NEW Digital Teaching Resource: Jason Karlin’s ‘Japanese Media and Popular Culture’ — an Open Access digital initiative of the University of Tokyo

Christopher Gerteis's picture

Created and curated by Jason Karlin (University of Tokyo), 'Japanese Media and Popular Culture' ( is an Open Access tool for teaching and learning about Japan. 

From manga, anime, idols, and video games to film and television, Japanese popular culture has become a topic of global curiosity and fascination both inside and outside academia. References to Japanese popular culture abound in the mainstream media, often in the idiom of the cool, bizarre, or deviant. Scholars can do more to help rectify the often dubious and exaggerated representations of Japanese popular culture. To better understand cultural differences, however, it is necessary to move beyond descriptive accounts toward greater engagement with theory. Discussions of Japanese popular culture too often foreground the uniqueness of Japanese cultural forms, suggesting that knowledge is entirely contingent. Much academic work on Japanese popular culture has contributed to this misunderstanding through analyses that fail to engage with wider theoretical discussions in the fields of sociology, media and cultural studies, gender, and anthropology. Scholars of Japanese popular culture often assume some prior understanding of the meanings of key terms and concepts, which contributes to in-group discussions that are impenetrable by anyone outside of this closed circle.

This website provides an understanding of Japanese media and popular culture by engaging with theoretical concepts that are discussed and taught across academic disciplines. While focused on Japanese media and popular culture, the keywords are organized as an alphabetical series of articles on important key concepts that are widely used in academia and media industries. Each keyword essay not only defines its key concept, but also is structured around a case study focusing on a specific star, celebrity, talent, creator, or character from Japanese popular culture. By contextualizing each key concept around a case study, this site will be serve as a resource for understanding Japanese popular culture through its most important and/or interesting characters・celebrities. Each keyword essay is concise in explaining its meaning, origin, and relationship to previous scholarship, which is ideal for use in courses targeting undergraduate students. Besides defining the keyword concept, each essay cites important theoretical works and explains its case study with reference to necessary biographical or descriptive information in a way that is understandable to a non-Japan Studies audience. Even as theory becomes accessible to those familiar with the cultural context, cultural context becomes accessible to those familiar with the theory, which is expected to facilitate productive discussion among peers. With each article focusing on both a key concept and a specific case study, these essays bridge theory to the Japanese cultural context.

There are already many edited volumes on Japanese popular culture that fulfill such needs. Reviewing this already vast literature, it often feels like these volumes bring together chapters that each focus on a different object, activity or aspect of Japan. These often read like surveys of what is happening in Japan “right now,” which might be why they are displaced by the next volume and set of objects every few years. The limitation, as we see it, is the tight focus on objects, which is useful for learning about Japanese media and popular culture, but what else? The objects must always be “up to date,” because there is nothing more. As a response to this culture-centered approach, we advocate the alternative of teaching essential keywords from media, communication, and cultural studies. For example, students might be learning about the keyword “spectacle” through the case study of actress Ayase Haruka. This essay is only “dated,” however, if students are in class to learn about Ayase, which we propose they are not. If the goal is merely the study of Japan, then the essay does not necessarily age, because “spectacle” remains an important concept for students and researchers. This is why an essay, such as the one described, can sit alongside others pairing Ishihara Yūjirō and “paratext,” or Ishihara Shintarō and “moral panic.” These culturally-specific and/or historical case studies are from decades ago, but are still relevant as a means of teaching about media in the classroom.

This site is the result of a collaboration between the University of Tokyo’s Interfaculty Initiative in Information Studies / Graduate School of Interdisciplinary Information Studies and the Kadokawa Culture Promotion Foundation, which supported three years of summer programs from 2014 to 2016. For two intensive weeks each summer, graduate students from around the world gathered to explore shared research interests in Japanese media and popular culture. It was here that this initiative evolved by bringing in top researchers as guest lecturers, engaging in fieldwork, and working to bridge gaps between English-language and Japanese-language scholarship. This bridge-building activity invigorated a network of summer program participants, many of whom contributed to this initiative.

We hope that this initiative will push for and promote more critical engagements with Japanese media and popular culture in the classroom and beyond. Despite our best efforts, not every keyword has been included in this initiative, and more are appearing in our fields every year. Despite already containing over 50 keyword essays, this is not an exhaustive list, dictionary, or encyclopedia. Indeed, it was never intended to be. Rather, it is full of gaps, even as it opens gaps in dialogue between concepts and case studies. The initiative is an open invitation to inhabit those gaps and think critically through them—to think concepts and case studies together and differently. And perhaps even propose your own keywords.