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Pop tourism gains traction

by Roland Kelts

Pre-flight shopping at Narita airport a couple of weeks ago, I passed a mannequin sporting a light-blue necktie and a turquoise wig with pig tails dangling down to its mini skirt. The vision spoke volumes: It was Hatsune Miku, of course, Japan’s holographic, animated virtual pop star, beloved fashion icon and model for pop culture fans and cosplayers worldwide. But why was she suddenly manning the plaza concourse of Japan’s busiest tourist portal, standing tall beside Uniqlo and Shu Uemura?

It turns out Miku is part of an expansive display in the new airport outlet of Cospa Akihabara, a shop devoted to Japanese pop culture products for global otaku (geeks)and cosplayers. The Narita venue opened in February and had a lively crowd of consumers at its counters when I stalled next to Miku last month, gingerly fingering my wallet.

Tourism has long been a fiscal conundrum for Japan, the country’s potential cash cow stifled by its resistance to foreigners and xenophobic anxieties, and hampered by a reputation for overblown prices — a crude hangover from the bubble years of the 1980s. The 3/11 disasters and ongoing plight of Fukushima only exacerbate the problem.

Worse, the nation’s soft-power selling point often seems stuck in centuries past. Those of us who live, work and travel here know well the virtues contemporary Japan boasts. But for years, Japan has promoted itself overseas as a bastion of bygone traditions — demure kimono-clad girls and stoic samurai boys cowering beneath a volcano called Fuji, with raw seafood and grass mats for comfort.

In the face of its 21st-century reality, this hoary image of Japan wears thin fast. The “Pokemon” and “Naruto” generations might dig the temples of Nara once they get there, but they need a reason to get there first.

Seiji Horibuchi, founder of Viz Media, a veteran U.S. distributor of Japanese entertainment, has long understood the appeal of what the government still labels Cool Japan. In 2009, Horibuchi opened New People, a three-story bricks-and-mortar retail outlet in San Francisco’s Japan Town, tailored to the tastes of young Americans and tourists with an interest in contemporary Japanese culture. The complex features fashion boutiques, an art gallery and an HD cinema with a THX sound-system for the screening of first-run Japanese feature films and anime titles.

New People’s latest venture, launched in January, is an online magazine called New People Travel, an attempt to connect anime fans with their heroes, veteran artists in the industry who have earned rock-star status, while introducing Japan as an attractive and accessible 21st-century tourist destination.

I asked the company about the magazine last week via email from my hotel in South Africa, where the market for Japanese pop culture has recently spiked.

“Our ultimate goal is to interest more people in traveling to and in Japan,” said New People Executive Director Manami Iiboshi. “This has been a similar goal for the New People building since it opened. The site is available in both Japanese and English because we wanted to share this vision with people both inside and outside of Japan. Sometimes even Japanese people need to see themselves from an outside standpoint in order to appreciate their culture and its beauty.”

The site’s current incarnation is a gift for anime fans and other aficionados of Japanese art. “Ghost in the Shell” maestro Mamoru Oshii weighs in on the soulless nature of modern Tokyo and its susceptibility to military attack; “Final Fantasy” artist Yoshitaka Amano discusses longing for his childhood in Shizuoka Prefecture and drawing on the beauty of the Kumano region in Wakayama and Mie prefectures; and Mamoru Hosoda explains why he set the family home in “Summer Wars” in his wife’s rural hometown of Ueda in Nagano Prefecture.

New People Travel grew out of a collaboration with Japan’s Aisin Aw Co., Ltd. (a developer of car navigation systems), and its latest issue introduces a broad range of travel destinations in Japan such as the Noto Peninsula, Kyoto and the Hakata district in Fukuoka, alongside interviews with film director Katushito Ishii and Pixar artist Dice Tsutsumi.

“We picked a very diverse group of visionaries to showcase on the site,” added Iiboshi, “to provide readers with a new and colorful vision of Japan shown through the eyes of Japanese artists that have broad recognition worldwide.”

This summer New People will host their fifth J-Pop Summit Festival, its annual San Francisco-based celebration of Japanese culture, entertainment and fashion featuring live performances, exhibitions, and for the first time, a gourmet food truck festival. Last year’s event drew 65,000 attendees. New People will expand the festival venues in 2013 to include Union Square in the heart of the city, and they anticipate a record-breaking 70,000 visitors.

On the U.S. East Coast, summer will also see the 20th anniversary of Otakon, the region’s most popular anime convention, whose organizers announced earlier this year that they would host a second Japanese pop culture convention in Las Vegas in January 2014. And next month, a series of launch events will be held in New York City for the latest issue of Monkey Business International, the English-language edition of the contemporary Japanese literary magazine, to which (full disclosure) I am a contributing editor. The weeklong sessions will bring together Japanese literati Genichiro Takahashi, Mina Ishikawa and Motoyuki Shibata with Americans Paul Auster, Charles Simic and Kevin Brockmeier, among others, and will be hosted by the PEN World Voices Festival.

On April 4, the United Nations World Tourism Organization announced that Chinese travelers have overtaken Germans and Americans as the world’s biggest spenders. Whether political tensions will keep them from booking flights to Japan remains to be seen. But with Japan’s domestic stimulus taps now turned fully on, thanks to so-called Abenomics and Bank of Japan governor Haruhiko Kuroda, it’s high time the nation marshaled its cultural capital abroad to line the coffers at home.

Roland Kelts is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S.” He is a Visiting Scholar at the University of Tokyo.