Demystifying Tokyo’s pop culture was one of my missions after discovering Tokyo’s cuisine beyond sushi and ramen. But I knew we were going to have to recruit some local experts in all things anime, otaku, otome, and yokai to help us make sense of Tokyo pop culture.
Evidence of Tokyo’s exuberant pop culture is everywhere we look: kids posing in the flamboyant costumes of their favourite manga characters; enormous posters advertising the latest anime release; colossal neon-lit department stores dedicated to comic books, video games and toys; girls wearing cheeky get-ups to attract the geeky boys to the maid cafés.
To help us in our task of demystifying Tokyo’s pop culture and making sense of anime, otaku, otome, and yokai, we consulted a couple of locals who are authorities on everything from robots to monsters, Tokyoite Hiroko Yoda and her partner, American-born Matt Alt.
The husband-wife authors and translators run a company specialising in the production of English versions of Japanese video games, comic books, and literature. They’ve written books on Tokyo pop culture subjects, including Hello, Please! Very Helpful Super Kawaii Characters from Japan, Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide and Ninja Attack! True Tales of Assassins, Samurai and Outlaws.
Demystifying Tokyo’s Pop Culture – Understanding Anime, Otome and More
Q. Tokyo’s pop culture in a few words?
A. Hiroko: Cute, grotesque, funny!
A. Matt: Robots and monsters!
Q. Japan is perceived as traditional and conservative. Explain its vibrant, youthful pop culture.
A. Hiroko: I think it’s a misnomer that Japan is a “conservative” culture. It may be conservative in official sorts of settings but when it comes to personal interests, private time and entertainment, all bets are off. Japan has had a thriving popular culture for hundreds of years, since the Edo period of the 17th century. Back in the 19th century, there was a fad for Japanese woodblock prints throughout the world. So pop culture isn’t necessarily new here.
Q. What’s otaku culture and where can we get a taste of it?
A. Matt: Otaku may be increasingly a dated term, but the culture of pop-culture worship it spawned is most definitely still relevant. The term first surfaced in the 1980s as a way for fellow manga- and anime-obsessed fans to address one another. Literally it’s just a politer-than-polite, almost passive, way of saying ‘you’. The otaku scene is hugely consumer-driven so the best places to experience it in Tokyo are where otaku traditionally shop: Akihabara and Nakano, for starters.
Q. And otome culture?
A. Matt: Otome culture is an offshoot of otaku culture – it’s about female otaku and their interests, which often (naturally) differ from those of men. There is actually a street in Ikebukuro called Otome Road that caters to them.
Q. Top 3 Tokyo pop culture experiences?
A. Hiroko: My recommendations tend towards the historical, places like the Tanuki Temple on the backstreets of Asakusa, which is devoted to the animal-yokai of the same name, or climbing nearby Mount Takao, which is famed as home to the Tengu, another type of mythical creature.
A. Matt: If you have even the slightest nerdy bone in your body, I recommend a shopping trip to Nakano Broadway. It’s a shopping complex that has basically been invaded and re-invented by otaku. It’s filled with comic book, toy, and anime stores.
Q. What are the differences between anime and manga?
A. Matt: Anime is animation. Manga are comic books. Though graphic fiction might be a better way of describing them, as manga aren’t necessarily for kids. Japanese anime and manga have a unique style and flavour that sets them apart from animation and comic books of other countries, and that’s precisely why they’re so popular around the world today.
Q. Where can we learn more about anime and manga?
A. Matt: You could do worse than visiting Akihabara, which is filled with anime and manga shops. In particular, the Mandarake Complex store is a single towering building filled with anime, manga, and their assorted merchandising. You could spend hours browsing through its many floors of products.
Q. If we wanted to explore anime where would we start?
A. Hiroko: A safe bet for anime are the works of Hayao Miyazaki. They tend to be whimsical and family-oriented without being saccharine sweet. Spirited Away, The Princess Mononoke and My Neighbor Totoro are all classics.
A. Matt: For something a little edgier, the science-fiction epics Akira and Ghost in the Shell are excellent introductions to anime style. In the US, for instance, many bookstores have sections devoted to them where you can browse, flip through, and find ones that appeal to you personally.
Q. How do kawaii fit into the scheme of things?
A. Hiroko: Kawaii – cute mascots and characters – are everywhere in Japan. They’re part of the fabric of Japanese society here. We go into a lot of detail about it in our book Hello, Please!
Q. And yokai?
A. Hiroko: Yokai – monsters – are the mythical creatures that have populated generations of Japanese folktales. They’re the things that go bump in Japan’s night.
Q. Can these be traced back to Japanese traditions?
A. Hiroko: They’re very much a part of Japanese culture. Some are directly related to actual religious or cultural concepts. Others are like explanations for then inexplicable natural phenomena. But most are more like old wives’ tales with faces. They’re the pop characters of a bygone age – superstitions with personalities!
Q. The kids in the elaborate costumes?
A. Matt: You mean the ‘gothic Lolitas’ you see around the station? It’s basically cosplay, which is a term usually applied to people who like to dress up like their favourite anime or manga character. But it also applies to people who wear elaborate costumes of any sort, like the gothic types that populate Harajuku. Those people are sort of the fashion side of the cosplay phenomenon.
Q. Where can visitors to Tokyo see it? And should they participate?
A. Hiroko: It’s a pretty inclusive sort of thing. I don’t think anyone would have a problem with someone dressing up. But it isn’t cheap, especially at the higher levels. The costumes can be quite elaborate. So it isn’t the kind of thing you can just whip up out of your closet. There are stores that supply the people who enjoy cosplay and provide the special things they need.
Q. Explain the maid cafes.
A. Matt: There’s a type of establishment in Tokyo called a Hostess Bar, where salarymen drop by for drinks and to flirt with the female staff who serve them drinks and conversation. The maid cafes are essentially an otaku version of that.
A. Hiroko: The maid outfit is a big motif in a lot of anime and manga. It’s sort of a fetish thing. Maid cafes originally sprang up as places where lonely otaku could talk to the opposite sex about the things they liked: anime and manga. But now they’ve transformed into a big subculture in and of themselves.
Q. Japan’s obsession with toys? Should adult males really be collecting dolls?
A. Matt: Hey, so long as it doesn’t hurt anyone. But I’m biased. I love robot toys!
A. Hiroko: It’s true. I have to keep reminding him we don’t have any more room for robots in the house.
Q. And Japanese games?
A. Matt: There used to be a thriving video game arcade scene here. But now that there are powerful home game systems like the Xbox 360 or Playstation 3, the need to go to arcades has dropped drastically. Most people play online, at home. But there are definitely still games arcades out there. Shibuya and Shinjuku have more than a few.
Q. Pachinko parlours? The locals seem pretty addicted to them!
A. Hiroko: Pachinko is a form of low-stakes gambling. It’s like a vertical pinball machine, where the object is to get the balls to bounce off of pins and into little holes. The machines pay off in more balls, which you can exchange for various products. Or you can go out back and exchange them for money, which is technically illegal but ignored by the authorities. Pachinko parlours tend to be really noisy and incredibly, incredibly smoky places so I avoid them like the plague.
Q. Best souvenir?
A. Hiroko: Plastic sushi from Kappabashi street, Tokyo’s kitchen supply district!
A. Matt: A tote bag with a parasite motif from the Meguro Parasitological Museum!
To learn more about Tokyo’s pop Culture, you can read Hiroko’s stories and Matt’s writing at his blog AltJapan.