Chinese College Students’ Reception of Japanese Pop Culture

Chinese college students’ appreciation of Japanese pop culture is mainly based on its unique “ Asianness” or “Asian Flavor,” which differentiates it from Hollywood or Western-style pop culture. In focus group discussions, the following components embedded in Japanese movies and TV dramas are identified: very refined and exquisite production; touching storylines and picturesque scenes that create a tranquil, warm, and delicate ambience easily for the audience to immerse itself in; the positive message and the spirit of working and struggling hard that inspire the audience to overcome their own difficulties and troubles; and a profound probing of human nature and the intricacy and complexity of human relationships that evokes the audiences self-reflection.

The exquisite and delicate style of Japanese movies and TV dramas leaves a lasting imprint on Chinese audiences’ minds and hearts, and creates a very graceful, warm, and calm ambience that audiences willfully identify with and pleasantly integrate into so as to revitalize and refresh themselves to continue their battle in daily life.The Chinese audience has termed this kind of cultural product as “the healing (therapeutic) series,” meaning they can have great emotional and mental catharsis in this type of movie or TV series, refreshing themselves and regaining the strength to move on with their journey. Japanese movie series Little Forest, Midnight Dinner, Our Little Sister, Bunny Drop, 10 Promises to My Dog, and Sayonara bokutachi no youchien are among these healing series.

One college student expressed her love for the Japanese healing series in the focus group discussion. She said the Japanese healing series, like Little Forest, are “especially warm and refreshing.”“Such series always discover the kindness and humanity in ordinary people and daily life, making us feel good about life. The plots of such series are usually very simple, but with very deep implications and philosophy of life” (student participant Valerie). Another student commented that she often wanted to escape from the hustle-bustle of the noisy campus and demanding workload of her college life to “fully immerse into the world of Little Forest, so peaceful, tranquil, and close to the nature without much competition and pressures” (student participant Shiyou). Other students mentioned that simple but beautiful stories like Midnight Dinner describe the kindness and mutual understanding of common people, touching and full of positive energy, which makes audiences feel good about life and regain confidence in human society and interpersonal relationships, thus releasing and “curing” their anxiety, and revitalizing them.

The “therapeutic” series usually feature the unique Japanese way of life, the food, the ways of meditation, picturesque natural landscapes, neat and scenic urban and rural residential places, and kind and caring interpersonal or human—animal relationships. Embodied in these series are grace, gentleness, sophistication, and tranquility—a distinct Oriental wisdom and flavor.

Close to the “therapeutic” function is the “inspirational” function of Japanese movies and TV dramas. They often send the positive message of “‘to strive and to struggle hard,’ or‘ganbaru’ in Japanese” (Leung, 2004, p. 90).This positive message has inspired audiences in a variety of regions and countries, and the mainland Chinese audience is no exception to the appreciation of this message. From the earliest dramas of the 1980s like Akai Giwaku, Oshin, and Moero Atakku, to the 21st century campus or youth dramas like Gokusen, Jillian Shuttai!, and Dragon Sakura, Japanese pop cultural products have delivered strong spiritual inspiration themes and have greatly encouraged and uplifted Chinese college students. One focus group member said:

  • 1 feel American super hero series are too distant from us. With a surreal power, these super heroes are born to save the earth and are not living in the same world with us. But Japanese series are much closer to our daily life. Their stories are very inspiring and touch our hearts.
  • (Student participant Valerie)

Other students agreed and said that they all enjoyed watchingjapanese inspirational dramas. When they felt lost and disoriented in their life journey, they especially wished to acquire strength through others’stories that can give them hope and spiritual uplifting. It is therefore unhelpful to watch Marvel series because superheroes are not very relatable to their daily life. Another student commented:

Japanese dramas, like Korean dramas, have different styles. Some are dark and depressive (Sang); some are extremely romantic and inspiring. 1 do not like to watch dark dramas which make me very down and depressive. I am going to graduate and will make a living in the society very soon. But look at our society, the housing prices are so high and job pay is not able to afford a house. When 1 turn 30 or 40 years old, I am still not able to buy a house and take good care of my parents. To watch dark dramas can only make me increasingly depressed.Therefore, 1 like to watch positive, inspiring dramas that can offer more hope and positive energy to me, or can offer day dreams that let me escape from the reality. Chinese mainstream movies, like Operation Red Sea, propagate a strong country, which is good, but is not relatable and cannot improve my personal life and help ease my personal anxiety. Japanese dramas are much more relatable at individual level and provide positive energy we so desperately need.

(Student participant Tiantian)

Japanese inspirational dramas portray ordinary people’s daily struggles, and foreground their never-give-up spirit. Unlike Hollywood movies and Marvel superhero series that often highlight a mythic surreal power that saves human beings from disasters, Japanese dramas are earthier and more realistic, which can translate into Chinese audiences’ real circumstances and thus inspire them to strive hard in their own journeys.

The third appreciation point ofjapanese dramas is their deep probe of human nature and profound reflection on the intricacy and complexity of human relationships. Compared with Chinese movies and dramas that mainly construct morally superb or ideologically strong and politically correct heroes without any shortcomings, Japanese dramas foreground the complexity of human nature and often depict human beings with an all-around angle encompassing both evil and good natures. This complexity makes the audience think deeply and feel it’s hard to make simple, black and white judgments. Several students cited the movie Shoplifting Family and TV dramas Unnatural, commenting that it is difficult to judge people by adopting conventional moral criteria, and specific circumstances must be taken into consideration. They also cited similar Korean movie The Taxi Driver to speak the hidden shining nature of ordinary people, which are more realistic and convincing. One student said:

Japanese dramas are both very enjoyable and educational. Unlike Chinese dramas that often construct black and white simplistic figures, Japanese dramas make you think about the complexity of human nature and the difficulty of judging people. One should stand at a higher level to reconsider which is good and which is bad and how to judge, by which standard. Human nature is both good and bad. Under certain circumstances, one’s behavior is understandable. We cannot judge people just by one thing and need to redefine what is good and what is bad in specific contexts. This is the biggest impact that Japanese movies and dramas have on me.

(Student participant Valerie)

Taking about Japanese culture and compared with China’s homegrown movies and TV programs, focus group discussions were often into the pungent criticism of the latter. Group members all agreed that Japanese and Korea dramas usually focus on the life of common people, or so-called “nobodies,” but especially highlight the virtue and hidden good human nature of these ordinary people, such as kindness, self-sacrifice, and courage. That taxi driver in the Korea movie The Taxi Driver was frequently mentioned by group members in comparison with Chinese film and TV figures. This taxi driver has his own family burden and originally appears selfish and self-serving, but is gradually transformed after witnessing Korean students’ protests and the government’s bloody repression. He eventually goes beyond the confines of his personal interest and is elevated to a moral high level, demonstrating incredible courage and a noble nature. Focus group members believed such drama is more realistic and convincing, and especially touching. They said Japanese and Korea dramas have exceptionally profound inquiry into human nature, which is unmatchable by Chinese movies and dramas. One member said:

Chinese dramas always attempt to build correct and elevated heroes without any flaws, or extremely evil people without any merit, which make Chinese dramas appear especially unreal. But Japanese and Korean dramas always concentrate on common people with human weaknesses and flaws. They are one of us, but are turned into noble people under special circumstances. This makes me think that I can be one of them someday. China does not have “the healing series,” always attempts to uplift you with hollow and artificial narratives. Japanese and Korean dramas, on the other hand, feature very deep exploration of human nature.

(Student participant Jiaqi)

Another member commented:

Japanese cultural products are deeply rooted in Japanese society and very localized with a distinguishable Japanese flavor. They deeply explore interpersonal relationships and often put forward powerful questions about human beings and human society with philosophical depth.They are very thought-provoking.

(Student participant Zang)

Focus group members also mentioned that Japanese drama series usually have 10 or 12 episodes of 45—50 minutes each, easy to follow and fit into their busy schedules; whereas Chinese TV dramas usually have 50—60 episodes, dragging on too long and full of redundant and pretentious plots that appear both boring and distracting.

If these focus group members are so fond of Japanese pop cultural products and are so critical of homegrown dramas, how would they regard China-made anti-Japanese invasion TV dramas? And what are their true feelings about Japan? Focus group members launched interesting and in-depth discussions.

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