Encyclopedia of Asian Design
Encyclopedia of Asian Design

Haruhiko Fujita

Haruhiko Fujita is Professor of Aesthetics and Design History at Kobe Design University, and Professor Emeritus of Aesthetics at Osaka University, Japan. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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and Christine Guth

Christine Guth led the Asian design history strand in the V&A / RCA History of Design Programme from 2007 until 2016. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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(eds), Jae-Joon Han and Chae Lee (Regional editors (Korea)) , Wendy Siuyi Wong

Wendy Siuyi Wong

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(Regional editor (China))

Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2020

Haruhiko Fujita and Christine Guth (eds), Jae-Joon Han and Chae Lee (Regional editors (Korea)) , Wendy Siuyi Wong (Regional editor (China))


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Popular Culture in Japan

DOI: 10.5040/9781350063488.ch-079
Page Range: 329–332

Since the 1990s, Japanese popular culture, particularly manga, anime, and video games, has gained huge popularity around the world in regions such as Europe, America, and Asia. Japan has a long history of popular culture dating back to ancient times; however, this history changed drastically due to the Second World War, and Japan’s postwar popular culture underwent a new, unique course of development. This was brought about by the defeat in the war and the country’s subsequent rapid economic growth. An examination of Japan’s postwar history reveals the following three distinctive features of Japanese popular culture: Americanization, consumer culture, and the media environment. Indeed, these phenomena are not limited to Japan and are also visible in other countries around the world. However, in Japan, they certainly developed rapidly within a comparatively short period of time and became the cornerstones of popular culture. This article examines transformations in Japanese popular culture through three historical phases.

Americanization and Rapid Economic Growth, 1945–1969

Japan was defeated in the Second World War by the atomic bombing of 1945 and the country’s subsequent acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration. With major cities being laid to waste by the Allied bombardment, modern Japan literally arose out of the ruins. Japan was placed under the direct control of her victor, the United States, and underwent radical Americanization in various spheres ranging from politics and economics to life and culture.

Japan’s economic recovery began in earnest due to the special procurement demand caused by the Korean War, which began in 1950. This soon led to a period of prosperity known as the period of rapid economic growth, causing a miraculous economic recovery that continued until 1970.

Japan’s GNP increased due to the rapid economic growth, and, by 1968, it had become the second highest in the world. As a result, Japanese people rushed to buy various consumer goods, particularly durable goods such as home appliances and cars during the postwar period. In the early 1960s, televisions, washing machines, and refrigerators became sought-after appliances and were hailed as the “Sanshu no jingi” (three sacred treasures). Ten years later, these items could be found in almost every home in Japan. Then, during the late 1960s, the “three sacred treasures” were replaced by a new set of sought-after items known as the “new three sacred treasures” or “three Cs”: the color television, the cooler, and the car. As the population flowed from rural to urban areas in search of employment, apartment complexes were constructed in the suburbs, where people began to create nuclear families. A new ideal way of life emerged wherein a couple with several children formed a nuclear family and lived in apartment complexes equipped with a variety of consumer goods.

This heightened consumer desire was driven by the image of a “rich lifestyle” filled with material possessions, in other words, the American way of life. Having lost so much in the war, Japanese people pursued material wealth by working hard and purchasing new products. The United States, which had already achieved economic prosperity, provided an ideal model for this new way of life. Against the backdrop of the Cold War, the United States had launched a global appeal based on the concept of “material living” under capitalism. Japan also saw an influx of American music and film, which had been prohibited during the war, and family comedy dramas were broadcasted on television, including Father Knows Best (broadcast started in 1958 in Japan), The Donna Reed Show (1959), My Three Sons (1961), and Bewitched (1966). The images portrayed in the media over-idealized the American way of life for its freedom and democracy, and many Japanese people who remembered the wartime oppression under the military regime began to pursue consumer lifestyles.

Owing to the rapid growth and Americanization, Japan’s standard of living improved and widespread middle-class consciousness developed. This was caused by an increase in the number of salaried company workers and the establishment of a new middle class. Being highly conformist, the new middle class discovered a sense of security in having the same material objects and lifestyle as those of the family next door. Their sense of values became extremely homogeneous. According to “Public Opinion Survey Concerning People’s Lifestyle,” an annual report by the Cabinet office since 1958, during the mid-1960s, the proportion of people who considered themselves “middle class” exceeded 80 percent and remains high, at approximately 90 percent, to this day.

The media of the 1950s and 1960s contributed to the formation of a common national culture. Television broadcasts began in 1953. The national broadcasting company NHK began broadcasting programs such as the New Year’s Eve music show Kōhaku Uta Gassen (Red-white song battle) (originally a radio show that had been aired since 1951), in which the most popular singers of the year have participated; an early-morning drama aimed at middle-aged and elderly women called Renzoku Terebi Shōsestu (TV novels series) (began in 1961), which has depicted how outstanding women strove to succeed in modern Japan; and a Sunday evening period drama series called Taiga Drama (Saga drama) (1963) on the rise and fall of existent warlords and samurais in the past. Even today, these programs enjoy high viewing ratings and provide Japanese citizens with stories and narratives that can be shared. Furthermore, from the early days, television stations broadcasting sports and sumo and pro-wrestling became popular. In particular, pro-wrestling gained considerable popularity by winning the sympathy of the Japanese common people with plots in which Japanese wrestlers held out against overwhelming attacks by American wrestlers before coming back from behind to win (ironically, Rikidōzan, the leading figure in pro-wrestling at the time, was Korean).

From the mid to late 1960s, the postwar baby boomers came of age and entered university or found jobs. The birth population from 1947 to 1949 was so high at approximately 8 million that it was 25 percent greater than that from 1950 to 1952. This cohort of baby boomers became known as the “Dankai (mass) generation.”

The Dankai generation had very different values from their parental generation, who were born before the war, and these differences often led to conflicts between them. While participating in student protest movements against the Vietnam War and the US–Japan Security Treaty in the 1960s, members of the Dankai generation listened to American popular music such as jazz, folk, and rock, read manga, and created youth cultures and subcultures such as Japanese hippies.

Manga was originally aimed at children; however, with the Dankai generation as its reader base, it began to explore a wider range of topics and expressions and became a form of entertainment for older audiences, containing extreme depictions of sex and violence, social critique, and literary themes in the late 1960s. A manga written by Takamori Asao and Chiba Tetsuya, entitled Ashita no Joe (Tomorrow’s Joe) (1968~1973), depicted the solitary struggle of a young working-class boxer, and it was read enthusiastically by men of the Dankai generation, who identified with the protagonist.

During the 1960s, a young generation of artists emerged on the scene, and, in cinema, Oshima Nagisa, Yoshida Yoshishige, and Shinoda Masahiro directed experimental pieces known as the Shochiku Nouvelle Vague. In theater, there was an active and underground avant-garde movement, including Kuro Tento and Tenjo Sajiki, attracting young audiences. Terayama Shuji who had organized Tenjo Sajiki from 1967 to 1984 combined avant-garde play with traditional freak show in Ohyama Debuko no Hanzai (The Crime of Ohyama Debuko) (1967).

Discover Japan and Consumer Society, 1970–1991

The Japan World Exposition held in 1970 became a symbol of Japan’s rapid economic growth. The exposition, which was a national project, adopted the motto “Progress and Harmony for Humankind,” and a total of seventy-seven countries participated, creating future visions for their goals and aspirations. During the six-month period, 64 million people visited, making the event Japan’s most successful exposition (Plate 20).

The two oil shocks (in 1973 and 1979) brought an end to the rapid economic growth. After the oil crises, Japan’s economy underwent a change toward more continuous and stable growth. In the late 1970s, the period in which the entire nation longed for a single American way of life came to an end, and consumers’ preferences diversified. Rather than seeking material wealth across the board, people began to search for their own unique qualities by pursuing consumer lives that were different from those of others.

As durable goods circulated and consumer life was achieved under the American model, a nostalgic sentiment toward Japanese culture emerged. Rather than directly regressing to the past and tradition, Japan created a form of culture in which Japanese characteristics were interlaced with the American model.

For example, from the late 1960s to the early 1970s the home appliances, which tended to be designed under the influence of functionalism, included televisions, stereos, and refrigerators with “Japanese-style” wood patterns displaying traditional Japanese beauty.

From 1970 onward, the Japan National Railways developed the “Discover Japan” campaign, thus, instigating a domestic tourism boom. City dwellers gazed nostalgically at rural areas containing remnants of Japan’s past. The newly established fashion magazines an an (launched in 1970) and non-no (1971) published feature articles on local towns that ignited young women’s interest in travel. The number of women traveling alone or with friends to old-fashioned cities such as Kyoto, Kamakura, and Takayama increased due to the influence of the magazines, and caused a social phenomenon. These women wearing fashionable clothes were named “an-non-zoku” (an-non tribe) after the magazines. The women can be said to have consumed pre-modern Japanese culture by rediscovering the historical streets and tradition that still remained in modern Japan.

In 1971, young rock musicians sparked the “Japanese rock debate” in which they discussed whether rock should be sung in English or Japanese. A product of America, rock was typically sung in English; however, musicians who believed that it could also be sung in Japanese began to emerge. Happy End released the albums Happy End (1970) and Kazemachi Roman (1971), in which the band members sang in Japanese and sought to Japanize rock, exerting a decisive influence on subsequent musicians.

As the Dankai generation, who received the baptism of postwar democracy, married and had children in the 1970s, they sought to build friendly husband–wife and parent–child relations that were a shift from the traditional feudalistic and patriarchal family model. The Dankai couples wore jeans and trainers together, enjoyed shopping, leisure, and dining out as a family, and they bought their own houses in the suburbs. These families became known as “new families,” a marketing term that sought to create a new family lifestyle. With these families in mind, roadside food chains, known as “family restaurants,” supermarkets, and bargain sale distribution shops began to multiply in suburban areas.

The younger generation emerged with the taste of individualism. Teenagers came to have their own room in the house, which they furnished with radios, televisions, and stereos, constructing their own media experiences independent of their families. The advent of the video recorder around the same time also allowed people to freely record television programs and replay them as they pleased. Electrical products and media contents were no longer a shared national culture, nor did they offer shared experiences among generations. Instead, they had become tools used by individuals to pursue their own lifestyles.

The Walkman by Sony, whose first model was released in 1979, was hugely popular and became an iconic product of the era. The portable mini cassette player offered a new listening style where people could listen to music anywhere, anytime and received tremendous support from young people. The reason for its success was that, despite the absence of advanced functions, its excellent design struck a perfect match with young people’s lifestyles. The Walkman could change public space into the user’s private room.

In the 1980s, the Japanese economy improved as the export of cars and electrical products increased, and, partly due to the economic downturn in America and Europe, Japan entered a period distinguished by its self-praise for its style of management under the banner of “Japan as number one.” When the infamous bubble economy arrived during the late 1980s due to inflated real estate and stock market prices, people began to spend profusely on expensive brands, dine out at restaurants, and travel overseas.

In the realm of clothing and accessories, scores of fashion brands established by young designers entered the market. These designers developed their own unique designs, which were welcomed by the young generations who sought to “differentiate” themselves from others in the 1980s. Yamamoto Yohji started his company Y’s in 1972 and Kawakubo Rei launched her own brand Comme des Garçons in 1973. Both of them had attended Paris fashion week since 1981 and their avant-garde fashion design won acclaim outside Japan. Brands set up shops in city department stores and fashion buildings; they initiated the “DC (Designers and Characters)” brands boom using attractive image-branding strategies.

Around this time, department stores and fashion buildings developed image advertising, which encouraged consumer spending. In particular, the Seibu Department Stores launched original advertising campaigns based on slogans such as “Wonder, my favorite”(1981), “A delicious life” (1982), and “I want what I want” (1988), expressing a period in which people no longer sought products and material satisfaction but spiritual and cultural fulfillment.

As people began to pursue their personal identity in design rather than practical utility and necessity, in the world of consumption, debate surrounding the transition “from mass consumers to segmented and small consumers” came to the fore. The debate constituted awareness that Japan had entered a period in which consumption was driven not by standard values but by symbolic values. With the advent of high consumption society, the style of consumption was diversified and deeply intertwined with personal identity.

Globalization and Recession, 1992–2010

Around 1992, the bubble economy collapsed and the Japanese economy entered a lengthy period of recession. Japanese people, who had taken economic growth for granted, were withdrawn from their lavish spending amid a seemingly endless period of recession, during which they began to search for new lifestyles.

The prolonged recession accelerated a shift from the middle-class-centered society to one with disparity. Japanese employment customs, which operated on the assumption of lifetime employment, collapsed, and the number of nonregular workers increased. A gap between the rich and poor widened, and society was divided into two classes. Consumption trends became polarized and interest in inexpensive, simple goods increased at the same time as interest in expensive brands. Brands providing inexpensive, simple clothes and products, such as MUJI (launched in 1980) and Uniqlo (1984), rose to success.

The market developed various products for young women with purchasing power in the 1990s. High school girls and girls in their late teens wore flashy clothes and makeup, instigated fashion trends such as “chapatsu” (brown hair) (by bleaching their hair brown) and “loose socks” (long, white, and oversized socks), and created the “kogal” (younger gal) style. Kogals tanned their skin at tanning salons, and, around 2000, the “ganguro” (extremely black) subculture emerged, in which girls tanned their skin an extremely dark-brown color. When pagers and mobile phones went on sale, young women immediately began using them for communication. Bestsellers were also born from the “cell phone novels” read by girls on their mobile phones.

Among the young girls were groups of Lolita, who wore romantic dresses like those of the Rococo period, and “GothLoli” (Gothic Lolita), who preferred Lolita dresses in dark color. The Harajuku area of Tokyo was home to numerous small brands and shops aimed at young people, and crowds of youths sporting various fashion styles gathered in the streets. As magazine reporters and photographers photographed these youths, transmitting their trends throughout the world, the diverse and colorful street fashion attracted global attention.

Since the late 1970s, as young people continued consuming manga, anime, pop idol TV, and video games even as adults, these contents industries began to develop complex narratives and novel means of expression that catered to their demands. Fans who take their love of these media forms to the extreme are known as “otaku” (nerd). Otaku not only consume massive volumes of productions but also create “derivative works” and engage in exchanges with other fans by drawing manga, independently producing fanzines, and engaging in “cosplay” (costume play) by dressing up as manga and anime characters. When the term “otaku” appeared in the 1980s, otaku were still few in number and faced negative stigma, being seen as infantile, unsociable, and eccentric. However, as manga and anime gained commercial success and garnered attention around the world from the 1990s, more young people began to share the otaku sentiment and participate in activities.

In particular, the anime world gave rise to outstanding artists such as Miyazaki Hayao, and as the quality of productions improved with uniqueness, anime rose to popularity around the world under the banner of “Japanimation.” His works achieved commercial success as well as critical acclaim abroad and “Spirited Away” (2001) won the best animated feature film in the Academy Awards.

Influenced by the low cost of broadcasting, Japanese anime was shown on television in Europe, America, and Asia, and it was received by viewers around the world. From the late 1990s, awareness of anime increased outside Japan, and a global exchange of youth culture progressed as more young people embraced the otaku culture and overseas fans attended cosplay conventions such as the “World Cosplay Summit” in Japan.

Interestingly, although the Japanese economy went downhill, its popular culture has come under the spotlight around the world. Japanese people felt that while Japan had caught up with developed countries on the strength of its manufacturing, by producing home appliances and automobiles, Japanese art and culture had yet to be recognized. Initially, the fact that youth cultures and subcultures, such as manga, anime, video games, television, and fashion, gained recognition and acclaim overseas was met with surprise in Japan. In the 2000s, the government sought to encourage the sale of Japanese popular culture abroad under the slogan of “Cool Japan.” For example, the Cool Japan Fund, which was founded as a private–public fund in 2013, invested in the Internet shopping company Tokyo Otaku Mode, which aimed to promote the export of Japanese products and media contents.

Driven by a complex longing toward America, Japanese people achieved economic prosperity through rapid growth and pursued the American way of life. In the twentieth-first century, the American lifestyle was no longer the ideal, and the period in which people found satisfaction mainly through consumption came to an end. During the course of this process, Japan arranged and interlaced this culture in its own original way, giving rise to a variety of popular cultures. They represented a history of popular sentiment in the postwar era.

References and Further Reading

Iwabuchi, Koichi. (2002), Recentering Globalization: Popular Culture and Japanese Transnationalism, Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press.

McGray, Douglas. (2002), “Japan’s Gross National Cool,” Foreign Policy, May/June: 44–54.

Matsubara, Ryuichiro. (2000), Shohi-Shihonshugi no Yukue (The Direction of Consumer Capitalism), Tokyo: Chikuma shobo.

Steele, Valerie, ed. (2010), Japan Fashion Now, New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press.

Tsurumi, Shunsuke. (1987), A Cultural History of Postwar Japan 1945–1980, London and New York: Kegan Paul International.

Ukai, Naoki, Kenichi Fujimoto and Yoshikazu Nagai, eds. (2000), Sengo Nihon no Taishu Bunka (Popular Culture in Post-war Japan), Kyoto: Showado.

Yoshimi, Shunya. (1999), “Made in Japan: Cultural Politics of “Home Electrification” in Postwar Japan ,” Media, Culture and Society, 21(2): 149–171.