Popular Culture and Japan's Gross National Cool

Popular Culture and Japan's Gross National Cool

Background Information.

Ed. Note: For a general overview of the issues facing contemporary Japan, please read Professor Peter Frost's essay, Contemporary Japan, 1989–Present.  In addition, Professor William Tsutsui offers his provocative thoughts on the ten most important topics to teach American students about 20th century Japan in Framing Twentieth-Century Japan: A Top-Ten List.  Listen to Dr. Anne Allison discuss modern Japanese pop culture icons in Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination Podcast.

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.

Learning Goals.

1. Students will understand the concept of “soft power,” particularly in relation to Japan in the twenty-first century.

2 . Students will understand the history and diversity of Japanese popular culture creations.

3.  Students will explore some of the reasons for the current global appeal of Japanese popular culture.



Common Core Standards
College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading

  • Standard 1.  Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
  • Standard 7.  Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse formats and media, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Writing

  • Standard 11.   Develop personal, cultural, textual, and thematic connections within and across genres as they respond to texts through written, digital, and oral presentations, employing a variety of media and genres.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening

  • Standard 1.  Prepare for and participate effectively in a range  of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively. 
McRel Standards
Language Arts


McRel Standard 5. Uses the general skills and strategies of the reading process.

McRel Standard 7. Uses reading skills and strategies to understand and interpret a variety of informational texts.

World History

McRel Standard 45. Understands major global trends since World War II.

Key Concept.

Modern Japan's ability to create pop culture trends and icons that are embraced worldwide has given it significant soft power.

Essential Question.

Primary Source.

1. Douglas McGray, “Japan’s Gross National Cool,” Foreign Policy 130 (May/June 2002), pp.44-54, available in PDF format at the very bottom of Douglas McGray's website and on Japan Society's website here.

2. Film clips from Japanese pop culture exports: Gojira (1954), Akira (1988), or almost any animated work by Miyazaki Hayao (My Neighbor Totoro (1988), Princess Mononoke (1997), etc.).  (For a summary of some of these films, see Antonia Levi's Anime Filmography.) Images of Japanese character goods such as Hello Kitty products.  Examples include masks of popular characters as well as merry-go-round versions of the characters.


Thought Questions.

1. What is “soft power” and how does it compare to the traditional “hard power” of economic and military clout wielded by nations?  Why would a government want to increase a nation’s “soft power” and what steps could it take to accomplish this?

2.  What impact do you think Japan’s “soft power” is having on the world today? How might Japan’s mounting “soft power” affect U.S.-Japanese relations?

3. Why has Japan been so creative in the production of pop culture forms since World War II? What forces in Japanese society and culture have been driving the postwar flowering of Japanese pop?

4.  Why have global audiences responded so enthusiastically to Japanese pop culture, especially in recent decades?



Focus Activity Ideas. Ask your students to list all the pop culture forms associated with Japan that they are familiar with and have become popular globally, from movies to video games to animation to television shows (like “Iron Chef”) to Japanese baseball stars playing in the United States. Be sure to consider some forms that might not be obvious, like Japanese food (sushi). Ask your students why they think these Japanese entertainment products are popular in the United States, and particularly among young people. Discuss what impressions and stereotypes of Japan are conveyed by pop culture products.

Main Lesson Activity Ideas.

1.   Discuss Douglas McGray’s essay “Japan’s Gross National Cool."  Consider what “soft power” is and why nations consider it important. Discuss what benefits the global popularity of forms like anime (animation) and manga (comics) brings Japan politically, economically, and culturally.   (See the introduction above for an introduction to the concept of soft power.)

2. Watch a clip from an important work of Japanese popular film or animation and discuss how it reflects the political, social, and cultural concerns of the time in which it was made. For example, how Gojira (Godzilla) reflects nuclear anxiety during the Cold War, how Akira captures the growing alienation of Japanese youth amidst the affluence of the “bubble economy,” and how Miyazaki Hayao’s works tap into Japanese folklore, attitudes toward nature, and desires for fantasy and escape. Look at Hello Kitty products online (or brought to class by your students). Why is Hello Kitty popular globally? Is there anything particularly “Japanese” about Hello Kitty?

Ed. Note: For more suggestions on ways to use anime in the classroom, please read Professor Antonia Levi's essay, Anime and Manga: It's Not All Make-Believe.   Professor Levi provides more extensive information on individual anime in the filmography, Anime - An Annotated Filmography for Use in the Classroom.   

3. Discuss how Japanese pop culture forms reflect traditional Japanese cultural practices and aesthetics, as well as more recent influence from overseas (and particularly American) sources. Consider, for example, how Godzilla was inspired both by American monster movies (like King Kong) and Japanese legends of demons and dragons. Hello Kitty similarly has roots both in the Peanuts character Snoopy and Japanese icons like the maneki neko (“lucky cat”) figures. How has this heritage of creative cross-fertilization influenced the global appeal of Japanese pop culture products?

Ed. note: A list of relevant pop culture resources from the About Japan website is in the "Resources" section below.

Summative Activity Ideas.

Have students choose one example from Japanese pop culture and briefly explain its global significance. 


Sources on Japanese popular culture are proliferating rapidly. A standard source on anime is Susan Napier, Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001); Chapters 1 and 2 provides a useful overview.

On manga, Frederik L. Schodt’s Dreamland Japan: Writings on Modern Manga (Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press, 1996) is an excellent and very accessible research.

On  Godzilla, see William M. Tsutsui’s Godzilla on My Mind: Fifty Years of the King of Monsters (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).

On the phenomenon of “cute” (kawaii) and Hello Kitty, a concise introduction is Mary Roach, “Cute, Inc.,” Wired 7:12 (December 1999).
An exceptional, lavishly illustrated survey of Japanese popular culture and subculture fandom since World War II is Murakami Takashi, ed., Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture (New York: Japan Society and Yale University Press, 2005). Murakami’s assertion that unresolved tensions stemming from the atomic bombings and defeat have driven Japan’s postwar pop culture creativity is the subject of ongoing scholarly debate. 
Subtitled anime and translated manga now abound in the United States. Instructors should be aware that the violence, sexual content, and nihilistic messages of some anime and manga make them unsuitable for normal classroom use.

Suggestions from the About Japan website:
A photo of Doraemon, a popular cartoon character.
Suggestions from Japan Society's website:
A conversation with Douglas McGray and Hiroki Azuma: Otaku Unmasked: The Life, Death and Rebirth of Japan’s Pop Culture.