Japanese popular culture

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Japanese popular culture encompasses the modern popular culture of Japan. It includes Japanese cinema, cuisine, television programs, anime, manga and music, all of which retain older artistic and literary traditions, and many of their themes and styles of presentation can be traced to traditional art forms. Contemporary forms of popular culture, much like the traditional forms, are not only forms of entertainment but also aspects to distinguish contemporary Japan from the rest of the modern world. There is a large industry of music, films, and the products of a huge comic book industry, among other forms of entertainment. Game centers, bowling alleys, and karaoke parlors are well-known hangout places for teens while older people may play shogi or go in specialized parlors.

After the end of the US occupation of Japan in 1952, Japanese popular culture has been deeply influenced by American media. However, rather than being dominated by American products, Japan has localised these influences by imitating and partly appropriating the originals.[1]


In as early as 1920, a discussion revolving around the use of culture and media communication was being used as a strategy to enhance the international understanding of Japan’s perspective was set in place. The discussion began when Japan aspired to become an imperial and colonial power, one that was equivalent to their Euro-American counterparts. This idea was interrupted once Japan was defeated in World War II. With the economic struggles Japan faced after the war, the question about using culture and media communication was once again brought up. In order for Japan to reinvent themselves and allow others to see their true colors, Japan focused on projecting a selected national image by exporting appealing cultural products including, animation, television programs, popular music, films, and fashion. The public diplomacy wanted to allow other countries to understand their position on various issues by acting directly on the people of foreign countries. With the popularity of television emerging in Asian countries, they produced a show that was supposed to demonstrate the actual lives of Japanese people.[2]

Before the popular television show Oshin aired in Asian countries, Japanese people were perceived as ‘culturally odorless.’ With this new TV drama, a sense of commonality began to form between Japan and other Asian nations. This show was a testimony to the capability media culture can have on enhancing the international understanding of negative historical memories of Japanese colonialism and the hostility regarding the country’s economic exploitation of the region.[3]

The entertainment industry was vital to Japan’s postwar reconstruction. The desire to create fantasies was present but, the economy drove the entertainment industry. Technology was the heart of Japan’s rebuilding since, they believed it was the only reason they lost the war. Pop culture begins to dominate the entertainment industry. For example, the Japanese used the resources they had in order to make toy cars that ultimately helped them rebuild the economy. After the Japanese were banned from using metal to make toys, they used old cans instead. In doing so, they were able to produce toys in exchange for food for the school children. The toy industry is just one of the industries that ultimately influenced pop culture during this era.[4]

Prior to World War II Japanese cinema produced films that supported the war efforts and encouraged Japanese citizen to fight for their county. The movie industry produced inspirational patriotic tales that portrayed Japanese militia as victors, heroes, and people who sacrificed themselves for a greater cause. However, the first cinematic blockbuster of the postwar era was Gojira which, did not share the same support as other film. For Japan, this film represented a return to popular entertainment that catered to the move towards technology. Gojira showed the destruction of Tokyo and the atomic bomb that victimized Japan during the war in order to gain opposition towards the war. Japanese cinema was dominated by militaristic storytelling and was controlled by the policies and agendas of Japan’s totalitarian state. Films during the postwar era were used to foster new idols and icons in order for Japanese people to begin to reimagine themselves. Japanese cinemas produced films that demonstrated why they should be against the war and all the destruction and casualties that come along with it. As time went on the film industry progressed from targeting adult audiences to targeting children audiences.[5]

Cool Japan[edit]

In 2002 Douglas McGray of Foreign Policy wrote an article entitled "Japan's Gross National Cool", where he commented upon Japan's soft power and the international expansion of its cultural influence.[6] These cultural elements project a message that author Koichi Iwabuchi feels markets and packages Japan as a nation of commerce and “pop culture diplomacy" as opposed to a militarily focused and driven country/nation.[7] In his article "Pop-culture diplomacy in Japan: soft power, nation branding and the question of ‘international cultural exchange’", Iwabuchi writes that Japan's actions during World War II made it necessary for the nation to rebuild their national image; moving away from a national image of military dominance and into an image of cultural diplomacy. Initiated by the Japanese government, the creation of the “soft power” image emerged, and Japan began to sell its pop culture as its new non-military image in order to promote its own culture and reestablish healthy and peaceful diplomacy with other nations.[7]


Kawaii is a Japanese term which means "cute" and "beautiful". Cuteness seems to be a highly valued aesthetic quality in Japanese society and particularly Japanese pop culture, and overpowering cuteness seems to carry less of the stigma of infantilization as it does in many other cultures. Kawaii is pronounced Ka-wa-ee (not to be confused with kowai, Ko-wai, the Japanese term for "scary"). Kawaii can be used to describe animals and people, including fully grown adults; while attractive women are usually described as kawaii, young men are more likely to be described as kakkoii, Kak-ko-ee, which is "good looking" or "cool". Kawaii is also used to describe some men who are considered to have "cute" personalities.


Kawaii in Japan has been a growing trend for many Japanese markets; they have been used in school all the way to large enterprises. The use of cute childish figures representing a certain groups allows for those potentially frightened by them to have these playful mascots that represent them to create a sense of humanity between them. An example would be the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department mascot known as Pipo-kun, which is an orange-skinned, elfin creature with rabbit ears that are made to listen to the people and an antenna to stay in tune with what is happening. The use of Kawaii in public relations has been a large factor for many and will continue to be used by those who want to have an optimistic view of them.[8]

One type of mascot in Japan that are noted for their 'Kawaii-ness' are characters known as 'yurukiyara' (or the mascots that represent their respective prefectures). Each year Japan celebrates a new winner and this year's current number one is Bari-san from Ehime prefecture. Despite this, his popularity pales in comparison to that of last year's champion: Kumamon (the Mon Bear) of Kumamoto prefecture. Having pulled in over 2.5 billion yen in merchandise sales across the nation this past year, he is widely adored and can be found in almost any novelty shop in Japan.[9]

Japanese idols[edit]

Momoiro Clover Z is ranked as number one among female idol groups according to 2013-2016 surveys.[10][11]

Japanese popular culture is highly surrounded by idealized celebrities who appear on many different forms of mass media. These idols are mostly girls portrayed for their "cuteness" and "innocence"; they are mostly intended to be role models everyone adores. They must have a perfect public image and be good examples to young people. Idols aim to play a wide range of roles as media personalities (tarento), e.g. pop or J-pop singers, panelists of variety programs, bit-part actors, models for magazines and advertisements. Alternative media idols include the emerging net idol, a form of idol in which grows popularity on the internet as its base foundation. Many net idol groups create a large standing online before transferring their career towards the professional Music Industry.[12][13][14][15][16][17][18]

During 2016, about 636 thousand people attended their live concerts, which was the highest record of all female musicians in Japan.[19] The group has been ranked as the most popular female idol group from 2013 to 2016.[20]


Geinōkai is the world of Japanese entertainment, encompassing everything from movies and television (including talk shows, music shows, variety shows, etc.) to radio and now the Internet. Geinōjin is a term, often used interchangeably with talent (transliterated as タレント, tarento), which refers to members of the Geinōkai. Talent refers to a rather large group of people who appear on television from night to night, but cannot be quite classified as actors, singers, or models, or comedians (and are thus given the more vague appellation of "talent" instead). Talents usually appear on variety shows or talk shows and may later move into acting or singing if they are successful.


Moe-style illustration of a bishōjo character

The word Manga, when translated directly, means “whimsical drawings”. Manga are typically 'comic books' as the West understands them; rather, they represent pieces of Japanese culture and history. The 'manga' style has an extensive history, beginning sometime in the 10th century; scrolls from that period depict animals as part of the 'upper class', behaving as a typical human would in similar situations. Such scrolls would go on to be known as the Chōjū giga or “The Animal Scrolls”.[21]

Scrolls found later on in the 12th century would depict images of religion such as the Gaki Zoshi (Hungry Ghost Scrolls) and the Jigoku zoshi (Hell Scrolls). While both dealt with various aspects of religion, unlike “The Animal Scrolls”, these provided a more instructive viewpoint, rather than a comedic style.[21]

Manga are more significant, culturally, than Western comic books (though many fill the same role). Originally, manga were printed in daily newspapers; in the Second World War, newsprint rationing caused a downsurge in manga popularity. In the post-war 1950s, they made a resurgence in the form of “picture card shows”, which were a style of storytelling supplemented by the use of illustrations, and the highly popular “rental manga” that would allow their readers to rent these illustrated books for a period of time.[22]


Anime is a movie or episode of sorts which utilizes an animated cartoon art style to convey a story. Unlike Western cartoons, anime frequently tends to have more detailed character design. This can be used to allow for a better connection between the viewer and the character. Anime is based most of the time on animated comics or manga, which is an ancient form of comic writing which dates all the way to the 12th century.[23]

The world of animated films in Japanese popular culture has been a growing trend since the 1920s. Influenced by Walt Disney and his animated characters, Osamu Tezuka (1925–1989), also known as "manga no kamisama" (which means, "God of Comics")[24] would begin his forty-year evolution of animation, or anime, that would change the content of Japanese comic books. With the creation of his first animated character Astroboy that was unlike any other animated character; he found the hearts of the Japanese public with a robotic boy who has spiky hair, eyes as big as fists, with rockets on his feet.[24]

Through the decades in which anime has been created, there have been various types of genre which have been made. They include various types from mechs to sci-fi; all have their own meaning when being made and have a representation on Japanese society.[23] Such as the anime film Howl's Moving Castle (2004), which entitled many anti-war themes within it and by doing so made it more influential on the Japanese community. The growth of anime over the decades has been very important culturally for Japan because anime allows for a common ground to be explored.[23]

Anime have expanded in such a way in Japanese culture that they have been made into by products that sell toys, clothing lines, and even many have been turned into video games to allow for a broader market to be touched.


Gothic Lolita Japanese fashion

Japan began to emulate Western fashion during the middle of the 19th century. By the beginning of the 21st century, this emulation has formed street fashion, a fashion style in which the wearer customizes outfits by adopting a mixture of current and traditional trends. Such clothes are generally home-made with the use of material purchased at stores.

At present, there are many styles of dress in Japan, created from a mix of both local and foreign labels. Some of these styles are extreme and avant-garde, similar to the haute couture seen on European catwalks.

Though the styles have changed over the years, street fashion is still prominent in Japan today. Young adults can often be found wearing subculture attire in large urban fashion districts such as Harajuku, Ginza, Odaiba, Shinjuku and Shibuya.


The most popular Japanese films are the giant monster films (Kaiju Eiga) of Godzilla, Gamera, and the Ultraman Series. These Kaiju films were extremely popular in the 1960s and 1970s as the Kaiju Boom of Japan.

Japanese cinema gained international recognition in 1950 with the release of Rashomon, which remains one of the most well known Japanese films. The film's director, Akira Kurosawa is one of the world's most acclaimed and influential film directors. Several of his subsequent films, such as Seven Samurai (1954) and Ran (1985), are considered among the greatest films ever made. Other noteworthy directors in this era of Japanese cinema include Yasujirō Ozu, Masaki Kobayashi, Kenji Mizoguchi, Kon Ichikawa, Keisuke Kinoshita and Ishirō Honda.


Video gaming is a major industry in Japan. Japanese game development is often identified with the golden age of video games, including Nintendo under Shigeru Miyamoto and Hiroshi Yamauchi, Sega during the same time period, and other companies such as Taito, Namco, Capcom, and Square Enix, among others.




See also[edit]


  1. ^ Iwabuchi, Koichi (2002-10-18). Recentering Globalization: Popular Culture and Japanese Transnationalism. Duke University Press. ISBN 0822384086. 
  2. ^ Iwabuchi, K. Pop-culture diplomacy in Japan: soft power, nation branding and the question of ‘international cultural exchange’. International Journal of Cultural Policy, 2015. 419-425.
  3. ^ Iwabuchi, K. Pop-culture diplomacy in Japan: soft power, nation branding and the question of ‘international cultural exchange’. International Journal of Cultural Policy, 2015. 420-432.
  4. ^ Anne, Allison. Millennial Monsters, edited by Anne Allison, University of California Press, 2006. 35-40.
  5. ^ Anne, Allison. Millennial Monsters, edited by Anne Allison, University of California Press, 2006. 42-48.
  6. ^ McGray, Douglas (1 May 2002). "Japan's Gross National Cool". Foreign Policy. Retrieved 11 September 2012. 
  7. ^ a b Iwabuchi, Koichi (2015-08-08). "Pop-culture diplomacy in Japan: soft power, nation branding and the question of 'international cultural exchange'". International Journal of Cultural Policy. 21 (4): 419–432. doi:10.1080/10286632.2015.1042469. ISSN 1028-6632. 
  8. ^ Matt Alt and Hiroko Yoda. Hello, Please! Very Helpful Kawaii Characters from Japan. Chronicle Books, 2007, 240 pages.
  9. ^ asianbeat.com/en/feature/culture_watch/37.html
  10. ^ "ももクロ、初のAKB超え タレントパワーランキング" (in Japanese). Nihon Keizai Shimbun. 24 June 2013. Retrieved 26 July 2013. 
  11. ^ Nikkei Entertainment (in Japanese). Nikkei BP (June, 2014). 2014-05-02.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  12. ^ William W. Kelly (ed.). Fanning the Flames: Fans and Consumer Culture in Contemporary Japan. p. 65. 
  13. ^ "Islands of Eight Million Smiles: Idol Performance and Symbolic Production in Contemporary Japan (Harvard East Asian Monographs) [Hardcover] - Book Description". Amazon. Archived from the original on 2012-06-16. 
  14. ^ Idols and Celebrity in Japanese Media Culture - Google Books. Palgrave Macmillan. 2012-08-31. 
  15. ^ Carolyn S. Stevens. Japanese Popular Music: Culture, Authenticity and Power. 
  16. ^ David W. Edgington (2003). Japan at the Millennium: Joining Past and Future. UBC Press. 
  17. ^ William D. Hoover. Historical Dictionary of Postwar Japan. p. 202. 
  18. ^ Minoru Matsutani (2009-08-25). "Pop 'idol' phenomenon fades into dispersion". The Japan Times. Archived from the original on 2011-08-13. 
  19. ^ "8:16 - 2016年12月6日". Nikkei Style. 2017-01-04. 
  20. ^ "ももクロ、初のAKB超え タレントパワーランキング". Nihon Keizai Shimbun (in Japanese). 24 June 2013. Retrieved 26 July 2013. 
    タレントパワーランキング トップ100. Nikkei Entertainment (in Japanese). Nikkei BP (June, 2013): 48–49. 2013-05-04. 
    タレントパワーランキング トップ100. Nikkei Entertainment (in Japanese). Nikkei BP (June, 2014). 2014-05-02. 
    タレントパワーランキング トップ100. Nikkei Entertainment (in Japanese). Nikkei BP (June, 2015). 2015-05-02. 
    タレントパワーランキング トップ100. Nikkei Entertainment (in Japanese). Nikkei BP (June, 2016). 2016-05-04. 
  21. ^ a b Mark Wheeler Macwilliams. Japanese Visual Culture: Exploration in the World of Manga and Anime. M.E. Sharpe, 2008, 352 pages.
  22. ^ Sharon Kinsella. Adult Manga: Culture and Power in Contemporary Japanese Society. University of Hawaii, 2000, 228 pages.
  23. ^ a b c Tze-yue G. Hu: Frames of Anime: Culture and Image-Building. Hong Kong University Press, 2010.
  24. ^ a b Drazen, P: Anime Explosion!: the what? Why? & wow! of Japanese animation. Stone Bridge Press, Inc., 2003.