‘Cool Japan’ needs to listen to its target market

by

Special To The Japan Times

As far as awards ceremonies go, the Sugoi Japan Awards were a fairly flashy affair. Held on March 22, the prizes recognized recent titles in anime, manga and fiction that an online poll of Japanese fans wanted to do well overseas.

Winners included “One Punch Man” and “Your Lie in April,” and the guest list to the event included pop culture critics, studio executives and, of course, the artists themselves. In a room filled with those dedicated to getting people in other countries interested in Japanese culture, however, the room seemed conspicuously absent anyone from outside Japan.

Readers familiar with the government’s “Cool Japan” campaign to promote the country’s soft power overseas may have heard similar complaints about the initiative before. Efforts to brand Japanese culture often leave out the international perspective, which itself comprises many different kinds of people. When panels and committees are created to decide what gets funding to make a push for a non-Japanese market, they’re often made up of locals with the same domestic mindset.

That doesn’t mean the approach isn’t profitable; the image of international appeal is a selling point to the domestic audience — a band may play a small show in Vancouver and Los Angeles, and return to Tokyo to close out its “world tour.” But the case of the Sugoi awards goes even further — the end result is promoting what Japanese people think foreign audiences will like, rather than what foreign audiences actually like.

The execution was very different at the ceremony for the International Manga Award in February. Managed by the Foreign Ministry, the premise was somewhat similar in that it was honoring manga. The twist? The event rewarded non-Japanese artists. The ceremony also included an incredibly diverse range of guests including Swedish manga artist Asa Ekstrom, Japan Times columnist and pop culture critic Roland Kelts, and Israeli Ambassador Ruth Kahanoff. Furthermore, the winning title, “The Divine,” was done by an Israeli-American team that had already experienced success abroad and was on the New York Times’ Paperback Graphic Books best-seller’s list. This is the soft power of “Cool Japan” in action.

Why was this ceremony so different from the Sugoi awards? I suspect it is because the executive committee included Frederik Schodt, arguably the most well-known manga expert outside of Japan. I’d wager his perspective helped make the International Manga Award a truly international affair.

The inclusion of non-Japanese viewpoints isn’t a strictly Cool Japan-related issue, either. When the Geospatial Information Authority consulted non-Japanese experts such as professor Robert Campbell about a list of new symbols for maps aimed at overseas tourists, it was recommended that certain pictographs (the manji for temples, a big “X” for police boxes) be replaced with easier to understand options. The decision came after more than 1,000 people from 92 countries and regions were surveyed.

The simple premise of asking people who aren’t Japanese what they like or understand — rather than deciding for them — is a step in the right direction in harnessing the country’s soft power effectively. Whether it’s martial arts, the works of Akira Kurosawa, cat cafes or metal/idol trio Babymetal, what people outside of Japan like about the country can come as a surprise to the locals.

As more and more private and public entities prepare for the 2020 Olympics, they should follow the International Manga Awards’ example and include non-Japanese experts in their decision-making bodies. Make no mistake, Japan is cool. But it’s time to make that cool both profitable and rewarding.

Benjamin Boas is tourism ambassador for Nakano Ward in Tokyo and a government-designated “Cool Japan” ambassador.