (July 19)

— [due before start of class]

A DM sent to me outlining what you’ve taken from class feedback on your presentation, and how you plan to incorporate that into your final project. No length requirement here.

— [required input]

[visual]
-
Finish watching 88 Rising Documentary
- Cool Japan video (yes, watch it again! Skimming is fine, just be ready to chat about it again.)

[text — required]

  • “Ch 1: The Japanese Jazz Artist and the Authenticity Complex” in E. Taylor Atkins — Blue Nippon
  • re-read “Ch 8: Techno-Orientalism” in David Morely & Kevin Robbins — Spaces of Identity
  • “Ch 5: New Music and the Negation of the Negation: Happy End, Arai Yumi, and Yellow Magic Orchestra” in Michael Bourdaghs — Sayonara Amerika Sayonara Nippon. (by the way, if you’re writing about music, I also highly recommend reading Chapter 4.)
  • Dexter Thomas — ‘It G Ma made Asian Rap History’ [link]

[music]:
- YMO — Best Of Album
- Happy End — Kazemachi Roman
- Flower Travellin’ Band — Satori

I recommend listening to the above albums twice each. Using them as background music is fine, but if you’ve decided to do your final project on something music-related, definitely sit with them and pay some attention — and feel free to do some reading around on the net and see what others have said about them.

Also — come prepared to talk about your favorite Japanese album/song. (If it’s from an anime, I reserve the right to ask you some additional questions about this)(The OG Fist of the North Star theme is exempt from this, as is the entire soundtrack of Grey: Digital Target)

— [weekend bonus]

  • if you’re interested about the history of pop music in Japan: finish Sayonara Nippon

WEDNESDAY (July 21)

[text]

— [due in class]

Rough draft of your final essay/project.

IN CLASS

TBA DISCUSSION

Week 6 — ALL IN TOGETHER NOW

MONDAY (July 26)

— [required input]
-
TBA, subject to the interests of the class. We’ll hammer this down by the end of Week 4.

IN CLASS

Group feedback on projects — more details TBA.

WEDNESDAY (July 28)

All final projects due by beginning of class. We’ll also do final presentations during class — more details TBA.

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