Fix for Japan Pop-Culture Addicts

Xeni Jardin Email 04.12.04
Hentai -- sexually explicit anime -- now accounts for about half of J-List's sales.

Looking for Hello Kitty vibrators, anime rarities or obscure video games from Japan? Fans of Japanese pop oddities eventually end up browsing J-List, an e-commerce site that offers more than 2,500 products that exemplify Japanese kitsch.

Since launching the company in 1996, its San Diego-born founder, Peter Payne, has become a sort of cultural ambassador to geeks in the West. Wired News caught up with Payne during a recent trip back to the United States, and asked him what it's like to crack pop-culture code for a living.

Wired News: How did J-List start?

Peter Payne: I've lived in Japan since 1992, and started out there teaching English in schools. From time to time, I'd receive e-mails from friends in other parts of the world saying, "Hey, I'm looking for this J-pop CD -- can you find it for me?" That evolved into a small Internet business in 1996, and grew from there.

We outgrew my living room pretty quickly. Fortunately, there was land for us to use on Honshu Island. It was swampy, vacant land, agricultural zoning, for rice fields. So we contracted builders to construct a building for us there in 1998. Now, our warehouse is the square footage of about 100 tatami mats.

WN: You started off selling J-pop CDs. How did you get from there to selling Poop Aid Toilet Paper and Cup o' Vagina sex toys?

Payne: At first, about 25 percent of our sales were music; the rest was mostly Japanese adult magazines or comics. We added hentai -- sexually explicit anime -- which now accounts for about half of our sales. We don't just sell adult material. We also sell toys, calendars, food items, all kinds of strange cute things.

Another big seller is a kind of electronic game called "dating-sim," which now represents nearly a quarter of all software sold in Japan. It works like this: There are eight girls in the game, and if you win, you get to have sex with one of them.

WN: Why has Japan had such a huge impact on defining what's cool in pop culture worldwide?

Payne: That's the biggest mystery of all. The country is the same size as Vietnam, but think of all the Japanese words that have become part of global vocabulary. Ninja. Anime. Pokemon. Shuriken. Hentai. Bukkake. In some ways, Japan is a lot like England -- both are island nations who've had an enormous cultural effect on the rest of the world.

WN: What's the next big Japanese pop culture meme?

Payne: It's impossible to tell. People ask me all the time, and I have no idea what determines whether or not something's going to blow up. A couple of years ago, dog tags were hot, and all of a sudden every girl in Tokyo had one around her neck. Then, the Union Jack -- the British flag. Why? I don't know. It comes out of nowhere.

WN: How does the porn industry in Japan differ from the United States?

Payne: There's a distinct line between two kinds of adult entertainment companies in Japan -- pro companies and indie companies.

To understand the industry here, you first have to know about the Japanese law that in moving animation or video, there has to be a "mosaic," a blurred distortion, around genitalia, particularly if the material shows penetration. This is rooted in Japanese history, from (Gen. Douglas) MacArthur trying to Christianize the country. Those blurred-out bits in Japanese porn? MacArthur's fault.

The pro studios in Japan, like Kuki Group or Alice Japan, belong to a group called the Japan Video Morality Association, which is not unlike the MPAA in the United States. It sets standards for the studios. Themes like incest are forbidden, and the group establishes other codes of content and conduct for members -- like how big the mosaic needs to be in order for material not to be considered obscene.

The indie porn companies, like Soft on Demand or Moodyz -- they have their own group called the Media Morality Association. But in reality, each indie studio determines the size of its own mosaic.

The pro group says the mosaic has to be big. The indies say, "We want the mosaic as small as possible, because our customers want to see as much flesh as possible." Publishers can be arrested if their material is considered too explicit, but the definition of what's too explicit is something largely defined by the industry itself.

WN: How is Japanese pornography different from what tends to be popular in the United States?

Payne: It's highly stylized. And you have the obligatory mosaic to contend with -- so filmmakers have to consider that when they're shooting an adult movie for Internet or DVD.

Practically speaking, that ends up meaning much more camera time for the face and the rest of the body. Some of our customers say they prefer adult movies with the mosaic, because then it's not just a set of genitals -- the video is about an entire person.

There are a lot of niches specific to Japanese adult entertainment, too. Like "cosplay" -- actors dressing up in costume. Waitresses, stewardesses, anime characters, girls wearing costumes from famous video games.

And bukkake is a Japanese invention, credited to adult filmmaker Kazuhiko Matsumoto in 1998. Bukkake originally became a porn trend because of the mandatory porn mosaic -- the director can't show penetration, so they have to figure out new visual ways to approach sex acts that will satisfy the audience, without violating Japanese law.

WN: J-List is an online store, but you've also published an English-language newsletter of cultural tidbits for a number of years. You've personally become a sort of online cultural ambassador over time, helping geeks in the West understand Japanese pop culture.

Payne: It's hard for non-Japanese to understand why something becomes popular, or is perceived as delightful or funny in Japan. In the Japanese language, describing the color green -- a green stoplight for instance -- they say "blue." Looking around this country through the eyes of a gaijin -- a foreigner -- things are just different.

Take the bad words, for instance -- even the letter "h" is loaded. If a guy grabs a girl's breasts in a Japanese porn video, she might say "H!" with a Japanese accent -- like, ACH-ay. That's because H is for hentai, sexually explicit comics. It's like saying, "Pervert!" So, "H-suru" in Japanese means "to have sex." You don't want to actually say "have sex," so it's like saying, "do it."

I started out as a language teacher in Japan, so I still look to language for little clues on how to understand Japanese culture, and I like sharing those discoveries with other people online.

WN: Where does J-List go from here?

Payne: Wherever the next cool thing is. Running this business is like walking on one of those 20-sided Dungeons and Dragons dice.

You see the horizon, you think you've covered it, then you walk along a little more and see the next one, and it just keeps going and going in every direction. There's just so much interesting stuff in Japan -- we'll never cover it all.

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Gaming , Gadgets , Culture , Gaming Reviews , Mac , Lifestyle

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