“Cool Japan” in A Coruna

Hiroshi Yoshioka
Hiroshi Yoshioka

“Cool Japan” is a phrase coined after “Cool Britania,” which once functioned as a trademark celebrating the popularity of British pop culture in 1990s, and was rather indiscriminately used as a sign to reinforce self-confidence of the nation.  Japan Cool has a lot in common with Cool Britania in this sense, and basically seems to succeed its function, while the latter has already lost its appealing power since around 2000.  It is interesting to see, however, that Cool Japan, unlike its predecessor, includes cultural aspects which aren’t normally associated with power or confidence, and would never have been regarded as “cool” twenty years ago.  Besides long admired traditional Japanese culture like Noh, Kabuki, Tea Ceremony and Sushi, Cool Japan focuses on Manga, Anime, computer games and fashion, new cultures having their root in “Otaku” mentality and “Kawaii” aesthetics.

Today, they seem to have deeply penetrated into the life style of younger generation in many areas over the world.  Many share the childhood of being nursed by Japanese animation on TV while not knowing they are from Japan.  Nearly 40 years after Roland Barthe called Japan as “Empire of Signs”, the country appears to realize its full power of diversification, mutation and dissemination of cultural signs over the world, enabled by the development of information technology and the global network.  Recently the Ministry of Trade, Economy and Industry in Japan has set up a “Cool Japan” section to promote the export of “creative industry such as design, anime, fashion, film, etc.”

In contrast to this undoubted popularity of Japanese pop culture, we have seen relatively few serious discussions and investigations on this issue, especially those attempted by Japanese academic researchers.   So, Hisashi Muroi (Yokohama National University) and I organized a panel on Cool Japan within the 10th International Cengress of Semiotics, in A Coruna, September 2009.  We invited younger Japanese researchers in the field of literary theory, discourse analysis and fashon studies, who are deeply interested as well as involved in new cultural movements.  The panel was chaired by Muroi and I gave a presentation on “Chara-ben”(lunchbox with characters), a topic closely related to “Cool Japan” but not included in it.

Below I will summarize the argument of the speakers on the panel.

Noriko Onohara (University of Hyogo) gave a lecture titled “Gosurori: A Global and Totally Japanese-born Fashion”.  “Gosurori” (or “Goth-Loli”) is a Japanized abbreviation for “Gothic Lolita”.  According to Onohara this fashion is characterized by its “chaotic” syncretism, mixing dark Gothic clothing, accessories, and makeup contrasted with the typical cute look of a young girl, “Lolita.”  She pointed out “Gosurori” girls are also fond of classic European styles of frilly lace and undergarments, associated with European fashion in the age of Rococo, Victorian, and Edwardian periods.  Quoting those Western images, Onohara argued that “Gosurori” fashion is totally Japanese invention and now it is getting globally well-known as a typically Japanese fad.  International interest in Japanese fashion, so far, has focused on famous Japanese designers such as Kenzo, Hanae Mori, and Issey Miyake, who have gained worldwide recognition of their work outside Japan.  In cotrast to them, “Gosurori” is a style born on “street” and has been developped by its wearers.

There are many interesting points in “Gosurori” culture, Onohara says.  While street fashion generally tend to “dress down,”  Gosurori girls love dressing up, imitating formal fashion of ladies in a higher class in the past.  However, they don’t intend to “play” any historical figure.  “Gosurori” girls hate to be confused with “Cosupure” (“costume play”), which is another popular practice among young generation in the contemporary Japan.  On the contrary, Girls choose “Gosurori” fashion to realize or express their ‘true self’ or ‘real self,” as we find these phrases often in “Gosurori” magazines.  Another difference between “Gosurori” and “Kosupure” is that “Gosurori” generally don’t like being photographed, while for “Kosupre” being photographed and appearing on magazines is important part of their practice.

Miki Okubo (University of Paris / Kyoto University) also argues the topic of “Gothic Lolita,” emphasizing that it is not only a fashion style but also an aesthetics, or even a way of life, that influences girls’ view of life through their twenties, thirties or even later.   Of course the word “Lolita” originates from the famous novel by Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov,  but it is used by Japanese females in a very different way.  The word shows a resistance found in many young girls against growing up and becoming an adult woman.  It shows the changing attitude toward sexuality widely shared by females living in the contemporary Japanese society.  According to Okubo, the aesthetics of “Goth-Loli” (same as “Gosurori.”  The common spelling is not yet fixed.) shows influences from Surrealism or German Expressionism while, at the same time, most elements of “Goth-Loli” cannot be separated from Japanese-Pop culture, especially “cosplay (Kosupure)” and “dolls” culture. And Miki Okubo is “Goth-Loli” performer herself (See the photo).

Miki Okubo

Okubo also pointed out the relation between “Goth-Loli” and “doll lovers.”   Besides “Goth-Loli” girls dress themselves like a doll, they themselves are admirers of dolls, especially “ball-jointed dolls.”  The tradition of this type of dolls has its origin in the work of surrealist artist Hans Bellmer, and there are a number of doll artists following this tradition in Japan.  For “Goth-Loli” girls dolls are not “fetish”  but their own self image, Okubo argues, because these girls imagine their body as a body of a doll, something that looks like a human but can be decomposed into pieces.  This includes a difficult question which requires a psychoanalytic approach.

“Kawaii,” the word registered in some English and French dictionaries, is an important keyword to understand “Goth-Loli,” enthusiasm for dolls,  and maybe “Cool Japan” in general.  Kyoko Kama(Vytautas Magnus University, Lituania) demonstrated how this word started appearing on French media in 1990s, and added its semiotic value associated with Japanese culture.  Unlike more established words associated with stereotypical images of Japan like “Geisha,” “Samurai” or “Wabi-sabi,” “kawaii” has come to be used in a quite different way, sometimes to describe things not related to Japan.  Koma researched the usage of this word in three representative newspapers, Le Figaro, Libération, Le Monde, between 1996 and 2008, and investigated how “kawaii” has semiotically evolved in French language.

Another popular word related to the contemporary Japanese culture, “Otaku,” was argued by Ryuta Koike (Yonezawa Women’s Junior College).  He thinks that a kind of transformation is taking place in the feature of Japanese subculture, or the world of “Otaku”.  Indeed it has been a self-content, closed world of consumers enjoying cultural commodities, it seems to be changing into a more accelerated and extending communication network.  He mentioned the example of “Fujoshi” (female enthusiasts of “Boys Love,” a highly successful genre in manga and novels describing fantastic and often unrealistic love between handsome, sometimes feminine males), and pointed out how readers share and exchange their individual tastes.  He said a similar practice is widely seen among “Otaku” (this word normally refers to a male.).   The popularity of Pocket Monster, confrontation or beat-them-up games, and cooperative games like Monster Hunter and online RPGs  — all seem to show a transformation in the pattern of sign exchange by Otaku.

Finally, I tried to approach the issue from a little bit different point of view, taking up the topic of “Chara-ben,” a lunchbox with food made to look like characters of manga or anime, famous people or local products.  Though many of them are so elaborately made and almost equivalent to artworks, they are made by normal housewives and consumed only by their kids and husbands.  But many of these amateur food artists exchange their knowledge and technique in the internet, and there is a huge community of “Chara-ben” growing totally outside of the institutional art world as well as of industry.  I argued that “Cool Japan” is just the tip of the iceberg in the contemporary Japanese culture, and what would be more interesting is to understand the general attitude of normal people toward characters in manga, anime and TV shows, and to see how they appropriate them in the everyday life.  I organized a contest of Chara-ben in the city of Yamaguchi, Japan,  in 2008, and featured the topic in the book Diatxt.Yamaguchi (Yamaguchi Center for Arts and Media, 2008) which I edited with a group of local citizens of the city.

Click here to download the slides from Hiroshi Yoshioka’s talk.

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