Kyary Pamyu Pamyu on a mission to spread Japan’s kawaii culture

by

Special To The Japan Times

“Cool” may have been the official buzzword recently attached to Japanese pop culture by the national government, but if the chants of the 20,000 strong audience who turned out for the Kawaii!! Matsuri (stylized as KAWAii!! MATSURi) two-day festival held on April 20-21 are to be believed, that word has been ousted by a new one: “kawaii.” Commonly understood abroad as a term meaning “cute,” recently in modern Japanese, “kawaii” appears to span the whole of pop culture, and is now, funnily enough, about as ubiquitous as the use of “cool” in English.

So what does it really mean or refer to? A brief glance at the lineup headlined by the current face of kawaii, musician Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, might leave you jumping to pastel-sweet conclusions. But the festival went far beyond a teen-oriented notion of cute. It also presented a wide range of events that ran from cosplay (costume play) shows featuring video-game characters to fashion shows by credible brands and boutiques, followed by performances by idol acts that would ordinarily be confined to Akihabara.

It was a mix that alluded to the vast number of interpretations of kawaii. But, moreover, it revealed a breakdown in the barriers between facets of popular culture in Japan. Street-level fashion brands, such as Galaxxxy, who presented a runway collection themed around cult 1980s animation “Dirty Pair,” for example, could be found alongside expensive names such as Jenny Fax, the brand worn by idol group Negicco.

But this new kawaii identity was far from unanimous. For every idol group that tackled catwalk fashion, there was one that conformed to the genre’s expectations, such as the Up Up Girls (Kari) who performed in the predictable sequined idol uniform beloved by fans.

It is clear that if Japan wants international acclaim for it’s kawaii culture, it hinges on how best to package it in an accessible way. Kyary, whose new single “Invader Invader” employs the dubstep genre of music popular in America and Europe, is one performer who seems capable of achieving this. Her popularity has long demonstrated that foreign fans are keen to make the effort required to buy into palatable Japanese pop culture. But it would be a mistake to forget that there is still a gulf of cultural distance between other acts and potential fans abroad.

Nevertheless, Kyary has been the catalyst for a renewed interest in Japanese pop culture abroad since her first single “Ponponpon” and its video became a viral hit internationally in 2011. The YouTube clip has since chalked up a staggering 47 million views. Originally a street-fashion icon and blogger, Kyary has moved on to be the face and voice of the kawaii generation, and was officially titled as such by the mayor of Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward in 2012.

Here’s what Kyary had to say about the phenomenon.

You have just returned to Japan from your first tour across America, Europe and Asia as the official kawaii ambassador of Harajuku. What is the message you want to spread abroad?

As someone living and breathing kawaii culture and music, and whose style grew out of walking the streets of Harajuku, I just want to reveal that culture to the world. Now that I have a platform to do so, I want to help make the concept of kawaii into a bridge between Japan and the world.

Throughout your world tour, what was your experience with foreign fans like?

It was amazing — there was so much energy everywhere I went.

Performing in Japan is always exciting, but each audience in every country I went to reacted in its own different way. In some places people even chanted my name before I went on stage. It seemed like every audience found a different way to communicate with me.

In Europe it was really noticeable that there anime and cosplay are already a significant part of the culture, judging from the way fans dressed at the concerts. There were even a lot of people cosplaying as me!

In Asia, the atmosphere was much closer to Japan, as you might expect. As for America, because it was the first time I had been to cities such as New York, I was a bit worried about what the reception would be like. Then I saw that the dates had all sold out — it really was a dream come true.

Did you feel that audiences were understanding your particular brand of kawaii culture?

That again depended on the country — Europe was probably the most receptive. For example, fans had learned all the lyrics to my songs even though they are all in Japanese. Plus everyone seemed to know the dance routines. Fans in Paris even organized a flash mob on the street dancing to my song “Ponponpon”!

You are also known as a fashion icon in your own right. What does fashion mean to you and your fans?

Fundamentally, I want people to wear what they want to wear. In my song “Fashion Monster” there is the lyric, “I don’t want to be bound by anyone else’s rules.” I think that sums up what I would like to say to listeners. If you are wearing clothes that you enjoy wearing, everything you do in life becomes fun.

You say “fun” but it strikes me that your fashion isn’t just lighthearted — there is an edge to it.

Absolutely. I like the mix between the conventionally cute and the dark. For example, in the music video for “Ponponpon” there is actually a lot of grotesque imagery next to the cute — kawaii can have a dark side.

Are there any designers you would like to work with to further that aesthetic?

Actually, I don’t think in terms of fashion designers at all. I would rather work with other performers like Lady Gaga or Katy Perry. I admire their sense of style a lot.

You now have stylists, makeup artists etc. at your disposal. Has that had an effect on your own style, when you compare it to your street-style origins?

I never thought, back then, that I would be where I am now. Now I have a whole team — Team Kyary — around me to help make my ideas into reality. They can even make items for me from scratch if I need them. It makes for a wonderfully creative atmosphere.

What are your thoughts on events like Kawaii!! Matsuri that mix music, fashion and Akihabara culture?

I think all the acts, models and performers at events like this share the same goal of wanting to communicate kawaii culture to the world.

I am not so familiar with the Akihabara scene, but when I have been there I have always noticed the incredible number of foreign visitors and their passion for the area. I want to bring that same level of excitement to Harajuku.

What is next for Kyary Pamyu Pamyu?

I am definitely hoping to reach more people abroad. My next single “Invader Invader” deliberately has a really easy-to-remember chorus in English so that, hopefully, everyone can enjoy it. I hope everyone will sing it with me on my next tour as I keep spreading the message abroad.

  • Al_Martinez

    Is this really the image Japan wants abroad? Are these the kinds of role models girls in Japan need? No to both questions.

  • Glen Douglas Brügge

    Uhm, I think she’s missed the train; Japan has been promoting “kawaii” culture for decades (sadly). She should rather do something about the Senkakus. Maybe dress up as a “kawaii” island chain and promote reconciliation between the two sides by appealing to everyone’s love for the warm and fuzzies?

  • Mike Wyckoff

    This is so typical of Japan. For at least the last 20 years, they seen to have become oblivious of real-world problems and are completely absorbed in physical beauty/cuteness, and materialism. I really hope the youth (under 30) of this country (and my beloved home) snap out of this “kawaii mania”, get to work, get married and start a family so we don’t lose 50 million people from our population over the next 30 years.

    • Mark Garrett

      I’m with you on everything up to the loss of population. I hate crowds!

    • irairaneko

      I think they would if the dankai oldies would step out of the way and let them step up rather than *treating young adults as children* for far too long. As for population shrinking, it started in the 1960’s, so how to reverse it, every family have 7 or 8 or 12 kids?

    • Guest

      I hate to generalize, but I got the impression, having lived in Tokyo for some 5 years, that the “Lost Decade” has perpetuated a “Lost 20 Years” in which many of the youth, and young adults, who having never had much direction and hope post-Bubble have run away, and continue to run away to this world of good feelings and fantasy – no one wants to face the harsh reality of life. I still think those who get lost in this world are in the minority, but it does show a tendency in a large part of the population to want to ignore what they find hard to deal with. I think telling people to marry and make babies is easier said than done – too many other dynamics there.

    • Masa Chekov

      Yes, let’s all be super serious at all times! Find the biggest issue or two, let’s discuss this. Nothing else should happen in life ever. No fun, no music, no fashion, no sports. Sort out the issues, work work work until you’re dead.

      Are you for real here? Some of us want well-rounded lives, and that involves the fun as well as the serious.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kill3rsushi Ellie Schweizer

    Honestly, I am pretty saddened by the content of a lot of these comments. I personally think Kawaii culture and the message Pamyu Pamyu is spreading is incredibly empowering to women world wide. “Don’t follow anyone’s rules and express yourself as you like” is a pretty refreshing contrast to the rest of Japanese culture with its emphasis on conformity. And I don’t think it necessarily encourages women to be mindless or empty-headed any more than the traditional Yamato-Nadeshiko archetype encourages them to be quiet and submissive!

    Granted, I am biased as a fan of hers, but hear me out. Having seen in her in concert while I was living in Japan, I can say that I have never in my life met a more sweet, creative, and friendly bunch of people than her fanbase there (especially since I am so obviously a foreigner and not the most approachable looking person) and they weren’t mindless or moronic at all — just sweet and inquisitive about my fashion statements and welcoming into their group. They seemed genuinely excited that a 6′ tall white woman would want to dress in Harajuku style and knew their language enough to follow the lyrics of their favorite songs.

    KPP is being very smart and has created a brand for herself that has in turn allowed her to travel the world and gain notoriety for her creativity. Any kid that grew up dreaming of a singing career would kill for half the success she has had and she touches and inspires people everywhere she goes just by expressing herself to the fullest. She is no different than Miley Cyrus or Lady Gaga: she is successful and her image makes people love her or hate her with little in between.

    Blaming Japan’s social problems on Kyary and other artists like her is incredibly narrow minded: she is doing her part by spreading interest in Japanese culture abroad in her own way and for any supporter of Japan, this should be a positive. Look at what anime and manga culture has done for interest in Japan amongst the world’s youth — any cultural exports can be seen as a gateway to formal studies, tourism, and certainly economic gains for the country. If you want to tackle the problems of escapism, I think it’s more productive to look at the causes amongst the many societal pressures existing in Japanese culture, such as the mandate to conform, the discouraging of expressing opinions and the incredible pressures not to fail.

    • blondein_tokyo

      No- its not empowering to tell women they must look eternally cute and non-threatening. It’s actually encouraging women to dumb themselves down so that they can fit into a culture that demands women remain forever childlike. I hate kawaii culture with every fiber of my feminist being. Do you understand “I chose my choice” feminism? What it means is, women aren’t actually choosing for themselves to follow cute culture. It stems from a cultural narrative that rewards women for being cute and punishes them for being strong and capable. And if you are punished when you don’t fit the cultural narrative, you aren’t really choosing for yourself, are you?

      And no one is saying KPP is dumb. On the contrary- she’s smart enough to know how to use her image to sell her music to the masses, or at least smart enough to allow her business managers to guide her. We really don’t know which it is, but considering how much control record companies have over their talent, I think it’s safe to say she doesn’t get to make many of her own decisions.

      The problem is that the image she is creating encourages women to think that looking cute and bubble-headed is more important than showing your intelligence. Smart girls will dumb themselves down in order to fit in. How is that “empowering?”

      Want to impress me and get me interested in your music? Write some good lyrics and sing in a normal tone of voice instead of sounding like a smurf on steroids. Actually SAY something with your music instead of repeating nonsense words. Use your brand image for good, such as feeding children in Africa like Angelina Jolie or Madonna, Ophra Winfrey, etc. instead of vowing to spread “cute”. Seriously, fvck being “cute”- be SMART, speak intelligently, and do something constructive.

      • Glen Douglas Brügge

        Very well put. Pon, pon, pon, pon, pon….!

      • byejapan

        Totally agree!

      • CatN123

        Wow I can only be ashamed of this world saying so many hate about Kyary Pamyu Pamyu.

        We like her because she is spreading positive stuff, not only because she is cute. She is one of the rare artists I find these days, who doesn’t have a such big mouth at the press or whatever.
        I can’t even remember if Kyary have any public scandals (Except her junior idol days) But she is sure a type of person that is smart to say “Gomenasai”

        You can’t compare Kyary with Angelina Jolie or Oprah Winfrey or Madonna cause they are different people.
        And didn’t Madonna had some scandals?

        I am not following the harajuku fashion, neither i have something with Lolita or other japanese fashion. But I like Kyary because she have this positive aura.
        And they aren’t many artists these days that have any sense in they song lyrics.
        The inspiration of Taylor Swift is just about her failing relationships, so like do i have to respect someone who only complains about her break ups and such?

        Kyary isn’t like that, and some of her lyrics does make sense though
        “Unite Unite” for example: ( I actually don’t have any self confidence
        And I’m also terrible at talking with people
        Behind my perfect smile )

        So let Kyary her being, she is trying to spread positive stuff!
        We like her because of that, not only because of her looks she just makes us all happy and cheerful.
        Thats why we are her fans.

      • blondein_tokyo

        She doesn’t have any scandals because she never does or SAYS anything. All she does is sing nonsense, and all she says is that she wants to spread cute- and that is as bland and as inoffensive as you can get. Contrast her with people like Susan Saradon, George Clooney, Madonna, Angelina Jolie, or even people like Bill Gates or Oprah Winfrey- who are outspoken activists, put their money where their mouth is, and actually go out into the world and DO something. If KPP gets on the news for donating to causes, gets arrested for protesting, or gets criticized for her political statements, then I’d say she is having an impact on the world. But standing around looking cute and singing nonsense will not in any way make the world a better place.

        Why doesn’t she, for example, take up the cause for the AKB47 member who was forced to shave her head for having a bf? Why doesn’t she denounce the fans who want these girls to remain virginal and “pure” (which is code for “weak and non-threatening”)? If she did that, AND started singing songs that weren’t total nonsense, I might sit up and pay attention to her.

        Right now, she’s milquetoast, a pretty outer shell with no depth. And girls saying that want to be just like her make me feel very, very sorry for them.

      • Sato

        Where is this “hate” you are talking about. Blondein_Tokyo simply stated her opinion in a thought-out manner and if that sounds like hate to you, I think you are not able to partake in grown-up conversation. So you do in a way fit the stereotype of “kawaii” fans.

      • paul

        This young lady is only about appearance. Her beauty is truely only skin deep as behind her are the ugly faces of big business who are just out to make a cheap buck. This is not the culture of the past which was based on meaning. What she represents is mindless consumerism at it’s worst. She lyrics of her songs are meaningless and it is insulting tp put her song lyrics and things she says in the same catergory as people as George Clooney or other people who have taken active stands on places like Tibet. I doubt if even knew where Tibet is on a map. People like her who mindlessly copy her fashion are even worse.I admit she made be cute but take a deeper look and she what she really represents.

      • Glen Douglas Brügge

        Well, if all you say and do is controlled by a PR company, you are not going to get into trouble. Your image and your voice are engineered to create a finely tuned commercial enterprise. I am certain much of what she sings is not written by her. Think of that one AKB48 member who had to shave her head as an act of contrition for having a boyfriend when it was prohibited by her contract. Did she really do it out of a “sense of shame?” No, the company that runs the AKB48 franchise forced her to do so (or it could have been scripted all along), and to “pretend” to be so horribly shamed as a means of maintaining an “image” to feed the male fans’ fantasy of a woman begging them for forgiveness (many men find this rather hot) – her job depended upon it. Her personal life impacted the brand, and therefor she needed to create an image that would realign her with her “upset” fan base. Had she not, then the brand would have lost some of its following (but this again could have been planned to create more fervor – as they say, no news is bad news). In the US artists are also highly controlled in terms of image and content, but less so than in Japan – in Japan, if you cross the line, many of these conglomerates will just toss you. Because the idol industry is so vibrant, replacements can easily found.

      • Natasha

        I absolutely love all things cute, and I have a college degree as well as nursing assistant certification. I don’t understand why one shouldn’t have the opportunity to be cute and positive while also enjoying knowledge and empowerment.

    • byejapan

      I think you’re deluded. The whole kawaii thing “empowers” women only because it keeps them subservient to men.
      Let’s see how empowered pamyu is in ten years, when she’s no longer “kawaii”, or when she wants to become a mother . Japanese women need to cop on. And foreign women buying into this kawaii thing are betraying rights that their mothers and grandmothers fought for. They are just wilfully rebecoming commodities in order to live an easier life.

    • zer0_0zor0

      When “kawaii” is overdone and fetishized it is not cute.

      Sorry, but she is another Frankenstein creation of the PR industry that has metastasized in the entertainment sector and squeezed out anyone with any viable proclivity for self-expression or the like.

      You also mention a “Yamato-Nadeshiko archetype” but what you are really intent on is making an assault on Japanese femininity as the “so obviously a foreigner” that you are. What you characterize as an “archetype” is nothing more than your own biased stereotype, making your statement.

    • Sato

      The thing is – most of the rest of the world already expresses themselves as they like. So the message of “talent” like her should be directed at the Japanese. For the West, this is just cheesy non-culture that reaffirms the image of Japan as a nation of immature children.

    • Glen Douglas Brügge

      I am not to sure how much of her work or image is of her own doing as it is of the image factory. This is the same in all countries where pop idols are “made” for consumption – the ability to sell trumps artistic integrity. If AKB48 is any indication of the creative artist in mainstream Japanese music, I do not think she is quite the driving force one hopes she is for freedom of expression etc. etc. I may be completely wrong – but pop music since the days of The Monkees has been dominated by creating a cult of personality among the fans for primarily financial purposes. Am I cynical? Sure! But it’s hard not to be when it comes to “pop,” which is driven by image and catchy tunes rather than substance – because the prior two criteria are formulas for almost certain profit.

  • Allison Ags

    What’s up with the zenophobic comments? It’s easy to point fingers at other cultures, but we’ve our own ways too.

  • ktwoa@yahoo.com

    I had a great time at the Tokyo National Gymnasium Saturday and Sunday @ Kawaii Matsuri. I do not understand all the hate on this forum. The bands were great, the fans were polite, the crew were professional! Two great days as far as I was concerned!

  • Johnny Rabbit

    All the grumpy gaijin who don’t like pop music are hilarious! From the obligatory angry blonde feminist to the earnest ex-English teacher! I’m not sure if KPP will read your comments but I’m sure if she did they would be a life-changing revelation for her!

  • Sato

    Soon, these idols will be all the exports Japan has left. I don’t know how it will be able to sustain the living standards.

  • veridia

    Eh. I’ve been following some Japanese pop since the 90’s, here and there. Groups like Every Little Thing, Favorite Blue, etc. Every Little Thing gets cuter (more kawaii) as they mature, which is interesting.

    That said, Western Culture has no right to judge imo. Because we have dumb country artists that sing about beating the tar of other countries, and dumb oversexed pop music that lacks any subtlety. Moreover, we have dumb hypermasculine metal music that lacks any class or grace, or intellectual substance other than raw masculine aggression… Oh and the growling. Growling in metal = generic masculine pandering at its worst.

    So, when people in Japan sing with humility, grace, sweet charm, and class, I find it refreshing from time to time. It’s rare to find western artists in ANY style of music convey humility, grace, sweetness, and charm in a song. Kawaii music is different and unique from any western genre of music that I am used to hearing… Which includes punk rock, indie, synthpop, eurodance, hard rock, metal, country, bluegrass, blues, and the list goes on.

    Humility, modesty, grace, sweetness, charm and displaying graciousness and gratitude used to be the highest values of character. Kawaii music comes closer to those ideals of human nature than most other genres of music. Isn’t that what music is supposed to accomplish, to progress emotionally and intellectually and to advance human nature. I mean a grander purpose other than to simply write a catchy song that is.