Pop-up Culture in Japan

There is a glaring contradiction in our perception of Japanese culture. Japan is a country founded on uniformity, where fitting in and meeting the needs of the community often outweighs your own individual needs. With that being said, our perception of Japan is that of a progressive country with an open mind to creativity beyond their Western counterparts. However, how can a country as homogeneous as Japan also be recognized for unique forms of creative expression? How can a country dictated by collectivism and uniformity, also be renowned for rebellious creativity? Do these forms of creativity fly in the face of Japanese social norms, or are they culturally championed the same way they are through our (arguably orientalist) Western lens?

Japan is well known as a hub of creativity, where food is on the UNESCO Cultural Heritage list and fashion has been influencing the global ebb and flow of trends for decades. However, if you come to Japan you’ll be surprised just how uniform most people aspire to be. Japan offers an example of a country in which being individualistic, being vocally opinionated and speaking your mind, might not just annoy people, but could see you ostracised from friends, work, and even family. Ultimately, in Japan, just like anywhere else in the world, everybody wants to fit in, but the parameters for fitting in are far narrower. However, this has allowed the space for unique expressions in Japan to be arguably more open when compared with other countries. When the path of uniformity is all the more narrow, if you do stray from it, you realise just how wide the street really is. 出る釘は打たれる (the nail that sticks out gets hammered down) is a proverb which is often used (or overused) as a blanket statement for the Japanese ideology. It’s hard as an observer of any culture not to make blanket statements to mask a superficial understanding, so take everything I say with a grain of salt. While there is truth to the proverb, and the ideological trend in Japan does embrace uniformity and collectivism over individualism, there are always exceptions to the rule and one of those exceptions, in my view, is pop-up culture. Pop-up culture (and its foundation: the independent business) represents the bedrock of Japanese creativity.

Pop-up culture means very different things to the different social strata of Japan. To Louis Vuitton, Zara, and countless other established brands, these occasional pop-ups offer an opportunity for unbridled creative expression. When these established brands host pop-ups, money is often no object. This means the possibilities are limited only by their imagination, and more often than not, brands rise to this call. As a result, the pop-ups of established brands are less about practicality or promoting a product, and more about aesthetics and creating a sensory experience. To others, such as Paddlers, a coffee shop in Hatagaya, pop-ups provide a foot into the industry. Paddlers relied on the pop-up business model for years to get their coffee shop off the ground and, now they’re firmly established, they pay it forward by hosting a different pop-up every weekend. For the upcoming generation that can’t afford brick-and-mortar stores, pop-up culture is a modern adaptation of the independent business, it’s a way to gauge a market and create interest in a fledgling product or service. On one side of the spectrum, pop-ups are an open space for creative expression, on the other, they’re a fundamental stepping stone in establishing an independent business. It is in the spectrum of possibilities in between these extremes of established and underdog where the pop-up business has become a hallmark of Japanese shopping. However, in my opinion, it is the independent business, the humble side of this spectrum, that forged the way for pop-up culture; in Japan, the independent business is a long-standing element of consumerist culture and, before the Western influence of post-World War II, much of Japan’s economic power was created by ‘zaibatsu’ (財閥) family-owned companies.

One of the most common forms of independent businesses in Japan are regional foods, and these fuel domestic travel. Even in a country as geographically small as Japan, cities only short distances from one another will be famous for entirely different fruit, vegetables and styles of cooking. It would only be a mild exaggeration to say that in Kyushu, I saw Oita’s specialty fried chicken served by the vat at a karaage (fried chicken) festival; or that Miyazaki had rows of gift shops selling nothing but their famous mango-infused food and drinks. Exclusive regional foods are staples in Japan and more often than not these businesses are independent. However, when it comes to the more commercial aspects of consumerism, especially in larger cities, exclusivity has become an industry of its very own. In contrast to Miyazaki’s mangoes which will always be available, consumerism in big cities centers on one premise, manufactured exclusivity: when something is gone, it’s gone for good. This FOMO (fear of missing out) inducing sentiment doesn’t just apply to grand openings, limited-edition releases or food. Golden Gai is an area in Shinjuku, the heart of Tokyo, that is built on this idea of exclusivity. The street is full of tiny, often single-manned, bars that can house no more than a handful of customers at a time. The intimacy of Golden Gai is cherished as it offers a perfect contrast to the towering skyscrapers, impersonal work-culture and overcrowded city streets of Tokyo. Intimacy and exclusivity go hand-in-hand, and even relatively mundane events embrace them. For example, the opening of Shibuya’s IKEA in 2020 actually required ticketed admission because of the predicted surge of customers, even in the midst of a pandemic. You might assume that this could only happen if this was the first IKEA here, but there are actually 8 IKEAs in Tokyo. One opened just months earlier in Harajuku, and another opened months later in Shinjuku, all relatively short distances from one another.

So, it’s no surprise when mango sellers, ubiquitous brands like IKEA, and bars the size of your bedroom can successfully sell exclusivity, that pop-up shops, word-of-mouth events, and limited-edition collaborations can conjure lines hours long sprawling the streets of Tokyo. Pop-up culture is not a phenomenon exclusive to Japan, but it is something Japan seems to embrace more than any country I’ve seen. Pop-ups are an ever-rotating business of their own in Japan, and these often are so exclusive that they are only accessible through registered admission, sometimes before the pop-ups are even built. It’s hard to walk through Harajuku or Shibuya without seeing an advertisement for a limited event or pop-up, and having a creative social circle in Tokyo means that you are never more than a few IG stories away from seeing someone self-promote an event. While these aren’t all pop-ups, per say, they do rely on the same premise: intimacy and exclusivity, the foundations of pop-up culture.

To see the power of pop-up culture combined with social media, look no further than graphic designer Verdy’s 2019 “Harajuku Day”. For 3 days, Verdy (known for his brands Girls Don’t Cry and Wasted Youth) released over 20 exclusive collaborations scattered across Harajuku, some in established stores, some in pop-ups, and some in hidden locations. The event was almost entirely advertised over social media, and, for many locations, the items weren’t even revealed until you were at the front of the line (keep in mind that some of these lines were well over 5 hours long, and there were numerous lines happening simultaneously all across Harajuku). This event, and events like it, speak to one of the greatest strengths of pop-ups: their communal power. What are people to do with hours to kill other than socialize in these lines, meet people and make connections. Everyone in these lines has found their own unique form of rebellion against uniformity by embracing something on the periphery of popular culture. In the process, they are often supporting a form of independent business too early in its infancy to exist outside of the pop-up. From a communal perspective, when enough like-minded people congregate like this, they begin to form a subculture of their very own, and this is what has happened with Verdy. It is fascinating to observe the dedication to upholding subcultures in Japan, even when these subcultures have no cultural or historic connection to Japan. For example, there are strong chollo and rastafarian subcultures, occupied not by Mexicans and Jamaicans, but exclusively by Japanese people. Within these groups, the aesthetic, the uniform, is more than just a costume, but a signifier of your community, a badge of honour and something to be worn with pride. In the streetwear scene, with brands like Verdy and Tokyo Vitamin, this is also the case, whether in the form of a t-shirt, tote bag or even just a keychain, you’re not just donning a brand, but an external and tangible symbol of your identity.

Granted referring to any of this as ‘rebellious’ might seem hyperbolic, especially with Verdy as an example because he represents a more mainstream artist embracing pop-up culture. It’s not rebellion in the sense of grassroots mobilization or waging a revolution, it’s rebellion in the form of consumerism, in the form of materialism, but, arguably, by embracing something which isn’t established, it’s a form of rebellion nonetheless. Japan is a country described as socio-politically categorizing, and socio-politically standardizing. The former means that individuals find a group they feel like they belong to, and the latter means that these individuals live in the norms set by this specific group. Pop-ups allow people to come together, to build a community or subculture, to allow minds who otherwise wouldn’t have met to share in their appreciation of whatever artist is on display. In my short time in Tokyo, I’ve heard countless stories of collaborations starting in the lines of pop-ups. Ranging from small artists and designers to the mainstream businesses, such as the creative minds that formed Muji’s now (in)famous cricket rice crackers. Creation happens where creatives can meet, and that is the most endearing ability of the pop-up: community, creativity and subcultures.

However, these pop-up events also contribute to the biggest detriment of exclusivity, that anything exclusive has to, by definition, by exclusionary. When something does slip you by, whether it’s an item or event, it validates your fear of missing out and leaves you acutely aware of that materialistic void you didn’t even know was there.

 One of the most criticized aspects of social media is the insatiable desire it creates in us all to be involved and included, to scroll for just a few more minutes under the delusion that the next post might offer the validation that the previous hundred haven’t: pop-up culture has the same impact. To go back to graphic designer Verdy, this exclusive pop-up model isn’t employed as a humble foothold into the industry, it’s his entire business strategy. In 2021 ‘Verdy’s Gift Shop’, a pop-up in Shinjuku, which lasted a month, had a constant rotation of new items available each day, but only that day’s items could be sold. This business strategy, while successful, feeds into an arguably negative side of the pop-up. If you come to ‘Verdy’s Gift Shop’ with a specific item in mind, you’ll likely find that the thing you wanted, while in stock, cannot be sold to you on that day. The intentional creation of exclusivity leaves you with only 2 options: leave disgruntled, or decide not to miss this rare opportunity to get something just for the sake of it: senseless consumerism. The planned sense of exclusivity is nothing new, Nike has been using this model for decades by making a coveted sneaker that seems impossible to get, only to release a very similar, less coveted and more accessible sneaker a year later. Whether you’re Verdy or Nike, ‘not for sale’ or ‘sold out’ will always be a more powerful and incentivising marketing ploy than ‘in stock’.

Whether it’s seen as a gimmick or a financial necessity, pop-up culture ad exclusivity have the potential to bring people together and give platforms to creativity.. However, pop-ups also have the ability to be alienating and leave us always chasing the next thing. Despite the smaller environmental footprints pop-ups have, they arguably have a more damaging impact on our consumerist mentality, fuelling our need to buy more out of FOMO. Indulging in exclusivity is how you survive in a city as densely packed as Tokyo. It is no wonder that, when you are regularly crammed body-to-body on a packed commuter train, that a small bar in Golden Gai with only 3 patrons is a breath of fresh air. This same principle applies to pop-ups, one can find escape in the pop-up and indulge in the individualism it provides. As the world shifts further and further towards individualism, anyone who has lived in Japan will understand that uniformity is too deeply ingrained to change with any speed or tenacity. One of Japan’s biggest brands, Uniqlo, (famous for its minimalist aesthetic) is so renowned not in spite of its low-profile, but because of it. Its uniformity, its unassuming nature, its ability to assimilate into different outfits without standing out: Uniqlo is an embodiment of the positive aspects of uniformity, but pop-up culture is the antithesis of this. It is the exception to the rule of 出る釘は打たれる, but the rule itself is what makes Japan such an alluring place.

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