For those people who were in Japan on March 11, 2011, there are a lot of sounds that they’ll never be able to hear again without being reminded of that time: the slow creaking of high-rises as they swayed back and forth, the early warning chimes that rang out over NHK and the cheerful vocals of cartoons singing, “Popopopo-n.”
Pop culture generally deals with major world events in two ways: There’s an immediate reaction and then, with some time, more measured reflection. The Great East Japan Earthquake, which involved a subsequent tsunami and meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, brought the entertainment industry to a standstill as the country grappled with its need to mourn, and the anxiety caused by the fallout.
And the event continues to loom large in artistic expression — NHK alone has prepped four dramas centered on the disasters to coincide with the 10th anniversary. With some creators wondering how the COVID-19 pandemic will alter the entertainment landscape, it’s as good a time as any to look back on the cultural impact 3/11 had on Japan.
The AC Japan ads
Following the triple disaster, people in Japan stayed glued to their TVs. Advertisers, however, came to the conclusion that a nationwide mood of mourning wasn’t the best time to shill products, and pulled their commercials en masse.
That left a lot of empty airtime to fill, and so the Advertising Council Japan stepped in. AC Japan is a nonprofit organization that creates commercials promoting societal values and public service announcements. Their work was broadcast in the wake of other major disasters, such as the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake.
After 3/11, AC Japan created four ads that played on a near loop across all the networks. With nothing else on, these spots — particularly one titled “Popopopo-n,” an animated clip about the importance of communication that featured various animal-centric puns — became drilled into the populace’s head, as was the peppy “AC Japan” sign-off jingle after each one.
The AC Japan ads quickly became a low-stakes piece of pop culture for people to bond over, turning into creative viral videos and skittery dance remixes. Annoying as they were, these commercials offered the country’s first real distraction from a constant stream of bad news.
When the COVID-19 pandemic forced people to stay inside, publications like Asahi Shimbun’s Telling, wondered if Japan would see a return to the days of ad-less television. The pandemic never delivered the same emotional blow, but people have gone to the comments sections for the AC Japan ads on YouTube to reminisce over their first time hearing them. We may want that jingle out of our heads, but it isn’t going anywhere.
A wave of political protest
Immediately following March 11, musicians focused on cheering people up and showing their support for Tohoku. Charity singles in the style of USA for Africa’s “We Are The World” popped up quickly, while songs like Exile’s “Rising Sun” offered uplifting messages as the year went on.
Those who wanted an escape from the constant threat of nuclear catastrophe may have gravitated toward the camp digi-pop of Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s “Ponponpon” and the track “Maru, Maru, Mori, Mori!,” the theme song to the Fuji Television show “Marumo no Okite” that was sung by its two child stars.
Increasingly, however, Japanese musicians began to be enraged by what was going on at Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, as well as the government and Tepco’s handling of the emergency, which inspired a new wave of political music via releases from Kazuyoshi Saito, Rankin Taxi, Frying Dutchman, and idol group Seifuku Kojo Iinkai, who put out the peppy “Free From Nuclear Power Plant.”
The activism continued into the following years as electronic artists channeled anger (Hiroshima footwork producer Crzkny) and unease (Tokyo dubstep maker Goth-Trad) to capture the atmosphere of post-3/11 Japan, while celebrated artist Ryuichi Sakamoto helped organize the No Nukes 2012 music festival, an event gathering acts like his own Yellow Magic Orchestra and Kraftwerk to raise awareness of the perils of nuclear power.
“In Japan there has always been a small number of musicians who have been outspoken on social issues, but they tend to be dismissed as radical,” Sakamoto told The Japan Times in 2012, ahead of the event. “Hence it was important to get the kinds of ‘normal’ musicians who don’t usually get involved in such things. That way, more and more musicians will gradually start to realize that it is all right to express their own opinions.”
Of course, holding the event opened him to criticism from pro-government and pro-nuclear power netizens. And those voices got louder as more and more concerts, such as Fuji Rock Festival, began offering platforms to political thinkers.
While songs shaped by the natural disasters continue to emerge, the legacy of this burst of anti-nuclear activism showed a new social-media savvy generation how to be vocal about political topics.
The ‘Amachan’ charm offensive
The bulk of NHK’s 2013 morning drama “Amachan” revolves around a woman following her dreams of becoming a star as she moves back and forth from Tohoku to Tokyo. In the final stretch of the series, however, the Great East Japan Earthquake occurs, and the protagonist returns to her hometown to help with the rebuilding process.
“Amachan” didn’t end up a phenomenon because of how it approached the catastrophe, which was still fresh in viewers’ minds, but it was the first TV show to dramatize the event, and a lot of people watched it.
It’s interesting to think that, when it aired in 2013, “Amachan” was the only show to incorporate the Great East Japan Earthquake into its plot. Recent productions have wasted no time merging the pandemic into their stories. That may reflect just how much the March 11 disasters impacted Japanese society at large. One of the first steps in dealing with a national tragedy is seeing it reflected in pop culture, and “Amachan” helped set the pace for healing.
An unspoken nod to disaster
As The Japan Times’ Mark Schilling wrote recently, the only event in modern Japanese history that filmmakers have explored more than the Great East Japan Earthquake is World War II. From documentaries to blockbusters, like last year’s “Fukushima 50,” the disaster has made an appearance more than once on the big screen.
Two films that were inspired by 3/11 and wound up being commercial hits never actually referenced the disaster directly. “Shin Godzilla” (2016) updated the 1954 original with the iconic monster no longer representing the threat of atomic weapons but a nightmarish mixture of natural disasters and nuclear fallout. While the film features shots of Godzilla rampaging through Tokyo, the bulk of “Shin Godzilla” focuses on the failings of the government to deal quickly with the crisis. It stars a giant lizard, sure, but the film’s true villain — bureaucratic fumbling — is pretty clear.
Makoto Shinkai’s animated hit “Your Name.” is less directly a “3/11 film” and more shaped by a post-disaster reality. The story revolves around two teenagers who swap bodies, but there’s a prominent natural disaster factored into the plot upping the unease. The premise — what if you could stop a tragedy — speaks to a desire to alter a wrong turn of events, but, without giving too much of the plot away, it’s how the characters react to the events that will strike a chord with anyone who has experienced a disaster.
While the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, caused U.S. pop culture to veer into a more extreme patriotism, and the end of World War II forced Japan to reckon with the idea of defeat, the cultural touchstones of March 11 may still take years to properly decipher. In the meantime, they serve as reminders of the fragility of humankind and our determination to rebuild.
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