All art is political. All pop culture is political.

This idea provokes fierce opposition from many. Politics is dirty and discredited, they say, and art should be above politics; pop culture is entertainment and shouldn’t have to mean anything. These arguments are wrong.

All art and pop culture is political because it all serves someone’s politics. By challenging, reinforcing or even outright ignoring dominant ideologies and social norms, art and pop culture form an important part of the framework within which society is constructed. Anyone who has felt comforted by a song that recognizes their life and struggles, or who has felt alienated by one that seems to be speaking to them from a different world, has experienced music in its most basic political essence.

So when Ayaka “A-Chan” Nishiwaki of cheerfully apolitical electropopsters Perfume told the web site Blouin ArtInfo, “Overseas, there were more men than women, and also people who were neither!” before launching into an anecdote about a gay fan and his “girlfriend,” her comments and the reaction were just a more direct expression of a discourse that is constantly occurring in pop.

Obviously many of the group’s fans overseas were extremely offended by this, while others blamed gay fans for confronting Nishiwaki with their sexuality in the first place. The debate in Perfume’s overseas fan community basically divided along familiar lines, with the universalists, who believe in certain immutable cultural values, on one side and the exceptionalists, who celebrate and defend Japan’s right to be different, on the other.

Nishiwaki herself clearly didn’t mean anything bad by her comment — on that at least the exceptionalists are surely right. The journalist who carried out the interview, Blouin ArtInfo’s Robert Michael Poole, stands by the translation and puts the remarks down more to naiveté and cultural awkwardness [The Japan Times has not heard the original Japanese recording of the interview]. What the piece shows is someone with no real frame of reference for dealing with openly expressed homosexuality struggling clumsily to find appropriate words. The cause of the problem is a culture that fails to provide people with that very frame of reference.

Pop culture and a lot of mainstream art in Japan is complicit in reinforcing norms that exclude discussion of anything that doesn’t fit a certain narrow set of mainstream values. Most contemporary J-pop has the same basic message of “friendship is good, peace is good, follow your dreams, I want a boy,” etc. which while inoffensive in its own right, limits the the range of experiences discussed in the broader cultural sphere.

Singer/model Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is often compared to Lady Gaga, but while Gaga frequently challenges mainstream cultural norms, Kyary’s songs are all essentially advertising jingles and the more challenging or fringe aspects of her music are mostly abstract, aesthetic ones (the flipside of that of course is that based on those abstract, aesthetic criteria, Kyary is far more musically interesting than Gaga).

Whether through social conservatism on the part of Japan’s culture industries or a simple race to the middle driven by market forces, all of this serves a particularly narrow vision of what Japanese culture and values are. Pop music is essentially the megaphone through which the big lie that Japan is a single homogeneous entity is propagated to its population.

It also contributes to a cultural ignorance about how things are perceived by different people. It pushes pop culture and mainstream art into the abstract and aesthetic realms in order to satisfy its need to push boundaries, with experimentation in form sometimes creating genuinely striking music, art and fashion — but also leading to a situation where popular boy bands such as Kishidan, can appear on TV in full Nazi SS uniforms and not understand how that’s problematic.

A lot of this comes down to political correctness, which at its worst can be a form of Orwellian newspeak, but at heart really just means thinking about the effect your language and imagery will have on other people. Language that appears to deny gay people their right to a gender is a horrible thing for many to hear, however well-intentioned. Artists should have the freedom to say whatever they want, but they should at least know why they are saying it.

Opening pop culture up to more voices would give people the tools to make those judgments and lead to a greater cultural consciousness that would enrich rather than stifle Japanese culture.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.