While Japanese cool hunters might lament the lack of pop cultural exports in recent years — all the more conspicuous when compared to K-Pop’s successful forays westward — kawaii (cute) culture has quietly permeated into global consciousness with all the effortless grace of singer Kyary Pamyu Pamyu farting out a rainbow.
You don’t have to be an ardent Japanophile to know kawaii — its trademark vibrant palette and infantilized characterization can be found in much of the nation’s contemporary cultural exports: Most noticeably in the commodity cuteness of Hello Kitty, Pokemon, Line lovebirds Brown and Cony and the countless yurukyara mascots that blight our TV screens.
International early adopters of the style, such as Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, have re-imagined kawaii through a Western lens and contributed significantly to its popularization abroad. Now, one company, Asobisystem, is looking to shine the spotlight back on its birthplace — the Harajuku district in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward — by opening a new building that sets out to be a one-stop shop offering all the essentials demanded by international visitors.
The Moshi Moshi Box, which had its public inauguration on Christmas Day, is a tourist information center with a twist. Oriented primarily toward English-speaking visitors, the building offers standard facilities — free Wi-Fi, ATMs, currency exchange, souvenirs and bilingual information — all while dressing them up in cutesy visuals befitting the surroundings. Situated in prime location on Meiji Dori, the building is unmissable to pedestrian traffic exiting Takeshita Dori, the district’s iconic shopping mecca. Complementing Asobisystem’s multimedia output — spread across the Web, TV and events — the Moshi Moshi Box is the latest addition to the company’s Moshi Moshi Nippon initiative to transmit Japanese pop culture across the globe.
“Rather than people coming to Japan for a holiday, or on a whim, we thought it would be beneficial if visitors could be informed about our local culture and then use that as their reason to travel here”, says Asobisystem President Yusuke Nakagawa. “Harajuku is a place that has given birth to so much culture over the years — it’s a place that has no conventions, no rules.”
A fitting home for kawaii culture then, itself a rebellion of sorts, albeit less overtly so than punk or other contemporaneous styles (kawaii emerged in the early 1970s, peaking — for the first time — in popularity in the early ’80s along with “cute idol” Seiko Matsuda). As Sharon Kinsella writes in “Cuties in Japan” (1995), “cute style is anti-social; it idolizes the pre-social … cute fashion blithely ignores or outrightly contradicts values central to the organization of Japanese society and the maintenance of the work ethic.”
Anti-social though it may be, the economic importance of cute style proves its worth as more than simply cultural capital. In the post-bubble recession, children’s entertainment was one of the few businesses within Japan that not only survived, but actually grew.
Harajuku is synonymous with subcultural movements — the throngs of cosplayers by the station on Sundays were a veritable tourist attraction for long periods — but Nakagawa insists it doesn’t end there.
“There’s more to Harajuku than just gothic lolitas,” he says, referring to the portmanteau fashion style born in late-’90s Harajuku that combines the intricate elegance of the Lolita look with darker, gothic flourishes. “We want visitors to be able to ask about the Harajuku they have yet to discover, so they can check out new shops and places that might interest them.”
Corporate involvement in underground culture is always a contentious issue — one that The Japan Times’ Ian Martin recently wrote about in his Strange Boutique column — and it’s hard not to hear alarm bells when Asobisystem’s own website announces their intent to “create culture.” However, Nakagawa is keen to emphasize that they are not a typical company.
“We started from the street ourselves, we definitely don’t want to tread on anyone’s toes,” he says.
Indeed, Nakagawa does not come across as someone entirely comfortable in a suit. He is well-regarded within the music industry and continues to be a regular presence at fashion events and nightclubs — the latter is where he originally met superstar producer Yasutaka Nakata (Capsule, Perfume), whom Asobisystem manages.
Artist Sebastian Masuda, who has shaped the formation of kawaii visual culture as much as any other individual over the past two decades, agrees that corporate involvement does not have to be a malign influence.
“Personally, I might be able to reach and mobilize 1,000 to 2,000 people, but a larger company can help target more than that. I think it’s necessary if you want to spread the culture abroad”.
Masuda’s contribution to the Moshi Moshi Box is a world clock that adorns the side of the building. Constructed in his inimitable style, the clock is an eye-catching melange of kids’ toys, all in typically vivid colors, with the different time zones reflecting the global spread of kawaii. Masuda explains that it actually took much longer for Harajuku to gain international recognition than kawaii culture in general.
“It was after the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011 that the international media started to pay attention to Japan, and not in a good way,” Masuda says. “They wondered what was in store for Japan, and they found the future in all these colorful people in Harajuku. Of course there were artists like Lady Gaga and Gwen Stefani who had been championing Harajuku culture even prior to that, but it wasn’t until after the tsunami that Harajuku as an area itself began to get noticed.”
Masuda has, in the past, spoken about kawaii as a cathartic outlet for specifically Japanese notions of societal stress and depression. His insight is measured and authoritative, reflecting his deep investment in the culture and its development. Both he and Nakagawa — and indeed the likes of Kyary and Nakata on Asobisystem’s roster — are people who have grown up with their respective scenes; a refreshing difference from the agencies churning out identikit idols elsewhere in the industry.
With that said, any optimism of mine is tempered by the press ceremony for the building’s opening. Aside from Nakagawa and Masuda, who stand out discernably as the youngest, guests include the mayor of Shibuya Ward, a representative from the government’s tourism office and a section chief from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. They are all figures who have a vested interest in Harajuku culture: METI, for instance, has been widely panned for the failure of its Cool Japan strategy — a government-funded initiative to export Japanese soft power that received a further ¥50 billion commitment in June 2013.
The exclusively male panel of nine is, aside from Masuda’s outfit, devoid of character and color; the majority of their speeches likewise suggest little enthusiasm or understanding toward youth culture. Between that and the typo-ridden backdrop, proclaiming “Tourist Information Centar [sic],” the whole affair is a synecdochic representation of Japan’s repeated failures in globalization: a frustrating circus of bilingual incompetence, overseen by aging bureaucrats ill-equipped to identify the mechanics of cool, let alone cute.
In contrast, Asobisystem would appear to be overqualified, although Nakagawa tells me he is not in a position to influence the direction of the government’s Cool Japan strategy. In Kyary and Nakata, the company boasts two of the biggest names in domestic pop culture. Not only was the former appointed the official “kawaii ambassador” of Harajuku in 2012, but between the viral success of music video “Ponponpon” (for which Masuda was in charge of art direction) and a well-received feature in taste-making British magazine Dazed & Confused, Kyary has done more than enough to suggest she could be the crossover star the Japanese music industry has long lacked.
The way Asobisystem has marketed Kyary abroad has not been without its missed opportunities — Canadian electronic star Grimes was reportedly keen for a collaboration that was never realized and, although the Dazed article was accompanied by a few interviews here and there, the buzz behind Kyary could have facilitated far more widespread coverage.
One of 2014’s biggest stories in music and there, the buzz behind Kyary could have spurred more widespread coverage.
One of 2014’s biggest stories in music was the emergence of London-based record label PC Music, whose artists share a love for saccharine anthems at the intersection of pop and club music. Their prevailing style of pitched-up vocals and sugar-glazed synths is indebted to Nakata’s brand of J-pop, and is accompanied by neon fashion and digital avatars in the vein of Kyary and Hatsune Miku. It’s all unapologetically kawaii, and proof that Japanese pop culture still has clout. News that PC Music’s Sophie is collaborating with Kyary Pamyu Pamyu suggests that Asobisystem is prepared to take risks on emergent trends abroad that will likely still be intermittent blips on the peripheries of the ministry’s radar by the time the Olympics roll around.
One man who won’t be surprised by the “Kyaryfication” of pop music is Masuda.
“CD sales have dropped to the point that the music industry has lost its ability to influence,” he says. “The stars who make it big globally, like Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, are the ones who have matched music with culture and fashion, linking it all together in a lifestyle”.
Few lifestyles combine all of the above so equally as kawaii, and that would seem to be key to its longevity — something Asobisystem surely recognizes while staking its entire operational future on a singular strand of pop culture. Next year will see the company continue to look outward, educating international demographics with a world tour of events and more Moshi Moshi Boxes planned for construction in cities abroad.
In a year where the news has made for unfailingly depressing reading week in week out, both within Japan and internationally, it’s unsurprising that the escapism offered by kawaii culture has burgeoned across the world. Perhaps it’s finally time that we join Harajuku’s denizens in what they have seemingly known for so long now, by giving up on Cool Japan and embracing Cute Japan.