Restructuring diffusions of contemporary Japanese culture

Field research of Japan Expo in Paris and Two Manga Exhibitions in London

Tets Kimura, School of International Studies, Flinders University [About | Email]

Volume 19, Issue 3 (Discussion paper 3 in 2019). First published in ejcjs on 24 December 2019.


Observations of three recent Japan-themed exhibitions in Europe demonstrate the extent to which Japanese popular culture has become a staple of global cultural consumption. Nonetheless, it is specific forms of Japanese artistic products which receive global attention; other forms, or even some practitioners of those forms, remain obscure outside of Japan. Direct observations of contemporary exhibitions indicate that global engagement with Japanese popular culture remains relatively superficial.

Keywords: Popular culture, anime, manga, globalisation, Japan Expo

Diffusions of the contemporary Japanese culture have been a widely studied topic as the consumption of Cool Japan goods is internationally ubiquitous. Through my travelling experience to over 70 countries in every continent except Antarctica, I have observed the consumption of contemporary Japanese cultural goods everywhere, even in small villages of Africa and South America far from Japan. However, there are different degrees of consumptions. There is no doubt that Japanese goods are more widely consumed in Asia, especially East Asia, where cultural and social similarities are found. This trend is more evident in popular culture. For example, although Dragon Ball and Pokemon are globally recognised especially by children and young adults who have grown up with them, there are other mega hit Japanese manga and anime that are only big in Asia, such as Doraemon, Crayon Shin-Chan, and Chibi Maruko-Chan. Japanese pop singers are also struggling to gain mass-popularity beyond Asia. Utada Hikaru, who is fluent in English and has been described as the Britney Spears of Japan by American media, failed miserably when she tried to enter the US market. There seems to be an existing barrier that some can break through but others can’t.

Looking at the historical Japonisme of the 19th century, however, diffusions and appreciation of the Japanese culture were triggered by the boom caused by Western consumers, especially those in Paris and London, not in Asia. The capitals of the two imperial nations were leaders in importing Japanese culture, for example, through World’s Fairs such as London’s International Exhibition of 1862, the Paris Exposition of 1867, and the Universal Exposition in Paris of 1878. Even today in the 21st Century, London and Paris are leading cities of Europe and the greater Western world in this affair, acting as windows in displaying Japanese culture. Various popular Japanese cultural events have been held in London and Paris in the European summer of 2019. For instance, two manga exhibitions, one at the British Museum and the other at Japan House, were held in London, whereas in Paris, the 20th anniversary of the Japan Expo held at Parc des Expositions de Villepinte attracted approximately a quarter of million people in four days in July.

Japan House in London from 5 June to 28 July hosted “The Art of Urasawa Naoki” who is famous for Yawara and 20thCentury Boys. Yawara, for example, triggered the judo boom in Japan around 1990, in line with the popularity of Yawara Inokuma (a fictional judoka from Urasawa’s manga) and Tamura Ryoko (a real judoka—five times Olympian who won an international title when she was 15). Until then, judo was largely regarded as a boys’ and men’s sport with the pre-existing manly image. It is argued that without Urasawa, there wouldn’t be various female judo competitions in Japan as they are found today. Urasawa may not be the biggest name from the Japanese manga industry, but he has been significant beyond manga. I find Japan House’s choice to foster Urasawa to be wise.

Meanwhile in the British Museum’s Sainsbury Exhibition Gallery, a comprehensive manga exhibition with the works of 50 manga artists, including Tezuka Osamu (known as the author of Astro Boy), Toriyama Akira (Dragon Ball), and Oda Eiichiro (One Piece), was held between 23 May and 26 August. As one of the most traditional museums in the world featuring a Japanese subculture, significant attention was paid within the Japanese media space, both in print and TV.1 To date, the Sainsbury Exhibition Gallery has never yet exhibited anything from Japan or anyone who is not dead. Due to this, some criticism was reported—Asahi Shimbun newspaper questioned how the manga exhibition fits within this prestigious discourse. However, Professor Nicole Rousmaniere, the curator of the manga exhibition, advised me that manga deserves high recognition due to its wide consumption in the UK and Europe. To support this, every chamber at the exhibition was occupied by young and old people even though I visited on a weekday morning. It was not easy to take photos without any people when I took photos of exhibited items.

Having said that, there was an elderly woman, who was asking her granddaughter (presumably) about the combined structure of drawings and speech bubbles. She must not be the only one who needed instruction. There was a sign explaining how to read manga—from the top right to the bottom left—linking it with Japan’s vertical writing tradition (See attachment). Furthermore, the manga exhibition was hosted under the Japan-UK Season of Culture 2019-2020, agreed at the summit meeting between the Japanese and British Prime Ministers in August 2017. The British Museum had joint organisers, such as Tokyo’s National Art Centre, from Japan to run the event. The exhibition took place with Japanese support.

Furthermore, Japan House is run by Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, established with Japanese taxpayers’ money. Throughout the exhibitions, I sensed elements of Japan’s self-presentation of its popular culture by using a location that is far from Japan. Astro Boy and Dragon Ball might already be household names in today’s UK, but the authors, Tezuka Osamu and Toriyama Akira, have not gained the kind of fame that Walt Disney, or even Miyazaki Hayao, have.

On the other side of the English Channel in Paris, Japan Expo was celebrating its 20th anniversary. This iconic annual Japanese pop cultural event is the largest of its kind outside Japan. The event was founded by fans of Japanese culture, aiming to produce a gathering opportunity for otaku geeks of Japanese pop culture. Today, 20 years later, it still attracts teenage anime fans in cosplaying costumes, but also increasingly families. Although Thomas Sirdey, the Director of Japan Expo, was being modest in his role in spreading Japanese culture in Europe, this event now attracts Japanese officials, delegates, and even the ambassador. Representatives of Japanese local government sectors and railway companies promote various Japanese destinations and local culture to the Europeans. Japan Expo provides the most efficient promotion platform for the Japanese in Europe.

In addition, due to the increasing recognition of Japan Expo, it is not difficult for Japan Expo to invite and host famous Japanese pop stars, and many are willing to be there even if they have to pay their own way. This year’s big names were, for example, Ai Otsuka from J-pop music and Aya Hirano (a voice actor) from animation. Both are highly recognised in Japan especially by those who are interested in the Japanese entertainment industry—the average Japanese who are in their teens to 40s would know these names. However, talking to fans at their concerts, they admitted that these Japanese celebrities are only known by Japan Expo attendees, not by the French general public. There were no more than a few hundred people at their concerts—their concerts in Japan or other East Asian countries attract thousands.

It seems that there is little commercial justification for the Japanese performers to visit Paris’ Japan Expo—but they do, quite willingly. Task Have Fun is a group of pop performers that consists of three teenage girls. The group has been active since 2016, and their reputation has been building slowly but surely in Japan. There are over seven thousand subscribers to their YouTube channel. However in France or Europe, they are no more than three kawaii girls. Their concerts at Japan Expo had about 100 people watching, and my eyes were stuck on Japanese otaku fans who were jumping and screaming (I wouldn’t call it dancing) as stereotypical idol otaku men do. The locals tended to be quieter and often standing still and watching, except a few who joined with the Japanese fans. According to Akechi Hiroshi, the President of Velvet Management that manages Task Have Fun, approximately 20 Japanese fans visited Japan Expo for Task Have Fun. For the fans, it was an opportunity for them to be recognised by their idolised girls. Furthermore, I have been told that visiting Paris is a marketing strategy for the girls to be recognised more in Japan. Since Japan Expo these days is well-known in Japan, the girls’ presence in Paris will be reported in Japan in Japanese. Moreover, the group produced a music video in Paris, which was released only weeks after Japan Expo on 22 July.2 With the townscape of Paris, instead of Tokyo, the group enables delivering its image as being recognised internationally even though only one hundred or so French people saw their performance at one time. Japan Expo has been used as a steppingstone.

Through my field research in London and Paris, I do not deny that there is a tangible presence of Japanese culture in the leading European cities. However, its presence is not as established as it may look. Japan perhaps is still mysterious for many ordinary Europeans as this was the case in the 19th century when Japonisme was at its peak. Certainly, diffusions of contemporary Japanese culture are not linked to a full appreciation and understanding of Japan and its culture.

All the interviews in Paris were conducted from 4 to 7 July 2019, and the interviews in London took place on 9 July 2019.


About the Author

Tets Kimura teaches International Relations at Flinders University, South Australia. He wrote ‘Cool Japan: Fashion as a Vehicle of Soft Power’ (Transglobal Fashion Narratives, Bristol: Intellect, 2018), and ‘Japan’s Soft Power: A Case Study of Uniqlo and AKB48’ (Japan Studies Association Journal, Vol 14, 2016). He is currently editing Exporting Japanese Aesthetics: Evolution from Tradition to Cool Japan (Sussex Academic Press, 2020) with Jennifer Harris.

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