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Japan’s economic and diplomatic clout has been declining for the last 10 years as China and India increasingly are seen as Asia’s economic superpowers.
But Japan seems to have re-emerged with a different sort of influence during the decade, with “soft power” growing in a variety of cultural areas, a trend referred to by some in the West as “Cool Japan.”
The sources of Japan’s newfound cultural clout are varied: cuisine, animation, video games, hybrid cars and other green technologies in which Japan excels.
Polls show that Japan has consistently ranked high in terms of its international influence in recent years. A 2009 survey by the British Broadcasting Corp. in 21 countries ranked Japan fourth for its public image, while the United States was considerably less popular at 10th place.
“Japan stands out in terms of its international influence in pop culture, and we need to find a means to enhance this advantage, ” said former Democratic Party of Japan lawmaker Yoshikazu Tarui, who headed a group of parliamentarians seeking to promote Japan’s video games, animated characters and digital content.
“Japanese games and animation have gained worldwide recognition due to their commitment to quality and detail,” he added.
The term “soft power” was coined by Harvard professor Joseph Nye to define ways nations get what they want via persuasion rather than coercion.
During the bubble economy of the 1980s, Japan was an economic power that during trade disputes may have tried to pressure other countries into condoning its unique business culture.
But as its image as a fierce trade competitor faded, a more benign view of the country has taken hold. People around the world are embracing Japanese pop culture.
Game consoles such as the Nintendo Wii and DS, and Sony’s PlayStation 3 and PSP are just a couple of examples of this soft power. The Wii has done especially well, selling 6.5 million units in the U.S. alone in 2008, according to the Japan External Trade Organization.
Nintendo game guru Shigeru Miyamoto and artist Takashi Murakami, who draws inspiration from “otaku” (geek) culture, both made Time magazine’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people in recent years, alongside Hayao Miyazaki, whose animated film “Spirited Away” won an Oscar in 2003.
And although animated films have sold less well in the U.S. in recent years, Japanese-style “manga” comic books have enjoyed steady growth. According to pop culture and trade news Web site ICv2, manga sales in North America tripled from $60 million in 2002 to $180 million in 2005 and reached $200 million in 2006.
In his 2006 book “Cool Japan: Why the World is Buying Into Japan,” Tomoyuki Sugiyama, founder of Digital Hollywood, a Tokyo school for digital artists and designers, explains how such industries can play a key role in the country’s economic future.
Sugiyama writes that the evolution of digital technology has pushed the integration of industries that previously operated independently, spawning a broader “content” industry with the potential to save Japan from economic stagnation.
But whether Sugiyama’s vision proves true may depend in part on how much importance the DPJ-led government places on the nascent industry.
In recent years, the content industry has moved into a period of transition. As Japanese society continues to age, creators are forced to adapt to an older audience.
Taizo Shinya, head of public relations at the nonprofit Visual Industry Promotion Organization, said that to ride out tough times and to increase the content industry’s international competitiveness, help from the government and cooperation among various players in the industry are needed.
With 130 corporate members, including the biggest names in domestic media, VIPO promotes Japanese entertainment, including films, “anime,” video games, music and books.
“South Korea, China, the United States, France — the governments of all these nations are actively involved in promoting their content industries,” Shinya said.
“For Japan to remain competitive, we need both cooperation among various industries as well as substantial aid from the government,” he said.
Since 2007, VIPO has run CoFesta (the Japan International Content Festival), an event held each fall that presents Japanese content to the world.
The festival has grown steadily. In 2009, more than 1 million people attended its 18 events, which included the Tokyo Game Show, the Tokyo International Film Festival and the Japan Fashion Week in Tokyo.
Tomoharu Ishikawa, director of CoFesta’s production headquarters, said that compared with other nations, Japan’s content industry receives little in the way of subsidies.
“Ideally, the government should invest more in cultivating human resources and developing new markets,” Ishikawa said. “We need an organization that could oversee and aid the entire contents industry.”
The recession isn’t making it easy.
VIPO has protested drastic cuts in government spending on the promotion of local entertainment content, on which the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry spent ¥1.87 billion in 2009. METI plans to slash that by 43 percent next year as part of an austerity drive.
In a Dec. 10 statement sent to the ministry, VIPO stressed the importance of promoting the content industry, saying it is one field with the potential to compete globally and contribute to Japan’s future growth, as well as play an important role in spreading Japanese culture, and that in turn will raise the country’s profile.
Ishikawa said that while he believes the government understands the importance of investing in cultural industries, he has yet to see any tangible efforts.
“We’re hoping the DPJ will present us with a plausible growth strategy,” he said.
But Tarui, the ex-DPJ lawmaker, said Japanese politicians tend to underestimate the importance of popular culture.
“In reality, the competitiveness of a nation’s entertainment industry and national power are often proportionate,” he said.