Pop Culture and Pastimes of an Island Nation

Much like the people of any other country, the people of Japan like to be entertained. Indeed, Japanese pop culture has heavily influenced that of other nations, especially the influence of Japanese anime and manga. Of course, there is more to Japanese pop culture and entertainment beyond their cartoons and comic books, but these two aspects are the ones most from the West will point to as a representation of their pop culture. However, how foreigners view these things may be vastly different from how the Japanese view these products of their own country.

Animation from Japan, anime, first began to rise in popularity in the 1990’s. For a time, over half of any animation shown around the globe originated from Japan. Studio Ghibli’s own Hayaou Miyazaki, who is most likely the most famous and influential anime creator, created the hit movie Spirited Away which was released in 2001. The film remains the most popular Japanese film ever, even going so far as to win both a Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival and an Oscar at the Academy Awards [1].

In 2014 the man himself received an honorary Oscar. Nowadays, anime is also shown on television, with most of it being broadcast after 6 p.m. Contrary to what some anime fans in the west may think, most anime in Japan is actually targeted toward children. Traditionally, anime has always been viewed as a child’s hobby, as a result parents will usually discourage their children from watching anime, though that notion may be shifting a bit today [1]. Now, to address the perceptions of anime of the west vs the east, the implications of the word “otaku” must first be examined.

In general, the word “otaku” simply means “nerd” or “geek,” however the implications of the word are different in Japan than in America. Here in the States, saying that one is an otaku simply means that they are a fan of anime and manga, however in Japan, those considered otaku are seen as overly obsessive with whatever their interest lies in. Though their is nothing inherently wrong with having an interest in something, Japanese culture has more emphasis on one’s image and how others view them, thus very few are actually willing to call themselves an otaku.

As stated before, domestically the more popular anime are those that are targeted toward children, thus shows that may be popular among western fans may not be as popular in Japan since these shows target a different age group and tend to air late at night. Though anime may not be as popular among the general population as foreign fans may think, manga (Japanese comics) on the other hand are popular among all age groups. A vast majority of the Japanese, regardless of gender, age, education, etc read manga. Seeing a business man reading manga on the train on his way to work is a common sight [3]. The industry is both lucrative and an ancient one. Japanese visual texts dates as far back as the 11th century with Lady Murasaki’s The Tale of Genji [2]. So unlike anime which can be seen as childish or juvenile, being a fan of manga is relatively normal and may even be expected. Some of the Prime Ministers have admitted to being fans and readers of manga, and the “Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology has recognized manga artists with awards every year since 1990” [2]. The popularity of manga has grown so much that there are “manga cafes” that one can go to to read (usually located close to train stations). Similar to a library, these cafes have shelves lined with manga that one can borrow and read within the shop during the amount of time they have paid for. These cafes even include private room for their customers to read in.

With the immense popularity of anime and manga there needs to exist a place to house many of the stores and establishments pertaining to them, and Akihabara, a district located in central Tokyo, serves as that place. Originally a major shopping center for electronic goods, the district now is also famous for being the center of otaku culture, housing stores for video games, anime, and manga. Images of anime and manga characters cover the streets, girls dressed in maid outfits promote the made cafes, and shops selling anything and everything related to anime/manga can be found here.

Along with these stores and establishments anime and manga have also spawned their own conventions and events. AnimeJapan, an anime tradeshow held in Odaiba (an artificial island in Tokyo Bay) is probably one of the largest animation conventions in the world, with major Japanese and foreign film companies attending along with toy, game, and software developers [3]. For aspiring creators, Comiket, the world’s largest doujinsnhi (self published work, usually manga or novels) fair gives them a place to sell their work and get their name out. Beginning in 1975, the popularity of Comiket soon exploded, with the number of attendees reaching over half a million in the recent years [4]. Comiket provides a place where these groups can show off their work, and where the attendees can purchase these works to support the creators.

Of course, Japanese pop culture goes beyond anime and manga, there are other aspects that may not be as obvious from an outsider’s perspective. Originating from Japan, karaoke has become fairly popular all over the world, and still remains a popular past time in Japan. Here the past time has evolved to not only include singing, now some establishments allow people to perform with instruments or dance along with the song [6].  Along with going out to karaoke, some may also spend time playing games in the arcade. Unlike in other countries, the arcade still remains very popular in Japan. It is in these arcades that both the hardcore competitive players and the casual ones looking to past the time gather to find that “face-to-face social gaming experience” [5]. The arcades survival in Japan may be contributed to how people live and move in the the country. Since Japan is very dense in population, homes tend to be small, and the need to travel by trains may make it inconvenient to visit the homes of others. Thus, the lack of a large meeting space in houses coupled with the nation’s train-based transportation results in going out to karaoke or to the arcade a convenient and preferable option for people. For the older crowd (at least 18) many of them also spend time in pachinko parlors. Fulfilling the same purpose as slot machines, these machines actually are not banned under Japan’s gambling laws. Players launch a small metal ball and watch it fall through pins, hoping that it lands in the right area, winning the players more balls to either play more with or exchange for prizes. To get around the law forbidding people from gambling for cash, the balls players win can be exchanged for items such as cigarettes, dvds, sweets, etc, then some of those prizes can instead be exchanged/sold for cash [2]. Since the location where these prizes are exchanged for cash are technically independent from the pachinko parlors,  the establishments are not pursued by the law.

As stated earlier, the Japanese tend to spend more of their time out of the house, choosing to spend time elsewhere. One cannot talk about how the people spend their time without also talking about shopping. As my Japanese professor has told us, the Japanese love to shop, and that notion is evident in the Tokyo, the nation’s capital, alone. The shopping district in Shibuya is famously known for being the center of youth fashion and culture. The district of Ginza is recognized around the world as one of most luxurious shopping districts, boasting foreign  designer fashion brands such as Gucci, Louis Vuitton, as well as famous electronic brands like Sony and Apple. Other famous districts include Akihabara, Ikebukuro (home to Sunshine City, Tokyo’s first city within a city), and Shinjuku (housing the busiest train station in the world). Along with these, other districts in Tokyo act both as a sightseeing districts and shopping districts each with their own characteristic that sets them apart from the other [7].

The more prominent aspects of Japanese pop culture and pastimes may not be so different from our own at the core, but they do take on different forms. The influence and popularity of anime and manga may not be what foreign fans may have expected, but even so they remain an integral part of the Japanese culture, resulting in their own events and claiming its own district as a cultural center. As for past times, the Japanese tend to spend more of their time away from home, whether it be playing games at the arcades, singing at karaoke , “gambling” at pachinko parlors, or shopping at whatever city/district they decide to travel to.


  1. Yamamura E. The Effect of Young Children on Their Parents’ Anime-Viewing Habits: Evidence from Japanese Microdata. Journal Of Cultural Economics [serial online]. November 2014;38(4):331-349.
  2. Ito K, Crutcher P. Popular Mass Entertainment in Japan: Manga, Pachinko, and Cosplay. Society [serial online]. February 2014;51(1):44-48.
  3. http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e631.html
  4. http://www.comiket.co.jp/info-a/WhatIsEng080528.pdf
  5. http://www.wired.com/2012/04/100-yen-documentary/
  6. http://web-japan.org/trends/11_culture/pop130312.html
  7. http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3053.html