San Francisco, meet Harajuku. This weekend Japan will take over San Francisco for a fifth year with the 2013 J-Pop Summit Festival, a street fair celebration of Japanese popular culture organized by Japanese expats Manami Iiboshi and Mika Anami.
When they're not putting on a 60,000-strong cultural diaspora, Iiboshi and Anami manage New People, a hip cultural warehouse in the heart of Japantown that sells Japan's hottest fashion labels and films across three glossy floors. Last Thursday we arrived wide-eyed at New People for a J-Pop lesson from Iiboshi and Anami, and left with the scoop on pocky-eating contests, crazy "Harajuku Kawaii" trends, and why the J-Pop Summit still doesn't exist yet, contrary to popular belief.
San Francisco Weekly: What's the concept behind New People?
Iiboshi: This [indicates Anami] is a good example.
Anami: I'm New People. She [Iiboshi] always calls me that. My mother's from here, my dad's from there [Japan]. I grew up there, but I was born in Pakistan. But yeah, the concept is, we bring Japanese pop culture here, but it's kind of borderless. We're not repackaging Japanese pop culture for the bay, we just bring it here and watch what happens.
Iiboshi: For example, Crown & Crumpet is a local café that started out in Ghirardelli Square and moved here earlier this year. It's a British style café, but the owner, Amy, is obsessed with Japanese culture and was influenced by a teahouse she visited in Japan. So it's really a multi-cultural thing. We decided to call these people with sensitivity to understanding foreign culture New People.
Anami: The building itself is different levels of pop culture in Japan: film, fashion, art. When we were opening this building in August of 2009 we were like, "let's turn this into an opening of pop culture in Japan." That's how it started, a wild imagination that came true. I think we're the only building like this in the U.S.
SFW: What do you love about Japanese popular culture - JPop?
Iiboshi: I love the speed -- of changing things -- in Japanese culture. Nothing stays. People are almost obsessed with changing things. Every time I go back to Tokyo I see whole new catalog, whole new selection of products like drinks, snacks or whatever. It's not always a good thing, but, yeah.
Anami: Yeah, forever morphing. Tokyo especially is so entertaining. It's like T.V. Growing up in Japan we had this one-way wave of American pop culture. But in Japan there's such organic, original stuff happening. I think people in the Bay Area can enjoy that as well. We stand in the middle so we can see both sides, and I think that's why you're doing this work.
SFW: Tell me about the summit event this weekend.
Iiboshi: The summit has gotten bigger every year by about 10,000 people. There were about 60,000 last year from all over the country. We don't have official numbers because it's an open street fair, but the SFPD gives us an estimate every year.
Anami: When you plan a festival, you realize that it doesn't really exist. You make thousands of handshakes and cross your fingers, hoping people will come. But then the day came [last year], and it was huge! This street was packed. Last year, there were people lined up the morning before. We were like a new iPhone release or something. It was really big.
Anami: The J-Pop Summit is like New People. Besides our guests [performers], it's mostly about audience participation. We have so many contests made up of local, Bay Area kids who dress Harajuku, or sing Japanese songs they learned on YouTube. And it's not just one thing. A lot of Japanese culture is introduced in one channel, like anime conventions or sake tastings. But at the Summit, you could do a sake tasting, but there's also this popular J-Pop singer performing onstage and a sustainable house building workshop by a famous Japanese architect.
SFW: That sounds a lot like the Internet. Like it exists...but not in a tangible way. I feel like J-Pop culture really took off with the advent of the Internet. Is there a connection there?
Anami: J-Pop totally takes advantage of the Internet for sure. I think it just went really well with that fast exchange of information and styles and ideas. I think it rides that wave really well.
Iiboshi: But it existed way before the Internet, too. Japanese pop culture has been hyperactive for centuries. But the term J-Pop maybe started around early 90's, to define Japanese music.
Anami: We kinda took back the word, when we named the summit J-Pop. We redefined it for the United States to mean all of Japanese pop culture.
SFW: I heard there's a Pocky-eating contest.
Anami: God, I hope nobody chokes.
SFW: Can you describe Japanese fashion for me?
Anami: Harajuku is the big fashion district of Japan where all the youth gather; it's this vortex of creativity. There could be a thousand styles coming out today. The huge umbrella for that look is Harajuku, because that's where it's coming from.
Iiboshi: Everything that's Kawaii, fabulous, and bizarre. Kawaii means lovable, so if something is lovable for you, you can call it Kawaii. It's really personal, you know.
Anami: There's also district called Shibuya, right next to Harajuku. The main difference is in Shibuya, girls tend to dress like others. In Harajuku, they tend to be unique, and very proud of that. If you walk down the street of Harajuku you'll see someone dressing way crazier than you no matter how hard you try.
SFW: Tell me about Kyary Pamyu Pamyu [the festival's headliner act and the star of this crazy music video]
Iiboshi: She's like the most famous singer in Japan.
Anami: She's the hottest one right now, unique in her status and stardom. She's also a fashion icon. The prime minister named her as an ambassador of Japanese Popular Culture.
Iiboshi: But people love Kyary Pamyu Pamyu not because she's Japanese, but because she's cute [and] she's bizarre. And that embodies what we're doing. It doesn't matter if you're Japanese, we take advantage of Japanese culture as a medium to unite people, and so we happen to be Japanese, but if we were born as Turk, maybe we'd do a...
SFW: T-Pop? (They both laugh.)
Anami: That would be awesome, actually. Yeah.