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Land of the Rising Mickey
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by Marc Borrelli (archives)
September 5, 2000
In the first edition of this new regular column, Marc Borrelli discusses some of the major cultural differences between American Disney parks and Tokyo Disneyland.

Land of the Rising Mickey

Hi everyone! Welcome to the first of what I expect will be many monthly columns for my friends here at LaughingPlace.com. I want to extend a big public "Thank You" to Doobie and Rebekah for the opportunity to write for their outstanding website. It's an honor.

Due to my long-time interest in Japanese culture, first hand experience in the country, and the fact that I'll be living there come December, my articles will tend to focus on the Japanese Disney parks, which are owned by Oriental Land Company, a Japanese company. More generally, I'll also attempt to highlight how Japan and Disney relate to each other.

It's impossible to tell that story without discussing Japanese culture itself. It really is another world, with it's own values, perceptions and, of course, traditions. It's an advanced, industrialized country and, though many of it's people are enamored with the superficial aspects of American popular culture, I've found that it's similarity with America, essentially, ends there.

Disney in Japan is far from a direct translation. Oriental Land Company knew better than to make that mistake.. American companies that have ignorantly (or arrogantly) set up shop in Japan without making major adjustments for the market have been invariably unsuccessful.

Despite that fact, early in it's history Tokyo Disneyland (abbreviated as TDL) was advertised as an exact copy of Disneyland in California. In an attempt to live up to the claim, signage, menus, and other printed materials prominently featured English text and Japanese text was usually located below it at a much smaller (sometimes virtually unreadable) size. As TDL gained a reputation of it's own, the approach has softened, but, to a good extent, it's still sold that way today - "Why travel all the way to America when you can go to Disneyland right here in Japan?!" But, TDL is far from an exact copy of Disneyland.

On it's opening day TDL was more an attempt to create a perfect combination of Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom and Disneyland (in that order). In essence, it drew from two places which strive to be ideal and idealized them!

The Japanese cultural tendency to not copy but co-opt, twist, and often improve imported ideas extends far beyond TDL and long predates it. I've been surprised to find myself in a number of debates with various people from Japan on this subject. They insist (sometimes with a measure of defensiveness) that the Japanese people simply copy everything - no cultural adjustments. no improvements - just flat-out copy! But, from popular entertainment to manufacturing techniques, I've seen too many examples of the Japanese adapting and markedly improving that which they've drawn from elsewhere. (Over the years, it's one of the things that's fueled my interest in Japan)

I've also seen the powerful lens of Japanese perception, which is influenced mainly by tradition, bend imported ideas, sometimes in rather humorous ways. I think the Hungry Bear Restaurant in Westernland is a good example. It has a rustic, down home, straight out of the idealized old American West theme... but it's a curry restaurant. Believe it or not, it makes perfect sense. Curry-rice is nearly as common as sushi in Japan and, because it's easy to make and it's especially popular with the kids it's the most popular food - a given, really - for Japanese campers. Rustic setting = curry-rice. The scent of curry wafts from the restaurant, because it's not really the wilderness without the smell of curry! (On a side note, curry came to Japan by way of England, not India.)

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