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.

Toru Hanai/Reuters
A shop staff dressed as a maid works next to Microsoft Corp's Windows 8 operating system, packaged in boxes with anime design, as Windows 8 goes on sale after midnight outside an electronics store at the Akihabara district in Tokyo October 26.

It’s been 50 years since Kyu Sakamoto’s “Sukiyaki Song” became a worldwide smash. The only other Asian artist to replicate the feat? Psy, from rival South Korea, with his viral hit “Gangnam Style.” 

Even as Korean tech giant Samsung turns Sony into a has-been, Japan’s erstwhile colony is also beating it in the pop culture sphere: A decade after journalist Douglas McGray famously calculated “Japan’s Gross National Cool” and awoke the country to the potential of capitalizing on the global infatuation with its anime, games, J-pop, and manga, the concept of “Cool Japan” is under assault. 

Artists whose work drove the trend are distancing themselves from the commercialized moniker. “Dear ad agencies and bureaucrats,” tweeted renowned artist Takashi Murakami earlier this year. “Please stop inviting me to ‘Cool Japan’ events.... I have absolutely no link to ‘Cool Japan.’ ”  

But others say a more nuanced drive to deploy Japan’s national cool as “soft power” could help heal the wounds of its devastating 2011 tsunami, smooth the creation of a postindustrial economy, and even boost Japan’s manufacturers at a time when the country is competing with neighboring South Korea and China over everything from electronics to islands in the seas separating them.

Without such a change of strategy, some say, Japan's dream of cashing in on its global cachet will remain unrealized. “Japan was caught completely by surprise by the success of its popular culture overseas,” warns Patrick Galbraith, an expert on Japanese pop culture. “The government has been content to bask in that success at a time of declining political and economic significance. It is high time to engage.” 

At the turn of the millennium, Japan was on a roll. In 2001, Los Angeles’s Getty Center showcased Mr. Murakami’s manga-inspired "Super Flat" movement. (Read about the artist's featured Google doodle, here) In 2002, Hayao Miyazaki's “Spirited Away became the first animation feature to win top honors at the Berlin Film Festival. By 2006, Harvard and MIT had a joint Cool Japan research program.

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.

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.”

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. 

“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 “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. 

Public funds would be effective in industries like manga and anime, where young “kamikaze” animators burn out from long days and salaries that average only just over 1 million yen (about $12,185) per year.

Indeed, though Japan once dominated the industry, work is increasingly done by its low-cost Asian neighbors. “There is a culture of manga and anime that is currently in critical condition,” says Galbraith. “The manga market cannot be allowed to fail. It is the base of the contents industry in Japan.”

Public money would also be useful in helping Japanese artists make expensive trips abroad. “We get many requests from overseas fans,” says King Record’s Sayaka Yamada, who manages the international catalog of girl groups like Momoiro Clover Z. “Financial support would be very helpful,” she continues. “Japan should study Korea, which invested a lot to promote K-pop artists.”

Observers say Japan production houses should empower the “scanlators” who post pirated manga. “They need to join with other companies to make a Web presence that’s attractively priced and branded,” Mr. Kelts counsels, pointing again to South Korea, which has been much more proactive about utilizing the Internet and branding its culture.

“When a Pixar film comes to Japan, it’s branded as a Pixar film,” Kelts says. “Nobody knows Japanese anime studios like Production I.G. Cool Japan was fine in the early phases, but at a certain point distinguishing brands have to emerge.”

An initiative by METI’s Creative Industries section, which was formed just last year, may speak to new efforts in this direction. METI funded a “Harajuku Street Style” market in Singapore. “Kawaii styles are very popular there, but Japanese fashion businesses have difficulty operating overseas,” METI’s Mihara says. “We provided a budget to help them get established. Pooling their efforts, we had 13 brands available in Singapore for the first time.” 

Conveying the depth of Japanese culture

Experts also say Japan needs to get away from stereotypes.  “We need to convey the depth of Japanese culture beyond manga and anime,” says Meiji’s Mr. Kitawaki. “Behind manga and anime there is a rich culture, for example the animism of Shinto. Or take modern Japanese design’s ability to manage extremely small spaces – this is also Cool Japan.” 

The massive worldwide outpouring by the likes of Lady Gaga after the Fukushima disaster hinted at the reach of Japanese soft power. And a recent global poll by research firm StrategyOne ranked Japan the world’s most creative country.

Mr. McGray, in his famous article, foresaw two possible futures for Japan. It could either employ its vast potential soft power to reinvent itself, or, he warned, lurch toward further uncertainty.

He leaned toward optimism, saying, "Japan's history of remarkable revivals suggests that the outcome … is more likely to be rebirth.”

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