Naysaying is almost always risk-free, especially if you do it online. If you’re a cynic, you’re usually right, and if you’re wrong, you can just delete those errant tweets and posts and join the party.
So last month, when Japan’s Upper House rubber-stamped a culture-promotion fund called Cool Japan, I expected little more than bemused shrugs from the anime industry and scorn from Internet otaku (fanboy).
The government has been trumpeting its support of Japanese pop culture since at least 2002, when journalist Douglas McGray’s essay, “Japan’s Gross National Cool,” helped awaken politicians to a post-manufacturing path to global relevance. At the time, populist Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, an Elvis fan with a storm-trooper-like helmet of gray hair, announced that Japan would be King of content par excellence.
Here’s what happened: Doraemon, the blue cat character from the series of the same name, which has rarely aired in English-speaking countries, was chosen by the government as Japan’s “anime ambassador.” The following year, three girl-next-door models dressed as a Lolita, a Harajuku-girl and a schoolgirl posed for photographers at the Japan Expo in Paris. But they weren’t cosplaying; they were there as government-sponsored “kawaii (cute) ambassadors of Japan.”
In 2009, a British radio program interviewed me in Tokyo on the significance of then-Prime Minister Taro Aso’s proposed National Center for Media Arts — what the media called the Manga Museum. This would be the first major government-sanctioned repository for Japan’s popular arts post-1945, aimed at a new generation of tourists for whom Japanese pop culture was not merely cool, but worthy of curation and study.
Museum ground was never broken.
While Japan’s politicians came, went and fiddled — ordering overseas consulates to trim the ikebana lessons and polish their Pokémon — the nation’s content producers got burned. The economies of the United States and various other countries stalled, digitalization overtook media markets, and Japan’s population scrimped and shrank. The political will to organize and strategize support for Japanese content and its global appeal seemed to wilt.
Nothing looked promising, and in 2010 I wrote a whiny little column titled “Why ‘Cool Japan’ is Over” about Japan’s failure to milk its own cash cow. (www.3ammagazine.com/3am/japanamerica-why-cool-japan-is-over/)
But in June of that same year, a young Stanford MBA graduate and employee of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) named Mika Takagi had gathered an eight-person staff to explore the potential of selling Japanese content abroad. Inspired by her encounters with IT creatives in Silicon Valley, she actually thought she could change Japan.
“I was talking about promoting design and content, and then there was this catchphrase floating around, ‘Cool Japan.’ And I thought — let’s use that to promote Japanese creativity and content and design, all in one package.”
When I met with Takagi at METI’s headquarters in Tokyo last month, she was ebullient, explaining that what had hamstrung past government efforts to promote Japanese pop culture was a philosophical block. “We were always stuck in the manufacturing side of things,” she said. “It’s our native concept of monozukuri (making physical items well). But what we needed to do was move the content industry division and the creative industry divisions into an IP (intellectual property) division — putting creativity first, then finding profit.”
Before you yawn, consider the numbers, and the commitment: ¥50 billion ($500 million) over 20 years, with a target of ¥60 billion ($600 million) via private investor partnerships. For Japan, this is National Cool on steroids — or at the very least, stimulus.
Fans and friends on both sides of the world have voiced skepticism, some of it aimed at the slogan alone, an easy echo of the United Kingdom’s successful “Cool Britannia” pop push of the 1990s.
American fashion director, and The Japan Times’ fashion columnist, Misha Janette, summarized the culture chasm: “In Japan, it’s normal to tell people that something is cool, while in the West, you have to make people believe that they think it’s cool,” she said. “It’s going to take some heavy-duty localization, collaboration and compromise on Japan’s part to really get this to stick.”
But anime industry veterans in Japan were equivocal — if still snarky. “Where have (our politicians) been?” asked Masakazu Kubo, executive producer of “Pokémon” and director of publishing house Shogakukan’s character-business center. “Koizumi declared his support for Japanese contents while political posturing in 2002. I guess it’s better if they support us, instead of just censoring us.”
Yuji Nunokawa, founder and CEO of Studio Pierrot (animators of “Naruto” and “Bleach”) and vice president of the Association of Japanese Animators (AJA) called the fund “a great leap for Japan, because the government have never supported us in the past. But will they be flexible? Will they accommodate our needs? The anime industry is stagnant right now. We’re not producing new hits, and our future is not bright.”
I first heard of the new METI fund at a February lunch with Shinichiro Ishikawa, founder and representative director of Gonzo, one of Japan’s most ambitious and globally-minded studios. Ishikawa is an adviser to the fund, but even he gently hedged.
“Implementation is the key,” he told me recently. “The projects they choose to fund will mean everything — and they need to choose the right people to run things.”
There is hope, especially overseas, that the new fund will be driven by Japan’s 21st-century market realities. A smaller and less wealthy consumer class means, as Takagi says, “there will be no domestic growth, period.”
Seiji Horibuchi, founder of Viz Media and CEO of New People, a Japanese shopping and entertainment complex in San Francisco, is hoping the METI fund can help him host more live events, like this year’s fifth annual J-Pop Summit on July 27 and 28 — a showcase for Japanese culture, featuring fashion, food, design, style, anime, manga and film. Among this month’s special guests is Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, the Japanese pop YouTube phenomenon who comes closest to rivaling South Korean Psy.
Horibuchi, while hardly jaded, is still no easy cheerleader. “I hope that the money will not sink into an abyss filled with only corporate or big players,” he said. “I’d really like to believe in the (government’s) seriousness in taking a risk to make a real difference this time.”
The most sanguine of insiders is Jim Vowles, director of guests and industry relations at Otakon, the largest anime convention on the U.S East Coast, and among the nation’s most respected. Otakon, held annually in Baltimore, Maryland, will celebrate its 20th anniversary early next month, and will next year launch a sister event in Las Vegas, Nevada.
“I see two basic things Japan can do to hold onto its cool factor,” Vowles tells me. “Make sure the industry as a whole can survive the evolution to digital; and keep fresh talent coming up to keep making cool stuff.
“We have very real evidence that this approach works — 20 years of evidence. Otakon has given rakugo performers and shamisen players some of their broadest and most appreciative audiences, while drawing anime and manga fans, cosplayers, aritsts and scholars. From a marketing standpoint, we’re hitting every demographic you could wish for.”
The opposite of naysaying is, what — Yaysaying? And who would want to be caught doing that? As long as Japan can keep making cool stuff, let someone else call it what it is.
Roland Kelts is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S.” He is a Visiting Scholar at Keio University.