For a long time, people around the world never thought that Japanese culture could become a part of their daily lives. Although Japan became an economic giant, many people had the image that Japan was an almost isolated country. A mystic land of Samurai and Geisha; where people are very straight and disciplined. However, little by little, this idea started to change as Japanese products started to fill our daily lives as their popularity spread.
Suddenly, people from all around the world started watching the news on their Japanese brand TV. Casio watches and calculators were a basic instrument for students all around the globe. The Sony Walkman revolutionized the way we listen to music, making it not only portable, but individualized and customizable. By the 1980’s Japanese products became a symbol of quality that was admired all around the world. Nevertheless, this still consisted in what Koichi Iwabuchi referred as “odorless” consumer technologies, meaning that even if everybody knew these products came from Japan, they didn’t provoke images of Japanese culture and everyday life into people’s mind.
But suddenly, this situation took a radical change. By the end of the 1980’s and beginning of the 1990’s the world was surprised when Japan entered Hollywood as Sony and Matsushita bought the American movie production companies Columbia (1989) and MCA-Universal (1989). It was also around this time when Japanese animation proved to be among the best in the world when Western audiences were amazed by the screening of Katsuhiro Otomo’s movie Akira (1988).
During the next two decades, Japan consolidated itself as one of the biggest cultural product exporters in the world. All around the world Japanese media and entertainment products have become extremely popular. In 1981 Fujiko F. Fujio’s character Doraemon entered into Hong Kong’s TV programming, and in just ten years it became popular in all of East Asia, including in markets such as China, Vietnam, and Cambodia. Around the same period, dramas such as Tokyo Love Story, Oshin and 101st Proposal, along with the music of artists such as Chage&Aska, SMAP and Utada Hikaru took the hearts of the Asian audiences. In the west, manga and anime, as well as the videogames industries created an enormous fan base. In the USA, fans of Sailor Moon created the movement SOS (Save our Scouts) when the cartoon stopped airing. In France, each year the Japan Expo convention is held, being the biggest event of this kind in Europe, where many products of Japanese popular culture are exposed. Perhaps, one of the biggest examples of this is the videogame franchise Pokemon, that was able to appear on the cover of Time magazine, and its anime series has been broadcasted in more than 30 countries. Another big example is Sanrio’s character Hello Kitty, with licensed products that go from clothing and apparel, to electronic devices and even adult toys, its commercial empire value has been estimated at one billion dollars. Even the American cultural industry can’t deny the Japanese influence, with movies such as “The Matrix”, “Kill Bill”, “Speed Racer,” “Dragon Ball” and even “Pacific Rim,” that display influences of Japanese science fiction and manga.
But, why is Japanese Popular Culture so big around the world?? Well, many scholars have tried to answer this question. Journalist Douglas McGray spent 2 years in Japan, interviewing for an article he published on Foreign Policy, in 2002. There, he discovered that Japan has been a postmodernist society even before this concept was even forged. Since the Meiji period, when the idea of modernizing Japan revolutionized the country, there was an idea of surpassing this modernity and incorporating foreign influences from all around the globe. This eclecticism of Japanese Pop culture is a keystone in understanding its popularity, Japan does not only copy products from abroad, but combines them with their own vibrant, traditional culture, transforming them in something completely unique. In 1996, Hidenori Oyama, director of the International Department of Toei Animation answers the question of why Japanese products so popular by just saying “it’s because of their high quality; that’s all.” Indeed, it is hard to argue against this idea. Since the Ukiyoe drawings of the Edo period to the detailed works of mangakas such as Akira Toriyama, Japanese culture has always been characterized as having high artistic standards. As a consequence, innovation and creativity became one of the most important features of Japanese anime, manga, dramas, music, videogames and movies. But, now our readers may be wondering if this is a unique characteristic of Japanese culture. Indeed, many cultural trends around the world have presented highly creative and innovative standards, and also, have incorporated foreign influences. However, when we mix this idea with an analysis of its content, then we can understand the formula behind the success of Japanese pop culture. One of the main characteristics of Japanese pop culture content is that it doesn’t aim to protect its audiences from the unpleasant aspects of life. Timothy Craig, editor of the book “Japan Pop! Inside the World of Japanese Popular Culture,” has stated that this idea can be traced back to the influence of Shintoism in the Japanese society. According to this way of thinking, everything in life is good, even conflict. Therefore, people should live their lives the best they can, with no censorship. Things should be presented as they truly are, not as how they are supposed to be. This leads us on to discuss the concept of roman, and the reason why many of the main characters of Japanese pop culture products are young people, especially teenagers. Craig has explained that the idea of roman can be translated as the sum of idealism, innocence, youth, and dreams of achieving great things in life. Therefore, many of the main characters of Japanese dramas, anime or movies are young persons, involved in a trip of wonder and self-discovery. As a consequence, most audience members can identify with the main characters. The idea that many of them show the same flaws and virtues that the audience have, which makes them feel closer, and see some resemblance with their everyday life.
This explains the importance that the media industry in Japan give to work, human relationships and spiritual growth. Japanese society gives great importance to group interaction, society and wellbeing. Human relationships and the peaceful resolution of conflicts are a very common subject referred to in Japanese pop culture. This is also related to the idea that work gives meaning to one’s life, as it defines the role we play in society, where we have to always give the best of ourselves, aiming to become the best no matter what your profession may be. As a result, spiritual growth can be achieved with the strength and wisdom obtained by facing adversity in the journey to become the best, where what matters is the trip, and not the goal. This is just a small summary of the main characteristics of Japanese Pop culture, as it is has been presented by some scholars. With this article, we hope you have achieved a better understanding of the “Cool Japan” trend that has expanded all around the globe. Japan is one of the countries where modern culture coexists with traditional culture, both giving us a deeper understanding of Japanese society and its rich cultural and historical heritage. “Cool Japan” is more than just a trend, it is the way Japan portrays itself to the world and it is our window into the Japanese way of life.
If you want to get more information on the subject, we recommend the following books: Tim Craig, (ed.), Japan Pop! Inside the World of Japanese Popular Culture, M. E. Sharp, USA, 2000 Watanabe Yasushi and David L. McConnell (eds.), Soft Power Super Powers: Cultural and National Assets of Japan and the United States, M. E. Sharp, USA, 2008 Iwabuchi, Koichi, Recentering Globalization: Popular Culture and Japanese Transnationalism, Duke University Press, USA, 2002.