Web Exclusive Essay

Transnational Audiences and East Asian Television

Xiaochang Li
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Consider a clip from the Japanese variety show Arashi no Shukudai-kun that recently made its way onto YouTube in early 2009: a small group of Japanese pop singers are challenged to eat a “surprisingly large” hamburger named after a city in the Ibaraki prefecture and are joking about how “Super American” the situation is. They suggest that the burger inspires them to don overalls and grow “amazing” chest hair, while Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” blares in the background. The clip was then subtitled in English by two fans based in Australia and circulated based on its appeal to English-speaking audiences of the “J-pop” performers in the video as an embodied spectacle of Japanese popular culture. Various versions of the clip were distributed online through fan communities on LiveJournal, a Russian-owned social blogging platform with offices headquartered in San Francisco, and other forums, and fans shared the links through their blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Delicious, and other social media channels. In the process, the Arashi no Shukudai-kun clip was recontextualized, reformatted, resubtitled, and diverted to new (and sometimes unexpected) audiences at every step along the way. Far from exceptional, there are countless clips like this one on YouTube: in the global spreadable media environment, its crisscrossing path back and forth across multiple national, linguistic, and cultural boundaries is becoming perfectly common.

Not only is the transnational movement of media becoming increasingly pervasive; it has also become significantly more—and more visibly—multinodal. Thus, we must go beyond the use of Bruce Springsteen in the background of a Japanese variety show as part of a parody and indigenization of Western cultural materials to consider its subsequent movement as it is taken up, translated, and circulated by grassroots intermediaries, passing through divergent and overlapping circuits, often outside the purview of established media industries and markets. In short, we must look beyond sites of production and consumption to consider the practices of transmission and the routes of circulation—the means and manner by which people spread media to one another—which are increasingly shaping the flow of transnational content.

Once limited to a relatively small selection of titles distributed primarily through video compact discs (VCD), piracy in ethnic groceries and other diasporic community locations or else through often-struggling niche cable and satellite networks, the circulation of East Asian television drama now exists in abundance online, as densely coordinated networks of fansubbers, aggregation sites, curatorial efforts, discussion forums, and blogs produce and provide thousands of files for millions of viewers across the globe in more than 20 languages (d-addicts 2011). Sometimes as quickly as a few hours after TV episodes are broadcast in Asia, high-quality “raw” (unsubtitled) video files of these episodes are posted to forums and peer-to-peer networks, where they are downloaded by amateur fan subtitling teams. These groups then go through the process of translating, timing, and typesetting the subtitles for the episodes according to fan standards that often vary significantly from the rules followed by commercial translations, both in content and in visual presentation. These subtitled files are then released typically as torrents through torrent-aggregation sites such as d-addicts.com or via IRC channels. These videos are then downloaded by other fans who reformat them for upload to a variety of streaming video platforms. These streaming videos are linked to on aggregation sites such as mysoju.com. The files are also taken by some fans and uploaded to file storage/downloading/sharing sites such as megaupload.com and clubbox.co.kr, and links to those downloads are posted to special-interest communities such as Jdramas.livejournal.com, which are eager to download the content. Content might be downloaded from any of these places and reformatted or resubtitled in different languages. In addition, there is a whole system of attendant practices—drama review blogs, language and culture guides, wikis, and discussion forums and communities—that organize and make the content accessible in ways beyond simply providing files for download.

This decentralized circulation wherein the technological resources required for viewing content become more or less the same as those required for subtitling and distributing content gives a wider range of participants access to the tools of media production and distribution, resulting in a greater volume and diversity of both the content circulated and the audiences engaged. Previously, market logic ensured that, generally, only those audiences that producers already knew of, and already knew to be profitable, would be addressed. This was true even for illegal for-profit distribution channels for VCD piracy, which primarily targeted Chinese-language populations due to the size of that market, so severely limiting the availability and accessibility of the content. Now, any fan given sufficient time and inclination might intervene at multiple nodes of circulation and open up new flows of content into different arenas and communities, so generating new and increasingly complex cultural encounters and discursive spaces that do not fit easily into pregiven audience categories and established models of media globalization.

We are thus seeing the emergence of audience practices that are increasingly public, both in the sense of visibility and in being part of the public sphere—creating discursive spaces where fans grapple with issues of mutual interest and mobilize collective intelligence and collaboration to meet their social objectives. No longer are the transnational “mediascapes”—the term Arjun Appadurai (1990) uses to describe the social imaginaries which bind dispersed communities of sentiment—constructed primarily by media policy and established transnational market forces. Rather, communities of individuals are actively participating in the selection, (re)production, and circulation of the texts and images that make up their media environment. Practices such as fansubbing and content aggregation and the sophisticated recommendation and curation cultures that surround the circulation of content allow audiences to shape both the media content they have at their disposal and the context in which that content is encountered. While one cannot deny the persistence of legacies of imperialism and the uneven development and flows of populations and capital described in models of globalization that emphasize the dominance of the “West” over the “Rest” (to say nothing of the imperial legacies within Asia), these emergent and developing circulation practices destabilize established paradigms of power and control by intervening in the traditional flow of media texts. And, as audiences quite publicly circulate media content for social rather than market-driven purposes, they are asserting tangible influence on commercial media industries, indicating new avenues for commercial media producers to listen to their audiences, new models for reaching robust alternative markets, and new ways for commercial media producers to think about circulation.



Appadurai, Arjun. 1990. “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy.” Public Culture 2 (2) (Spring): 1–24.

d-addicts. 2011. “Subtitles Index.” Jan. 12. http://www.d-addicts.com/forum/subtitles.php.

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