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Forget Cool Japan — cute is this summer’s hot global export

by Roland Kelts

Summer is always high season for fans of Japanese pop culture. School’s out, weather’s amenable and festivals, conventions and expos shift into top gear in Japan and across the globe.

Many in the pop-culture business are branding summer 2014 “the summer of kawaii” (Japanese uber-cute), and it’s not hard to see why. To inaugurate the season, Japan’s digital diva and holographic pop star Hatsune Miku, cute as her turquoise pigtails, hit the road in late May as the opening act for the first leg of megastar Lady Gaga’s North American tour. Miku’s makers plan to reprise her supporting role when Gaga tours Japan in August. This echoes animated band Gorillaz’s collaboration with Madonna at the 2006 Grammies — beautiful illustrations and flesh-and-blood pop icons share the stage. Expect more.

If you happen to find wolves cute, animalistic Japanese rock band Man With a Mission kicks off a 16-date North American tour on June 18 that will take it from New York to Canada and California, with new EP “When My Devil Rises” hitting iTunes a few days ago. The wolf-headed band blends the melodic funk of Red Hot Chili Peppers with the guitar crunch of Foo Fighters and Japanese mod rockers The Blue Hearts, singing several songs exclusively in English. When I asked bilingual guitarist and songwriter Jean-Ken Johnny after a Tokyo show last month whether the wolf masks ever get hot, he answered: “These aren’t masks. We were born this way.”

As Man With a Mission crisscross the North American continent, the world’s biggest celebrations of Japanese pop culture will take place — and Japan’s French fan base still rules the overseas market. Japan Expo 2014 runs July 2-6 in Paris. It routinely attracts audience numbers in six figures, making Japanese producers and artists keen to attend. The French arguably began appreciating the modern pop culture of Japan before anyone else in the West, and among the anticipated highlights at this year’s Expo is the return of singing group Berryz Kobo, who rank among the top of today’s childlike kawaii girl idols.

But U.S. fandom is catching up. The same weekend will see Anime Expo, North America’s largest Japanese pop-culture convention, hold its 2014 show in Los Angeles. This year, four kawaii-driven Japanese fashion designers — including Swankiss and Kokokim, appearing overseas for the first time — will present their latest collections straight from the streets of Harajuku and Shibuya. (I will be there too, as keynote speaker for a sideline event called Project Anime, a venture that seeks to bring together international convention organizers with Japanese producers and artists.)

A hop and skip up the West Coast in San Francisco is the J-Pop Summit Festival, an annual event hosted by the Japantown Merchants Association and Japanese entertainment complex New People, the epicenter of Japanese pop culture in the Bay Area. This year’s summit takes place in Japantown and Union Square on July 19-20, and the focus will be squarely on kawaii cool. Tokyo Girls’ Style and Daichi are among the star performers, and there will be a special appearance by artist Kei, illustrator of Hatsune Miku.

“The phenomenon of kawaii culture has reached global proportions, and it has become the perfect vehicle to present all of the diverse trends that are being created in Japan across a multitude of genres and mediums,” says Seiji Horibuchi, founder of Viz Media, CEO of New People and director of the J-Pop Summit.

Over at Hyper Japan in London, July 25-27, organizers are devoting an entire area of Earls Court to Hyper Kawaii!! — a full-on showcase for Japanese street fashion featuring a stage for live performances, models and, of course, prodigious shopping. The event is a tie-up with Harajuku Kawaii!!, a touring showcase run by Japan’s AsobiSystem, which is also the company behind kawaii cultural icon and performer Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. Harajuku Kawaii!! will also be at J-Pop Summit Festival.

Closer to home, Nagoya’s annual costume showcase of global kawaii culture, the World Cosplay Summit, runs July 26-Aug. 3. Since its inception in 2003, the festival, with its related competitions, performances and displays, has grown to include cosplay teams and participants from over 20 countries worldwide.

The most hotly anticipated anime release this summer is an old school watershed title in kawaii culture: the reboot of “Sailor Moon,” called “Sailor Moon Crystal.” Starting July 5, the magical schoolgirls who launched a gazillion anime fans (girls and boys) via television broadcasts in the 1990s — and inspired a gazillion cosplayers to don Japanese schoolgirl miniskirts, prudence be damned — will be streamed on Japan’s video-sharing site, Niconico, subtitled in 10 languages, a testament to anime’s global reach. Viz Media is the series’ North American licensee, and it will also be streamed on Crunchyroll and Hulu.

This summer is all about kawaii, like it or not. And when Comiket, the world’s largest twice-yearly event focused on fan-made anime and manga, opens in Odaiba, Tokyo, on Aug. 15, expect half a million or more to be on hand, many dressed as cute as they can.

Roland Kelts is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S.” He is a visiting scholar at Keio University in Tokyo.

  • kyushuphil

    Does the outside affect the inside?

    Or, if the consuming public goes to its shopping malls and plunks down cash and plastic to don the garb of happy infantilism, does this tatemae (which the Japanese perceive as the outside, or 建前) say something about some inner character of people (their perhaps childish or immature honne, or 本音 )?

    American culture has a long history of some meditating on the materialism of the many — the effects of all that commercialism, consumerism, and style enablers of the money culture.

    Does Japan? Do Japanese schools sufficiently lift individual essaying and other writing skills in youth to equip them to balance out the tatemae against the honne? Or do Japanese teachers comfort themselves with ongoing mass delivery of depersonalized info, the cramming of which unto kids thus counting as sufficient for all for the batteries of tests the stressed-out kids also face?

    Does the fake, exterior world of happy-happy, cute-cute suffice to cover what may be an atomized vapidity now totally institutionalized across the corporate-pushed consumerism now reigning here?