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Ultimate Guide to Japanese Pop Culture

By Team Japan Switch + Hei Kin Wong | June 23rd, 2022 

Over the past several years, Japanese pop culture has been taking the Western world by storm. Everywhere you look now, you’re assailed by everything from popular Japanese fashion to Japanese video games, and of course, the ever-popular Japanese manga.

In this article, we’ll delve a little deeper into these categories, and try to discover just what makes them so unique and appealing to such a vast array of people from around the globe.

This article is a part of our extensive series on learning about Japanese Culture through Online Japanese Lessons at Japan Switch.

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    What is Japanese pop culture?

    First of all, what do we mean when we say Japanese pop culture? As a vast umbrella term, Japanese pop culture can mean anything from the infamous Hello Kitty brand to Japanese pop music, to anime series that have become universally recognized icons all over the globe. 

    When talking about Japanese pop culture, we basically think of everything hailing from that great island that has influenced the way we speak, think, eat, or dress, in the past twenty years. While for some people, Japanese pop culture can mean dressing in stylish kimonos (きもの/着物), and pinning their hair up using a colorful kanzashi (簪), for others, it means doing a Ghibli Studios marathon or delving into some delicious sake.

    WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT KIMONO?

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    Unique fashions borne out of Japanese pop culture

    First up on our list of marvelous Japanese contributions to international pop culture, we have fashion. 

    Lolita

    Lolita fashion actually emerged during the 1980s, as a rather radical alternative subculture, but has only started gaining popularity in the West in more recent years. It’s worth noting that Lolita fashion takes its name from the Japanese term lolita (ロリータ), which signifies a cute and adorable teenager. It has nothing to do with the eponymous novel by Vladimir Nabokov.

    Lolita fashion is concerned with bright, feminine attire, and a strong focus on everything visual. Generally, Lolita fashion takes its inspiration from Rococo, Victorian and Edwardian over-the-top clothing styles. Originally emerging from the 80s Doll Fashion (which, we believe, was self-descriptive), Lolita fashion has since grown to encompass numerous sub-fashions, like the hugely popular Gothic lolita. 

    Kawaii

    Kawaii and Lolita are actually two closely tied fashion styles, as they both revolve around being adorable and cute, and appearing younger than you truly are. Kawaii fashion was born in the 1970s, with the invention of the mechanical pencil, which encouraged teenage girls to beautify and flourish their writing.

    The rounded, childlike writing then led to a hankering for bright color (often pink) puffy clothing, childish accessories, and schoolgirl outfits.

    fashion in japanese pop culture

    Kimono

    The kimono (きもの/着物, “thing to wear”) first emerged during the Kofun period (300 – 538 CE), and was a fashion heavily influenced by the country’s relations with neighboring China. Today, it is an instantly recognizable traditional garb, even though the kimono is only occasionally worn in Japan, outside of official settings (e.g. weddings, ceremonies, etc.). 

    Visually, a kimono is rich with motifs, such as the crane (signifying longevity), as well as other animals, but also natural motifs, like flowers or trees. Since a kimono is basically a piece of tie-dyed cloth, and since those dyes were initially made from different plants, it was believed that the medicinal properties of the plant would be transferred to the wearer.

    Visual Kei

    The closest synonym for Visual Kei (ヴィジュアル系) we’d have in the West is the Glam rock of the 1980s. It’s characterized by flamboyant hairstyles, and several layers of striking make-up. Visual Kei was a fashion that took the Japanese music world by storm, with artists also donning elaborate, colorful costumes. It is also linked with music much in the same way Glam Rock is and there are countless Visual Kei bands that have been successful over the years. 

    In time, it also sparked several sub-fashions, like Angura Kei (アングラ系), which could be described as a sort of Gothic visual kei, and Fairy Kei or Fairy Fashion (フェアリー系 or フェアリーファッション), which is similar to kawaii fashion and has a strong focus on 80s shows, and children’s toys.

    Cosplay in Japanese pop culture

    Then, of course, we have the international phenomenon of cosplaying (literally costume playing). I’m sure we’ve all seen images online of people dressed as our beloved Tanjiro and other memorable characters. Hailing from Medieval traditions, like masquerades and costume balls, cosplaying now entails dressing up as your favorite character from a film, book, or video game. Japanese programs like anime, manga, or of course, Japanese video games, are particularly popular choices for cosplayers.

    Cosplaying has reached such extraordinary heights that there are now worldwide conventions and summits, where participants are encouraged to dress up in elaborate costumes and make-up, and even to role play as their favorite characters.

    There're so many more fascinating facts about Japanese fashion we'd like to tell you, but that's beyond the scope of this video. We do, however, have an Ultimate Guide to Fashion in Japan if you'd like to find out more!

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    Standout Musicians from Japanese pop culture over the years

    Let us turn our attention to the Japanese music scene and its notable icons and songs over the past few decades.

    Ringo Sheena 

    Sheena first rose to fame as a sultry, edgy 19-year-old singer and songwriter, with hits like “Koufukuron” and “Kabukichou No Joou”, in 1998. Deeply influenced by a variety of genres, from the Sex Pistols, to classical Jazz, to 60s Japanese pop songs, Sheena Ringo wrote edgy, witty lyrics about sex and female empowerment, as well as touching on deep philosophical quandaries. 

    Banking on her in-your-face punk rock attitude, Sheena Ringo formed the group Tokyo Jihen (東京事変), which broke out with the single “Gunjō Biyori”. Though they broke up in 2012, the band recently reunited in 2020 and have picked up where they left off.

    Hikaru Utada

    In 2009, the Japan Times named Utada “the most influential artist of the decade.” Ever since her 1999 debut album, First Love, Japanese-American pop icon Hikaru Utada has won the hearts of millions. A deeply versatile artist, Utada is known for her solo hits, such as “Addicted to You” and “Can You Keep a Secret?”, but also for her impactful collaboration with fellow musician Skrillex, on the track “Face My Fears”. She’s also widely recognized as the voice of the video game franchise Square Enix, and Disney’s Kingdom Hearts.

    While both artists are notable icons of Japanese culture, there are many more amazing people that made a significant contribution to Japanese culture as a whole. Click on our Ultimate Guide to Japanese Culture to find out more!

    Seiko Matsuda

    Often referred to as the Japanese Madonna, Seiko Matsuda is an artist with colorful life. Her attitude can best be described as burikko, meaning one who acts cute and childish to gain attention and affection. Much like Madonna, Seiko Matsuda had a habit of dressing sexily, and revealing a lot of skin, while also running from one romantic liaison to another. 

    Though singles like  "Hadashi no Kisetsu" and "Natsu no Tobira" won the hearts of Japanese music lovers, and sparked a veritable Seiko fever, the artist struggled to break into the international scene. Still, to this day, she remains a Japanese pop phenomenon.

    Namie Amuro

    One of the biggest J-pop idols of the past 30 years, Amuro debuted at the tender age of 14, alongside the idol group Super Monkey’s, with hits like "Try Me (Watashi o Shinjite)". She quickly reoriented towards a solo career, though, and made history with the hit single “Can You Celebrate?” (the most best-selling single by a solo Japanese female artist) to date).

    Amuro’s success spilled over into the rest of Asia, and the artist enjoyed many durable hits in the early 2000s. In 2018, just days before her 41st birthday, however, the artist retired from music.

    Radwimps

    Radwimps are a Japanese rock band that have enjoyed great national success since their debut in 2003. Influenced by artists like Bjork and Radiohead, Radwimps most recently made headlines as the creators of the soundtrack for the immensely popular anime films “Your Name” (2016) and “Weathering With You” (2019).

    Japanese pop culture - anime

    One OK Rock

    One OK Rock is an alternative rock group founded in 2005, which has seen massive success thanks to arena and stadium shows all over Japan. They rose to international fame in 2012, with the single "The Beginning", which has led the group to sell out arenas, and score a lot more popularity in the West than other Japanese artists.

    In 2021, the band was the subject of  Netflix documentary “Flip a Coin”, which was released only a day before their latest single “Wonder”.

    Official Hige Dandism

    Originating in Tokyo, in 2012, Official Hige Dandism (which translates to Official Mustache Dandy Men, and is also often abbreviated to Higedan) is a pop group of great renown both locally, and internationally. 

    Having dominated Japanese billboards over the past 10 years, the band has attracted some international attention, although Higedan doesn’t have the fame we’ve come to associate with pop culture phenomena in the West.

    WANT TO UNDERSTAND LYRICS IN JAPANESE SONGS?

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    Japanese pop culture in film and television

    Another field in which Japanese culture has come to dominate our entertainment is, of course, in film and television (anime, to be more precise). Below, we’ll look at the most famous Japanese films, but first, we need to better understand the hugely popular anime style, and the different types you may encounter.

    The 5 kinds of anime in Japanese pop culture

    Anime films have won over Western culture, with famous names like Demon Slayer (Kimetsu no Yaiba) or the many movies of the Ghibli Studios echoing through Western movie culture. But what exactly is anime, and what are the different sub-genres?

    Shonen anime (少年)

    Shonen is basically just an umbrella term used to signify anything for boys, so really, Shonen anime can cover anything from sports, to adventure, to fantasy, as well as a mix of all. This also means that shonen anime can be extremely versatile, since really, the only defining motif needs to be the focus on a boy, and his struggle to better himself, or overcome a goal. That being said, motifs, themes, storytelling, and even visuals can vary wildly.

    Interestingly enough, Shonen is the stereotype that most people think of when they think of anime, even though there is so much more to this field than just that. Understandable, since some of the most famous anime, like Naruto, Dragon Ball Z, Bleach and One Piece belongs in this genre.

    japanese culture - woodwork

    Shoujo (少女)

    Shoujo, as you might guess, is the opposite of shonen, and are literally different anime focusing on girls as the main hero of the quest. Anime such as Sailor Moon, Tokyo Mew-Mew or Nana are classic shoujo, and are characterized by a strong emphasis on human relationships. Although, keep in mind this doesn’t solely mean romantic relationships. A common motif of shoujo films is the platonic friendship, either between the main heroine and a boy, or even between her and another girl.

    Seinen (青年, せいねん)

    While seinen is also a term that defines anime films “for young men”, this sub-genre is characterized by more serious, R-rated levels of gore and sexuality than we see in the average shonen anime.

    With notable examples such as Ghost in the Shell and Black Lagoon at the forefront of this sub-genre, seinen anime focuses on typically male protagonists living on the edges of society, and are characterized by failure, crime, and a nitty gritty, disenchanted view of life.

    Josei (女性, じょせい)

    Josei is the female equivalent for seinen anime in that its target is a more mature audience of young women. While still anime directed typically at girls, this type of program doesn’t always promise a “happily ever after”. Packed with a lot more real-life conflict, as well as more between-the-sheets action, josei anime delves into the deeper realms of heartbreak, disappointment, and true suffering.

    As such, anime films like Ristorante Paradiso or Princess Jellyfish showcase female protagonists with a lot more potential for change, and growth, which only serves to make the films more compelling.

    Kodomomuke (子供向け漫画)

    While kodomomuke anime is intended for younger audiences, typically children, it is this anime genre that’s been among the most successful in the West. Typically focusing on supernatural, childlike protagonists, famous kodomomuke films and series include the Pokemon series, Doraemon, the Yo-Kai Watch series, and Hamtaro.

    Although typically aimed at children as primary viewers, kodomomuke series often deal with serious, deep topics, like love, betrayal, and honor, and signify the child’s own quest for growth.

    Aside from modern entertainment like manga and anime, traditional entertainment in Japan also has a charm of its own.  Check out our Ultimate Guide to Manzai to find out more!

    7 notable films + the influence of Japanese pop culture in Western media

    Now that we’ve covered the ever-popular realm of anime, let us talk of some of the most famous Japanese movies to cross over into the West, both animated, and live action.

    1. Battle Royale

    Although a big cult classic to this day, Kinji Fukasaku's Battle Royale made its name as a highly controversial movie at the time. Released very shortly after the Columbine massacre, the movie depicts 42 high school students engaged in a barbaric and bloody battle to the death on a remote island. We’ve seen this concept presented in several western films (which we won’t name) which likely drew at least some inspiration from the classic film. 

    Featuring gratuitous graphic violence, there were numerous attempts by the Japanese government to ban the film (as well as the book that inspired it), as it is also a deep commentary on a brutal totalitarian regime. 

    2. Ringu

    The Ring (リング) is a well known and popular Japanese horro franchise, also inspired by novels of the same name. The original Japanese Ring movie follows a couple investigating mysterious teen murders, after the victims receive a mysterious video tape. Stakes for the couple rise as their own son becomes a victim.

    In Japan, Sadako, the famous ghost girl with long black hair, has become a cult icon, appearing at numerous cultural events, including a baseball game. There have been several entries into the franchise along with a crossover with our next entry - Ju-on!

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    3. Ju-on (The Grudge)

    Ju-On, also known as The Grudge, is another cult classic horror film franchise that has since won over American hearts (through its remake). Ju-On is an interesting take on the classic haunted house horror theme. Starting from the concept of ju-on (literally “curse grudge”), it follows the effects of a string of murders sparked by jealous rage.

    Since the original release of the Ju-On movies, several elements of the film have crossed over into horror film history, most notably the ghost’s eerie death rattle, and the image of her pale black-haired figure crawling out of the darkness. Japan has a long and colorful history with the supernatural and horror films like Ju-on go a long way to showcasing some of the wonderful stories and ideas that have shaped the nation. 

    4. Seven Samurai 

    Akira Kurosawa's 1954 cult classic Seven Samurai later served as the inspiration for the American “The Magnificent Seven”. The premise of Seven Samurai begins with bandits planning to raid a poor Japanese village. The villagers, learning of this plot, decide to hire samurai for protection, except they can only afford to pay them with rice, so the samurai begin teaching the villagers how to defend themselves. Thus begins a three-and-a-half hour long tale of resentment, rage, and honor that brilliantly uses traditional themes against modern, Western influences.

    Kurosawa, a deep lover of Western movies himself, later saw his film remade into one of the most enduring Westerns of all-time, as well as one of the prime influences of future cult classics, such as George Lucas’s Star Wars.

    If there's another thing Japan has adopted well, it's the haunted house in theme parks. Visit our Ultimate Guide to Visiting a Haunted House in Japan to see the best-haunted house in Japan!

    5. Akira 

    The 1988 anime movie set in an alternate dystopic Tokyo follows the adventures of gang member Tetsuo Shima as he gets swept up in government experimentation involving psychic children. It’s got war, violence, petty crime, and conspiratorial overtones. And that’s just scratching the surface.

    Akira has had one of the most obvious and impressive influences on Western culture, spawning music videos by icons like Michael Jackson (“Scream”) and Kanye West (“Stronger”). Most recently, the famous Netflix series “Stranger Things” pays homage to Akira through the character of Eleven, also a child involved in government psychic experiments. 

    At present, Akira is set to be made into a much-awaited live-action movie by Taika Waititi (director of Thor: Ragnarok and JoJo Rabbit).

    6. Godzilla 

    Although more widely known through the numerous American remakes, Godzilla was actually, originally, a Japanese 1954 movie. It follows the appearance of a mysterious monster in post-war Japan, and explores the very real and frightening concept of post-nuclear apocalypse, following WWII. Godzilla is interestingly linked with natural destructive forces (such as typhoons or earthquakes), it is also thought to be a metaphor for a nuclear weapon and radiation.

    1954 original is one of the groundstones of the monster-movie genre, whose influence across the Western movie scene probably can’t even be gauged.

    Finding Japanese culture in Tokyo

    7. Spirited Away 

    To discuss the influence of Spirited Away, we first need to understand the role of Ghibli Studios as Japan’s Disney, in many ways. Ghibli is the home of numerous cult classics, also including Princess Mononoke and Howl’s Moving Castle, but it was through Oscar-winning Spirited Away that it managed to change the movie industry forever.

    Painted in rich themes of Japanese folklore, Spirited Away encouraged directors all over the world to delve into the world of imagination and myth to enrich productions. Spirited Away famously draws on the Shinto belief that spirits are all around us, and that there is a world other than ours, hidden in plain sight.

    It was also groundbreaking as a message about pollution (the famous scene where Chihiro, the heroine of the film, frees an ancient river god), as well as for pioneering the use of female protagonists, particularly in anime films.

    Since the film’s debut, Studio Ghibli’s influence has spilled over from films, into the realm of commercials, merchandise, and even video games. Its deep impact on storytelling continues to inspire artists to this day, in all genres and art forms.

    7 notable films + the influence of Japanese pop culture in Western media

    While Japanese pop culture is the birthplace of many wonderful traditions and themes, as we’ve seen in this article, it is also the source of some common misconceptions. It’s not unlikely for Western viewers of Japanese pop culture to infer some things about Japan through the culture that are simply unfounded. Such as?

    1. Japanese people are always cute and friendly.

    As we’ve seen, Japanese pop culture has a big place for kawaii adorableness and cuteness, and because of that, people assume Japanese people are all like that. In truth, Japanese people are some of the most reserved in the world.

    2. Everyone cosplays.

    While cosplaying and anime are, indeed, important factors of Japanese culture, they’re not nearly as big as everyone seems to think, in the real world. Wandering through Japan, the sight of cosplaying youths is rarer than you expect.

    3. Japan, China and Korea are the same.

    Because Westerners have a hard time telling pop groups or actors from these countries apart, the three often get lumped together. However, both facial features and cultures are very different across the three countries, and lumping them together is not just rude, but plain wrong.

    4. You need to slurp.

    A weirdly widespread misconception about Japan is that slurping is a sign of respect or good manners. It’s not. Some Japanese people tend to slurp when eating noodles, or other similar foods, but only because it’s easier. It means nothing.

    5. Japanese people are violent.

    A notion born in WWII and continued by the culture (films like Battle Royale, in particular), but largely misleading. Although some anime films or Japanese blockbusters are more violent, the Japanese people aren’t more violent themselves than any other nation.

    WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT JAPANESE FESTIVALS?

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    Final thoughts

    There we have it! A quick overview of Japanese pop culture and some of our staff’s top picks for where to get started if you’re looking to dive into and get more familiar with the wonderful and rich culture of Japan. We have only touched on the surface of films, anime, musicians, and fashion trends so stay posted for future updates as we continue to explore more!

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