“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.