How J-Pop Stars Gain From the West's Obsession With 'Weird' Japan

Colorful content like Kyary Pamyu Pamyu's "PonPonPon" goes viral overseas for its supposed bizarreness while resonating in a realer way at home.

Warner Music Japan

The crowd last month at Laforet Harajuku, an upscale shopping complex in Tokyo's most fashionable area, looked like it'd stepped out of Barbie's very messy dream house. Its members wore oversized bows, eyeball-shaped pinky rings, spiky neck collars, and pink—lots and lots of pink. They'd assembled to watch Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, a new face in J-Pop whose debut album Pamyu Pamyu Revolution was arriving in stores that day. She emerged dressed like her fans, with a giant bow on her head and in a dress designed like a Rubik's cube. For 30 minutes she performed her brand of cheery pop in front of a stage featuring building blocks, rotating teddy bear heads, and purple tentacles.

This mish-mash of imagery—cute meets creepy meets colorful—has helped turn Kyary (real name Kiriko Takemura) into one of the hottest young pop stars in Japan today and an Internet curio abroad. Powered by her surreal music videos and fashion sense, her first album debuted at the No. 2 spot on Japan's Oricon Charts, and her face has become inescapable (one could walk into a convenience store in May and see her on five magazine covers). She's also selling in America, recently topping the iTunes electronic charts, and her videos have gone viral abroad, sparking comment sections across the web loaded with one-liners like "who needs acid when we have this" and "Japan is weird."

Even the hovering bread is just a pun: "Pon" is the word used to describe the sound of clapping, and it sounds a lot like "pan," which means bread.

Her American success stems in part from the West's ongoing fascination with "weird Japan." For more than two decades, Western media has highlighted and laughed at Japanese "strange" phenomena, from Gothic Lolita fashion and pre-Tupac hologram pop stars to more deviant subjects like used-panty vending machines and body pillows with anime girls on them (30 Rock poked fun at this one). It's an easy go-to story: Look at what bizarre stuff Japan is up to today—even if the subject is an extreme niche interest most ordinary Japanese people aren't even familiar with, or, alternatively, something that's culturally commonplace in Japan. Now, artists like Kyary are cashing in on this brand of foreigner curiosity.

The video for Kyary's first major single, last year's infectious "PonPonPon," certainly looks bewildering at first: Kyary, in a playroom surrounded by random knick-knacks, explodes into color as all sorts of surreal images enter the scene, ranging from pink tanks to Lisa-Frank-esque ducks to floating bread. The video has more than 27 million views, but most of the commentary ignores the music in favor of talking about the "wacky" clip. YouTube commenter pantoteiconoclasm sums up the consensus: "this is what you see if you could take the entire country of Japan and grind it into a fine powder, and snort it all in one go."

The "PonPonPon" video, though, isn't the result of any bad trip. It's a tribute to the Harajuku fashion scene that Kyary blogged about and modeled in before her pop debut. The seemingly random assortment of junk in the background reflects the fashion's guiding principle of being unafraid to mismatch items. Masuda Sebastian, a designer with prominent Harajuku brand 6%DOKIDOKI, designed the set, while her clothes bear the logos of other famous brands in the area. Even the hovering bread is just a pun: "Pon" is the word used to describe the sound of clapping, and it sounds a lot like "pan," which means bread. Harajuku fashion isn't common clothing across Japan, but most people know about it, meaning they would get what's going on. The West sees something bizarre and exotic in this, though—something American pop stars Gwen Stefani and Nicki Minaj (the self-proclaimed "Harajuku Barbie") have exploited as well.

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Patrick St. Michel is a journalist living in Tokyo. He writes for The Japan Times and founded the Japanese music blog Make Believe Melodies. He has also contributed to, the Los Angeles Daily News, and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

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