Japan is a country that seems to inspire more than its far share of stereotypes and myths. The overseas media is also complicit in perpetuating many of the images of Japan that make it seem weird, exotic and unfathomable. What irk the most are the ones that mold Japan as a nation of wackos with bizarre tastes in fashion, beauty, sex and entertainment. This isn’t just Japan; the western media continually likes to mock and belittle Asian countries. Would Psy have been such a hit if there hadn’t been a “weird dance” (actually originally very tongue-in-cheek)?
Here are five we particularly dislike and feel are wrong (in whole or in part), and also harmful and patronizing.
Yes, there are mascots — lots of them.
The Self-Defense Force has them, as does the police and even the Japanese Communist Party. Some days it feels like you can’t get away from mascot characters, on TV, advertising or merchandise. But that doesn’t mean people are stupid or only interested in something because of a mascot.
Mascot culture has been a big success story for regional tourism, hence why it has become something of a phenomenon in recent years. This is a fascinating social development and offers lessons in tourism. But also don’t confuse it with the idea that everyone in Japan walks around with mascot toys in their bags.
A nation of geeks
This links in with the mascot thing. Sure, manga and anime are popular here. hHwever, one of the biggest mistranslations and inaccurate use of language concerns the idea of “subcultures”. If we had a yen for every time we saw the words “anime subculture” in Japanese or English. More often than not, it’s being used incorrectly. What’s important here is how manga and anime are indeed mainstream — but in the sense that cartoons and comics are part of popular culture in America too. No one calls American geeks because of how successful “The Avengers” was, right? But the movie was seen by thousands of non-fans too.
What has changed in recent years is that certain types of manga and anime have risen in status — by which we mean subcultural content previously associated mostly with hardcore fans, especially science fiction. However, manga and anime itself is not a subculture. Quite the opposite: they are part of pop culture. So just because they are a visible element in Japan, it cannot be correlated solely with “geeky” culture.
The difference is that there is a whole wealth of anime and manga that can be enjoyed by adults too, not to mention the tens of thousands of titles specifically meant for older audiences (and we don’t mean “adult content” either). This is like how there are graphic novels and the likes of Robert Crumb in America, plus a quality Pixar animation is entertaining for all ages.
That’s what’s interesting; not that everyone in Japan is an otaku because they read comics even after the age of 18, but that there are comics that cater to predilections that go way beyond superheroes. If you look at the annual list of bestsellers, Japan has some of most varied reading tastes. What was the biggest box office hit recently in Japan? Yes, it was an anime. But it was Studio Ghibli’s “The Wind Rises”, which frankly is as mainstream as any Disney picture.
What makes us doubly angry is that “Cool Japan” is also getting it wrong, promoting a subculture — something for a select taste — as representative of all that’s good about Japan. And so we have embarrassments like AKB48 (not even a true example of genuine otaku culture anymore) performing at the ASEAN gala banquet.
We have been guilty of helping with this myth ourselves. Sure, there are some bizarre beauty gadgets in Japan. But they are genuine skincare and health tools, no matter how odd the pictures sometimes look. From electric nose-lifters to face sliming mouthpieces, there is a whole pantheon of frankly visually alarming gadgets out there. But we actually think these are pretty amazing and not just to be scoffed at.
Either way, they are unusual items that are used by a minority of people. It’s not the case that everyone women is walking around with wacky mouthpieces jutting out of their jaws in a quest to retain their youthful beauty.
And at the end of the day, the beauty trends that should really be grabbing the headlines are the amazing quality of Japanese cosmetics and make-up, from Shiseido to Kanebo and shu uemura.
The catalog of articles here would be notorious and too long to list, but the perennial claim is one of two extremes or even both at the same time: the Japanese are not interested in sex anymore, and/or they are super kinky and like to get their kicks at strange fetish clubs or through 2D characters.
There are extremes in every culture and we love how Japan, free of the notion of original sin and other moral hangups in the monotheistic world, is able to find a way for more unusual sexual customs to exist alongside the so-called mainstream. But they are just that: fringe elements. As healthy and often refreshing (if mind-boggling) as they are, the majority of men in Japan are not interested in pursuing anime girls or even Akihabara “idols”.
And we find it laughable this image that young people are not interested in sexual relations (any reporter who writes an article on this should go and visit a college campus or nightclub).
Japan is prohibitively expensive
Not so “wacky” this one but we still hate it always gets rolled out as a stereotype to explain how “opaque” and formiddable the lifestyle in Japan — especially Tokyo — is. Japan is not expensive. Sure, if you take the average apartment in America and Europe and compare it to a similar size in Tokyo, it will seem crazy. But no one lives like that. Things are compact in Japan (not small, compact) and you have to adjust your scale a little. In fact, it is far more affordable to live alone in Tokyo and go out for meals on a very regular basis than other cities.
What is expensive? Up-front fees for apartments, though this has improved recently. Some fruit and vegetables. Hostess clubs. Shinkansen bullet train tickets.
Everything else is pretty reasonable, not least because consumption tax is relatively low (it’s going up this spring, though) and prices have hardly changed in over ten years (the up side of the “Lost Decade”). You can shop at UNIQLO et al if you are on a budget and there is a host of great eating-out options for as little as ¥1,000-¥2,000 yen for a nice meal. Try getting an apartment for one, paying for daily transport costs, utility bills and going out half a dozen times a week in New York or a major European city… and then you’ll see what we mean.
And if don’t believe us, head over to Tokyo Cheapo for some tips on enjoying yourself in Japan on a budget.
Another year, another packed calendar of trends.
What were some of the main ones that caught our eye throughout the past twelve months?
Tokyo was awarded the 2020 Olympic Games amidst great controversy, not least the continuing plight of Fukushima and Tohoku, PM Abe’s lies to the IOC that the situation was “under control”, an already ballooning budget, a non-Japanese architect handling the stadium design, and a rather bizarrely pronounced presentation by Christel Takigawa (whose bank balance — along with Dentsu’s — has done very nicely out of the Olympics, of course). Oh, and the man celebrating in the center of the picture above is Naoki Inose, the Governor of Tokyo who has lost his job over a financial scandal.
TV Drama is Big Again
After years of flagging TV ratings, the year scored some major television hits, not least NHK’s morning drama Amachan and Hanzawa Naoki.
Mascots (official and not so)
Everyone knows that Japan loves mascots. Now even the Communist Party has some cute characters. In particular, the year has seen the meteroic rise of “unofficial” pear mascot Funassyi from Funabashi in Chiba.
Ghibli strikes golds
Studio Ghibli’s The Wind Rises was a phenomenal hit in Japan, not least because it was announced as Miyao Miyazaki’s final anime film… but he has said this before. While the Ghibli/Miyazaki brand is formidable, the success of the movie is pretty incredible when you considered how uncommercial its subject matter (fight plane design!) is. The jury’s still out on its overseas reception, though.
Meanwhile, Takashi Murakami’s first anime feature film appeared to make zero impact.
From the ascent of Starbucks to become the nation’s second largest chain — along the way opening a special traditional crafts branch in Meguro — to the fashion for convenience stores to offer their own drip coffee products, Japan has become one of the biggest consumers of coffee in the world. It also comes with its own generous portion of snobbery and hipster-dom, aided by a constantly renewing library of magazines and books about which espresso bar to go to in which area of Tokyo at which time.
Bakattaa is a new word that was coined to describe one of the biggest online trends this year. It means the idiots (baka) who tweet pictures of themselves doing silly stuff. This has proved particularly problematic when the said fools are doing unhygienic stunts at their part-time jobs in restaurants and shops. This has led to bankruptcies and job losses, but the trend seems to show no sign of abating. The news today mentioned a man in Osaka who stupidly tweeted that he had stabbed someone. If you’re going to do a crime, don’t tell social media! The current generation in their teens and twenties are digital natives, and thus are still negotiating the new rules of caution and courtesy when tweeting a selfie. This is worldwide, of course. Remember the idiots who tweeted questions asking who Osama bin Laden was when he was killed? This took the same amount of typing time as they could have used to answer their own question if they had bothered to think before “sharing”.
Mt Fuji was given designation as a World Heritage site by UNESCO earlier in the year, while washoku (Japanese food) was also registered as an Intangible Cultural Heritage. However, this was soured by the continuing controversy over contamination in Fukushima and how it was affecting crops, as well as a food mislabeling scandal engulfing many noted restaurants and hotels.
Rise in Nationalism
Japan is going backwards. Prime Minister Abe is set on reversing history. He has passed a massively controversial state secrets bill, forged ahead with returning to nuclear power, purchased drones and a raft of other military equipment to “protect” contested territories, announced his intent to change the pacifist constitution, and now capped off the year by visiting the most sensitive place in Japan, Yasukuni Shrine. Good job, Mr Abe. A lesson in diplomacy for the world.
Coupled with the rise of regional right-wingers like Toru Hashimoto in Osaka and the unstoppable juggernaut that is Shintaro Ishihara (when will the octogenarian die?!), these are very, very troubling times for the country. Is this Cool Japan?
A little while ago we introduced a plucky newbie yuru-kyara mascot, Funassyi.
As a native of Funabashi in Chiba prefecture, he has been striving to revitalize the local culture and economy of the city. His name Funassyi is a combination word of the city name, Funabashi, and nashi (pear), which is the city’s local specialty. With a simple face that is often described as like child’s doodling, while he might not be the most kawaii of mascots, he has proven the old saying, action matters more than words –- and maybe appearances too.
He was recently voted No.1 in the Regional Mascot Contest, sponsored by Japan Department Stores Association.
In a different contest held last year, he ranked 506th out of 865 entries, which by the way wasn’t bad at all considering that he had no backing from the local government, unlike others — and he still does not hold any “official” title or approval from the city.
At this point, though, he probably does not want any support from public officials. I don’t think I’m the only one who sees more of the entrepreneur spirit in Funassyi, a kind of gutsiness that is definitely lacking in Japan’s “official” government. It’s no surprise, then, that Funassyi is now taking the lead in promoting his own community and bringing more people and money to his territory.
A new DVD titled “Funanomics” released at the end of July sounds very much like a parody of the supposedly more powerful Abenomics, yet Funassyi is all serious when it comes to getting to work.
As mentioned earlier, his character is best appreciated in action! Here’s the promotional video for the DVD.
In collaboration with Yahoo! Japan, Funassyi is now also running a charity marathon with the catch phrase “You can participate anytime 24 hours a day!”
At first the title might sound too confusing, as it suggests that the project will only run for 24 hours. But this is not the case. In fact, it might just be a satirical swipe against Nippon TV’s 24 hour telethon, which was aired last weekend over August 24th and 25th. Charity is certainly not something that should be forced on, nor should it be promoted as a business on national television, with (reportedly) millions of money spent on paying all the popular celebrities who made appearances on the show.
In his marathon, Funassyi runs ten centimeters for every yen that is donated. For every twenty-five kilometers he runs, a new version of the downloadable Funassyi wallpaper is added to the list of four wallpapers as gifts for the participants and donors.
The donations will be used to help people in the disaster-affected areas in various parts of Japan and to fund non-profit organizations that aim to develop society through the Internet.
You might have thought that communism was safe from mascots but then you’d be wrong.
The cast of eight mascots include Otento-sun, a sun who is fighting nuclear power, a purse called Gamagucchan who looks after tax reduction for ordinary households, Shiisa, an Okinawan lion dog (shisa) in charge of the issue of US bases in Okinawa, and Kakusan (“proliferation”), the leader.
The characters were used as part of the campaigning for the recent election and communist cosplay could be seen around Japan, with supporters dressed up as the characters. The idea is to make politics easier to understand and engage potential voters via digital media. (The recent elections also marked the first time that candidates were allowed to use the Internet in campaigning, indicating the things are gradually changing.) Before scoffing, we should remember that the turnout for the recent Upper House election fell several percent — so anything that raises the profile of genuine politics can’t be a bad thing.
The JCP is actually not a communist party in the true sense of the word. It does not aspire to implement communal ownership of property, nor has it done so for decades. Perhaps the most radical thing it might do if it ever gained a majority might be to re-nationalize a few things. After the war, having been heavily persecuted during the militarist era and then again by the US occupation authorities, it still tried to
It sent guerilla activists into the mountains to try to kick-start local subversion and rebellions against dam projects, but all was to no avail. It realized it was never going to get elected this way and official renounced armed struggle. It named its new identity “lovable communism” (aisaseru kyosanshugi).
Since the late Fifties it has never advocated subversive actions and its participation in the Anpo struggles in 1960 and 1970 were peaceful, as were its contribution to the anti-Vietnam War campaigns. However, for this it earned the ire of student radicals and other groups, especially for its failure to assist properly in the protests against Narita Airport and the controversial docking of a US submarine in Sasebo in 1968. A student group split from its youth movement in the late Fifties and thus began the New Left/Old Left dichotomy that essentially defined Japanese left-wing politics after the war.
Today the JCP is doing rather well. Its membership and subscription to the Akahata have risen in recent years with the fears of growing disparity in Japan since the Lost Decade began, fears which were then further exasperated by the worldwide recession that saw lots of temps laid off and soup kitchens in Tokyo. In the recent local government elections and Upper House election it made small but significant gains.
However, its protectionist policies might be baffling to some. For example, it is opposed to the increasing of consumption tax — surely the most universal and fair way to raise money for the burden of the aging population — and is against the TPP trade tariff agreement. (Actually, as a more learned commentator has pointed out, the inherent conservatism of all the parties that form the ostensible opposition to the ruling LDP, a bone fide conservative party, are all lacking in progressive, active policies.)
It should also be noted that the JCP apparently hired an ad agency to design the mascots, which hardly smacks of trying to pulling down the pillars of capitalism.
As Japan’s population continues to decline, we see more and more non-human characters pop out and come to life on a daily basis. The yuru-kyara boom which started less than a decade ago is now gaining momentum and dominating our everyday lives.
Yuru-kyara refers to a character or a mascot representative of a city or a prefecture, whose primary mission is to promote and vitalize its local culture and community. The name yuru-kyara is an abbreviation of two words: yurui which means “loose”, and kyara – character.
They are not meant to be lovable in the obvious way that facilitates money-making like other commercial figures (Mickey Mouse, Hello Kitty, Snoopy etc) or anime characters — at least not when they were first introduced to the scene. This notion obviously is starting to change as we see more and more people see monetary value in the popularity of their promotional mascot characters, which is completely understandable.
For example, the very popular Kumamon mascot, Kumamoto’s yuru-kyara, is estimated to have generated around 640 million yen for the prefecture, and the sales of Kumamon merchandise totaled over 2,500 million yen in 2011.
While many of these characters are now becoming more like commercial figures, here I would like to introduce a lesser-known newbie, a native of Funabashi City, Chiba, and one which is not even approved or supported by the local government. This unofficial mascot called Funassyi is a “pear” fairy (the word for pear in Japanese is nashi) and looks like, well, a yellow pear with a face.
Despite its unofficial status and supposedly low publicity, Funassyi ranked 506th in the 2012 yuru-kyara “grand prix” popularity contest, out of 865 entries, which I guess isn’t too shabby. Now Funassyi is everywhere.
Incidentally, the winner of the 2012 Grand Prix was Barii-san, the simple but huggable character for Imabari in Ehime, and who jumped up from being second place last time. That’s him below.
Perhaps what makes Funassyi quite different from many others is that he is a talking mascot (and he talks a LOT) and appears to be a bit wacky as well. In this clip, his talk starts around 1:00 in (after a spot of dancing). Notice the enthusiastic waves and responses he gets from the crowd.
So why hasn’t Funabashi City adopted him? The answer is rather obvious – because they don’t want to. Instead, they recently announced their own “official” city mascot named Funaemon, who has no resemblance whatsoever to Funassyi.
This is Funaemon below, a more conservative and “human” yuru-kyara than the pear that is Funassyi. But which is the better mascot?
Will this move be enough to kick the unofficial yet one-and-only Funassyi out of the game? It seems like the odds are against the bureaucrats!