Cute Power! : Asia Is in Love with Japan's Pop Culture. from Pokemon to Puffy, Japanese Stuff Is Oh, So 'Q!' Stock Up on Those Hello Kitty Dumplings

By Koh, Barbara; Lee, B. J. et al. | Newsweek International, November 8, 1999 | Go to article overview

Cute Power! : Asia Is in Love with Japan's Pop Culture. from Pokemon to Puffy, Japanese Stuff Is Oh, So 'Q!' Stock Up on Those Hello Kitty Dumplings


Koh, Barbara, Lee, B. J., Rickards, Jane, Notosusanto, Tam, Esaki-Smith, Anna, Drake, Jonathan, Newsweek International


The fans are stomping and clapping as the Japanese duo known as Puffy warble a disco tune. The stars toss their auburn-dyed hair and pace the stage, dressed in jumpsuits and cloddy sneakers. They banter, and the 3,000 fans whoop back. Pretty normal for a Saturday night in Tokyo. But this is Hong Kong. "They're cute, they're in, they have a smart style," gushes Jessica Tse, wearing the Japanese look of the moment--a tiny, curled ponytail on top with a braid dangling below and a Hello Kitty purse. Tse, an economics undergrad, and her girlfriends are breathless from mimicking their idols' moves. They've memorized the lyrics, too. Never mind that they don't know a word of Japanese.

Tse and her star-struck friends aren't some counterculture group on the margins of society. They are part of a Japan craze that has swept the malls, stadiums and homes of Asia. A frenzy for Japanese pop culture has electrified Asia's music and fashion industries. From perky Puffy to cuddly Pokemon monsters, from Hello Kitty's heavily pink world to the fantasy- inspired cartoon figure of Doraemon, Japanese products are defining a new generation of middle-class Asian consumers. Kids in Bangkok, Singapore and Jakarta collect Japanese comics. Taiwan's slaves to Japanese trends even have a name: the harizu, or "Japan-crazy tribe." About 1.5 million Asians, up 20 percent over five years ago, are studying Japanese--the better to absorb the latest trends. Ask anybody in Asia: Western-style cool is out. Everything Japanese is in--and oh, so "cute!"

In postcrisis Asia, consumers are looking for new models to follow. "We [Thais] like to learn from countries more civilized than we are. And Japan is the most civilized country in Asia," Thai scholar Nopporn Suwanpanich said recently. "We see the Japanese as our heroes." Hong Kong people admire Japanese culture because it seems richer than the money-hungry culture of their city. "We're envious of their deep culture," epitomized by the tea ceremony and kimonos, says Lisa Leung, who teaches media and cross-cultural studies at Hong Kong's Lingnan University. "We haven't got much [of that]."

Asia's love affair with Japanese pop culture reflects a profound generational change, too. A whole cohort of older Asians grew up watching Japanese imperialists brutalize the region half a century ago, and they are haunted by memories of war, murder and rape. Their children and grandchildren have moved on. "The past is the past," says Zhao Hong, a 31- year-old Shanghainese jewelry retailer who has lived in Tokyo for seven years and prefers the name Beni (Japanese for "red"). With her meticulous makeup, Coach bag and sweater set, she's often mistaken for a Japanese; she doesn't mind.

Even South Korea, which has officially banned Japanese culture for decades, is slowly leaving the past behind. The former Japanese colony last year started admitting award-winning Japanese movies as long as they didn't show sex or violence, and small-scale concerts, too. Thanks to piracy, satellite TV and the Internet, the ban was never airtight. Yoon He Ae, 29, grew up watching Japan's "Future Boy Conan" cartoons in Korean and reading Japanese fashion magazines. She downloads heavy-metal band XJapan's rock songs from the Internet. "Japanese pop culture has been with me throughout my life," says Yoon, who carries a cell phone with Hello Kitty baubles. She is one of 945,000 South Koreans studying Japanese. "We yearn for Japanese pop culture more probably because it is banned."

The Japanese fixation also suggests an emerging Asian identity. For one thing, mimicking Japanese TV stars is easier than adulating Westerners: "After all, they don't have blond hair or blue eyes," says Albert Han, a Taiwan punk with chin-length hair cut at choppy angles. Lots of American products, from McDonald's to Nike and "Star Wars," are still big sellers in the region, and Madonna outperforms Japanese and Asian artists. But marketers speculate that in the wake of the financial crisis, Asians may be looking for homegrown products to restore their pride. …

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