In the supercharged air of Shibuya, Tokyo's fiercely hip teen quarter, music videos by Japanese pop stars topping the charts throughout Asia boom from towering, outdoor liquid-crystal display screens. The streets below are clogged with hordes of young women wearing the Japanese schoolgirl look -- streetwalker's makeup, sexy stockings and plaid miniskirts -- styled by international fashion magazines as the height of child-delinquent chic.
Under a galaxy of neon, cubicle-sized stores sell trendy trinkets, including phone mascots -- cute characters first dangled off cell phones here years ago, now common in Seoul and Hong Kong and seen in Sydney, New York and Paris.
In the cacophony of cool, foreigners mingle with streams of Japanese descending by a cave-like hole into the entrance of Mandarake, the world's largest Japanese manga -- comics -- and anime department store. They buy original celluloids, or cels, from Japanese animation, most at about $30 each, along with comic books, action figures, posters and CDs. Hundreds of online orders come in daily to operators speaking Japanese, English, Spanish, French and Korean.
Company President Masuzo Furukawa, whose office is entered through an anime-like tube with round, orange electronic doors, is direct about the reason: "If it's Japanese, the world wants it. Japan is hot."
Even as this country of 127 million has lost its status as a global economic superpower and the national confidence has been sapped by a 13-year economic slump, Japan is reinventing itself -- this time as the coolest nation on Earth.
Analysts are marveling at the breadth of a recent explosion in cultural exports, and many argue that the international embrace of Japan's pop culture, film, food, style and arts is second only to that of the United States. Business leaders and government officials are now referring to Japan's "gross national cool" as a new engine for economic growth and societal buoyancy.
Revenue from royalties and sales of music, video games, anime, art, films and fashion soared to $12.5 billion in 2002, up 300 percent from 1992. During the same period, Japanese exports overall increased by only 15 percent. Its cultural exports are now worth three and a half times the value of all the televisions this nation exported in 2002, according to a report by the research arm of the trade conglomerate Marubeni.
"Japan is finding a new place in the world, and new benefits, through the worldwide obsession with its culture -- especially pop culture," said Tsutomu Sugiura, director of the Marubeni Research Institute. "The global embrace of things Japanese has given us a new kind of influence, different than what Japan once had, but influence nonetheless."
Sushi in Sao Paulo
A new crop of internationally famous architects have led Japan's emergence as a force in international design.
Shigeru Ban recently won the competition for the new Pompidou Center in Metz, France, and Tadao Ando, winner of both the Pritzker Prize and the American Institute of Architects Gold Medal, designed the Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth. Ando is currently working on the spectacular and huge Francois Pinault Foundation for Contemporary Art on an island in the Seine in suburban Paris.
Takashi Murakami, whose "superflat" art movement has earned him the reputation as a new Andy Warhol, inaugurated a whimsical, high-profile, anime-like sculpture at Rockefeller Center this fall. His playful works on canvas, scooped up mainly by foreign buyers, have fetched prices near $600,000 at New York art auctions. Louis Vuitton designer Marc Jacobs collaborated with Murakami to create a series of Vuitton handbags that was one of its top sellers last year.
Rei Kawakubo, who established Comme des Garcons, and the houses of Issey Miyake and Yohji Yamamoto have for years been at the top of international fashion. But they now hold court alongside younger Japanese designers such as Jun Takahashi of the Undercover label, dubbed by several leading fashion editors as the hottest breakout designer in years. Junya Watanabe, a Kawakubo protege, has also made a big stir in fashion circles.
Japan's culture of kawaii, or cute, epitomized by playful designs in ice cream colors such as cherry-blossom pink and tea green, is increasingly as recognizable around the world as Americana. France's Pierre Herme, the Paris dessert chef and retailer, picked kawaii as the theme for his fall/winter 2003 designs, with fantasy pastries in the soft, silky hues of kimonos and anime.
Sushi, once an urban trend, has become as globally ubiquitous as the Big Mac. Brazil's Veja Magazine reported this month that there are now more sushi restaurants than Brazilian barbeques in Sao Paulo, South America's largest city, where residents consume an estimated 278 sushi rolls per minute. And in Paris, on the Rue de la Gaite, the entire street has filled with sushi restaurants over just the past two years, said Patrice Jorland, cultural attache at the French Embassy in Tokyo. "This is Paris, yes, Paris," he said.
Even traditional Japanese culture, which long ago influenced the French Impressionists and furniture design in Europe, is reaching farther afield. A school of ikebana, Japanese flower arranging, recently opened in South Africa, and ikebana conventions have been held in Zimbabwe and Taiwan. The next one is scheduled for Vienna next year. The drumming group Kodo has won international acclaim, playing New York's Carnegie Hall as well as the Acropolis in Athens.
And a tea-ceremony school recently opened in Nova Scotia. "We had one nurse come in and say she wanted to learn the way of tea and wear a kimono just because she had read all the books coming out on geisha life," said John McGee, a 30-year master of Japanese tea who left Kyoto in the 1990s to found the school near Halifax. "It has gotten completely out of control."
Beyond Hello Kitty
Inside the anime department store, Andy, a 42-year-old from London, was buying dozens of original anime cels -- paintings on transparent plastic sheets used to create an animation -- for his own collection and resale at home. One cel frame depicted a doe-eyed young man who looked like a character from "G-Force," a Japanese cartoon popular in the United States during the 1980s. "Forget it; this character is much newer," he said, unwilling to give his last name for fear such resales may not be entirely legal. "If that were really 'G-Force,' it would be vintage. We're talking eight times the price, more, back in London."
Lighter-fare manga and anime franchises such as Pokemon, translated into more than 30 languages and available in 65 countries, are still hugely popular and contributing to the global fascination with Japan's youth culture. But around the world, Japan is not just about Hello Kitty anymore. Shonen Jump, a leading Japanese comic, was launched in the United States last year and has reached a monthly circulation of 540,000. Video games with Japanese themes, such as Tenchu and The Way of the Samurai, rank among the hottest sellers worldwide.
"There are millions of kids around the world listening to the Japanese language, sometimes without even realizing it, when they play a video game," said Noriyuki Asakura, a former "J-pop" star who composes musical scores for Sony PlayStation video games. "Our audience has never been greater."
The mania has also touched Hollywood. Spoken partly in Japanese and with a long anime sequence, Quentin Tarantino's hit "Kill Bill" incorporates Japan's ancient traditions and Tokyo's modern pop culture in an homage to Japanese coolness. Tom Cruise joined a host of celebrated Japanese actors in the new epic "The Last Samurai." And the costumes and atmosphere of the recently concluded "Matrix" series were rooted primarily in Japanese manga.
In Japanese film, Hayao Miyazaki's "Spirited Away" won the Oscar this year for best animated feature, while Takeshi Kitano's "Zatoichi" walked away with the coveted best director's award at this year's Venice Film Festival.
Japan's emergence today as a cultural superpower is, observers say, the product of various factors. In the United States, Japanese anime and manga, the key source of Japan's newfound popularity, were embraced during the 1970s and 1980s by a fertile subculture of technology-minded Americans, some of whom went on to spark the dot-com explosion.
"The geeks who read manga as kids went on to become the millionaires of the 1990s," said Washington-based journalist Douglas McGray, who wrote an article in Foreign Policy magazine on Japan's gross national cool and is credited with coining the term. "They spread their interest in things Japanese."
A record 3 million people around the world are now studying the Japanese language, compared with only 127,000 in 1997, according to the Japan Foundation and Tokyo's Marubeni Research Institute.
David Janes, program officer for the New York-based U.S.-Japan Foundation, attributes the huge increase in Japanese-language students to the spread of Japan's pop culture. He said he visited a high school in Iowa with 80 kids in a Japanese program and "what really amazed me is that when we asked why they were studying the language, the majority of them didn't hesitate. They said manga and anime."
Japan's role in the world has changed dramatically over the decades, from expansionist military empire in the first half of the 20th century to global economic superpower in the 1980s. Although its economy is still the second-largest in the world, the bursting of Japan's economic bubble in 1990 and its limping economy of the past decade have dimmed the American perception of Japan as a global financial competitor.
Meanwhile, outside the United States, Japan is being viewed as a more neutral, alternative source of entertainment at a time when anti-Americanism is running high.
In Asia, where resentment of Japanese invasions before and during World War II still runs deep and Japanese cultural imports in many countries were banned, Japan's pop icons have easily overtaken their U.S. counterparts.
A ban in South Korea only increased the cache of Japan's pop culture among many young South Koreans, and created a huge black market in Seoul for Japanese magazines, comics, music and films. As the two nations have moved toward closer ties in recent years, those restrictions have gradually loosened, with the ban scheduled to be completely lifted in 2004.
Across East Asia, J-pop -- a cuter, softer and Japanized version of American pop -- rules supreme. Groups such as Kinki Kids and Glay, both Japanese boy bands, have topped the charts in Taiwan, China and Hong Kong. Despite the still-frosty relations between Japan and China, Glay played to one of their largest crowds ever in October 2002 in Beijing, luring a sold-out audience of 35,000.
"Japan led the funk and punk culture of the young generation," said Karl Hwang, a Seoul-based Korean entertainment-industry analyst. "For Korean kids, coming out of the military era, Japanese culture was full of those things that Koreans were deprived of. The Japanese successfully transformed Western culture into their own. And for Koreans and other Asians, the similarity in appearance helped us accept Japanized Western culture rather than directly copying Western culture. Take blue jeans for example. Japanese made blue jeans are much more comfortable in size, fit and design for Koreans than U.S.-made jeans."
Critics say that Japan is merely a cultural prism, absorbing influences from abroad and reflecting them back, albeit altered to Japanese taste. But many say that it is precisely the attraction.
"Japanese culture absorbs things, but then puts a different interpretation to it," said Naoki Takizawa, a top designer for the fashion house of Issey Miyake. "Some people may say that we don't correctly understand the history of what has come from overseas. But we attach a different creativeness to things . . . our own sense of beauty. If you take a look at Shibuya, you see an energetic performance going on there, all the girls who want to be like dolls, like characters [in anime]. . . . Japan is a creative culture and the world is beginning to understand that."
Special correspondent Akiko Yamamoto contributed to this report.