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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Experts also say the country focused for too long on producing highly developed but unexportable products. They say the sheer size of the domestic market made foreign fans of Japanese culture an afterthought – and that when Japanese contents industries did look abroad, the rush of interest in Cool Japan created unrealistic expectations.Skip to next paragraph
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“It’s the boiling frog scenario,” says the Ryotaro Mihara of the new Creative Industries Division at the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI). “With Cool Japan the market shrank bit by bit," he says referring to Japan's domestic manga, anime, and music markets, "so there wasn’t a sense of urgency” to reach international consumers.
By contrast, says “Japanamerica” author Roland Kelts, “The Korean government invested a lot of money in its domestic pop industry and went after overseas markets. “Places where J-pop was formerly popular, like Southeast Asia, have switched to K-pop.”
The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster then came along to deal a cruel blow to Japan’s image. “You can call Japan ‘cool’ all you want,” says Japanese film critic Mark Schilling, “but images of the tsunami and reactor meltdowns are stronger now in many foreign minds than any miniskirted pop idol.”
Goodbye Cool Japan
As the challenges facing Japanese soft power sink in, some say the first step to addressing them may mean ditching the Cool Japan slogan altogether.
METI’s Mr. Mihara admits there has been criticism. “A debate is needed within Japan,” he says, “to come up with a better phrase to explain Japanese culture.”
Rather than Cool Japan slogans, Japan may be better off promoting specific aspects of Japanese culture. “What you want is Cool X, Y, or Z,” says Steve McClure, former Billboard Asia bureau chief and publisher of McClureMusic.com. “Branding a cultural movement in terms of national origin is dangerous.”
This is an area where Japan should have an advantage. “Gangnam Style” may have 800 million YouTube views, but Japan produces a broader range of success stories.
Last year in North America, vintage singer Saori Yuki had a No. 1 song on the iTunes jazz chart while dance music star Kyary Pamyu Pamyu topped iTunes’s electronic music chart. “It’s almost irrelevant whether Japan is cool or not, because there is enough cool stuff here anyway that will sink or swim on its own,” says Mr. McClure.
Instead of throwing money at marketing campaigns, experts say Japan should support its struggling domestic contents industries. Japan spent just 0.12 percent of its national budget on the arts in 2008, the latest year for which comparable figures are available, whereas South Korea spent 0.79 percent, and China 0.51 percent.