The holiday windows of Barney's in Manhattan were the talk of the town in 1994. Too much talk, perhaps. The display was considered scandalous by religious leaders and created an uproar in the daily press. For laying in the cradle of what at first glance seemed to be the traditional Nativity scene was a character then relatively unknown to most New Yorkers - Hello Kitty, the popular toy from Japan. The display was conceptual artist Tom Sach's wickedly humorous cultural satire of the intense commercialization of Christmas, and it was in the windows of one of the great temples of affluent trendiness and commerce in America.
By last year, most of the country, if not the world, had fallen in love with this placid ambassador of cuteness from Tokyo. Hello Kitty - and its accompanying glut of merchandising - was featured in all of the major newsweeklies as an example of the global influence of Japanese pop culture, which had clearly reached from Sach's studio in lower Manhattan to Barney's windows on Madison Avenue to Main Street U.S.A. The treacly little cat with no mouth had unleashed a roar that was heard around the world.
While she has lost some of her allure amongst the cutting-edge culturati by becoming mainstream, Hello Kitty remains a significant poster child for Japanese pop, although she has since ceded her crown to the latest phenoms from Tokyo, those cute fighting monsters known as Pokemon. But it was Hello Kitty, more than any other pop export, that ushered in the era of Nippon cultural chic. Today, Japanese video games, anime movies such as Princess Mononoke by legendary artist Hayao Miyazaki, alternative music by performers such as Cornelius, manga comics, and Tokyo street fashion continue to influence underground youth culture around the world.
The evidence is all around us. Japanese calligraphy, popularized as tattoos on the arms of NBA players, now appears on shirts and caps in the highly influential hip hop,DJ, and skateboard subcultures.
In Los Angeles, "fansubbing" - the translation by cultists of obscure Japanese anime films and television series into English - are avidly traded amongst collectors. And a constant cultural exchange by young people on the Internet linking Tokyo to other international pop culture centers such as London and New York has made Japan's most powerful export, its unique sense of creativity, a surprise and news only to the mainstream press. Hype Williams, the young African American director, visual stylist, and an influential music video creator on MTV, claims to have watched the Japanese animA film, Ghost in the Shell, more than a hundred times.
After decades of quiet ascent, Tokyo has become the roisterous epicenter of a sophisticated and constantly evolving global youth culture.
In Michael Lewis's latest novel, The New New Thing, he writes about a futuristic digital revolution where "everything in Silicon Valley, including the people, was built so that no one would find it tragic, or even a little bit sad, when it was destroyed and replaced by something new."
But that fantasy obsession for the new already exists - not in Silicon Valley but in "Shibuya Valley," a trendsetting neighborhood in Tokyo, where the spheres of music, art, fashion, and the digital realm intersect. Nowhere in the world is there a culture that focuses more on new trends, information, product development, technology, and style than in the capital city of Japan.
Last year, for example, there were over 1,000 new drinks launched by distributors and marketers on this tiny island. There are more magazines titles per capita in Japan than anywhere else in the world. In just eight short months, NTT's DoKoMo signed up more than 2 million young subscribers to Internet services on their cell phones, and this year, the number of Japanese online will grow to 20 million.
Meanwhile, the Western media, for the most part, have concentrated their hard news coverage of Japan on its growing unemployment, the increase of suicides, the visibility of the homeless, an aging population and an inward sense of nationalism. All of which is true: Japan is at a critical point in its history and at this turn of the millennium, there is an obvious cultural clash between ideas of the old and the new. But while the press continues to focus on a dormant economy and the threat to the middle-class lives of middle-aged salarymen, there is another truth. Another story.
For nowhere is the simultaneous search for the new while struggling with the rules of the old order more apparent than in Japan. This painful process, however, is not simply the manifestation of globalization. It is part of a cultural and social movement that will likely precede an economic revival.
The power in Tokyo rests with the restless, the young people of the streets creating art and music, and intrapreneurs developing new consumer products and services.
Tokyo harbors perhaps the most sophisticated teen and youth culture in the world. As they get older, new ideas from this generation will become even more important. Innovation will be the Viagra of Japan, but its influence will be felt far beyond the island's shores.
Despite remaining a complex society steeped in tradition and conservatism, Tokyo is destined to become Blade Runner times two. It is a laboratory where top fashion photographers today come to shoot virtually at their own expense for tiny but influential magazines such as Big. London designers and members of the international DJ community, which has become a growing influence in youth culture, as well as other innovators, are flocking to Tokyo for inspiration and creative opportunities.
Norbert Schroener of London, one of the new elite international photographers in the world of style and creator of the innovative Prada ads for the past two years, calls Tokyo the City of Possibilities.
Indeed, Japan in its restlessness continues to acquire ideas from the world and remake them into its own unique concept, increasingly creating the new new, challenging our preconceived notions of the new. For any creative person, company, or industry keeping track of the cultural curve, the ability to discover, recognize, and understand change will be even more imperative.