The popularity of anime and manga and Hollywood’s interest in Japanese stories has become prominent. But why are Pokemon, Power Rangers, j-rock, manga and kawaii so popular in the West? There are many factors that attract massive fan communities – and beautiful storytelling and theatrical performances are just a few.

japanese culture in the west
image by Oh! Great

From Pokemon to Power Rangers, the nineties kids remember it all – at the end of the day, who didn’t want to own a Pikachu or grow its own Tamagotchi? The nostalgia makes a lot of space for the millennials to reminisce and adore these pop-culture trends – but what made them so popular in the first place, why they captivate more than one generation, and what’s the next big Japanese thing? We’ve spoken to Mitsuya Fujimoto, Chief Operating Officer of Ganapati PLC and Chief Operating Officer of Ganapati-owned game design studio, to crack the secret behind the popularity of Japanese culture, and the buzz it causes between its fans. Read his answers below!

Many pop culture crazes in the West came from Japan – Pokemon, Power Rangers, Godzilla and Tamagotchi (to mention a few!) are something that millennials look back to with nostalgia. Why do you think it caught up so quickly?

The new media revolution has made Japanese content more accessible than ever before. The likes of Amazon Prime and Netflix and viral YouTube hits like Pineapple-Pen have introduced Japanese entertainment to global audiences, whilst events such as Hyper Japan have reinvigorated interest in the country and its culture. We’re seeing demand for both old and new Japanese pop culture increase as a result.

This has been a real boon to millennials who grew up with the likes of Pokemon and Tamagotchi and are seeking a nostalgia fix. Many of them are introducing it to their own children and creating a new generation of fans. What’s really exciting for the people who loved this content as children are the new possibilities opened up by innovative technology to engage with their favourite brands, as we saw with the Pokemon Go craze last year.

With the success of spin-off products, such as Pokemon Go and the recent Power Rangers blockbuster, why do you think they hold such a cult status for the kids of the 90s?

Pokémon Go last year was a great example of how modern technology has reinvigorated a 90s Japanese pop culture hit to make it relevant to a new generation. It managed to hit the sweet spot between new GPS technology, brand nostalgia and buzz for tech-driven social interactions.
Why do they hold such a cult status for 90s kids? When these brands launched in the 90s they were completely different to anything else on TV. The stories and characters evolved with the audience so many felt they grew up together. The Pokémon generation now has kids of their own and there is a thrill in introducing their children to beloved stories and characters.ganapati coo

Thinking back to the previous question – what’s the next big thing in Japan that might become a trend in the West?

Ganapati! We’re on a mission to disrupt the global entertainment industry by bringing something new and fresh to Western audiences. Grounded in authentic Japanese culture, but with an emphasis on creative and engaging content, I believe we will be leading the drive towards Japanese-inspired content across everything from TV to mobile, gaming to publishing in the run up to Tokyo 2020.

There’s been a lot of controversy around Ghost in the Shell that comes out at the end of March, originally based on manga. Why do you think Hollywood directors take so much inspiration from Japan? What’s the best way to recognise and celebrate the original creators and artists?

Japan has such a rich culture and heritage, it’s easy to see how people from other cultures can visit the country or experience our culture and become inspired.

Historically, Japanese culture has tended to be a part of Western subculture – something underground for ‘those in the know’. But as Japanese culture becomes increasingly mainstream, this community felt that they have been hijacked. This response is heightened when something feels inauthentic – such as Ghost in the Shell.

My hope for Ganapati content is that just as a great piece of music can seamlessly translate across different genres, styles and audiences, so our Japanese-inspired content can appeal to both hardcore fans and the mainstream. We achieve this by being authentic to Japanese culture and values whilst at the same time being creative, fresh and current.

The Internet loves kawaii. It’s said to be used to voice opinions without being aggressively argumentative – what’s your take on that?

Kawaii has been an intrinsic part of Japanese culture for many years – in fact, it can be traced right back to the invention of Netsuke miniature sculptures in the 17th century.

Tomoyuki Sugiyama, the author of Cool Japan, believes kawaii offers escapism from the ‘brutal reality’ of life and I tend to agree. In turbulent times, a sense of escapism is very appealing.

Kawaii is present not only in fashion and accessories but can be seen in everything from design to corporate logos through to social interactions between people. Many organisations have kawaii-inspired mascots called ‘yuru-kyara’ or ‘relaxed characters’ as a key part of their public image. It enables Japanese to pursue their love of harmony by softening an image or argument which is why it has remained enduringly popular.

We can see the influence of Kawaii in Western culture – the suited businessman with his Bart Simpson socks, Katy Perry’s style or Jon Snow’s ties!

Let’s speak about anime and manga that are becoming as popular here as in East Asia – last year, Your Name circulated in the Oscar speculations, the release of A Silent Voice in the UK cinemas has also caused some buzz. I’ve read somewhere that these comics tend to ignore puberty, since a fan of comics at 12 will remain a fan at 40 – but what makes it so appealing to audiences of all ages?

I believe it’s the beautiful storytelling, stunning visuals and attention to detail that makes it so enduringly popular. Without this, these comics might lose their appeal over time or appear outdated. Just as great works of literature from Steinbeck to Dickens are enjoyed by people throughout their lives, these comics have a richness and depth that allow people to enjoy them time and again.

In the UK, comics tend to cater more for young people but in Japan, they cater for all ages – you might see a businessman reading a Manga comic about golf on the train or housewives choosing a comic about cooking. Culturally it’s very different and this is key to its appeal across generations.

We’ve seen some trends related to the popularity of j-rock and pop, and it seems that the pop culture portrays the musicians a little bit differently. X Japan played a Wembley gig recently, and the concert tickets are selling out increasingly quickly. What’s the difference between them and the Western popstars. What makes them sell out stadiums?

J-pop and J-rock artists are very theatrical, telling stories through their performance. In many ways, the lives of these artists inform the narrative of their music. Unlike Western pop which is typically very manufactured and over-produced, J-pop and J-rock sound fresh to our ears because of its connection to traditional Japanese music and the engagement it attracts in the audience through its storytelling.

Let’s talk fashion, too. There are distinctive styles in Japan – how do you think they can translate to sales in the fashion industry worldwide?

I’d argue that Japanese style has already translated into sales in the fashion industry worldwide! Think about the success of Japanese brands like Comme des Garçons, Yohji Yamamoto and Junya Watanabe. Or the influence Japan has had on Western designers such as Christian Dior and John Galliano.

The popularity of high street brands like Uniqlo, Kenz and Muji show that Japanese fashion impacts at all price points.

Of course, Japanese street fashion has been widely influential as well with well-known trends, such as Lolita fashion or Decora, originating in the urban fashion districts of Tokyo – Harajuku, Aoyama, and Shinjuku.

With the growing interest in Japanese culture, the impact of Japan on Western style is sure to continue.

Japan is also something that gamers keep in mind – from Super Mario and Konami to Nintendo and fantastic technological progress, the country has always pioneered the gaming revolution. It’s a major industry there – what narrative does it have to offer now?

Gaming is a major industry everywhere! It’s growing faster than both the movie and music industries and with the estimated global revenue from video games above $80 billion, its earning more than those industries as well.

As to where it goes next, the answer lies in new technologies. Virtual Reality clearly opens up exciting possibilities for the gaming industry. There’s a real opportunity for both Japanese games developers and corporations to set the tone of what VR entertainment should look like. The technology is still in relatively early stages and no single games company has yet defined what a VR game should look like.

Unique to the Japanese approach to game development is the emphasis placed on studying how players interact with games – what retains and sustains their attention. Alongside the original creativity coming from Japan, it is is this which sets it apart on the global gaming stage.

For us, it is exciting to see what is happening beyond Japan’s core areas of gaming heritage. For example, our work in iGaming, bringing Japanese animation and storytelling to different gaming communities, is proving really successful and shows that the Japanese influence is extending beyond its traditional heartland.

What do you hope to change in terms of recognition of Japanese culture with the launch of Ganapati?

Today’s audience is globally aware and looking for something that reflects their cultural worldview in the magazines they read. With Bunker we are reframing Japan for a contemporary audience, embodying the high-end design and culture that Japan is famous for.

The representation of Japan in Western magazine publishing typically presents a populist, limited view on Japan rather than bringing to life the country’s rich and diverse heritage, incredibly strong culture and values. Bunker will curate the very best of old and new Japanese culture. It will look at everything from architecture and design to high-end fashion and music, providing an authentic contemporary view on Japanese culture that challenges the consumer to view Japan differently.

Kasia Kwasniewska

Editor in Chief

Loves reading, watching films, eyeing (and producing) good design, listening to music and stuffing her face with chocolate whenever the opportunity arises. Cooks from time to time, and drinks far too much coffee to be a normal human being. Liked my work? Buy me a coffee!

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