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Cool Japan sets its sights on Southeast Asia

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A full year and a half has passed since the Japanese government gave its final approval for the Cool Japan Fund — a 20-year, public-private entity aimed at spreading Japan’s cultural appeal overseas — the official soft-power push that some bureaucrats and academics had been advocating for at least a decade. A few months after it was inked, Tokyo won the 2020 Olympics bid, and the timing seemed auspicious.

But even ardent proponents admit the fund’s mission remains vague, and its manifestations mysterious. What, exactly, is the core of Japan’s cool?

Capitalized at ¥39 billion as of October (with private investment ballooning that figure), the fund is demarcated for overseas projects only. It does not offer any domestic support for the arts or creative endeavors. Western and other global markets are being tapped via Internet services such as Tokyo Otaku Mode (TOM), a Facebook media platform and e-commerce site, and Daisuki Inc., which last month partnered with veterans Bandai Namco, Asatsu-DK and Aniplex to form Anime Consortium Japan. TOM and Anime Consortium Japan received ¥1.5 billion and ¥1 billion Cool Japan investments respectively in September and October.

But for its major initial forays, Southeast Asian markets are the fund’s primary foci. And while anime and manga are two of Japan’s most visible content media, the Cool Japan fund supports food, fashion, architecture, design and music. Two bricks-and-mortar Japanese department store projects in Malaysia and China received investments this fall, as did a refrigerating and freezing facilities enterprise in Vietnam, solely for the promotion of Japanese food sales.

Unsurprisingly, Dentsu, Japan’s largest advertising agency and the world’s fourth largest, is behind the front lines of several Cool Japan-related activities. This past summer, Dentsu teamed up with the Federation of Music Producers Japan to launch a music export venture called Japan Night. Its inaugural concert, a two-day extravaganza featuring 13 musical acts before an estimated 120,000 fans at the now-closed Kokuritsu Kyogijo Stadium in Shinjuku, was the kick-off to a global campaign preceding the Tokyo Olympics. More recently, Japan Night hosted a smaller event with three bands at the close of last month’s Tokyo International Music Market conference.

Next up, organizers say, is Taiwan. A Taipei concert is in the works for May or June of next year, and Indonesia, Singapore, Hong Kong and Thailand are expected to follow.

Several journalists from Asia, Europe and the Americas were invited to attend both of the Japan gigs.

“Our ultimate goal is the United States,” says Dentsu’s Etsuko Hiramine, a representative of the Japan Night Executive Committee. “But everything is different in the (music) business there. We need to build up to that, to have better successes in other countries outside Japan, and better branding. We’re thinking of reaching the U.S. and U.K. in 2017 or 2018, just before the Olympics.”

Dentsu is also looking to Southeast Asia as a launching stage for the export of Japanese-style kawaii (uber-cute) fashion design and cosmetics. Two recent ventures, Gal Labo Asia and Asia Kawaii Way, both recipients of Cool Japan Fund investments, aim to capitalize on the shift of Japan’s gyaru (gal) culture from the streets to the mainstream, both at home and abroad. The self-consciously outrageous look of gyaru women from the mid 1990s to 2000 — transgressively bleached-blonde, artificially tanned, chaotically made-up young women in platform boots — has evolved via legions of female bloggers and other Internet forums into a less rebellious and more diverse set of fashion styles.

“Basically, what used to be called ‘gyaru’ evolved into ‘gal,’ something a lot more fun and playful,” explains Asia Kawaii Way’s creative director, Susumu Namikawa. Namikawa oversees a staff of 30 Dentsu employees, only four of whom are men.

“We ask women for their expertise, because they know what’s really happening. Years ago, there was just gyaru street fashion. But what was happening on the streets of Shibuya was different from (fashion) on the streets of Harajuku, or even Akihabara. We started the Gal Labo project in 2010 to learn about the merging of these fashions into an overall set of Japanese kawaii styles.”

Gal Labo Asia was launched by Dentsu in April 2013 to conduct research among teenage girls in Japan and the broader Asian region, offering consultation services to Asian partners and staging public events that consolidate Japan’s kawaii fashions and products. The broader Asia Kawaii Way initiative seeks to combine cosplay (costume play) sensibilities, anime and manga fandom and gal culture into one neatly exportable package.

“We break things down,” Namikawa explains, showing me a catalog of custom color contact lenses, skin moisturizers, foundations and wigs — all made in Japan and now being sold in Southeast Asian department stores. “We host cosmetic-training sessions at our booths at festivals and events in places such as Singapore and Indonesia. (They’re) a huge hit. Then we have a runway show with amateur models from Japan who look accessible, real and fun.”

The runway show, called “Marble Wonderland,” brings the streets of Tokyo and its varied manifestations of kawaii fashions together on one stage. It’s a giddy, playful, willful embrace of color and femininity — an extension of the 40 year-old charms of Hello Kitty in freshly costumed flesh. But it’s also a reminder that the entire concept of Japan’s soft power, its apparent coolness, is still relying very heavily on the need to be cute.

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

  • GBR48

    Japanese pop culture is addictive. Once folk are hooked, they’ll find what they want online, via ebay, YouTube, Amazon, iTunes and YesAsia, whilst saving for the plane ticket for their pilgrimage to the promised land.

    Unfortunately for the Cool Japan folk, the best way to get them hooked is illegal.

    The Japanese entertainment industry is improving, but it’s never going to be able to service all markets.

    If you really want to max out the number of fans of Japanese pop culture, work your way around the globe, country by country, supporting the fan-subbing and fan-dubbing of key anime and Jdrama. Not so much English or Korean or Mandarin, which are markets that are (sometimes) officially served, but Polish, Khmer, Finnish, Hausa and all the other languages that don’t get a look in. Entire nations of people with internet connections, disposable incomes and TV stations that aren’t going to broadcast much anime and Jdrama with subtitles or dubs.

    But you can’t, because this would be seen as a breach of copyright.

    Maybe it’s time to treat YouTube as the world’s best advertising medium, and not as a pirate’s paradise. Not ‘copyright theft’ but, in the great scheme of things, a loss-leader. Miss out the middle men (TV stations that don’t buy Japanese material and producers who don’t sell it with dubs or subs) and go straight for the punters.

    The fansubbers and dubbers that are presently regarded as a criminal scourge are actually doing more to advertise Japanese pop culture than almost anyone else, often unpaid.

    The journey of several thousand air-miles usually begins with a single episode, dubbed or subbed. It may have been ‘Monkey’, ‘G-Force’, ‘Gundam’, ‘Dragon Ball Z’ or ‘Attack on Titan’. So that’s probably a guide as to where to inject a bit of funding.

    It may be cost effective in the long term for the Japanese Government to buy the international copyright of some animes (first seasons or complete series), dub them into as many languages as they can, and put them on a Cool Japan channel on YouTube, with free global access.