TAIPEI — At a karaoke bar in Taipei, a Taiwanese girl croons Japanese hits like “First Love” by Japanese pop sensation Hikaru Utada, although the lyrics are only displayed in Japanese.
“I learned these songs by listening to her CD over and over,” explained the girl, who also adores Hello Kitty.
Japanese products, such as game software, have been popular in Taiwan for some time. But the recent hankering for things Japanese among Taiwan’s younger generation appears to be so extreme that some adults have begun to frown upon the trend.
It has led to the term “harizu,” or “Japan freaks.”
When McDonald’s began selling pairs of Hello Kitty dolls on the first Monday of August as part of a sales campaign, customers formed long lines from midnight the previous night outside its eateries to purchase them. McDonald’s sold 200,000 of the dolls within the first 90 minutes.
“I cannot explain why Hello Kitty is so popular (here), but I think it is very cute,” said Yang Ja-ling, a 24-year-old girl waiting in line outside a McDonald’s one Monday morning.
Other Japanese cartoon characters, including the red-hooded bunny My Melody, the popular comic book character Doraemon, and the floppy Tare Panda, are also ubiquitous and appear on products ranging from toys to notebooks to bank cards.
Because Japanese music is selling like hotcakes, many CD stores even have a hit-chart shelf devoted only to CDs of Japanese singers like Utada and Kinki Kids, and local cable TV stations shower viewers with Japanese programs.
Even the fashion trends followed by youngsters on the streets of Taipei, such as dyed hair in light brown hues, appear to have been imported from Japan.
Why are things from or linked to Japan so popular?
Azuma Kawakami, head of E Media, a company that imports Japanese game software and music to Taiwan, believes the main spawning ground of the Japan craze is cable TV, which was legalized in 1993.
“Before that time, there were only three TV channels, and many cable TV stations were operating underground. But now, we can openly watch 110 channels on TV, and they broadcast many Japanese dramas, cartoons and films,” he said.
Kawakami claims TV commercials have also played a big role in Japan’s penetration into Taiwan’s culture.
Last year, the major Japanese advertising agency Dentsu Inc. made a TV commercial for Seven-Eleven stores in Taiwan to promote “oden,” the Japanese traditional dish of stewed vegetables and fish dumplings in a thin soy soup.
In the commercial, which is in Japanese with Chinese subtitles, a Japanese actor eats oden with a snowscape behind him.
“TV stations and advertising agencies have continued to feed Japanese-made programs to the Taiwanese media,” Kawakami said.
Because Japan ruled Taiwan for 50 years until 1945, many older-generation Taiwanese still speak fluent Japanese, but exposure to Japanese culture was strictly banned under the Kuomintang-led government during the early postwar years.
During that period, people were prohibited from speaking Japanese, let alone singing Japanese songs.
It was only during the past decade that such stringent regulations controlling the Taiwanese media were eased under Taiwan’s modernization and liberalization policy.
Some also point out that the Taiwanese feel very close to Japan culturally, because Japan is a part of Asia, and they share common facial features.
“The Taiwanese can easily reflect upon their own lives while watching Japanese TV dramas,” said Liao Hsiang-hsiong, deputy director of the ruling Kuomintang party’s Department of Cultural Affairs. “Yet, Japan is much more advanced and trendy, and they hope to be like the Japanese.”
But Liao, a former film director-turned-party official, laments that the abundance of Japanese products in Taiwan may discourage Taiwanese from nurturing their own creativity.
Taiwan does not have any strong products unique to the country, and Taiwanese people tend to depend on imports rather than develop products by themselves, he said.
“The Japanese have craftsmanship and are creative, but the Taiwanese are basically traders,” he said. “For example, Taiwan’s game industry imports software from Japan and only makes minor changes to make them suitable for the Taiwanese market.”
However, some older-generation Taiwanese are critical of the advent of the Japan freaks, saying the phenomenon is a mere flash epidemic among youngsters as Japanese culture has flowed into Taiwan upon media deregulation.
Tsai Kun-tsan, 70, who spent a few years in prewar Japan training as a pilot for the Imperial Japanese forces, is concerned about Taiwan’s future relations with Japan, since the younger generation only has a superficial understanding of Japanese culture.
Taiwan is a rarity in Asia in that it admires Japan despite having been seized by it, and this is because many older Taiwanese feel a familiarity toward Japan, which built the foundations for Taiwan’s modernization earlier in the century, Tsai said.
“But this generation, which has such feelings toward Japan, is aging, and I wonder if Taiwanese will have friendly feelings toward Japan after our generation disappears,” he said.
“I really hope the recent Japan freaks will not end as a mere fashion trend and that there will be more young people who better understand Japan to maintain a friendly relationship.”