Cute Power!

The fans are stomping and clapping as the Japanese duo known as Puffy warble a disco tune. The stars toss their auburn-dyed hair and pace the stage, dressed in jumpsuits and cloddy sneakers. They banter, and the 3,000 fans whoop back. Pretty normal for a Saturday night in Tokyo. But this is Hong Kong. "They're cute, they're in, they have a smart style," gushes Jessica Tse, wearing the Japanese look of the moment--a tiny, curled ponytail on top with a braid dangling below and a Hello Kitty purse. Tse, an economics undergrad, and her girlfriends are breathless from mimicking their idols' moves. They've memorized the lyrics, too. Never mind that they don't know a word of Japanese.

Tse and her star-struck friends aren't some counterculture group on the margins of society. They are part of a Japan craze that has swept the malls, stadiums and homes of Asia. A frenzy for Japanese pop culture has electrified Asia's music and fashion industries. From perky Puffy to cuddly Pokémon monsters, from Hello Kitty's heavily pink world to the fantasy-inspired cartoon figure of Doraemon, Japanese products are defining a new generation of middle-class Asian consumers. Kids in Bangkok, Singapore and Jakarta collect Japanese comics. Taiwan's slaves to Japanese trends even have a name: the harizu, or "Japan-crazy tribe." About 1.5 million Asians, up 20 percent over five years ago, are studying Japanese--the better to absorb the latest trends. Ask anybody in Asia: Western-style cool is out. Everything Japanese is in--and oh, so "cute!"

In postcrisis Asia, consumers are looking for new models to follow. "We [Thais] like to learn from countries more civilized than we are. And Japan is the most civilized country in Asia," Thai scholar Nopporn Suwanpanich said recently. "We see the Japanese as our heroes." Hong Kong people admire Japanese culture because it seems richer than the money-hungry culture of their city. "We're envious of their deep culture," epitomized by the tea ceremony and kimonos, says Lisa Leung, who teaches media and cross-cultural studies at Hong Kong's Lingnan University. "We haven't got much [of that]."

Asia's love affair with Japanese pop culture reflects a profound generational change, too. A whole cohort of older Asians grew up watching Japanese imperialists brutalize the region half a century ago, and they are haunted by memories of war, murder and rape. Their children and grandchildren have moved on. "The past is the past," says Zhao Hong, a 31-year-old Shanghainese jewelry retailer who has lived in Tokyo for seven years and prefers the name Beni (Japanese for "red"). With her meticulous makeup, Coach bag and sweater set, she's often mistaken for a Japanese; she doesn't mind.

Even South Korea, which has officially banned Japanese culture for decades, is slowly leaving the past behind. The former Japanese colony last year started admitting award-winning Japanese movies as long as they didn't show sex or violence, and small-scale concerts, too. Thanks to piracy, satellite TV and the Internet, the ban was never airtight. Yoon He Ae, 29, grew up watching Japan's "Future Boy Conan" cartoons in Korean and reading Japanese fashion magazines. She downloads heavy-metal band XJapan's rock songs from the Internet. "Japanese pop culture has been with me throughout my life," says Yoon, who carries a cell phone with Hello Kitty baubles. She is one of 945,000 South Koreans studying Japanese. "We yearn for Japanese pop culture more probably because it is banned."

The Japanese fixation also suggests an emerging Asian identity. For one thing, mimicking Japanese TV stars is easier than adulating Westerners: "After all, they don't have blond hair or blue eyes," says Albert Han, a Taiwan punk with chin-length hair cut at choppy angles. Lots of American products, from McDonald's to Nike and "Star Wars," are still big sellers in the region, and Madonna outperforms Japanese and Asian artists. But marketers speculate that in the wake of the financial crisis, Asians may be looking for homegrown products to restore their pride. "The Japanese way is more in than the American way," says Eric Lam, a 30-year-old Hong Kong merchandiser who is hooked on Japanese comic books.

David McCaughan, Asia-Pacific consumer-insights director at advertising behemoth McCann-Erickson, says Asians think Japanese products represent the future. They're fun, snazzy and top-quality, too. McCaughan has concluded that the two most influential individuals in recent Asian history are Nintendo's Mario Brothers and Sega's Sonic the Hedgehog. Teenagers often comment, he says, that "the best technology comes from Japan, and Americans do good copies of it."

"The Ring" and a series of other Japanese horror films gripped Hong Kong this year, in part because of cultural identification. For a month after seeing the movie, about a circulating video that leads to the deaths of its viewers, Lynda Guo, 27, had trouble sleeping. On a recent Saturday afternoon, she eyes an ominous-looking poster for "Hypnosis," another Japanese thriller. If the characters had blond hair instead of black hair and almond eyes, "it wouldn't be as believable," says her friend Kevin Cheng. "It would be harder for us to get involved in them."

Asian consumers feel comfortable with Japan's values and lifestyle, too. Hong Kong TV audiences love the Japanese drama "Under the Same Roof," partly because it stresses themes they can relate to: family ties and respect for elders. It features three generations living together, a scenario not common in Western soap operas. Indonesians, whose culture is steeped in mysticism, say they relate to Japanese cartoons' heroism and magic more than to the slapstick tales of American cartoons. On the most popular kids' channel, 95 percent of the children's lineup is from Japan. "The Japanese shows have a lot more different, strange characters," says Aditya Daniswara, 9, who lists Doraemon, a robot cat in a blue spacesuit, as one of his favorites. The cat uses magic to right wrongs. Asian tastes also veer toward the emotional. If Hollywood is big on special effects, Japanese productions scrutinize personal relationships and brim with feelings and schmaltz, which Asians lap up.

But above all, what Asians seem to love about Japanese pop culture is the fact that it's so darn "cute." In Japan, they call it "kawaii!" In Hong Kong, it's "hou Q!" A tornado of cuteness is spinning through Asia like cotton candy. "Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck are not cute. Sylvester is not cute," says Dick Lee, a Sony Music Asia vice president who scouts for talent. "Pokémon is cute." That's Pokémon, the craze based on cuddly creatures morphed from plants and animals. Hello Kitty, the pudgy, expressionless cat, is way up there in the cuteness sweepstakes, too. A line of Hello Kitty dolls appeared in pink in Asia but in toned-down blue for the U.S. market. "It's possible that pink is not a color for American teenagers," Hiro Nishino, sales manager at Sanrio (Hong Kong) Co., offers.

Japan's pop music is breaking records across the region--partly because much of it is cute, too. In August a Japanese pop album ("Best of J-Pop") rocketed to No. 1 on Singapore's sales charts for the first time, just three weeks after its release. Four of the top 10 albums were Japanese. "In the past, Japanese albums never made it onto our billboard," says National University of Singapore professor Benjamin Ng, whose Japanese-pop-culture class has a limit of 200 students and a waiting list of an additional 100. Hong Kong's trendy Yes magazine will translate fan letters into Japanese and send them to designated idols. If Westerners like their music to be sexy and glamorous, according to Sony talent scout Lee, Asians go for Japan's "karaoke-friendly songs."

Some Asians celebrate the lovefest for Japan as a sort of coming of age. Lee remembers that a decade ago, "we Asians had no modern image of ourselves. We had no cultural identity to match" Asia's economic prowess. He left his native Singapore to try the music scene in Japan and then Hong Kong. Japan was the quickest to absorb and tweak influences from the West into something uniquely Japanese, he says. "[The Japanese] have the ability to find the weirdest, most obscure thing and turn it into a trend," says Ann Tsang, a spokeswoman for Channel V in Hong Kong.

And a huge money-spinner. Japanese companies have blanketed the market with tie-ins. Comic-book characters jump into videogames, cartoons, live-action programs and endless merchandise. While Disney directs its cartoons at small children, Japanese companies pitch to a range of ages and interests from science fiction to sports. The comic "GTO" (Grand Teacher Onizuka), about an ex-delinquent who teaches delinquents, became a popular drama series in Hong Kong and Taiwan this year. Theme songs of soap operas such as "Long Vacation" and "Love Generation," about the roller coaster of love, have become instant best sellers. Well-known music stars such as Takeshi Kaneshiro and hot bands like L'Arc-en-Ciel lend their voices and images to videogame software. "It's not only a cultural invasion, but they make a lot of money out of it," says Chinese University of Hong Kong marketing professor Michael Hui, whose kids just cajoled him into buying a Pokémon sleeping bag.

Smart Asian businesses have started pitching Japanese icons with their products. Long lines formed outside the Singapore History Museum in September when McDonald's sold Hello Kitty dolls at an exhibit on the fast-food franchise. Aeon Credit Service in Hong Kong issued 100,000 Hello Kitty MasterCards in nine months. Cable and Wireless HK takes Ultraman, a Japanese Superman, to malls to push its interactive-TV service. Variety stores with "Nippon" and "Nissei" in their names, modeled after Japan's "100 Yen" shops and selling many of the same chopsticks, cutesy stationery and mothballs, have sprouted up in Hong Kong and Singapore.

Nowhere is Japan's marketing muscle mightier than in the promotion of Hello Kitty, the cat with a bow and no mouth. With 15,000 products, its creator, Sanrio Corp., earns $2.86 billion annually. There are Hello Kitty fly swatters, golf balls, bikes, toilet paper, coffee makers, door chimes, spatulas, perfume and even $90 ties. You may have outgrown your Hello Kitty furry slippers, but you can buy her visage on packages of sanitary napkins, eyelash curlers, electronic personal organizers, vacuums, body-fat monitors and fax machines. Mothers can buy Hello Kitty diapers, bibs and baby biscuits. At Hello Kitty cafes in Hong Kong and Tokyo, you can munch toasted sandwiches branded with the cat's face and dump-lings and fish cakes shaped like her head. She's sponsored "The Hello Kitty Weather Report" on Hong Kong TV, read by a newscaster named Wincy Miaow.

In Taiwan, Hello Kitty caused a minor stampede. Since most Taiwanese remember the Japanese colonialists with ambivalence instead of hatred, it's the fastest place to pick up Japanese fads. But even Sanrio was startled when Taiwanese snapped up 200,000 Hello Kitty dolls in the first 90 minutes of a McDonald's promotion in August. In one outlet in a museum, pandemonium erupted when someone announced there were only 140 dolls for the thousands of people in line. "People were just shouting at each other," says museum guard Chen Chen-liang. "It was too chaotic." The museum stopped Kitty sales--for a week.

It's enough to make you wonder. "If a simple white kitty can drive everybody crazy, then why do we need to make any efforts to create other products?" asked Taiwan's China Times. Some analysts have concluded that the Hello Kitty rush reflects a sense of helplessness about the threat of war with China. "Alienation is increasing," says cultural critic Wang Shin-ching. "People want to return to their childhood where there is no ugliness."

Asia's recession may actually have given Japanese pop products a boost. "When the economy goes into recession, people start going into depression," says marketing expert McCaughan. They reach for chocolate and teddy bears, he says--and Hello Kitty and newer creatures such as a droopy bear called Tare Panda and Pom Pom Purin, a yellow dog with a brown beret (yes, they're cute).

Not everybody thinks Asia's crush on Japan is an entirely good thing. Just as Asians once worried about losing their souls to the Big Mac, some now fear that they're turning Japanese. Thailand's record labels want stars to project the "Japanese cute and fresh look," one promoter says. Thai youths describe their dream girls as having huge eyes and pert little noses--essentially, Japanese comic-book girls. "The influence of Japan on themselves is much stronger than kids realize," McCaughan says. Some Hong Kong shows are such close copies of Japan's that "it's culturally sick," says Leung. In Taiwan, the largest market outside Japan for Japanese pop music, singers like Shino Lin, an MTV Mandarin award winner, have taken Japanese names to enhance their cachet. "They are denying their own individuality," says Channel V's Tsang. Singaporeans recently formed the Culture Society Youth Group to figure out how to replace pervasive Japanese and American influences with homegrown culture. "We don't really have a real culture of our own yet," says Jasons Lim, the group's chairman. "We are sick and tired of those outside influences."

Some Koreans worry that their culture is so similar to Japan's that their emerging entertainment industry will be overwhelmed. "You can almost smell kimchi from Japanese pop culture--something Hollywood and other Western cultures can never do," says Kang Sin Gil, a Korean animation director. "Competition between Korean and Japanese cultures is like a fight between a child and an adult." Kim Soo Hee, 70, a regular at the movie nights at Seoul's Japanese Cultural Center, doesn't want the cultural ban lifted "until we are confident about ourselves. Young people can mistakenly regard Japanese cultures as theirs."

Most younger Asians don't worry about such ancient insecurities. "We can learn a lot from [the Japanese]," says Stephen Chan, a programmer at TVB Ltd. in Hong Kong. Merchandiser Lam loves Japanese comics so much that he's taking Japanese lessons so he can read the original Japanese publications as soon as they're flown to Hong Kong. "I need to buy the Japanese ones," he says, because the Chinese translations lag by two or three months. For him, the Puffy fans and other young Asians, the only problem with Japanese pop culture is they can't get enough of it.

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