“Cool Japan”- in cold Leiden

I felt like freezing. Wrapped up in a winter coat, on top of several layers of clothing, I traveled to “Cool Japan”. Cool is warmer than cold and I did not have to travel halfway round the world.


“Cool Japan” is the title of the recently opened, large temporary exhibition at Leiden’s Museum of Ethnology. Visitors receive a warm welcome in the exhibition’s first room. A heap of small cute puppets surround a slowly turning kimono against a colourful background. The kimono sports a cute Manga image: both are icons.

For this exhibition focuses on Japanese icons which have conquered the world. It is a fun yet serious exhibition, suitable for all ages, from the very young right up to OAPs.

In case you think it’s all cute: after taking in all there is to see in the exhibition’s first room, saunter to the right. Here is a warning sign. Kids should not visit the two dark rooms unaccompanied.

The room accessible by a flight of stairs is dedicated to monsters. Here are videos of Godzilla as well as images of traditional vampires, long-neck horrors, ghost. The texts make it clear Japanese horror movies have their roots not just in traditional murder and ghost stories, but are also linked to disasters like the nuclear bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, or Tsunamis.

In the dark room directly underneath this one, dangles a complete Samurai outfit. Visitor are shown how the traditional image of the Japanese knight survived through Japanese literature, films, comics into Western culture right up to Darth Vader. There are clips from several versions of “The Seven Samurai” and other classics.

On the wall are images of modern Japanese heroes and heroines. Heroines? Turns out Japanese classic literature has a fair share of stories about real, female samurai. Long before Hunger Game’s Katniss, Japan had plenty role models for girls not that into cute and cup-cakes.

As for Hollywood’s white is good and black is evil? Japanese heroes and heroines have always been more human. Apparently, none are totally good or totally evil and therefore more realistic.

In one of the rooms following the first three, a video explains the influence of Japanese wood-prints on comics. Next comes a room full of robots, from medieval to modern ones – including Japanese transformers.

2017 Cool Japan Leiden Museum Ethnology 1After the prints and robots, there is fashion and design. Costumes by Issey Miyaka and other Japanese fashion icons are exhibited. But there is also space for fan and Japanese street style. Life-size dolls sport examples of kawaii styles. Opposite are images showing a darker youth culture.

This dazzling exhibition’s last room definitely is my favorite. Of course, the exhibition contains samples from the latest computer games. But here stand one arm bandits and other machines for visitors to play with.

If you don’t warm to this, what about the replica Manga Café? Here, a whole wall is stocked with all kinds of Manga which visitors can pick and read. And as you are not as dim as me, you won’t make my mistake. Of course, you know Manga is read from back to front, right to left.

“Cool Japan” can be visited till the 17th of September 2017 at the Museum van Volkenkunde/Museum of Ethnology in Leiden. Kids (and adults) can take a quiz while visiting the exhibition testing absorbed knowledge. Visit the museum website for information on lectures, workshops, activities.

This exhibition is part of a series of activities taking place in the “Leiden – Asia Year”.

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