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.
Movie adaptations of video games rarely work.
For every Silent Hill and Resident Evil there’s a Final Fantasy, Super Mario Bros. or Prince of Persia.
But things go better when Hollywood isn’t meddling with the Japanese source material.
And so it is we wait with bated breath for the upcoming film version of The Idolmaster, the mega successful Namco Bandai Xbox game that sees players become Yasushi Akimoto-type idol producers. If you’ve ever wanted to be in charge of your own idol group, this is the game for you.
The Idolmaster Movie: Kagayaki no Mukogawa e! (The Idolmaster Movie: To the Other Side of the Light) is a brave choice. Although the franchise is immensely successful as a game and anime series, how do you turn such a subject matter into a feature-length film?
And without the interaction element of the game and the digestible length of the TV anime, will it be as interesting for the general public, enough to justify the larger budget?
There is always the problem of the fine line between satisfying the hardcore fans and also bringing in new audiences.
Here’s the trailer.
We will find out on January 25th when it premieres in Shinjuku.
AKB at the ASEAN summit… Did we think we’d see the day? It’s come, also confirming that they (or their successors) will almost certainly be main stage at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games opening ceremony.
As the leaders of Asia gather in Tokyo to discuss trade, borders and all that jazz, PM Shinzo Abe kicked off the bonanza by showing off Japanese culture at a special gala dinner he hosted.
Well, otaku idol mega-group AKB48 was chosen as the ambassadors of wa for reasons we can’t personally fathom other than it might match up to the government’s odd manufactured image of “cool Japan”.
We are very curious to hear what the heads of China and Korea muttered to their lackeys as they watched the “virgins” of AKB strutting their stuff. In attendance were the leaders of Vietnam, the Philippines, China, Korea, Thailand, Brunei, Indonesia and more.
For the girls (i.e. the spouses of the premiers), male band Exile also performed.
The ASEAN summit marks 40 years of relations between Japan and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
It’s long been no secret that otaku and other “undesirables” are targeted by overseas governments keen to suppress what they consider a subculture that veers into the realm of “child pornography”.
However, now even a harmless example of inventive merchandising has come under threat.
An otaku apparently tried to use a special decorated The Idolmaster (Aidorumasutā) credit card in America but was suspected of fraud because the card contained “cute” pictures and might be mistaken for a “toy”.
Apparently, the otaku’s bank Mitsui Sumitomo then vouched for the authenticity of the card and the otaku was allowed to escape the clutches of the anti-moe brigade.
It has to be said, though, that the sources of this story are from the Japanese interwebs and we cannot verify this with any original news story from America.
While the crowds were flocking to see the latest innovations in the Japanese automotive industry for the Tokyo Motor Show, there was another big car event in Odaiba last week.
As Nissan and Toyota et al showed off their concept cars that might just indicate the future of mobility (or the labors of an generously funded R&D department), November 24th also saw a one-day-only Itasha exhibition out in the bay.
Itasha are heavily — well, let’s be honest, overly — decorated cars that reflect the owner’s tastes in moe. A typical Itasha will feature shojo girls and other anime characters, and of course is driven by a self-professed otaku.
On Sunday, over 80 cars were driven down to Odaiba to be shown off to the world.
This “three-dimensional” Madoka car was spotted earlier this year and caused a storm on Twitter. Nice to see it back.
[All images via MyNavi.]
Thunderbirds, the classic Sixties puppets TV show created by the late Gerry Anderson, is still quite popular in Japan.
We reported last year, for example, on the Thunderbirds-themed restaurant in Jinbocho.
“Thunderbirds 2086″ was a short-lived anime based on the British Supermarionation series, while eagle-eyed anime bloggers have spotted many other references in anime that pay homage to Thunderbirds. Japan even produced its own marionette tokusatsu TV called “X-Bomber”, though it, well, kind of bombed.
Visitors can enjoy 3D films, as well as models and exhibits showing off the workmanship behind the original series’ effects.
There is even a Thunderbirds 2 that you can interact with (details aren’t clear at time of writing — we’ll have to wait till next week to find out more).
Kentaro Yoshida, executive officer of TFC, Japanese agent for the Classic Thunderbirds brand, was quoted as saying: “Miraikan with the help of so many of the big names behind technological innovation in Japan, has done a great job of creating an exhibition that will appeal to a wide range of age groups. And of course Thunderbirds, with its enormous following in Japan, is the perfect vehicle for the exhibition. With its 50th anniversary coming in 2015 it still looks futuristic.”
The first 500 visitors on the first day have also been promised original Thunderbirds merchandise.
The Thunderbirds Expo runs from July 10th to September 23rd, with tickets for adults costing ¥1,300 and ¥700 for kids.
All this Thunderbirds love is one thing, from the cult following to ironic retro love or genuine popularity amongst a new, younger generation — but we think things went a bit too far when the Japanese Self-Defense Force started to use Thunderbirds on their recruitment posters.
While the world goes mad for Christmas, anime fans are gathering in Akihabara for the Fuyu no Rajikan Matsuri 2012 (Winter Radio Kaikan Festival 2012), where so-called “itasha” (cars decorated with characters) will be parading on December 23rd and 24th.
The underground car park of the Akihabara UDX building is playing host to the Christmas Itasha Festa, with Hatsune Miku-themed and other customized vehicles strutting their wares to camera-totting crowds. Not quite The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, but still pretty cool.
Owners pay ¥6,000 (around $70) per day to exhibit their vehicles in the car park. There will also be regular cosplay in the venue.
Such decoration trends have been becoming popular of late, spreading to trucks, bikes and more — and have been gaining recognition in mainstream culture as well. Previous Itasha festivals have been held in Odaiba, Maebashi and elsewhere.
“Ita” is a word commonly found in the otaku lexicon, literally meaning “painful” (itai) but here referring to the amount of money (and effort) involved in expressing your moe in this way.
Whatever you think of otaku anime — and we know that many people have issues with its attitudes towards women and young girls — undoubtedly it is a subculture that truly celebrates individual playfulness in a fun way.
Gundam nabe, anyone?
In these colder months locals in Japan tend to indulge in some nicely warming nabe hot pots.
Following the million-selling success of the previous Zaku Tofu, you can now get your hands on yet another molded tofu, this time in the form of the Z’GOK (Zugokku), one of the mobile suits that feature in the anime franchise Gundam, all courtesy of food-maker Sagamiya. The idea is that you then plonk this oddity in your nabe hot pot to show how your otaku hobbies define your culinary tastes.
Not just nabe, there’s nothing to stop you customizing other dishes or making toppings for just about anything really if you are desperate to turn your meal into scenes from the meccha series. If you are fast enough, you can also get your hungry hands on dessert tofus too.
And until January 11th you can even upload your own pictures of your Gundam nabe concoctions to a special Z’GOK nabe website and then prizes will be given for the most original entries. Take a look at some of the entries so far.
So, get your chef’s cap on and start cooking up that anime tofu masterpiece!
No more flabby anime fans. Stop watching Evangelion and get off the couch. You’ve got walking to do!
That’s what health gadgets maker Tanita is banking on with this Evangelion Digital Pocket Pedometer, a limited edition tie-up fitness device now on pre-order, to be sold in Lawson convenience stores from March next year.
As you might expect, there are different versions for different characters — Asuka Langley Soryu, Kaori Nagisa, NERV, and the insanely popular Rei Ayanami — aimed at otaku, hardcore or not, who like the series and want to get fit.
And if you live in Tokyo you will also be able to take part in a competition with other Evangelion pedestrians, with data of your route sent to a campaign website that tracks a map of everyone’s promenades. There are locations from nineteen key Evangelion scenes placed virtually into the Tokyo landscape.
You can use the FeliCa reader in the Loppi terminals in Lawson stores to upload your calorie burn-off, walking distances and more to the website where you can manage your progress (there’s apparently a ¥2000 yen six-month fee for use of the service). Just don’t then get tempted in the shop to buy one of those fatty cream buns.
If you walk 8,000 steps in a day you get one point. Sending your data to the site from a Loppi terminal rewards you with another point. Every ten points means you can apply to receive special (but unspecified) tie-up merchandise.
The idea is that fans walk 400,000 steps or 280km in 50 days. The more you walk, the higher your ranking (and we all know how competitive subculture fans can get).
Lawson seems to like positioning itself as the convenience store of choice for otaku (though it’s not alone among competitors). It previously held a campaign selling merchandise for the K-On! and Puella Madoka Magica franchises, plus there was the now infamous Evangelion-themed store in Hakone in 2010 that was so popular it had to close almost immediately.