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Is Japan losing its cool?

Manga, anime, J-pop – once it was all about Japan.  But the country's efforts to channel its 'cool' as part of a global soft power strategy may need a revamp amid intense competition from Korea.

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Elated by the international attention, Japan’s bureaucrats and CEOs reformulated the concept of "national cool" into a Cool Japan marketing campaign that could reach new consumers and add soft power to Japan’s manufacturing achievements. And it seemed to work ... for a while.

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Leading media soon had Cool Japan columns and programs. Tourists were invited to the country for Cool Japan tours and seminars, with obligatory stops at the kawaii (cute) capital, Harajuku, and the anime-drenched district of Akihabara.

How things backfired

But the hoped-for revenue streams didn’t pan out.

North American manga sales peaked in 2007 and then declined, resulting in a wave of layoffs at international manga distributors. (Read more Monitor reporting on the rise of manga here)

According to the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry’s 2012 “Cool Japan Strategy” white paper, Japan exports only 5 percent of its Cool Japan contents – not quite one-third of US creative industries’ 17.8 percent. 

The industry created a bubble that has now burst, says Mr. Galbraith, author of “The Otaku Encyclopedia: An Insider's Guide to the Subculture of Cool Japan.” “Some say anime is dead,” he observes in Tokyo, “while others who still like it say it’s overpriced, and end up illegally streaming it.”

Even Japan’s mighty video games are losing their worldwide cachet. Legendary game designer Keiji Inafune was recently accused of having a “Charlie Sheen moment” in his calls for Japanese studios to wake up to their growing irrelevance.

The marketing of the phrase Cool Japan itself creates an awkward problem: “To call yourself cool is by definition uncool – and it defies Japanese modesty,” says Manabu Kitawaki, director of Meiji University’s Cool Japan program.

“Creativity doesn’t spring from marketing,” he continues. “The Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry hired Dentsu for its Cool Japan campaign. It’s become a way to funnel money to a big ad firm.”

The otaku culture (a term used to describe people with intensive interests in anime or manga) celebrated by Cool Japan can also be problematic overseas. Critics complain of the use of the popular girl band group AKB48 as cultural ambassadors. “AKB48 may represent Japanese culture,” says Yukio Kobayashi, president of Tokyo music agency 3rd Stone From The Sun, “but underage girls in sexy clothing … to me it’s basically legal child porn.”

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