Black Ships

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.

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2 Responses to “Black Ships”

  1. Joseph K Says:

    This idea of cultural identity via the market has been around for a good long while, as I’m pretty sure you have touched on any number of times.
    In some recent studies I recently realised that what happens in regards to foreign products is a kind of push/pull effect. A new product moves into the Japanese market, and regardless of how it attempts to integrate culturally, it undergoes some shifts in acceptance and rejection. A product may be seen as too different and thus unacceptable culturally (the threatening “black ship”) but due to reasons such as its popularity amongst actual consumers or a company seeing flagging sales as an opportunity, it is almost inevitably has its product meaning twisted to in some way represent or promote the Japanese cultural values as developed by marketing and media over the past few decades. This usually in turn slightly twists what Japanese culture is, and interesting little cultural crises emerge.

    I get a bit lost trying to describe this stuff, but some part of my brain finds it eminently fascinating to watch.

    It does feel to me, though, like all the kurofune stuff is mostly sensationalist grasping at straws, and describes a fairly unstoppable phenomenon that’s about as old as the Perry himself.

    And another effect of this globalisation business you don’t mention outright, is that it’s going to get increasingly harder for the media to identify which are the real black ships, and where their origins actually lie…

  2. W. David Marx Says:

    Thanks for those comments.

    I find it interesting that Leah Dizon is still a “black ship” even though she is so well-liked and has integrated into the Japanese market. She’s not bringing a new system of gravia idols to Japan: she’s just a non-Japanese doing the same thing as her peers.