Popular culture can be defined as a culture of the masses and is made available to the public mass. It is a two-way interaction between the related industries and the consumers involved. In this paper, focus will be placed on manga and anime, fashion, TV and music, video games and the “Hello Kitty Phenomenon”. Analysis on consumer study, production and marketing processes of popular culture and the media will provide us insights to the social institutions and society in contemporary Japan.
Table of Contents
Manga and Anime
History and development of manga
Before the war, children comic strips were largely influenced by American side comic strips. Political comic strips present during Taisho period, a time where political and social uncertainties, were used by mangaka (manga artist) to voice their opinions on political issues and revolutionary ideas were brought up.
During wartime, there was strict regulation and control over the circulation of manga. It was crucial for the government to promote nationalism and patriotism. Thus thoughts that undermine these were simply not tolerated. Some mangaka were recruited into governmental organizations and used to draw war propaganda flyers and posters. Despite of this, children manga still continued. However, comics were banned in 1944 due to lack of printing paper.
During the early post-war period, children manga reappeared. However, they differed from the previous ones. They were extended forms of manga which became long-running series of works. The drawing style then was Disney-like and child-oriented, a sign that influences from American side was still strong. Moreover, there was the emergence of a new manga art style called gekiga (dramatic picture) manga. Gekiga manga was associated with social and political themes and with the added effects of realism in the art style thus brought a new dimension of realism to readers. Gekiga manga appeared at the time where Japan was undergoing revolution during US occupation.
During late post-war period, manga became sophisticated and there was a rise of new genres that catered to different age groups.
Phenomenon of manga and anime
The popularity of manga and anime in Japan is overwhelming such that one can draw no parallel in other parts of the world. They are consumed by all age groups and this has sparked off a multi-million dollar industry in Japan. One reason is complex storylines and characters depicted which brings liveliness to these works and thus captures the likes of the readers. Characters are more human-like with positive and negative traits.1 Storylines may be twisted often in an unpredicted way. In contrast, in my view, US comics often have predictable storylines and plain characters.2 The contrasting attitude towards comics marks the cultural difference of these two countries. Richness of genre is one factor as these cater to the various age groups in Japan unlike the limited genre in US comics which are only meant for children. In addition, contemporary themes that resonate make it easier for readers to relate to their daily lives. Most importantly, it provides one of the few mediums that allows for freedom of expression since Japanese society emphasizes so much on the maintenance of conformance and harmony and any idiosyncratic behavior cannot be tolerated. In my opinion, this makes manga and anime so cherished since honne can be expressed through this medium. Also, it offers instant escape from the rigid society as reading manga or watching anime is less taxing than reading a novel. This is especially true for Japanese students who spend long hours in academic studies. Lastly, these are hobbies that be carried out alone, which reflects the Japanese attitude of “not bothering others” 3(conformance).
Life of a Mangaka
Mangaka, unlike most occupations, is one that provides equality for men and women in terms of pay and attitude wise. With the rising demands on manga and the transition from monthly to weekly comic magazine, pressure and increasing workload on mangaka become inevitable. To cope with these, several assistants are often recruited. In this scenario, student-teacher relationships are being established since most assistants aspired to become mangaka someday. Mangaka spend most of their time drawing, researching for new ideas and rushing to meet datelines that they simply have too few holidays. Sometimes a mangaka has a scriptwriter partner so that each can concentrate on their specialties to produce good quality manga – another emphasis on teamwork.
Another thing worth noting is the relationship with manager and editors. Managers are often recruited and are like caretakers of mangaka. The job of an editor, besides editing manga works, is also to spend time socializing with managers and mangaka so as to maintain good working relationships, which is highly valued in the society. In cases whereby mangaka do not hand in their works on time, editors take pains in hinting them. The last resort used would be to lock the mangaka in a room and ‘force’ the mangaka to churn out works. Usually the editor also works (suffers) alongside with the mangaka in the locked room until they complete their work. The mentality for this action of suffering together is also a manifestation of conformance and reciprocity.
Manga works are handed up to chief-of-editor, who is usually responsible for supervising several editors. After proofreading, the chief-of-editor gives the go-ahead sign for the works to be published. Here a system of small, sub-contracting companies such as printing, binding and distributing companies relate to the publishing company just like any other typical Japanese company. Throughout this industry, we see an ever typical hierarchical structure.5
A Mirror that Reflects Society
As seen from the previous section, social circumstances have great influences on manga and anime. In this section, some of the themes will be discussed in greater details and their relations to Japanese society assessed.
In the early post-war era, war was a recurrent theme in anime and manga; one of the most famous anime would be The Grave of the Fireflies by Hayao Miyazaki. Throughout the film, there is an absence of the acknowledgment that Japan was an aggressor during World War II.6 Instead, the film focused on the plight of Japanese after Allies bombings and Japan’s surrender. The apparent self-victimization of Japan in this film most likely reflects what some Japanese audiences were feeling not long after Japan’s defeat. Another post-war favorite of Japan is ‘Godzilla’, the infamous reptilian creature which destroyed and terrorized Japan.7 ‘Godzilla’ may seem a common disaster film but the fact that this monster was awakened by American nuclear testing, hints at the mindset of blaming United States for the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. On the other hand, Godzilla’s eventual defeat by Japan’s scientists showed another aspect of contemporary mindset at that period – the desire to rewrite history, to rewrite Japan’s stance as an aggressor and portray herself as a savior. While the two films mentioned above may be some time ago, Japan’s sensitivity towards issues regarding World War II can be seen in a more recent event.
manga series about WW II events, entitled Kuni ga Moeru (The country burns), was suspended following a public outcry complaining untrue depiction of the Nanking Atrocities.
Concern for the serious environmental problems plaguing Japan in the 1970s was reflected in the anime Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind, in which the fictional world was ruined by war and environmental problems9. The main theme of the anime was revealed in the later part of the story; the humans discovered that giant caterpillars which they tried to kill are in fact helping their world to recover. This brings out the idea of harmony with nature which in my opinion is linked to Japan’s religion, Shinto, as nature is closely tied to Shinto by the worship of kami (gods) which includes trees, rocks and animals.
There are also common themes which pervade almost all manga and anime. One of this is the idea of Gambaru, which translates into to persist and hold on. Perseverance is valued in Japan whether in myths, history or fiction11. This idea of persistency is especially apparent in sports and has its origin from bushido. Another value emphasized is collectivism, in anime and manga, this value is stressed on by the fact that no matter how strong a hero is, he or she can only succeed with the help of partners.
Of Yaoi and Lolita: Gender and Doujinshi
Doujinshi is defined as amateur manga that is not published by big publishing companies in Japan13. The arena of amateur manga is initially dominated by women but in the later period, men also become involved. Main genres of doujinshi works include original, parody, yaoi and lolita complex and their bloom are linked to the changing gender expectations young people are experiencing.
In parody, characters taken from popular manga or anime are depicted out of character and usually in a humorous way. Parody is drawn by female doujinshi artists and usually mocks masculinity of male characters in boys or adult manga, in which male are portrayed as the stereotypical dominating type16. Yaoi, another genre drawn by female artists for female readers, is characterized by its male homoerotic content. An interesting response by yaoi fans is that they feel that are “more able to imagine and depict idealized strong free characters, if they are male”. A question to be raised here is why ‘strong and free characters’ can be imagined only if they are male? My view is that it may be due to the effect of long term inculcation of the ‘supposed’ role of women in society, causing them to be unable to imagine the ‘free woman’.
Unlike yaoi, lolita complex manga (abbreviated lolicom) is drawn by and catered to men but its style follows more closely to that of girl’s manga. The term Lolita complex refers to sexual obsession with pre-pubescent and it is this branch of amateur manga which was fiercely targeted in the anti-manga campaign in 1990s19. The origin of lolicom manga is a reflection of the desire of Japanese male to subordinate and demean modern female who are gaining a stand in society by depicting them in a child-like manner20. However, another branch of lolicom manga deals not with demeaning women but with lolitization of young male. This branch reflects the doubts some teenage male in Japan are harboring with regards to the prevailing gender roles and defined masculinity presented to them by society21.
Moral panic, Social panic
A serious moral panic regarding the ‘harmfulness’ of manga and anime occurred in the early 1990s. This was sparked by a case of a ‘serial young girl murderer Miyazaki Tsutomu’ whom was found to be a lolicom manga fan. However, instead of the usual ‘violence and sex debate’, the media focused on his parental negligence and his grandfather’s. The media’s particular focus has a strong connection to changes in family structure which was ongoing in Japanese society. Firstly, the lack of communication between Miyazaki and his parents symbolizes the new ‘freer’ parent-child relationship. Secondly, Miyazaki’s grandfather represents the older generation; hence his death symbolized the demise of traditional “Japanese-style social relations”. Therefore, the message here is “freer contemporary relationships were no substitute for fixed traditional social relationships”.
Another contributing reason is that girl’s manga culture is despised. This argument is based on the perception that contents of girl’s manga deals only with trivial everyday matters and contain no social and political context; hence they are useless for the greater good of the society. Nevertheless, what seems to disturb the society more is the involvement of male in girl’s culture, as exemplified by the focus on lolicom manga, and the success in popularity of girl’s culture.
Miyazaki’s case also changed the perception of the term, otaku which initially means someone who is ‘socially in adept’ into one meaning dysfunctional individuals overly obsessed with the fantasy world of anime and manga, totally cut off from society. Otaku’s antisocialism characteristics came under the fierce attack by the society which value so much of collectivism. The apparent independent lifestyle an otaku became associated with individualism; this together with “the independence of amateur manga subculture from the rest of the society” makes the society feels ‘threatened’, fearing the reluctance of young Japanese to contribute to family, workplace and Japan.
On the whole, social issues relating to the rise of individualism among the younger generations, fragmentation of the older social order, shifting gender perceptions and changing family structures did not arise overnight. Instead, Miyazaki’s case coupled with the rapid rise in popularity28 of the amateur manga subculture seemed to have ‘opened the floodgates to a sea of troubles’.
Changing masculinity in Japan
Previous generations of heterosexual Japanese men were evaluated primarily on the basis of character, social standing, earning capacity, lineage which contrasted with young men these days, are increasingly concerned with their status as objects of aesthetic appraisal.29 This trend towards the externalization of the masculine identity is manifested in new businesses during the 1980s, which sell body aesthetics or esute to individuals interested in changing or upgrading their appearance.
The rise of these men’s esute which offer facials, electrolysis treatments, weight-loss programs, and other beauty services could be explained by opinions held by the Japanese women that chest and body hair are viewed as most obnoxious. Presence of unsightly body hair is hence seen as a form of oyaji-rejection.30 The other reason for this trend is the positive link between hairlessness and innocence, which is deeply embedded in Japan’s craze for cuteness.31
Plastic surgery clinics which provide specialized or exclusive procedures, including cosmetic circumcision, penile implants, and male-only staff and clientele to protect “male pride” have also successfully operated with the transition of the male look.32
A separate market for men’s cosmetics has given birth to lines of products for hair coloring, facial scrubs, deodorant products etc. Fashion magazines for young males, such as Men’s Nonno, added to the great success of male cosmetic products in Japan. These new types of men’s esute may be linked to a variety of social issues which will be discussed further.
Social Implications of the New Image
1. Transition from past masculine image
It is in the last two decades that the image of the idealized male began changing. During postwar Japan, much of the masculine image was tied with the macho, selfless male character which was idealized in the popular culture.33 However, with the birth of the Shinjinrui during the 1980s, there was a shift in the New Man image.
2. What women want
This new image of the male counterparts could be linked to the kawaii culture of Japan because this image appears to be infantile and pure looking. Female fans have accounted that the attempts of young innocent boys to act stylish and cool makes them ‘somewhat pitiful, and therefore very cute’.34
The interpretation to this image change could be explained by the various political, economic and social perspectives as follows:
1. Consumer Capitalism
The rise of consumer capitalism which boosts the growth of beauty and fashion industries can explain the rising consciousness that Japanese male put to portraying the right look.35 Edwards (1997)36 says:
2. Outcome of ‘Aesthetic Communication
In this notion, beauty works for men is seen to be the adoption of female sensibilities as a part of self-expression. It is this aesthetic that pulls in ideas from others together with inputs of local principles to become something uniquely Japan.
3. Form of Resistance
The rejection of uniforms in schools and suits in corporations, visible in the new fashions among younger Japanese men, can be seen to oppose the old, rigid salaryman icon.
Entering into female spaces, Japanese men, to some are seen as becoming feminine where males are turning their bodies into object of gaze, hence losing their patriarchal position in Japan. However, from the female perspectives, these men retain their masculinity which is concurrently presented with a surface beauty. As a result, this new image can be viewed to be reinforcing the patriarchal positions of the male Japanese.39 Hence women have become doubly marginalized, indicating little change to the existing gender power relations. Hence we conclude that although masculinity is shifting in Japan, the patriarchal positions of the Japanese male have not changed.
The Emergence of Trendsetters
These are girls of high school age who are in tuned with fashions and trends, and are recognized easily by their dressing and grooming choices. There are 2 basic social changes in the 1990s which accounts for Kogaru’s influences:
1. Declining youth population
The decline in population numbers results in less competition for high school students to gain entry into college. With fewer individuals competing, female students are more likely to enter into college or junior college directly after graduation. In short, it meant that the kogaru experiences less pressure to focus on academic performance hence they are able to devote more time to fashion.
2. Japan’s severe recession
During the recession, students were worried about employment opportunities. In particular, the female graduates experienced the most difficulty in finding employment. The recession prompted Japanese to change their fashion taste in consumption, to opt for lower pricing and small consumer products which matched the kogaru’s consumption patterns.
Prior to the trendsetting phenomenon, much media coverage of kogaru were linked to the sex industry. The media reported that such occurrence were due to the need for the girls to earn spending money which in turn would be used to feed their purchases.
Consumption and Relationships: Neo-tribe
Kogaru is a recognizable social type although the degree to which members manifest the characteristics associated may vary.
Branded goods – in many countries belong to the purchases of the upper class. However, for Japan, which is viewed as a classless society, many young women do not hesitate to buy luxury products just to amuse themselves and look cool. 42 Louis Vuitton, for instance, reports that Japanese customers account for one-third of the company’s worldwide turnover.
These trophy purchases can be explained by the need for Japanese to express and enjoy their wealth since expensive housing and the problem of space for cars almost made it impossible for Japanese to display their wealth.
Status through Consumption
For the females, they receive lower recognition both at work and their education levels. As a result, they indulge in branded goods to display their status and sophistication. High-class brands are generally regarded as possessing genuine qualities.
Living for consumption or work
To conclude the fashion component, we can see that the real power of women is not as workers but as consumers. Work, for many Japanese, especially the younger ones is neither for building the company nor the nation. It is taken as a means to build self. Work is undertaken for motives of consumption.
Mass media is the most widespread form of “creative” influence on society and it is the most accessible form of entertainment. However, society also impinges onto mass media and shapes various aspects of how it is presented. After all, without an “audience” mass media would be redundant. Mass media encompasses various forms of communication which reaches out to the general public and over the years Japanese television, music and video games have flourished with the advancements in technology. Through studying various components of mass media, we will be better equipped in understanding Japanese society and aspects of its construct.
Japanese television is a keenly contested industry with a few major broadcasters vying for the “attention” of the public. TV dramas are the main source of entertainment on TV and in order to attract audiences, broadcasters produce shows which cater directly to the interest of various populations of the public. Generally, dramas stretch for a period of 3 months and an episode airs every week with each drama having on average 11 to 12 episodes. The actors often determine the popularity of a show and stars with greater popularity are cast to attract a greater proportion of the viewing population. However, time slots also play a part in the popularity of various shows, with the night time slots considered as the “Prime” slots. Shows which are expected to attract the most audience are given the “better” slots with the Monday 9pm slot being saved for the most appealing drama serial. The greatest amount of television traffic is in the September-December period as people tend to stay indoors during the cold winter months. Competition is also the fiercest amongst the various broadcasters during this period as the various stations showcase their blockbuster dramas.
Japanese television is not only a form of entertainment though; it is a medium which viewers feel they can relate closely to. They are able to draw parallels to their lives and formulate ideas on “acceptable” truths of life as dramas often reflect “actual or idealized conditions in society”43. Dramas such as “Power Office Girls”, “Under the Same Roof” and “Orange Days” showcase working life in a huge Japanese corporation, family life and university life respectively. Such dramas which mirror the Japanese lifestyle makes the viewer feels as though their troubles are understood and they feel emotionally connected to such dramas. There are also dramas which are used as a medium to reinforce certain ideas and also to integrate the various changes and make them more acceptable in Japanese society. At times, the influence that some dramas hold spill over to real life – life imitates art, and viewers use dramas as a cue or a reference point to emulate and recreate similar scenarios and lifestyles. The viewer-drama link is precisely what the broadcaster exploits, as once they are able to hold the attention of the public, they are guaranteed the ratings.
One prime example of how society and mass media are directly linked is the changing gender role portrayed in Japanese television which is also reflected in Japanese society. The change was from “Reliable mothers” and “suffering women” in TV dramas through 1970s44 to “Fuyuhiko Syndrome”: Demonic Mothers and Mother-Dominated Sons in TV dramas of the 1990s45. Gender roles in married couples also saw a shift to “working wives and family-oriented fathers”46. Broadcasters changed the way women were represented in order to accommodate the change in the roles of women in Japanese society. Women were no longer limited to playing a supporting role at home and the “stronger” representation of women in various dramas further enforced that change in mindset and trend.
Construction of Jpop Industry
Popular music for the masses as we know it today began with the Jazz Boom in 1952, and progressed to the Rock and Roll phenomenon in 1956. These trends reflected those of popular music in the US which was responsible for infusing Japan with consumer culture during the post-World War II American occupation. In the later progressions to New Music, City Pops and finally J-Pop as we know it today the Japanese became increasingly adept at adopting western trends and ‘ideas’ and repackaging them to generate a ‘uniquely Japanese’ flavour.
J-Pop today encompasses a wide spectrum of music, including pop, rock, dance, rap and soul. While its consumers seem mainly to be young Japanese who lap up the latest trends, stars and music the industry churns out at lightning speed; it is amazingly still controlled by elderly Japanese men who would never be part of the targeted demographic. The structure of the industry mirrors that of the general corporate Japan, where domination of the industry is by a few core and big companies who generally manage many singers and stars. Medium sized companies rarely exist, while small independent ‘indie’ labels47 have managed to gain a foothold in the independent rock scene, resulting in these major players starting their own ‘indie’ labels to compete.
The speed at which new songs are released reflects the short lifespan of works of popular media and more importantly, the stiff competition in the industry. The industry is evolving and the traditional big players have found the rise of indie labels, growing diversification in taste and changing demographic of their customers require new strategies to stimulate demand48.
Video games are a big industry in Japan, with the core players being Sony and Nintendo. The former gaining a massive fanbase with its Playstation series and Nintendo having its Gameboys conquer the handheld market. Nintendo also has its Gamecube to compete with Sony’s Playstation 1 and 2. Microsoft’s Xbox has yet to make a real impact in the Japanese market at present, by virtue of its not being Japanese probably, not to mention being a late entry in the game console market. Sega has failed to conquer the console market and now suffers the fate of not having new software titles being developed for it.
While there are only these few console makers, the number of software players providing games is huge. Playing console games has become a lifestyle for the ordinary Japanese, defying old stereotypes. Figures in 2000 showed that contrary to the perception that only ‘glazed incoherent teenage boys’ were video console games fans, “35 percent of video game players” were women, of which 54 percent being over the age of 1849.
This has led to worries of possible social ills as a result as the line between fiction and reality is seen to be blurred for these gamers. The genres of games range from the usual racing games, to the downright violent blood and gore games to the almost absurd dating stimulation games.
Violence especially was a cause for concern, especially with the “rise in teen violence over the past few years – sparking the same kind of media examination as in the USA.” Among the many possible reasons, video games were highlighted as a possible culprit in the rise of violent crimes committed by young Japanese. Japan did not have a rating or controlling system for console games up till 2000, though the Computer.
Entertainment Software Association (CESA) was set up during that period with regulation of video games content in mind.
The “Hello-Kitty Phenomenon”
Popular culture in Japan is best exemplified by the huge array and popularity of character goods. They can nearly be described as ubiquitous. We will use the example of Hello Kitty to bring across the concept of popular culture in Japan.
Hello Kitty brings up the concept of ‘consumutopia’, which refers to the joint endeavor between capitalist producers and product consumers to establish sites, practices, or spaces of ‘perfect consumption’. This is exactly what the concept of popular culture is all about.
So the question here is, “Why is the mouth-less cat so popular?” This question often comes to mind and will be tackled in this part of the report on popular culture in Japan. The possible reasons that could have led to the “Hello-Kitty Phenomenon” are as follows:
Ideal family life
The world of “Hello-Kitty” consists of the grandparents, parents, as well as a twin sister, Mimmy. This represents the ideal family structure in Japan and thus, could have led to its popularity as people seek to bring home a part of this idealized family life structure, albeit it being artificial.
Idea of nostalgia
Hello Kitty has been around since 1974. Due to its long history, women in their twenties and thirties may be collecting Hello Kitty merchandises out of a need for the feeling of nostalgia.
“Hello Kitty is also closely associated with sentiments of ‘intimacy’, ‘familiarity’, and ‘friendship’ (shitashimi)”. These ideas that are brought across through the purchase of Hello Kitty products could well be another factor contributing to its popularity.
Symbol of the Japanese’s ‘kawaii’ nature
It has always been in Japanese’s culture to adore all things ‘cute’ and this could be one of the reason for the undying craze over Hello-Kitty merchandises, which in turn led to her rising popularity in Japan.
Japanese women also relate ‘cute’ to comfort, which provides them the security and comfort that they yearn to have. Therefore, these Japanese women tend to collect Hello-Kitty merchandises, as an alternative way of gaining comfort. This is especially essential in a society where Japanese women tend to be left at home, as their husbands spend long hours at work.
Hello Kitty represents “a type of femininity that highlights cultural desirables, such as sincerity, kindness (yasashisa) and sensitivity to the feelings of others (omoiyari).”
These characteristics are what are typically expected of Japanese women in society and are considered norm behaviours of the Japanese women.
“Owning things with cartoon characters on them shows one’s childlike nature…It is proof of one’s youthfulness, which is now considered a positive attribute.” (Yamazaki, 1999)
This could have led to the rising popularity of Hello Kitty commodities amongst the more matured segment of Japanese women.
Freedom of expression
Hello Kitty is famous for being the mouth-less cat icon in Japan. Hello Kitty being mouth-less, has been interpreted as allowing for the freedom of expression, allowing the person looking at her to project their feelings onto the character.
Group unity nature of Japanese
The “Hello Kitty Phenomenon” also reflects on the Japanese-like trait of group behaviour, whereby the Japanese tend to follow trends blindly. Japanese are afraid of being labeled as outcasts, resulting in a “follow-the-leader” propensity. Buying Hello Kitty products therefore provides them with a sense of solidarity and security by making all collectors seem like members of a group.
The need to feel as part of a group is essential in Japanese society and thus resulted in the craze over Hello Kitty, even till now.
As seen from the above, there are many different aspects of popular culture in Japan. Popular culture did not evolve overnight. Social circumstances of different times led to its ‘development’, or rather ‘evolution. Even till now, social situations, as well as consumers themselves continue to shape popular culture.
Also, there are many social issues that have arisen as a result of popular culture in Japan. Whether it is the circumstance under which they developed, or the social issues that they bring about, we can safely conclude that popular culture is a social construct.
1. Kinsella, Sharon, 2000, Adult Manga: Culture & Power in Contemporary Japanese Society, Curzon Press.
2. McVeigh, Brian J, 2000, “How Hello Kitty Commodifies the Cute, Cool, and Camp” in Journal of Material Culture 5:2, 225-245.
3. Craig, Timothy, 2000, Japan pop! : Inside the World of Japanese Popular Culture, Armonk, N.Y. : M.E. Sharpe.
4. Schodt, Frederik,1983, Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics, Kodansha International
5. Joy Hendry, 2003, Understanding Japanese Society 3rd edition, New York: Routledge
6. Laura Miller, 2003, Men and masculinities in contemporary Japan : dislocating the salaryman doxa , New York : RoutledgeCurzon
7. Fruhstuck, S, Consumption and Material Culture in Contemporary Japan, London: Kegan Paul
8. Tim Edwards, 1997, Men in the mirror : men’s fashion, masculinity and consumer society, London ; Herndon, VA : Cassell
9. Horrocks, Roger., 1995, Male Myths and Icons: Masculinity in Popular Culture, New York : St. Martin’s Press
10. Suzuki Tadashi, “The Emergence of Trendsetters for Fashion and Fads”, Kogaru in 1990s Japan, The Sociological Quarterly, Volume 44, Number 1, pp. 67-68