The rise of Japanese popular culture has been one of the undeniable global phenomena of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Japanese anime (animation) and manga (comic books) have become youth favorites internationally; Japanese video games and television series claim devoted followings from Cambodia to Copenhagen; Godzilla and Pokémon are international icons; sushi is readily available in the supermarket cases of suburban America from coast to coast; Japanese fashion defines chic in Asia as well as Europe.
Over most of the past century and a half, the impact of Japanese culture on Western life has generally been figured in terms of elite art forms. In the late nineteenth century, ukiyo-e woodblock prints famously inspired the French Impressionists; in the early twentieth century, Japanese aesthetics fascinated architects like Frank Lloyd Wright; after World War II, big-city art houses screened the cerebral works of directors Kurosawa Akira and Ozu Yasujiro. Western scholars, having focused for so long on Japan's sway over European and American high culture, have been caught a little off-guard by the global ascent of Japanese pop in recent years and have yet to explore fully what factors explain the creativity of Japan’s popular culture and its current worldwide appeal, what the journalist Douglas McGray has famously referred to as Japan's "Gross National Cool."
Many scholars have attempted to understand postwar Japanese popular culture from a historical perspective, tracing the origins of forms like manga back to the Japanese graphic traditions of illustrated literary manuscripts and woodblock prints. The influential artist Murakami Takashi has argued for more recent inspiration, locating the origin point of Japan’s remarkable pop culture creativity at the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In Murakami’s analysis, the Japanese people have never fully come to terms with defeat in World War II, occupation by the United States, and a pattern of postwar subservience to America that has left Japan perpetually infantilized (hence the ubiquity of “cute” in Japanese youth culture) and somehow deformed (hence the prevalence of monsters in the Japanese imagination). Since frank discussion of the war’s legacies has been almost taboo in Japan, Murakami argues that it has fallen to popular culture to explore the unresolved tensions of the postwar period. Thus, in popular cinema, manga, anime, video games, and avant-garde art, we see a compulsive reiteration of apocalypse, nuclear mutation, grotesque metamorphosis, technological escapism, masculine insecurity, social vulnerability, and other themes and imageries through which postwar Japanese struggle to find some sort of closure for war, surrender, and ongoing dependence on America. Combine this almost existential quest described by Murakami with the market realities of postwar Japan (that is, a large and increasingly wealthy population, with a significant “baby boom” generation of young postwar consumers eager for mass entertainment), and the dynamism, imaginative energy, riotous variety, and international popularity of Japan’s contemporary pop culture forms begins to make sense.
The political scientist Joseph Nye has argued that phenomena like the global embrace of Japanese pop can give nations “soft power” in international affairs, that is, the ability to sway other nations and peoples through the attraction of culture, values, and ideals, as opposed to the coercive “hard power” of military and economic capabilities. How significant the international goodwill created by Japanese popular culture exports is, and how this goodwill might be capitalized upon by the Japanese government in promoting its agenda overseas, remains to be seen today.