Japanese Pop Culture
Japanese anime, manga, and game shows are very popular among young people in America. However, there are all kinds of people in Japan, not just young men, so even if you love Dragon Ball, the majority of Japanese popular culture has probably never been explained to you. So you came to this talk.
Because Japan is a conservative island society which uses a language that few other people understand, Japanese people sometimes feel like they alone know their culture, media, and traditions. Contrasts with the American approach to culture are evident from the start. The core language curriculum, rather than being labeled “Japanese,” is called “Kokugo,” or “our country’s language.” English is seen as the language of the world, Japanese as the language of just one country. Americans tend to believe their culture is international: it mixes and incorporates all other cultures of the world and is then broadcasted to all others. Japanese tend to see their culture as something unique and even private, which only they can fully appreciate and understand. As an ALT, you are charged with internationalizing your community. This means not just teaching your culture but also showing that you can understand theirs. The more you know, the more you will amaze them. Sing Japanese songs at karaoke with other teachers, and you’ll become a legend.
I. Major Influences on Japanese Pop Culture
A. Traditional Japanese Culture
Japan, compared to other countries, is a very conservative society. Traditional culture is a bigger part of life here than it is in Europe. This includes town festivals, traditional theatre like noh and kabuki, Shinto and Buddhist rites, etiquette, literature, poetry, and watching the sakura blossom. Local papers still publish citizens’ haiku every day! Themes and images from traditional Japan are frequently referenced in pop culture. Just about every musician has written a song called “Sakura.”
One example of confluence between old and new Japan is environmentalism. Japan’s traditional religion, Shinto, teaches that every living thing has a soul and should be respected. So it is very natural for artists like Hayao Miyazaki to dedicate their works to respecting the earth and living in harmony with it.
The culture of Japan’s show business is closer to its Asian neighbors, like Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam, than it is to America. Largely Japan is responsible for this, since it recovered from the Second World War and started producing media earlier than its neighbors, but we can also attribute similarities to East Asia’s millennia of communication and shared Confucianism.
The most important thing to know is that Asian culture is more conservative than the West. Some people say it’s “stuck in the 1950s,” as if it’s a bad thing, when it’s just different. It’s a big deal to see people holding hands on television, let alone hugging or kissing, which is fairly racy. Asian actresses typically break through as “idols”: beautiful, virginal, multi-talented women whom their male fans love from afar and want to protect. When bedroom pictures of Hong Kong actor Edison Chen with several actresses emerged on the Internet, everyone involved in the scandal had to retire, and Chang fled to America to escape retribution from the Triads, Hong Kong’s mafia, who invest a lot of money in the entertainment business. Yes, Japan is famous for crazy pornography, but that’s on the fringes of the culture, not the center stage.
Related to this conservatism, television is quite apolitical here. There are no programs like “The Daily Show” or “The Colbert Report” strictly devoted to skewering powerful figures and current events. People in general, I sense, are less political. Politics is for the gods in the clouds, not for daily consumption and argument between the people.
Many genres of Japanese television, like variety, comedy, drama, historical drama, and cooking programs, follow the Asian norm, not the Western one. Good luck finding a sitcom here. If you’ve never seen an Asian variety show, you’re about to find out what vaudeville was like.
The ideal man looks different here than he does in America. Even bullies on TV programs are much slimmer and more stylish, in contrast to the muscle-bound Atlases of Western advertisements.
Finally, the old Chinese proverb “A man who wakes up before dawn 360 days a year never fails to make his family rich,” quoted by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers, holds true here. Baseball games end in ties rather than going to extra innings so all the fans have time to get home. Television programming drops off after 10 PM. The only true party night in the Japanese schedule is Saturday.
C. The West
Finally, there is influence from the West, the birthplace of contemporary media and pop culture. Because most of you came from there you’ll be able to spot it easily. As a rule of thumb, anything transcribed in katakana is Western, and you can find foreign books, movies, and music in any city. Shows like “24” and “CSI” also make it over here, and your teachers and students will know them. For your kids, the pinnacles of the West will be the hamburger and Tokyo Disneyland.
What may surprise you is the way Western culture, even Christianity, is used for exotic appeal, much the same way Eastern culture is in the West. Weddings are a common example. Everyone wants at least a part of their ceremony to look like the Western ideal, so there are chapels devoted specifically to weddings even if the Christian underpinnings are not understood. The popular foreign holidays are Halloween and Christmas, which are the most commercial and have the most distinctive decorations. If you watch anime, you’ve probably seen a lot of crosses.
A. Food: Everybody in the world likes food, but Japanese people really, really, really like it. If you go on a trip, the first thing you should tell your teachers is what you ate there, and you should bring some food back (typically packaged as omiyage). Cooking programs and cooking books were huge here even before they took off in America, and cooking is a common subject for the variety shows as well. Thanks to modernization, the prefectures’ local cuisines are much more widely available than ever before. “Tampopo,” a comedy about a truck driver’s efforts to help a middle-aged mother create the perfect ramen restaurant, interspersed with several hilarious sketches about the Japanese love for food, is one of my favorite pictures about food and Japan.
B. TV: This is the most popular form of entertainment in the countryside, at least where I live. Popular genres are News, Variety, Comedy, Dramas, Historical, Cartoons, and Cooking Shows. The comedy programs are collections of short sketches with several actors, not running sitcoms with plots. Variety shows have a lot of pranks, and since you’re a foreigner you’ll probably hear about Bob Sapp. He is a 375-pound African-American who came here to box and stayed to become a TV star. If you like anime, you’ll be surprised to learn that the high quality art house stuff is not what’s featured on basic television. Instead, you’ll find long-running, low-budget children’s shows like Doraemon, Anpanman, Detective Conan, and Crayon Shin-chan. The kids in Doraemon have been fourth graders for thirty years now.
C. Movies: A few western-style action movies and romances are produced, but Japan is most well-known for its art house pictures, from Akira Kurosawa to “Okuribito” (“Departures”), which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. The only consistent box office juggernaut is Hayao Miyazaki, who made “My Neighbor Totoro,” “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” “Princess Mononoke,” Spirited Away,” and most recently “Ponyo on the Cliff By the Sea.” Theatres are harder to find and a little more expensive than in America. The big American movies typically come here months later than they do at home with occasional exceptions like “Spider-Man 3” and “Transformers.” Before buying lots of DVDs and shipping them back to America, take care to remember that America and Japan have different Region Codes, so Japanese discs won’t work on American players and vice versa. American movies usually released late.
D. Music: Of course, there’s J-pop, with its idols, high production values, and sometimes dubious musical quality. Dreams Come True and Utada Hikaru, who grew up in New York, are the most well-known acts in America, though you probably don’t know them, either. The most popular group now is boy band Exile, which plays off the themes of loneliness and disillusionment its name suggests without being too scary. The most popular song this year was “Kiseki” by the boy brand GReeeen, about young people who fall in love as they walk home from school together each day. Hey Say Jump, a big boy band made up entirely of people born in the last twenty years (the Heisei era) is also well-known. Old favorites include Southern All Stars and Mr. Children. Yes, groups mostly have English names – they’re fashionable. However, there is a strong underground, avant-garde scene in Japan featuring groups like noise rock band Guitar Wolf. And the most important genre for you to know when you’re talking to the elderly (there are many in Japan) is Enka. This is dramatic, Frank Sinatra or Julio Iglesias-style crooning commonly featured on television and sung in karaoke. The hot new thing in Enka is Jero, a young, handsome African-American who learned the Japanese language and singing style from his Japanese grandmother. Like I said before, the Japanese are amazed when someone else knows their culture, so they are eating Jero up. The biggest event on the music calendar is a huge singing contest on New Year’s Eve to which only the best enka and pop singers are invited. This competition between the white team, or men, and the red team, or women, has run for over fifty years and is typically the highest-rated television program on the calendar.
The most popular foreign bands are The Carpenters and The Beatles, in that order. I think The Carpenters are huge because their songs are slow and hence easy to sing. Japan’s favorite Beatle is John Lennon, obviously, and “Happy Christmas” is a standard here.
E. Sports: Baseball and sumo are the major Japanese spectator sports. You’ll have to watch your schools’ baseball practices to get a sense of how Japanese the approach to the game is here. The players are disciplined and well-conditioned; they practice long hours; they bow to their coach after every drill and bow to the field when they leave as thanks for giving them a place to play. Every second they are playing, they are chanting things like “Fight!” and “Attitude!” to fire each other up. Each game begins with the two teams shouting war cries at each other. Bunting is popular because it means sacrificing yourself for the good of the team, while we Americans know that mathematically, it’s a harmful tactic. Ichiro is the most popular player: he like Babe Ruth in America, epitomizes his country’s style, right down to his body type. Interest in American baseball has grown as more and more stars move overseas for more money and recognition and better competition. The Japanese league is struggling to stay relevant though interest in the sport is strong.
Sumo has its share of controversies, from illegal drugs to match-fixing to rookie hazing to an unhealthy diet, but it’s still a big deal here. Matches typically take less than a minute, so catching the highlights is easy! The sport has many ancient customs which make it more interesting. Promotion and demotion are based on results in tournaments, especially the six major tournaments (three of which are in Tokyo with one each in Osaka, Nagoya, and Fukuoka). The highest rank is yokozuna, and there are currently two, Hakuho and Asashoryu. They are Mongolian, not Japanese. There has been an informal cap on the number of eligible foreigners in the past, but because the association wants its sport in the Olympics, it is fairly welcoming to foreign challengers. The most successful non-Asian at the moment is Baruto, an Estonian with the third-highest rank.
Other traditional Japanese sports that your towns should offer are kendo (a kind of fencing with wooden swords), judo (a kind of wrestling), and karate. Japan’s most popular form of long distance running is ekiden, a relay race in which the runners tackle several kilometers each and pass a ribbon shoulder-to-shoulder rather than a baton.
Soccer, basketball, tennis, badminton, track, and rugby are recent imports that have taken off here.
F. Art: Japan easily embraced the Modernist art of the 20th century, which squares more with their traditional artwork than the Renaissance style did. I’d never heard of Chagall until I came here, where he’s a big star, as are Picasso, Joan Miro, and Salvador Dali. So Japan’s art scene is one of the most modern and cutting-edge in the world, most visibly in its contemporary architecture.
G. Literature: Japan’s classical literature is some of the world’s best. In the contemporary world, big Japanese bookstores are very similar to Barnes & Noble, the only difference being that manga which commands a third of the store. Magazines, inspirational stories about living life to the fullest, self-help books, pocket romance novels, and Harry Potter are as popular here as they are overseas. Big bookstores will have sections for books in English. Because Japanese is more compact than English, many of the books are, too.
Japan’s post-war writers have received much acclaim from the Nobel Committee, and they are reliably thoughtful and interesting. The most famous contemporary Japanese writer is ironically Haruki Murakami, who rejected his country’s establishment and spends the majority of his time abroad. He has translated several classics from English to Japanese and writes prolifically about contemporary Japanese society and its encounter with the West. Novels like “Norwegian Wood” and “Wind-up Bird Chronicle” are well-read in American circles.
H. Manga: These illustrations are everywhere, not just comic books. Public service announcements, safety warnings, and educational textbooks all use cute manga to capture people’s attention. Children learn to read from manga and keep reading their whole lives. Manga provide the plots for many television dramas in the same way novels provide the material for American movies. The father of manga and anime is Tezuka Osamu, a veteran of World War II who quit medical school to pursue his dream as a cartoonist. He created Astro Boy, the first Japanese animation program.
I. Anime: Japanese animated programs are popular all over the world, as you know. Shows like Doraemon and Anpanman are classic children’s programs, but the art-house fare, with quality and complexity in a class by itself, is what has been exported so successfully. Death Note, Rurouni Kenshin, Serial Experiments Lain, Akira, and Millennium Actress are some anime which have gone beyond the things we’ve tried in the West. Shows like Dragon Ball Z, Pokemon, Naruto, and Evangelion were so huge that they are now franchises which may continue selling copies and merchandise into eternity. If you’re a fan, you may find that some shows which are considered classics overseas, like Cowboy Bebop and FLCL, are not well-known here, the same way you don’t know Doraemon.
J. Video Games: Nintendo, Sega, and Sony are all Japanese companies. This is the home of video games, which are called “TV games” here. If you like X-Box, you may be out of luck here because the big systems are Wii and PS3. Mario Kart and Street Fighter are huge on both sides of the ocean, but some genres are much bigger here than they are in the States. Role playing games like Final Fantasy are huge, with the biggest series of all being Dragon Quest, which is so popular its publisher had to quit releasing games on weekdays they received so many complaints about people skipping school and work to play. A genre that’s huge here but unknown abroad is dating games, in which you play a male character trying to charm one of many attractive young ladies by choosing the best responses in conversations with them. The contrast between suave dating game characters and shy, video game-playing Japanese otaku is amusing.
K. Dancing: Japan has much less of a dancing culture than America. Traditional group dances are still performed at festivals, but the ballroom, two-people varieties are foreign and were even taboo for men in olden times. The romantic comedy “Shall We Dance?” about a salaryman who renews his life by secretly taking dance lessons, is recommended viewing.
III. Social Life: That’s the layout of Japanese arts, but you also need to know a bit about the country’s contemporary social life, which is what much of the art is about, and which you are now a part of.
A. Karaoke: This is adults’ favorite leisure activity. It’s so popular that liking it is practically a component of being Japanese. A group of friends will go to a private room, or sometimes a bar, which has comfortable seating and a machine. This machine will have two microphones, background music and lyrics for thousands of tunes, and remote controls for choosing songs (as well as fast forwarding, skipping, and changing the key). There will be giant books with the house list. People pass the remote control around to enter songs, which are placed in a queue. The music, lyrics, and a peaceful background video (with scenes of New Orleans, or lonely lovers, or beautiful women on a beach) roll simultaneously. Being a terrible singer isn’t really a problem. To make up for lack of ability, must people choose one or two personal songs which they perform at every party, adding to the routine every time. It’s good manners to sing along with others, as unless you’re a pro, singing all by yourself feels a little lonely. The word karaoke, by the way, means “empty orchestra.” Karaoke is typically the second phase of a party (the “nijikai”) after a big meal. That way people have put enough alcohol in their liver that they can get some courage out of it. Drinks and snacks are ordered, and are sometimes available in all-you-can-drink (nomihodai) packages.
B. Drinking: This is a drinking culture. Most often, people drink with their bosses and co-workers. The drinking age is 20, which you should meet but which your students won’t. There are some unwritten rules that I’ll mention just in case no one else tells you during this orientation. First of all, at the beginning of a meal, no one can drink until the “kanpai,” or toast. Next, never pour your own drink. If you order one, you must wait for someone to pour it for you. Beer is an exception because it comes ready-made. Young people are supposed to look after their elders to make sure they’re always drinking and happy. If an elder pours a drink for you, you should drink it right away with them. Finally, seeming drunk and being tipsy is okay, but actually being drunk enough to get sick or injured or make mistakes will count against you.
C. Saturday Nights: At an American college, there are four nights for partying: Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. You can keep that schedule with other foreigners if you like, but if you want to get together with Japanese people, your only safe bet is Saturday night. Many people work late on Friday, work during the day on Saturday, and get to bed early Sunday so they have enough energy for the rest of the week.
D. Sundays: Japan has never been Christian, and many people work on Saturdays, so you’ll find that many more activities, including Culture Festival, Sports Day, field trips, and standardized tests, are scheduled for Sunday here. So if you’re planning to go to church every week, you should know a place with a Saturday night service as well.
E. Enkais: Relationships between co-workers are very strong in Japan. One custom of businesspeople is to hold parties together. These parties hold precedence over other things on the calendar – if you are invited, your attendance is expected, though it’s okay if you really can’t make it. Typical occasions for parties are the end of the calendar year, the beginning of the year, goodbye parties for staff who are leaving, and welcome parties for the new faces. The party will typically be a multi-course all-you-can-drink meal at a restaurant, costing more than 3000 yen. It may be as much as you spend on food the rest of the week, but it’s also as much as you eat the rest of the week.
F. Pachinko: This is Japanese gambling, and it’s an even bigger deal than gambling in America. Many successful people play frequently and for fun, not just addicts. Parlors have dozens or hundreds of machines set up side-to-side, like slot machines. Machines are brightly colored and have exciting animations (the most popular right now are the Evangelion machines). The buildings are some of the nicest in Japan. The game has two stages. In the first, a player feeds his balls into a machine. Balls cost 1-5 yen and are purchased in the hundreds. The machine is a maze with many moving parts, and balls that fall into the correct chute “win.” You’ve seen this game on The Price is Right, most likely. Watching and hearing the balls the balls roll is pretty satisfying, and a nice little metaphor for draining your life away. A “winning” ball activates a Slot machine. Only after you win the slot game do you receive a payout of more metal balls. A payout makes the machine “hot,” such that for a period of time you have greater chances of winning and better payouts.
When you are done playing, you can exchange your balls for prizes. You can also exchange them for money, but this is illegal, which makes things tricky. Owners will set up pawn shops which buy the prizes for a given amount of money, with tacit agreement from local governments because the game is too popular to go away. Another open secret of pachinko is that owners can manipulate the odds for the machines. Only addicts think there are “good” and “bad” machines in America, but here in Japan it’s a fact. The good machines actually produce favorable odds for the player, and enthusiasts will keep playing inside a parlor until they find the right one. They are often placed near windows so passersby get the sense that pachinko is a winners’ game. Long lines can develop outside the parlor every morning for the right to sit at a good machine. Parlors are fine with losing money on the good machines because people cough up so much money looking for them. I don’t gamble, and AJET would probably kill me if I sold you on it, but this is a big enough part of town life that you should understand it.
G. Keitai: Cell phones were big here before they made it anywhere else, and they’re hugely popular and multi-functional. Cellular phone games were popular enough here to take a big bite out of the video game industry. Text messaging more popular than calling because it’s less socially intrusive and a hundred times cheaper; however, it can oddly make people less social. I have been to many a party where young Japanese people back into a corner and text their friends rather than talk to the people they are actually meeting with.
H. Vending Machines: They are ubiquitous and cheap, and they sell everything – hot coffee, eggs, dinners, and even used panties in some shadier parts of Tokyo. Tea, coffee, and juice are much more frequent machine fare than soda, which is better for everyone’s health.
I. Students: This is the part of Japanese life that you’re about to make your own. The Japanese education is much more uniform than America, not just in dress code but also in rhythm, customs, and relative quality between school districts. In America, housing prices are largely dependent on the quality of a school district, but here you can get a good education just about anywhere. Student life is quite regimented, and students are on balance more disciplined than their counterparts in other countries. The goal of Japanese education is to produce good citizens, not necessarily genius students, because not everyone is cut out for books. So students are promoted regardless of academic performance as long as they’re trying to fit into school life. A lot of TV shows, like Great Teacher Onizuka, portray Japan’s bad boys and girls. They do exist, and you will meet some.
Arts, home ec, and morality are a bigger part of the curriculum than they are in America. There is only one exception to this system: entrance exams for high school and college. To make it into a school, you have to pass its test. Nothing else on your resume can mitigate that. The exams are notoriously difficult, and students usually give up everything else for six months in advance in hopes of success in the January and February exam period. I live in Kyushu, and all my students went to pray for success to the God of Knowledge in Dazaifu over winter break. Like other Asian students, many Japanese children go to juku, or “cram schools” like Kumon in the evenings to get ahead. I even had a couple students go to cram school on New Year’s Day. The school uniforms, club activities, all-day Sports Festivals and Culture Festivals, and the March graduation and April entrance ceremonies, which coincide with the blossoming of sakura, are rich material for manga, anime, and TV dramas.
J. The Salaryman: Japan is a white-collar society, so the image of the worker is not a farmer or a man in a hard hat; it’s a middle-aged people in suits who comes home on the train at all hours of the night. The relationship between the worker and the company is a little different here than it is in America. The worker feels that he owes his livelihood to the corporation, and respect for authority runs deep here due to both Confucianism and Japanese history. Many work for the same corporation their entire lives. There’s no concept of overtime here, as you’ll see when you go to your schools: you work until your responsibilities for the day are finished, even if that’s not until the trains stop running. You carry the company when you’re young, and you’re rewarded more benefits and less hours when you’re older. Since white-collar work isn’t physically exhausting and isn’t dependent on having daylight, this is possible now.
K. Otaku: These are super-fans of anime, manga, and video games: not those who enjoy them an hour a two a day, but rather those who spend all their time consuming pop art, hentai (animated pornography), and online games, never leaving their parents’ basements or producing anything of value – besides those who are paid to write reviews and run web sites for the rest. Shows, pop idols, and now even politicians pay lip service to this demographic to drive their own sales. Before he became a widely hated Prime Minister, Taro Aso was an avowed anime and manga fan who went to Akihabara and addressed the crowd as “dear otaku.” However, the existence of so many indolent youth in a country that already can’t replace its present work force is a problem. Otaku spend all their time embracing their own interests, and the language of “being yourself” and personal independence imported from America helps them stay comfortable with choices that violate Confucian ethics of hard work and sacrifice for past and future generations.
L. Yakuza: The Japanese mafia is a mixed bag. They steal a lot, not just through the black market but through systemic fraud (we had a pension fraud case break this year); they run the gambling parlors and other businesses; they are loan sharks who frequently drive their debtors into crime, and they really do cut the fingers off of people who cross them. However, they send their children to the same schools as everyone else; television programs about them are very popular, and Japan is one of the safest countries in the world. So I think the country has a certain tolerance for them.
M. Barack Obama: He is the most popular person in the world, and Japan in particular has Obama fever. If you are an American, Barack Obama has made your job easier all by himself. Right now, there is a merchandising craze for him, especially in Obama City in Gifu. Books of his speeches are best-sellers which are being used as tools for teaching English. “Change” and “Yes We Can” are inspiring messages that make people feel more popular about the future. His promises to break with Bush policies bring excitement, since the country is basically pacifist and environmentalist. His humble beginnings and triumph over racial barriers seem wonderful, as Japan considers itself a one-race society, and most of its politicians are patricians. Even the idea of a popularly elected leader is popular with the Japanese, whose prime minister is chosen by Parliament and whose Parliamentarians are often chosen by inheritance. Obama’s popularity is inversely proportional to that of Prime Minister Taro Aso, related to the royal family and previous prime ministers in seven different ways, who took over just before the financial crisis, combined a combative style with frequent verbal gaffes, has already had plenty of turnover in his Cabinet, most famously for Finance Minister Nakagawa who was performing diplomacy while drunk at the G-7 Conference. By the time I give this speech, Aso might have lost his position and the Liberal Democratic Party its leadership of the country after a fifty-year monopoly.
Whatever you watched or did for fun at home, you can also do in Japan. It’s a good idea to do so, because you’ll have more in common with your students and teachers, and you can even learn some Japanese on the way. Cultural references can help your students remember vocabulary and grammatical concepts. I taught “big and small” using pictures from Totoro.
Learning to fit into another culture’s social life is difficult but rewarding. If you’re like me, you have loads of friends at home who love Japan even more than you do, and are always curious about what’s popular there. Follow the media here and you’ll always have something to talk about. Have fun! Do your country proud!
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