Japanese Pop Culture

This article takes an in-depth look at Japanese pop culture from its origins to where it might be headed in the future.

May 2012, Tuesday night, exactly 8:00 P.M. I met up with one of my friends at Hastings, a local entertainment store, to discuss plans for the weekend. As we were chatting in the book department a girl dressed from head to toe in anime paraphernalia walked by reading a Japanese comic book. This sparked a deep conversation between me and my friend about the anime genre and where it made its start. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any clear answers at the time, so much of what we talked about will not be written in this article.

This question did inspire me to go home the same night and find any information I could on the subject. While many websites had obscure sections about specific Japanese television shows or rock stars I could not find any that illustrated the history of the genre. Fortunately, while browsing the book section of Amazon.com I was able to find two books that looked like they could answer at least a few of the questions I had.

I ordered them the following day and eagerly awaited their arrival. A week later the books ‘Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S.’ By Roland Kelts and ‘The Encyclopedia of Japanese Pop Culture’ By Mark Schilling came to my doorstep and I began to read. I couldn’t put either book down. When I finished my exploration into the realm of J-Pop Culture I was enamored by this interesting, and yet little understood cultural icon.

So, just where did this unusual genre make its start? According to Roland Kelts, author of Japanamerica, many Japanese historians feel that the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima spurred this Cultural Revolution. The people wanted to forget the horrors of World War II so they turned to the media to help them cope with the trauma. With the introduction of Japanese media in the 1950s, programs debuted that were distinctly Japanese. These shows created an alternate reality where people could escape the tragic aftermath of the war. Through media, people were able to find a reinvented sense of self without losing their cultural ideals.

Mark Schilling, author of The Encyclopedia of Japanese Pop Culture explains that Anime (Japanese Cartoons) and Manga (Japanese Comics) were at the forefront of this revolution. Schilling continues by introducing one of the most important names in the industry; Osamu Tezuka. Tezuka is considered to be the father of these two subgenres. After reportedly watching Bambi 50 times, Tezuka made comics based on the film and sold them at a local comic stand. They became a local favorite almost overnight.

Tezuka eventually went on to create the Anime style we know today, by studying Tokugawa style art (traditional Japanese woodblock paintings) and Disney films. He started by selling his comics at local shopping centers and eventually formed his own animation studio known as Mushi Productions. He drew from the Japanese people’s need for escapism after the war and developed stories that dealt with post-apocalyptic themes that the general public could relate to.

Roland Kelts views Japan as a nation that has survived something like an Armageddon. Out of its ashes have emerged a people who are interested in stories that reflect their triumph over impossible odds. The Japanese people had their unique needs met through Tezuka’s work which was exotic enough to gain public interest and familiar enough for everyone to identify with it. It was an instant hit and the basis of every form of Japanese pop culture that followed after it.

While Mushi Productions became the iconic headquarters for televised anime series no one had attempted to take the genre to the big screen. Japanese Producer Hayao Miyazaki remedied this issue in early 1970s when he began work on forming a studio that would eventually take the beloved style of animation to theatres across Japan. By the 1980s Miyazaki had formed Studio Ghibli which in time became known as the ‘Disney Studio of Japan’ and eventually gathered international acclaim.

Miyazaki himself became known as the ‘Walt Disney of Japan’ for the love he had for the characters and the films he created. Miyazaki was a true visionary of the genre. For the first time Japanese people could go to the theater and see original animated films that were not based on the series Mushi Studios produced. Each of the films became stand-alone masterpieces that pushed the potential of the genre to infinite possibilities.

Roland Kelts explains in his novel that Japanese producers recognized anime and manga were big sellers early on. During the creation of Tezuka and Miyazaki’s production companies, other animation studios began forming a marketing scheme that would engross the general public in the worlds of the comic and anime series being released. The marketing tool became known as ‘the Golden Triangle’.

Producers discovered that there were three main cores of the animation industry; the actual animation series, toys, and video games. The idea was that by releasing unique storylines and character information for any one of the genres, the companies could go back later and release toys, video games and other marketable products related to the original idea to the general public, giving the fans a reason to keep watching. The Golden Triangle was a big success and continues to be used as a marketing scheme in almost every production studio in Japan to this day.

Following the Golden Triangle marketing approach, Japanese pop culture took on a life of its own. Mark Schilling talks extensively about the Hello Kitty Phenomenon. Toei Animation studios came up with a show called “Doodling Kitty” which was shown in the early 1950s. From that show, two Japanese women created a national Icon known as “Hello Kitty” that has been used to advertise everything from bus tours to public radio shows.

Though originally used as a marketing icon similar to the Geico Gecko, the Hello Kitty characters became so engrained in the Japanese people’s lives that they eventually got their own television series, radio programs, music CDs, and even clothing lines.

Roland Kelts is baffled by a few Japanese pastimes. Gift-wrapping is one of them. People will sometimes spend more money on the gift wrapping materials than the gift itself. Gifts are expected to be opened slowly with care to truly appreciate the artistry and meaning behind the item received.

Strange and obscure as this seems to Kelts, production companies picked up on this tradition and started packaging everything from CDs, Toys, and DVDs to food, clothing, and even key chains with the same care and attention to detail. The marketing experiment was a success. Japanese consumers started buying products just to have the boxes they came in.

Serious toy collectors began collecting models, not only for the character or vehicle inside, but for the box they came in. The products themselves were made with care and had an impeccable similarity to the anime character (or other item) they were modeled after. Bandai came out with a machine earlier this year that makes exact replicas of the characters of their shows down to the number of wrinkles the character has in is clothing and the fingernail length.

Mark Schilling mentions often that Karaoke is a big deal in Japan. Though it’s decidedly different from the American version it is just as big. Unlike its American counterpart, Japanese Karaoke is only done around close friends. Nevertheless, it is just as famous (or infamous) as a sport as it is in the U.S.A. Various companies recognized Karaoke’s popularity early on and found ways to capitalize on the pop culture phenomenon. They formed special buildings where groups of friends (or business associates) could rent a room and sing along with huge televised screens. During these sessions, food could be ordered but otherwise the group would be left relatively undisturbed. The buildings became a huge hit and can be found all over modern Tokyo today.

Many Japanese pop singers have gotten their start from singing in Karaoke booths. Occasionally a talented young girl (or boy) will attract the attention of music talent agents working in studios located quite literally across the street from them. The young talents end up singing an opening song for an anime and often get contracted to do voice acting for the same show.

Most Japanese television studios, movie production companies, radio broadcasting stations and toy manufacturing plants make use of their intricate knowledge of the Japanese tradition to help promote its customs while forming a unique culture that stands on its own. This new culture, Japanese Pop Culture, infiltrates every aspect of life from grammar school icons to clothing lines.

Mark Schilling writes that even famous Tokyo clothing designer Nigo has used the public’s fascination with anime to help make clothing lines which have gained both local and international adoration. Using the Golden Triangle marketing scheme, companies are able to turn profits from the CDs, DVDs, toys, video games and other pop culture icons that they create. Both Shilling and Kelts agree that these are the elements that make Japanese Pop culture unique and will enable it to grow into an international phenomenon for years to come.


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