The King of Harajuku

January 30, 2013

Meet Yusuke Nakagawa, one of the creators of modern Harajuku culture.

Head honcho at Asobi System, the agency behind Kyary Pamyu Pamyu as well as a young but impressive pool of talent, Nakagawa has raised and nurtured his brain-child over the last five years, creating an ever-expanding empire of kawaii around him. To mark a milestone half-decade in the business, we decided to ask the boss what his secret to success is, the power of Harajuku culture and ASOBI’s fated meeting with Kyary Pamyu Pamyu.

The word asobi in Japanese translates to “having fun” – after a visit to the office, which is of course in the  heart of Harajuku, we can’t think of a better name for the home of these fun-loving cultural leaders.

First of all, congratulations on your 5th anniversary! When was it exactly?

We actually passed the actual date, but we decided to make this year our official 5th anniversary as a company.

In English we say “New Year’s resolutions,” in Japanese they’re called “Shinen no Hofu”… Would you share with us Asobi System’s New Year’s resolutions for 2013?

Last year went very rapidly for us. To tell you the truth there were some areas which were done on the go and we let things flow in the momentum, so this year we want to work steadily and expand on what we’re doing now.

I see. Do you have any personal New Year’s resolutions that you’d like to share with us?

Well, as I mentioned just now, as last year, we did things on the go , this year I’d personally like to work on building tight relationships with many people. In terms of work and our company, until now I really let things happen on the go and didn’t stop to think, so this year I want to grow so I can manage them all properly. Really, last year I really let things happen on the whim. This year’s about putting our feet on the ground and becoming more solid company.

My impression is that you created a pretty strong foundation in 2012, but you want to build an even stronger one in 2013??

Yes, we want our roots to go deep!

During the past 5 years, what was the biggest change, or progress, for ASOBI SYSTEM?

Well, I believe it has to be Kyary’s debut and her activities. Our high employee motivation, great teamwork and fun atmosphere hasn’t changed, but our collaborations (with other companies and artists) have become more solid, so I think this is all linked to our future.

I noticed, from your site, that ASOBI is hiring! What sort of questions do you ask at interviews?

You know, I’ve never really done interviews… (Gestures to an ASOBI SYSTEM staff member) Take her for example. She said that she was going to quit her previous company so I asked whether she wanted to come over and work for us. It’s that simple. It’s like that with everyone here. I just see whether the experience at our company is something that they need at that moment, or not, and if I think so, I make offers. And those people who actually do come for interviews share the same sense. How can I say this… If we make rules, they become rules. That’s why instead of making rules, we do things according to time and circumstance. Time and circumstance may mean something that we may need or something we want to do, and so we look for people in that way. Big companies have a somewhat fixed budget and headcount. We’re not like that. The people we want are people we need at that time. What I need are people who are honest and can work hard rather people who have shiny resumes. That’s what we need in our company right now.

ASOBI SYSTEM has a clear focus on Harajuku culture. What’s so unique about Harajuku culture?

The Harajuku youth have their own unique ways. I can say the same thing about our own models and artists but everyone is different. For example, in terms of the fashion they like. What they like are different but they can be put under the same “Harajuku” umbrella. If you ask them what the trends are these days, they’ll all probably say something different. One will say for instance, knitted hats, and another may say tights and stockings with prints on them. If you look at them individually they’re all different, but if you look at it overall, and group them togetherunder the term “Harajuku,” it’s easily understood and communicated – everyone is different but there is a part where they all resonate.

Totally. Then what is it about them that allow them to be categorized into one bunch?

It all comes down to Harajuku culture. Although we say culture, it’s really only a feeling among the youth that live and breathe in Harajuku. I think every youth has that feeling, somewhere. But when they’re seen by grown-ups or people from outside of the Harajuku scene, there’s a solidarity as well a similarities between the people. That’s the really interesting thing about “Ura-Harajuku” culture. The grandmas and grandpas out their probably see the same type of young person regardless of whether they have red or blond hair. “Gals” also look the same, right? It’s the same thing. The youth who loves Harajuku and its culture somehow can be grouped together. This feeling of “somehow being grouped together” is also kind of what’s great about it.

The “Harajuku Kawaii!!” fest in Hiroshima was held the other month, and you’ll be holding more fashion-related events in future. There are other fashion shows and events around such as “Tokyo Collection” and “Kobe Collection.” How is “Harajuku Kawaii!!” different from these shows?

We think of “Harajuku Kawaii!!” as a culture event rather than a fashion event, where fashion and culture are mixed together and become one culture. That’s what Harajuku is about. Putting it simply we’re not doing a live in the middle of a fashion show, nor are we doing a fashion show using the live performance. The most important is having our guests enjoy themselves right? It’s important for the guests to take in both the fashion and the music. In that sense, I think Kyary is perfect. Everyone says she’s a fashion icon, but it’s important that we can enjoy both her fashion and her music.

Apart from the event, you also have “Harajuku Kawaii!! TV.” What was the inspiration for this Net-based platform?

I think the biggest reason we were inspired to create that was to allow us to freely upload things at any time. If there’s something hot at that moment, it’s important that we’re able to communicate it realtime, right? We’re able to upload everything within the week, rather than broadcasting them a month later – that’s what’s great about it!

Right. Buzz, right?

Right. In addition we’re able to explore and pursue the personal side of the models. That’s why we want to make it an environment where the models don’t have to act. We don’t need a script – most TV programs have scripts ? “laugh here, or say this comment here,” and what not. That’s not what we want. If a girl tastes something and if they think it’s great we want them to react that it’s tasty; if something is fun we want them to laugh, if they think its boring we don’t need them to laugh. We want them to just be themselves.

So tell us, how did ASOBI SYSTEM meet Kyary Pamyu Pamyu?

She made her debut out of a snapshot in KERA magazine. When we met her, she was still a dokumo (amateur model appearing in fashion magazines) and was not yet so famous or popular. But we knew that she had the potential to be an icon.

What’s so iconic about her?

Many young people, including Kyary, are really aggressive on their blogs, but when you meet them they’re trustworthy. Being able to say “thank you” is important. Also, being able to say you’re happy or sad – being able to communicate your emotions to other people is a very important point.

She’s now the official “Harajuku Kawaii Ambassador.” But, she’s still very unique even in the Harajuku scene. What is it about her that represents Harajuku?

I think it’s her current fashion, music and everything about her that’s become very Harajuku. I think it’s because (Yasutaka) Nakata, who creates her music, and the music video directors and the member of the atelier all feel the sense of Harajuku within her at a personal level. They’re all creators including Kyary herself. It’s not like they’re forcing the Harajuku label on one another. But it’s a positive reaction on each side and I think this grew into the keyword of Harajuku. It’s not her appearance, but her music, and also as an artist. Everything about her is Harajuku.

Are the members in the creative team all related to the Harajuku scene?

Nakata for instance has always liked Harajuku, and he’s always wanted to create a Harajuku icon. Sebastian Masuda of “6%DOKIDOKI” also obviously loves Harajuku, and Maiko-san of “Frettish” is also pretty Harajuku-ish. Our stylists also have had that Harajuku flair – then they all met Kyary. And I think what they wanted to draw out of her was her Harajuku side.

So she really is an icon.

As I mentioned before, what’s important is for her to make what she wears her own style and do that well rather than being indifferent and putting on what she’s given. She’s able to do that. She’s has a big say in producing herself.

When you look at the TV commercials and her music vids they’re all really full of Kyary-ness. Normally you would mold yourself to fit the ad image, but the TV commercials that she’s in all seem to adjust to her style.

Yes, the great thing is that a character is not forced upon her.

At the moment, there aren’t too many Japanese artists that are successful abroad. But Kyary is becoming increasingly popular. What do you think has changed in the Japanese music industry these past few years?

I think it’s just the speed of information that’s changed. Who would have ever thought thta we would have Twitter as well as Yahoo News? Who would have thought blogs would become popular? These days we have a huge amount of all of them, creating many platforms for people and icons to freely put out information.

Which artist, or what kind of scene, do you think will be popular in 2013?

I have a feeling that bands such as “MAN WITH A MISSION,” “Sekai no Owari” and “Sakanaction” will be big this year. Rock. I think they’re going to get bigger and look to go international. 2013 will be a year in which the music market will grow. Even MTV Japan is spreading out internationally with MTV 81 right? I kind of think that people are becoming more and more confident about going outside of Japan right now.

When doing promotional activities towards an international market using vehicles beside the web, the needs of domestic and international market are different. What do you focus on when the focus is on the international market?

When we take something international we don’t want to simply create an English version of a track after the Japanese release. We want to put out content that is “in” while it is still at it’s height of popularity. Another way is to physically going to the country, like we did with Japan Expo last year. Since Kyary’s debut, we’ve done live performances in Hong Kong, Shanghai and France. I think it’s rare to go to so many places in a year. It’s because Kyary herself is pushing herself hard, as you can see by the exposure she has within Japan. Rather than doing things little by little, we go because it’s the best timing. I mean, French listeners are singing Japanese songs. It’s great!

You’re always come up with new ideas, but what is the source of your motivation and energy?

Basically, I’ve been in an environment where I’m surrounded with great people, and that environment started to grow and became ASOBI SYSTEM. I think what we’re doing is right and we should have even more confidence to go abroad without having to pretend we’re capable, because we are capable. I want to continue being aggressive.

There was a scene in an episode of “Harajuku Kawaii!! TV” where Kyary writes a kanji character to sum up her goals for 2013, “progress,” and in Kyary’s Suzuki CM it was “world domination”… What’s yours? Are your work and private kanjis different?

For me, company and personal is pretty much the same. But I guess it would be “time.” I realized that how we use our time is so important. I also feel is that it’s not good to overwork. If I have three hours, do I use one hour for work, one to play and one to think, or do I use the three hours to work and do a so-so job of it. We only have 24 hours a day., so it’s important to think of what to do during that limited time.

Well, we at MTV 81 hope you have enough “time” to achieve your goals for the year! We’re all definitely looking forward to more goodness out of ASOBI in 2013.