An Introduction to Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, Princess of J-Pop

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu performing live at the Japan Expo 2012 in Paris, France
Kyary Pamyu Pamyu performing live at the Japan Expo 2012 in Paris, France | © George Seguin (Okkie) / WikiCommons
James Gates

She is Japan’s best-known singer, model, blogger and global pop culture icon, but what’s the story behind her incredible rise to fame?

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is the first J-Pop star to become a global phenomenon. Many others have enjoyed a degree of success outside of their native Japan, but only Pamyu Pamyu has been able to reach the sort of stratospheric heights reserved for Western artists. Her music videos have been appropriated into the mainstream, and she has become a style guru for millions. Along the way, she’s done fashion shoots for hip US magazines and signed a distribution deal for her music to be released in the West. These are not the trappings one normally associates with an Asian music star; you wouldn’t catch megalithic girl group AKB48 playing to a packed house in Camden Town.

Off the back of her phenomenal success, Kyary-chan has become a cultural ambassador for Japan and is one of the most instantly recognisable faces in Asian music. According to the Warner Music Group, she sits alongside Coldplay and Ed Sheeran as one of their major sellers. In her native land, she is as ubiquitous a presence as Hello Kitty, adorning all manner of posters and billboards while popping up in adverts for everything from make-up to soft drinks;

At the heart of it all is a young woman who loves fashion and had the good fortune to be in the right place at exactly the right time. The person we know as Kyary Pamyu Pamyu was born Kiriko Takemura in Tokyo in 1993. Her upbringing was not in keeping with flamboyant young woman she would one day become; her parents gave her limited access to a cell phone, she had a strict curfew of 7pm, and her mother in particular did not approve of her fashion choices – to the extent that she would often have to get changed in public toilets before going out on the town in Tokyo’s fashionable Harajuku district.

That part of town turned out to be crucial in her eventual success – she adopted the iconic ‘Harajuku’ style as her trademark look, with a keen eye for colour and detail. In particular, she had a fondness for blonde wigs, leading her friends to nickname her ‘Kyary’, a Japanese phonetic spelling of the name ‘Carrie’ as her headgear seemed reminiscent of the look associated with a typical Western girl. Her passion for clothing lead to her becoming a fashion blogger around 2009, and she eventually caught the eye of style magazines based around the area, who took her on board as a fashion writer.

Her life would change completely when she met Yasutaka Nakata, a prolific DJ, record producer and composer. Nakata is best known for the electronic music he has made with his band Capsule but he also works with a swathe of other pop acts in Japan, including the band Perfume, a personal favourite of Kyary’s. The two met when he hosted a club event in Tokyo in 2010, and they agreed to make a record together that would fuse their shared love of Japanese fashion and pop music. Kyary decided to use her nickname as a stage name, adding the suffix Pamyu Pamyu as, apparently, it sounded cute. What came next would become a worldwide sensation.

In July 2011, Pamyu Pamyu’s debut single “Pon Pon Pon” was released, accompanied by a music video that proudly flew the flag for J-Pop and kawaii culture at its most delightfully surreal. The clip instantly became a viral hit and currently has more than 100 million views on YouTube. The song, a hugely infectious electro-pop anthem, became Kyary’s calling card, establishing her candy-coloured, larger-than-life persona. She hit the ground running, and a slew of ultra-catchy singles followed in its wake, each one with a music video seemingly more bizarre than the last.

At the time of Pamyu Pamyu’s ascension to megastardom, kawaii culture was an established cultural trope in Japan but something of an unknown quantity in the West. Pamyu Pamyu became a figurehead for the aesthetic, and while she may not have invented it, she was definitely responsible for helping to spread awareness of it outside of her homeland. Crucially, she added her own spin on kawaii with a distinctly post-modern edge that combined pop art with a subversive flair for the grotesque. Her look, a convergence of Tim Burton, Lady Gaga and Yayoi Kusama, is meant to unsettle as much as it is meant to amuse. In a 2014 interview with The Guardian, she summed it up like this: “When you see little kids or animals you think they are kawaii…it pretty much depends on your sensitivity. Most of all I am attracted to a world of fantasy with a grotesque aspect to it.”

One of the hardest-working figures in Asian entertainment, her life since the release of “Pon Pon P0n” has been a non-stop carousel of singles, videos, awards, concerts and multiple appearances across a range of media. She has over 5 million followers on Twitter, making her Japan’s most-followed female celebrity. Among her more notable recent achievements, she has collaborated with Charlie XCX on a solo track by Yasutaka Nakata and was the direct inspiration for a character in the legendary fighting game series King of Fighters, right down to her in-game battle cry of “Pon pon pon!”

In the present day, she has just finished a world tour that included London, Cologne, Berlin, Shanghai, New York and Los Angeles. Among her recent tweets she has announced that she has started promoting her new album. In keeping with her always-esoteric brand, she has also announced to fans via Twitter that she will “no longer be eating desserts.”

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