Pure Invention or Pure Fantasy? A Critical Review of a Popular History of Transnational Japanese Media Fandom

pure invention
First published in 2020, I reflect on Matt Alt’s book to share some concerns I have about popular writing on Japanese media

When the Journal for the Society of Asian Humanities – Australia’s oldest Asian Studies focussed scholarly journal, which has recently re-launched itself – approached me to write a review of Matt Alt’s Pure Invention, I found myself at a bit of a loss. The book purports to explore the history of the transnational fandom for Japanese media, but does so as a piece of popular history and thus does not necessarily contain the same level of theoretical insight as the monographs with which I usually deal in my work as an academic focussed on East and Southeast Asian media.

I felt the book would be pretty innocuous – a simple read with very little to concern a scholar such as myself.

As I read through the book, however, I increasingly became concerned not with the empirical narrative that was being put together (it’s a very competent piece of history), but rather with some of the implicit biases that seemed to guide the argumentation. I kept on returning to the key words of “fantasy” and “conquer” which shaped the title (revised in some more recent editions to be less provocative), and which left me feeling increasing ill-at-ease.

Simply put, I became concerned by the “fantasy” of Japanese superiority that the book was selling to an audience of Japanophiles who were looking for something that would confirm their pre-conceived biases. This is a rising trend in (Western) publishing on Japan, something which critical scholars (notably, seminal historians Harry Harootunian and Masao Miyoshi) have been concerned about as a result of the Japanese government’s increasingly propagandistic mobilisation of the “Cool Japan” initiative.

Within my review – which you can download here – I eventually tied my reading of Alt’s book to broader trends in popular writing on Japan that engage in Orientalist wish-fulfilment and which erase the complicated political economy of inter-Asian media ecologies. A somewhat polemical read of a book that I found broadly satisfying, I call for a more nuanced approach for understanding Japanese popular culture fandom beyond a paradigm such as Alt’s that (probably unintentionally) conflates “fantasy” to consumer desires born out of the domination by transnational capital by the US-Japan economic partnership.

Because, ultimately, Alt’s book is not a tale of how Japanese media “conquered” the world. It is a tale of how US consumers drew upon their fandom for Japanese media to assert their dominance in the world system, denying the fantasies and agency of Asian subjects (including Japanese ones) who engage Japanese media in creative and productive ways. As such, I suggest a number of ways that scholars and educators can destabilise the rising publication of such popular writing on Japan by turning to an approach grounded in “Asia-as-method.”