The Development of Japanese Pop Culture
Three Questions, Four Themes, and Three Interpretations


 

Three Questions
First, how did Japan come to show such creativity in its entertainment products? What, in other words, is the source of the imaginative vitality behind Japan’s postwar pop culture boom? Second, why has the rest of the world been so attracted by such things as Yu-Gi-Oh!, Godzilla, Super Mario, InuYasha, and Iron Chef? What is it about Japan that has placed it just after Hollywood in the ability to create entertainment that has been able to transcend culture, language, geography, gender, and race in its international diffusion? What, in short, explains the appeal of Japanese products on a global scale and especially in the United States? Third, and finally, what are the larger implications of the phenomenal international rise of “Cool Japan”? Political scientists now speak of the importance of “soft power,” a kind of culture allure distinct from a nation’s “hard power” of military and economic might. If the global appeal of its popular culture is now making Japan a “soft superpower,” as some assert, how will this affect Japan’s place in the world, its neighbors in East Asia, and our conceptions of what is so “Japanese” about Japanese pop culture? (Japanese Popular Culture and Globalization, 2-3)


Four Themes
Identifying themes that characterize contemporary Japanese popular culture is challenging given its tremendous diversity and richness. Just identifying commonalities of subject, style, and tone in a form such as anime, manga, or monster movies can seem almost impossible. Consider, for example, the fact that manga make up 40 percent of the books and magazines published in Japan, a nation of voracious readers. The manga market is segmented to appeal to specific audience demographics based on age and sex: kodomo manga are targeted at all young children, shojo at girls, and shonen at boys of school age; josei at young female adults and seinen  at young male ones; and seijin, often with strong erotic content, at adult men. Within these broad genres, the specific topics and themes of comics reflect the enormous variety of individual interests in Japanese society. Thus, manga series proliferate on subjects of wide appeal as well as surprising obscurity: romance, robots, current events, cooking, gold (and virtually every other sport), samurai epics, yakuza (gangsters), pets, detective stories, the business world, and the game of mahjongg to name just a few. Despite such diversity, scholars have noted several distinctive themes in Japan’s postwar popular culture. And, although these themes cannot encompass the full range of Japanese creativity from Gigantor to the Wii, they do appear to capture some of the unique characteristics of Japanese pop that set it apart, in particular, from the familiar American mass culture of Hollywood movies, MTV, Marvel Comics, and NFL football. (JPCG, 18)

Fascination with Apocalypse

Obsession with Monsters

The Aesthetic of Cute

A Love for “Mecha”

Three Interpretations
Since the rise of Japanese pop culture as a global phenomenon, scholars, journalists, and critics have struggled to identify what aspects of Japan’s cultural traditions, history, and social organization have contributed to the imaginative richness of anime, video games, and giant monster movies. The search for a source of this creative spark has often proven confounding, as the diverse forms of contemporary Japanese pop have a long heritage and have followed a winding evolutionary path. This chapter surveys a variety of interpretations of the origins of the fertile Japanese pop imagination and its enduring fascination with themes of apocalypse, monstrosity, cuteness, and technological transformation. And, although some observers stress simple lineages —  tracing Japan’s pop ingenuity back to slavish imitation of Western imports or the atomic nightmares of Hiroshima and Nagaski — even a brief overview reveals a far more complex and contingent pedigree for Japan’s modern mass entertainments. (JPCG, 23)

Japanese Culture, Western Models


The Legacies of Defeat


Change and Subversion


 
So, will “Japanese Pop Culture” suffice?