“Is that Pokémon?”

The Cool Japan exhibition in Volkenkunde

Scene from the Japanese horror game Silent Hill

Volkenkunde – the Museum for Ethnography – is celebrating Japanese culture.

"It’s show time!’ shouts a cartoon Japanese salary man from a very large screen. While dancing, he and a few other men in suits dive into a crowd. The scene is taken from the Japanese anime (cartoon) Summer Wars. It’s the first thing visitors to the exhibition Cool Japan see at Museum Volkenkunde.

On 14 April, a temporary exhibition on Japanese pop culture opened to increment the permanent collection. Many people think that Japan is "cool", the exhibition’s introduction claims and the visitor numbers, which have exceeded expectations, confirm it. "It’s been busy since day one, actually", says the museum’s spokeswoman.

The exhibition is a varied collection of aspects of Japanese culture that are popular in the West. And it’s more than just Pokémon. The ground floor is very child-friendly: one room is dedicated to the concept of kawaii, often depicted in Japanese cartoons by large eyes and child-like features.

Another hall focuses on Japanese otaku – which loosely translates as "nerd" – where a manga-reading café has been reproduced, cosplay costumes are on display and where visitors can play arcade games. The last room is an explosion of bubblegum-pink, a work of art by Sebastian Masuda.

"You’re beautiful, even if you’re only twelve", says Pepper, a talking and dancing robot, to a young visitor. The next visitor wants to dance with the robot; she selects "Let it Go" and the robot arms are soon waving in time with the music.

The information sign explains that Japan is often associated with human-like machines. "The Japanese approach is unique, as they do not see robots as lifeless mechanical aids but as creatures with souls." Pepper is a companion robot, made to entertain and comfort people; she can dance, talk and recognise facial expressions.

There’s death and decay too, of course, on the second floor (only for those aged twelve and up). At the top of the stairs, you’ll see the famous scene from the horror film The Ring – a girl with long black hair and a white shroud crawls out of a drain and through the television screen. The "ghost with long hair" is a familiar figure in Japanese horror stories and can be seen in antique prints too. Japanese horror stories often feature spirits and ghosts, more than Western films do.

One screen shows scenes from the Japanese horror game Silent Hill in which the main character is chased by invisible spirits. "Is that Pokémon?" a young boy wonders out loud. "Yes, like the Pokémon cards?" says his mother. "It’s definitely a video game", the boy says. "GTA?"

Cool Japan

Volkenkunde, Museum of
Ethnology, open till 17 September, free for Leiden students

Anoushka Kloosterman

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