Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Only English Book on Tokyo Disneyland?

Riding The Black Ship: Japan and Tokyo Disneyland (Harvard East Asian Monographs 173), By Aviad E. Raz; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999, 236 pp.

Last Tuesday was the 25th anniversary of the opening of Tokyo Disneyland, the first Disney theme park opened outside of the United States. I thought it'd be fun in honor of the anniversary to review something about TDL. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done; to date, nobody's written a English-language guidebook to Tokyo Disneyland, and there's only one book I'm aware of that is dedicated to the topic. It's been a while since I read it, so I figured it'd be worth another look.

Riding The Black Ship is a monograph covering some of the sociological issues about TDL. The title refers to Commodore Matthew Perry's American warships that forcibly re-opened Japan to the West in 1853; some intellectuals have argued that like Commodre Perry's warships, Tokyo Disneyland is a cultural "black ship", forcing American popular culture onto Japan and the Japanese. After spending some time observing TDL, Disney, and Japanese culture, Aviad Raz argues that the Japanese have done the same thing they've done with many other things they've found in foreign cultures - they've taken something that interests them and adapted it to made it their own. The Japanese are thus not victims of a cultural invasion, but masters of a unique cultral phenomenon - they're riding and steering the "black ship" of TDL.

Aviad Raz was somewhat handicapped by an almost total lack of cooperation from the Oriental Land Company (the company that owns TDL), but still put together an interesting study of Tokyo Disneyland and how it's made its mark on Japanese culture, and vice versa. The book provides some interesting information about how TDL is operated, how the corporate culture of the U.S. Disney theme parks was adapted to suit the OLC and the Japanese, how other companies have adapted some of America's and Disney's organizational and training strategies to their businesses (or rejected them, as the case may be), and the appeal of TDL and Disney to various age groups in Japan.

You get a basic explanation of how OLC created TDL, information about the differences between how hourly employees are trained and do their jobs (which is influenced by the techniques of the U.S. parks) and how managers and higher-level employees are trained and how they work (which mirrors more traditional Japanese business culture). Raz demostrates how TDL modifies the Disney theme park experience to suit the Japanese by comparing three attractions at the park (two of which have sadly closed since the book was written) to their American or Japanese equivalents, and discusses how the Japanese workers react to some elements of the "Disney Way". The book provdes some fascinating insights into Japan's culture in general and Japan's business culture, with (of course) an emphasis on the business of theme parks.

Riding The Black Ship is an interesting book, particularly if you're curious about Japanese culture or have a strong interest in TDL and OLC, but make no mistake - this is an academic text, and it wasn't meant for a general audience; if a reading assignment in your college textbooks left your head swimming for a while afterward, you're not going to have a lot of fun reading this book. The information about TDL and OLC is pretty limited; Raz provides some interesting information about the park and the Oriental Land Company, but a lot more goes uncovered, and most of the reference material cited in the book was published only in Japan and in Japanese, so your options to explore the topic further are limited. Time has also caught up with this book; there's only a very brief mention of Tokyo DisneySea as an upcoming project, and attendance figures and trends have changed in the U.S. and the Japanese leisure industry since this book was published.

A lot of us Disney fanatics would love to see an in-depth discussion of Tokyo Disneyland - either a guide to the parks or a history of its construction and operation. Unfortunately, Riding The Black Ship doesn't quite fit the bill, but for now it's all we've got. This book is definitely for folks who enjoy academic texts or are fascinated enough by TDL or Japan to take what they can get. As for everyone else, well, here's hoping we're not in this same situation in another 25 years.

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