by Drew McKevitt, Ph.D. candidate

On my seventh birthday, I received a Nintendo Entertainment System. I fell in love. Now that I can lay claim to the most unique opening statement to ever grace the pages of Strategic Visions, allow me to explain why Nintendo is relevant to my short career of studying force and diplomacy in some very unorthodox ways.

I grew up in a New Jersey shore town in the 1980s. While the local setting of my childhood instilled in me quirks I’ll never outgrow (try pronouncing the word “both” with an “L,” or “Washington” with an “R”), it was larger trends of national and global—especially global—culture that shaped my young identity. I was a citizen-in-training of what Lizabeth Cohen calls the “Consumer’s Republic.” But while Cohen writes about the consumerist definitions of American citizenship in the postwar era, I was developing a different sort of citizenship: in small ways I was becoming what former Sony President Akio Morita called a “global citizen.” Enter the aforementioned Nintendo. While many of my young peers were playing with GI Joes (a tool of nationalist education if there ever was one), I was hooked on a little Italian plumber from Brooklyn named Mario who ate mushrooms and fought flying turtles. And I wasn’t the only one—by the late 1980s, Nintendo of Japan was one of the most profitable companies in the world, one of many “global” corporations based in Japan that were making tremendous profits in the American consumer market. One might argue, and I do, that the messages contained in this new medium were devoid of many the assumptions about the (American) nation-state found in other forms of popular culture at the time. While GI Joe stood in front of an enormous American flag a la George C. Scott’s Patton, national identity was ambiguous at best in Super Mario Bros.

I must have done more than play video games as a teenager because I entered St. Joseph’s University in the fall of 1998 as a biology major on a pre-med track in preparation for medical school and a financially lucrative career as a M.D. After all, I was a “smart kid,” and since no one in my family had ever graduated from college, the assumption was that “smart kids” became doctors. Two agonizing semesters of cellular and genetic biology later, I jumped ship. A lifetime of conversations with a Civil War-buff grandfather had sparked a dilettante’s interest in history, so the history department was where I landed. St. Joseph’s history department is one of the hidden treasures of the Philadelphia academic scene. Under the mentorship of Professors Katherine Sibley and Thomas Marzik, I took a number of classes in U.S. foreign relations and Russian and Soviet history. (To this day, I haven’t met anyone else with a minor from St. Joe’s in “Russian and East Central European Studies.”) Despite my naivety, they patiently guided me through the graduate school application process. I applied directly to Ph.D. programs assuming that such programs were the only way to avoid paying for my own graduate education, since I could never afford to pay for a master’s degree. I was lucky Temple accepted me and gave me a research assistantship in the now-defunct Center for Public Policy.

As a senior in college I had spent an entire year writing an honor’s thesis, fittingly titled (for a Catholic university), “The Saved, the Damned, and the Bolsheviks: A Study in Wilsonian Ideology.” I asserted that in 1917 Wilson responded to Lenin and the Bolsheviks harshly because he conflated the concepts of capitalism, democracy, and Christianity and expected newly self-determined states to fit into this vision of a free society. (Looking back, I would have had more success if I had followed the historiographic trend of coining a new word to describe Wilson’s ideology, like “Christocapitocracy.”) I planned to continue studying Wilson at Temple, and in my first two years I wrote several papers on U.S. foreign relations in the Wilson era.

Eventually my interests turned elsewhere. Along with my close personal connection to the popular culture of the 1980s, I was always fascinated by Ronald Reagan. I still remember getting choked up watching his farewell speech. Even though I was too young to understand how divisive Reagan could be, to me he was America. He spoke well, had shiny hair, looked like everyone’s grandfather, and told that guy with that thing on his head to tear down some wall. The subtitle to Gil Troy’s recent history of the U.S. in the 1980s, Morning in America, is “How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s.” To this former impressionable 9-year-old, that makes perfect sense.

Full of 80s nostalgia, I approached my advisor Richard Immerman a couple years ago about the prospects for writing a dissertation on the 1980s. While he encouraged me, he made it clear that the sort of sources that historians of U.S. foreign relations are accustomed to using—State Department materials, presidential archives, the personal papers of advisors—were nearly impossible to come by because many of those who shaped Reagan’s foreign policy remained alive, if not still in power. I would have to think of another way to get at Reagan.

Enter Nintendo—again, sort of. My younger brother was attending college as a “video game design” major (believe it or not), so he was knee-deep in the contemporary manifestation of the global video-game culture that I had soaked up as a child. His interest in video games grew to a general interest in Japanese popular culture, including the inescapable global phenomenon of Japanese animation, also known as anime. Out of curiosity I borrowed some of his anime DVDs and was instantly struck by the medium. One of the first films I watched, the 1988 Katsuhiro Otomo classic Akira, rendered a post-apocalyptic Tokyo rife with corruption, crime, fascism, revolutionary upheaval, and the political and social consequences of nuclear experimentation—hardly the stuff of children’s cartoons in the U.S. (While nearly all American animation is made for the children’s market, a great deal of anime is made for, and consumed by, Japanese adults.) Not only did I find the texts fascinating, but I soon grew interested in how this product first came to U.S. shores. Many of us who watched cartoons as children in the 1980s might remember series like Voltron and Robotech, with their ambiguous Japanese origins; they were popular, but stripped of their “Japaneseness” through the extensive editing by their American producers. What really interested me instead were the small local anime fan communities that went to great lengths to import “underground” anime and proselytize it to wider audiences. I had a list of just a few names, but it was enough to start. I eventually made contact with dozens of fans from the earliest days of U.S. “fandom,” beginning in 1977. I began writing.

The story of small groups of people in the U.S. importing foreign cultural products with evangelical zeal was interesting in itself, but it did not satisfy all the questions I was prone to ask as someone trained to write about “force and diplomacy.” Despite the tectonic historiographic shifts toward culture of recent decades, I believe that historians of U.S. foreign relations have unique insights to contribute to the historical profession based on their traditional concerns. No other subdiscipline is as well equipped to study uneven power relationships between groups of people with vast social and cultural differences—diplomatic historians have been doing so for many decades. Thus the historiographic turn toward culture in the field of U.S. foreign relations will only prove successful if it can connect newer cultural insights with the field’s traditional concern: power in the international (or transnational, or global) arena.

Therefore I naturally asked of the anime fan communities, “Where did they fit into the larger picture of U.S.-Japan relations in the 1970s and 1980s?” The story of the fan communities actually runs counter to the traditional narrative of U.S.-Japan relations during this period. That traditional narrative portrays Japan as a rising economic power (at the time many said “superpower”) challenging the U.S. for global hegemony. This stirred up, so the narrative goes, nationalistic reactions across the U.S.—everything from UAW workers smashing Toyotas with sledgehammers at union picnics to popular fiction and films like Michael Crichton’s Rising Sun. For these small anime communities in the U.S., though, the period instead witnessed increasing cultural interactions and a growing affinity for all things Japanese.

Based on subsequent research I have come to argue that during the 1970s and 1980s there were two competing (and occasionally intersecting) grand narratives of U.S.-Japan relations: the first was the louder nationalistic narrative of the “trade wars” and the “new Pearl Harbor,” as journalist Theodore White put it. The second, though, was more subtle—the narrative of globalization. In the dissertation I explore how a variety of groups in the U.S.—from business leaders and academics studying the changing nature of international business and finance to local fan clubs dedicated to anime—actually imagined Japan as the nucleus for a globalized world radically transformed by new media technologies and capitalism’s post-World War II permutations. By the 1990s these economic and cultural changes were popularly labeled “globalization.” But just as globalization achieved buzzword status in the post-Cold War era, Japan fell from economic preeminence. As the United States celebrated its Cold War “victory,” it positioned itself at the center of the emerging new world order—globalization—when in reality Americans learned what globalization meant not from their own successes but from the challenges and opportunities presented by the U.S.-Japan relationship in the 1970s and 1980s.

My attempted reevaluation of both the U.S.-Japan relationship, and our understanding of contemporary globalization, returns me to the traditional concern of historians of U.S. foreign relations: power. The two competing discourses—nationalism and globalization—ultimately concerned new understandings of power. How and why did Americans come to see Japan as a “superpower” and a threat when it lacked traditional power in terms of both force and diplomacy? My hunch is that it rested on a redefinition of what power meant in the international arena, shifting from national to transnational and global understandings of power. Japan served as the exemplar of these shifts. Caught in the middle of these global transformations were an impressionable seven-year-old and his Nintendo, marketed under the prophetic slogan: “Now you’re playing with power!”