When American bikini babe Leah Dizon became a Japanese celebrity last year, the media light-heartedly referred to her as the “kurofune” (黒船) of the gravia idol world. Kurofune means literally “black ship” and is a direct reference to the sidewheel steamers under the command of Commodore Matthew Perry that opened Japan’s ports by threat of force in the 1850s. The metaphor is relatively clear in the case of Dizon: an American woman “opened up” a business once completely occupied by Japanese females. Although Dizon came to her fame through a Japanese company, the media has playfully indulged in this idea of “invasion” as part of her product narrative.
The September 4 issue of DIME magazine has expanded the use of “kurofune” to the world of mobile phones. In the article 「黒船ケータイ」のデザイン力 — “The Design Power of Kurofune Cell Phones” — the editors have chosen the phrase “kurofune keitai” as a category name for Apple’s iPhone and LG’s Prada and Chocolate lines. Seeing that LG is Korean and Prada is Italian, kurofune is no longer limited to American products nor even Western ones. In fact, foreignness alone may not be the key to a place in the dark armada. Nokia, for example, has never had a kurofune reputation in their past attempts to break the Japanese market.
DIME essentially uses kurofune to connote “a foreign product that is a threat to a market generally controlled by Japanese firms.” There is an implication of a power imbalance, with Japan on the losing side. Despite the fact that the iPhone will not arrive on Japanese shores for a while, Japanese consumers have shown enough interest in the new gadget to send shivers down the spines of Japan’s oligopolistic phone manufacturers. Critics may argue that the iPhone is not particularly more innovative than current Japanese models (it lacks a TV tuner, for example), but DIME‘s deployment of “kurofune” is a quiet admission that the iPhone has struck a psychological blow to the Japanese cell phone market. In the last five years, we have seen the iPod take over what has traditionally been a Japan-dominated portable music market. Apple’s gizmos are no longer just “imports,” but strong-armed devices with the possibility of changing Japan by force. And like Perry’s gunboat diplomacy, the psychic impact of unwanted entry can have longer terms effects than what actually happens during the landing.
The recent use of “kurofune” at least confirms that the Japanese media still sees consumer markets in terms of nation-states. In other words, the success of foreign products in Japan has implications for Japan’s self-identity. It is certainly unwise to read too much nationalism into the sudden popularity of labeling pop cultural developments with reference to the Perry’s humiliating visit of 1853, but now in an era of expanded globalization, there are definitely more kurofune floating towards Japan for the media to identify in their spyglass.
This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.