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From Culture Critics to Culture Producers: Students Examine the Phenomenon of Japanamerica
Rachel Freeman, communications & website manager

Students in Chris Scott's Japanamerica: Japanese Pop Culture class zoomed with translator and scholar Frederik Schodt, who shared background about the creation of "Astro Boy" for an American audience.

It's not every day that high school students have the opportunity to watch multiple versions of Godzilla or read chapters and chapters of manga or discuss the importance of Hello Kitty as part of an academic class. In Chris Scott’s Japanamerica: Japanese Pop Culture class, students closely examine the ways in which Japanese pop culture has become an integral part of American pop culture.

While Nueva offers hundreds of elective courses to students in the upper school, there are very few language and culture courses that don’t require students to be taking the language around which the course is constructed. 

“At its core, this is really a humanities class,” Chris said. “It’s about culture, cultural discourse, literature, film, manga, anime, and cultural products, among other things. What’s really great is that the course is open to all students grade nine through 12, regardless of the world language they are studying.” 

Americans may not be aware of the many influences of Japan on our culture: everything from Star Wars and Speed Racer to The Lion King and "Iron Chef America." The course delves into the changing landscape of “Japanamerica” from the 1950s to present day, and students explore the historical, political, economic, and cultural reasons why Japanese pop culture has become so popular in the United States. 

Last week, the class welcomed a guest (albeit virtually): Frederik Schodt, a translator and scholar who translated the original "Astro Boy" manga series into English. Frederik shared background about the creation of "Astro Boy" for an American audience, as well as general information about being a translator. 

“Astro Boy is the first animated TV series ever,” Chris shared. “We watched episodes as a class before Fred’s visit, and he helped us to answer the question, ‘What is entailed in localizing a manga from Japanese to American culture?'” 

It’s questions like these that Chris hopes students are able to answer and take away from the class. 

“Cultural literacy is a big part of this course,” he said. “I want students to become more informed about pop culture and to take it more seriously. My hope is that students can watch something like Godzilla, which has had numerous remakes, and notice the differences between the remakes and the original and then evaluate those differences. I want them to not just be simple consumers of pop culture but really to become critics of pop culture.” 

Senior Enzo S. took this course for that specific reason. 

“I took the class because I was very interested in the intersectionality between American and Japanese pop culture,” he said. 

Towards the end of the semester, when their studies have taken them to the present day, students will present a product pitch for a Cool Japan product they create. In the past students have developed ideas including A Bathing Ape, an American expansion of a Japanese fashion brand; J-Gaming Café, a Japanese video game café; and a creative restaurant where patrons can make their own mochi. 

“I am trying to get students to think about Japanese culture in a real life context,” Chris said. “The cultural analysis that we do is not divorced from the real world. We study the discourse around Cool Japan and ask how soft power can be used to influence everything from individual behavior to economic investment. It’s really great having the students move from being culture critics throughout the course to becoming culture producers by the end of the course.” 

This course exemplifies the way in which Nueva encourages its faculty to design courses that may not seem to fit into a single area of study. 

“If you have a passion or interest, Nueva is the type of school where you can teach a class like my Japanamerica class,” Chris said. “Thinking outside the box is important at Nueva, and interdisciplinary courses are encouraged.” 

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