Japanese culture grips Indonesia as firms flood in



In front of thousands, two sumo wrestlers charged at each other with full force, their bodies colliding with a tremendous smack that echoed through the arena in Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta.

The first official sumo tournament to be held outside Japan in five years saw wrestler Kotoyuki gain an early advantage against his opponent with a series of quick stinging slaps to the chest and a steady push forward.

“I love sumo — I’ve studied it, but this is the first time they’ve come to Indonesia and it’s the first time I’ve seen it live,” said Julyana Antika, a 22-year-old student of Japanese literature at a Jakarta university who was attending the weekend competition.

Antika — accompanied by a dozen Japanese exchange students from Takushoku University in Tokyo — is just one of many young Indonesians who are increasingly consuming Japanese culture through entertainment, comics, fashion and food.

With money from her part-time job as a Japanese-Indonesian translator, Antika buys Japanese magazines, watches Japanese cartoons, uses a Panasonic digital camera and a Sony mobile phone.

The Indonesians are late to the party — Japanese culture was embraced in the West in the 1970s and 1980s. But the recent boom in Southeast Asia’s top economy and corporate Japan’s hunt for new markets to exploit have combined to create a surge in interest.

“Two years ago, when I first came to Indonesia, we had around 1,000 Japanese businesspeople coming to us for Indonesian market advice,” said Kenichi Tomiyoshi, chief of the Japan External Trade Organization’s Indonesian operations.

“But in the past 12 months, we’ve already advised 4,000,” he said, adding that it was hard to keep up.

Japanese firms are flooding the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation as it rides a wave of prosperity that has produced an army of new consumers.

While growth has slowed this year, Indonesia remains a bright spot in the world’s gloomy economic landscape.

For one thing, it boasts a young population — more than 40 percent are estimated to be 24 or under — the kind of demographic sought by companies looking for new growth to offset the saturated markets in Japan, which are stuck with a rapidly graying population and an economy struggling to pull itself out of chronic deflation.And as diplomatic tensions soar with its neighbors and key trade partners South Korea and China, Japan has shifted its focus to Southeast Asia in general.

Japan’s direct investment in Indonesia is a testament to the uptick in interest, having ballooned to $2.5 billion last year from $712.6 million in 2010, according to the Indonesian Investment Coordinating Board.

“Five years ago, most Indonesian people couldn’t buy Japanese goods, but now they have enough income to buy high-quality Japanese products,” said Tomiyoshi.

An array of Japanese cultural events — such as the Toyota-sponsored sumo tournament — is also being staged to lend soft-power support to Tokyo’s corporate push into the region.

This week, for instance, a large anime festival will take place in Jakarta.

Tokyo is also involved in such efforts, with the government backing the sumo showcase as an event to mark 55 years of diplomatic relations between Indonesia and Japan.

Many top-ranked sumo wrestlers from the makuuchi division, the highest in the sport, entered the ring for the tournament, which was the first to be held in one of the 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nation member states and in an Islamic country.

As more companies arrive from Tokyo to set up shop and the number of cultural events multiply, enthusiasm for all things Japanese is growing among Indonesians.

Many are even signing up to learn the Japanese language, with more than 870,000 taking lessons last year, up from some 700,000 in 2009, according to the Jakarta branch of the Japan Foundation, the country’s main body for promoting Japanese culture overseas.

It was once hard to find Japanese cuisine in Indonesia, but sushi bars and Japanese restaurants now abound in major cities.

Even local companies with no links to Japan are capitalizing on the frenzy.

Metrox Group — a company owned by an Indonesian and a Singaporean — launched its own Japan-inspired streetwear brand, Wakai Raifusutairu (meaning “young lifestyle” in Japanese) and uses kanji in part of its name.

The company, which also distributes such brands as Timberland and Crocs, hired a Japanese designer to create the main product, a colorful array of slip-on canvas shoes, some adorned with Japanese prints.

“In terms of sales, we initially thought we’d break even in 10 months, but we did it in three,” said Matrox Group brand manager Alice Dwiyani.