Woah, wait a darn tootin’ second here! What is Disney, that pedigree of an American company (unless you look at Walt’s family make-up, natch), doing on a blog about Japan? Well, if you’ve ever been to Japan you know exactly what I’m talking about: Disney is everywhere, a veritable empire of big-eyed characters swamping every aspect of pop culture like a curious disease which I hereby dub ‘Kawaiititis’.
But why should Disney be so popular? I mean, sure, Japan’s love for the adorable is well documented, but they already have plenty of their home-grown brands to cater for that. Well, there’s a historical reason as well as a social one.
In terms of history, before the economy went kaput in the early 90s, Disney put up residence in Japan in a big way, opening a Disney Resort in 1983 just on the edge of Tokyo. It was the first Disney park to open outside of American borders. The park caught the zeitgeist, as the buzzword of the decade was 国際化 (‘kokusaika’, internationalization), and Disney catered in a big way to those looking for a slice of “what the Americans do”.
But what about now? The Disney Resort has been open for over 30 years now, so it isn’t riding a wave of novelty anymore; the economy bubble burst a long time ago, and the Japanese attitude to internationalization has moved on from a simple image of Americana. And yet, Disney continues to ride high: the Disney brand is as powerful as ever, and the two parks within the resort, Disneyland and Disneysea, are the second and fourth most popular theme parks in the world respectively.
So why is that? Well, that ties into the second reason for success: that Japan and Disney is a perfect social marriage. Disney is not just about cute characters, but suspension of disbelief, and immersion in a magical world. Japan’s commitment to outstanding customer service as well as the inherent skill of building worlds of fantasy is a perfect matchup to that philosophy. It’s the reason why people come out of Tokyo Disney Resort raving not just about the park but the outstanding staff and service. You will not see any hiccups in performance or slips in character from even the cleaners in Tokyo Disney. The illusion is complete. Walt Disney may have been American but his vision was perfected by the Japanese.
Disney is not just a straight transplant from America to Japan, though. It’s quite the culture shock moment to see Mickey and Minnie Mouse wearing kimonos, and to watch the parades while listening to the characters using essentially the same voice but speaking in Japanese. That, and the popularity of characters is weighted differently to what we know. For example, Stitch from Lilo and Stitch, while a known face in the Disney stable for sure, isn’t exactly on the A-list. In Japan, however, he is right up there with the classic Disney crew for how often he appears in parades and on merchandise. Why, you may ask? Well, Lilo and Stitch is set in Hawaii, a locale the Japanese have a love affair with, and this led to there being a Japan-only TV series set in Okinawa.
The ubiquitousnes of Disney took me some getting used to when I moved here. When you half-expect to be inundated by anime and manga characters, and instead you do get that but mixed with Ariel, the Beast, Woody and Elsa all speaking perfect Japanese, it does throw you for a loop at first. But, like so many things that Japan adopts from overseas, they haven’t just made it their own but – dare I say it – perfected it.