Japan, the U.S. and the Globalization of Children's Consumer Culture

By Cross, Gary; Smits, Gregory | Journal of Social History, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Japan, the U.S. and the Globalization of Children's Consumer Culture


Cross, Gary, Smits, Gregory, Journal of Social History


Mattel Toys recently discovered that it no longer had to produce Barbie dolls with Asian features and clothes. With the opening of Eastern Europe in the 1990s to aggressive marketing and the growing identity of the commercially-savvy young in many third world countries, Mattel was able to sell Barbies in about 140 countries by 1997, but did so by assuming the dress and physical look of forty nationalities. However, in 2002, market testing led an official from Mattel to proclaim: "Blond Barbie sells just as well in Asia as in the U.S." No longer, did the $55 billion global industry in children's playthings have to manufacture different toys for children in different countries. This, of course, is a boon for companies who now seem to be able to orchestrate global merchandising of identical games, dolls, and toys. And so "Mattel's Rapunzel Barbie, whose ankle-length blonde locks cascade down her pink ball gown" was released late in 2001 in 59 countries including the U.S.--"the company's biggest product launch ever," reported the Wall Street Journal, with TV ads broadcast in 35 languages and quickly selling $200 million of the dolls, almost half outside the U.S. (1)

The phenomenon of dark-haired girls in East Asia selecting blond-haired Barbie dolls might suggest the remarkable marketing power wielded by Mattel. It may even be a reflection of U.S. cultural imperialism, with girls in Korea or Japan concluding that European blond hair is more attractive or even superior to their own dark hair. But there is no evidence for this view, and instead this case may illustrate a more complex dynamic of globalization of children's culture that has been developing for several decades.

For one thing, the flow of toys across the Pacific Ocean is not unidirectional. Toys produced in Japan, for example, have become popular in the United States (and world-wide) with no modification. The Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers are one example. The televised version of the Rangers on the Fox Children's Network did make some changes to accommodate programmers' belief that the U.S. market required one more female ranger (for a total of two out of five), and African-American and Hispanic actors played two of the male roles. The toy action figures sold in the U.S., however, were the same as their Japanese counterparts. Marketing supervisors Murakami Katsumi bragged that "we had enough confidence in our products to bring them to the American market unchanged. We knew that they would appeal to kids in America just as they had to kids in Japan--and we were right." (2)

More fundamentally, the cultural imperialism argument fails because Japan has hardly been dominated by foreign values and products during the late twentieth century. Certainly Japan imported much foreign culture, but always on its own terms. As Mary Yoko Brannen points out in the context of analyzing Tokyo Disneyland, "The process of assimilation of the West, the recontextualization of Western simulacra, demonstrates not that the Japanese are being dominated by Western ideologies but that they differentiate their identity from the West in a way that reinforces their sense of their own cultural uniqueness and superiority, or what we might call Japanese hegemony." (3) Tokyo Disneyland is immensely popular in Japan in part because its overseas origins confer on it a sense of the exotic. Blond dolls also tap into a Japanese curiosity about foreigners, but not a sense of inferiority to them.

Underlying this story is a more subtle trend--the linkage of modern children's consumer culture with the globalization of the design and manufacture of innovative products. It is not merely that the American makers of Barbie have swept away traditional dolls and local culture, but the plaything industry across the world has become integrated, with design centered in the U.S. and Japan and production based in China. This particular configuration may be of recent origin, but dolls and toys have long been objects of international trade. …

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