This year my project in CHI is aimed towards allowing me to try and think through questions of cultural heritage and popular culture, while creating a project that attempts to interpret a series of dramatic changes within a set spatial boundary over time. Much of this thinking has been informed by the ideas I am working with for my dissertation and the readings for my comprehensive exams, particularly Eric Hobsbawm’s The Invention of Tradition and Steven Vlastos’ Mirror of Modernity. Both books put forth the argument that while on the surface the transition of a cultural practice into tradition into heritage appears as a natural progression, is it a process of negotiation and deliberate decision. The acknowledgement of invented tradition lends itself to question completely manufactured processes. Vlastos and Hobsbawm stress the impact of elites upon the creation of tradition. Examining cultural heritage from a popular culture perspective brings up a new direction for the invention of tradition: the often supercharged passions, interests, and obsessions of fans. In the case of popular culture intersecting at Kanda, is partly abetted by the Japanese government’s focus on culture power. It is an intriguing question of what modern fan practices will eventually make the leap into tradition or what will eventually vanish into the realm of memory.

A traditional ema prayer tablet bearing a hand drawn image of Nico Yazawa, an anime character from the series Love Live!

An example from my potential CHI project is a new aspect of the cultural heritage of Kanda Myojin, one of the major Shinto shrines of Tokyo. Kanda boasts a long history and connection with the city, with the biannual Kanda matsuri (or Kanda festival) one of the highlights of the year. In the postwar era, the proximity of the shrine to the booming electronics market of Akihabara turned the shrine towards catering to the tech-savvy patrons of the district. Over time, Akihabara itself also changed, transforming into the spiritual and spatial center for anime fandom in Tokyo–and arguably the world thanks to the depiction of the district in numerous programs and publications. When the character of Nozomi Tojo from the 2011 anime Love Live! was revealed to work at the shrine as a miko, or shrine maiden, Kanda authorities decided to go all in with the association and made her the official mascot of the shrine. Today her likeness adorns souvenirs, prayer tablets, and travel stamp books. Many of these objects are traditional and historic elements of Shinto and Japanese culture, now infused with a pop culture connotation.

A keychain of Love Live! character Nozomi Tojo dressed as a traditional shrine maiden. This particular keychain was sold at Kanda shrine throughout the summer of 2016.

While Kanda is not the first Japanese cultural or religious institution to embrace the draw and commercial power of popular culture, it provides an intriguing case to study. Will the practices instituted burn themselves out or will the embrace of popular culture by the shrine authorities–and the motivation of both pop culture relevance and revenue–push into tradition? Kanda has already been changed by its proximity to Akihabara during its boom as the electronics center of Tokyo. When considering Japan’s current push for cultural soft power and the wrenching national redefinition after the war, the connection of tradition and modernity in the form of pop culture based practices is already an establish. Tracking the contours of what did or did not become part of cultural heritage, how tradition is maintained in the face of pop culture pressures, the very nature of those existing traditions as constructions themselves, and the motivation of visitors is a compelling additional element to my explorations in CHI.