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Branding Japan: Not always onward and upward

by Jeff Kingston

Branding is not an exact science. Take for example the recent campaign by Fukushima Industries to launch a new consumer-friendly corporate mascot.

Perhaps braving the possibility of a lawsuit from Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco) over infringement of intellectual- property rights, the Osaka-based appliance company unveiled Fukuppy (pronounced “Foo-koo-pee” in Japanese), a smiley egg with blue wings and red shoes. It is said to be “a bit of a klutz,” but luckily the talking egg also has a “strong sense of justice” — something the utility has not yet been accused of.

Fukuppy represents just another in a very long line of Anglophone branding gaffes in Japan (Calpis? Pocari Sweat? MOS Burger?) based on inadequate — or no — native speakers’ advice (or disgruntled employees). And don’t even ask about Panasonic’s campaign urging everyone to “Touch Woody.”

Tittering aside, branding matters — and no more so than when nations seek to cultivate an image. In this respect there is always a danger that some clueless functionary will come up with a bad idea that nobody gongs.

Take the Cute Ambassador campaign launched from somewhere in Japan’s high-flying national bureaucracy in 2009. The idea was to piggyback onto Cool Japan pop culture by hiring three young women who embraced kawaii (cute) fashion, ranging from the frilly Lolita aesthetic to the schoolgirl ingénue, to serve as the fresh new faces of Japanese diplomacy.

Not that I’m against refreshing Japan’s image by embracing fashion and comic-book characters, but the whole campaign seemed like the sake-fueled fantasy of some oyaji (seedy old guy) striving to somehow involve comely young women in his dreary job.

However, Takeshi Akahori, director of public diplomacy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, explained, “The objective is to promote an understanding of Japan, a better image, or the correct image. It’s to show we’re a pretty liberal society where people can express themselves, and that’s not the clichéd idea of Japan. Japan is a free society, where people can choose what they like.”

Good to know, but Japanese pop culture has gone global and buffed Japan’s image without any government help, so why ruin everything with the stifling and discrediting hand of official sponsorship?

Staging the 2020 Summer Olympics is a great opportunity for Japan to burnish the national brand, but things have got off to a rocky start.

For one thing, Tokyo Gov. Naoki Inose publically accused Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of misleading the International Olympic Committee by saying that the leaks of radioactive water at Tepco’s stricken Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant are “under control.”

The media also pounced on the prime minister’s economy with the truth — and even a top Tepco executive joined the chorus of skepticism.

The official slogan adopted for the Tokyo Olympics, “Discover Tomorrow,” may seem a bit lame, but it was never going to be easy to follow Rio de Janeiro’s “Live Your Passion” for its 2016 Summer Olympics. Nonetheless, even if Tokyo can’t boast a samba vibe, its catchphrase isn’t too shabby compared with Beijing 2008′s “One World, One Dream” and London 2012′s “Inspire a Generation.”

Meanwhile, residents of Japan have mixed emotions about hosting the Olympics, ranging from pride to anger about misplaced priorities.

Many of my elderly dog-walking chums fondly recall the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, a welcome-back party for a nation that had rebounded from the devastation of World War II and bitter enmities that had left it isolated in the world community. They are happy they can relive those glory days and the hope and sense of unity that ensued.

In a slightly different spirit, national broadcaster NHK juxtaposed an architect’s drawing of the spiffy Olympic Village for the 2020 Games with the cramped temporary housing where many displaced by the Fukushima disaster still live.

NHK also interviewed some of the radiation refugees, who wondered why they have been forgotten. Indeed, all of the disaster-afflicted Tohoku region of northeastern Honshu looks on in envy at the grandiose plans for revamping Tokyo on a tight timeline — while prospects for restoring some sense of normalcy in their lives fade away. Clearly, the Tokyo projects will draw workers away from ones in Tohoku, further delaying recovery there.

Abe’s decision to cut the special reconstruction tax on corporations one year ahead of schedule has also reinforced a sense of gloom in Tohoku, marking as it does a remarkable retreat from the solidarity and unstinting promises mouthed by politicians back in 2011.

Tohoku folk are no strangers to betrayal and negligence, but Abe’s move was so unseemly that even the newly appointed parliamentary secretary for reconstruction, Shinjiro Koizumi, berated his boss’ decision to shortchange the needy in favor of corporate welfare. Remarkably, the 32-year-old politician son of popular former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has also criticized the ongoing leaks of radiation-contaminated water at the Fukushima nuclear plant — and he’s even pointedly differed with Abe, saying that the people of Fukushima never felt the crisis was under control, even before the cascading spillages into the ocean came to light.

Like his father, Koizumi is not keen about reactivating reactors either, while Abe is eager to do so and now serves as pitchman-in-chief for nuclear exports.

The senior Koizumi’s outspoken opposition to nuclear energy marks a sharp break with his previous position; he’s now a zero-option advocate because he no longer believes that nuclear reactors can be operated safely in Japan given the considerable seismic risks and absence of waste-disposal plans.

Like it or not, Fukushima is defining Japan’s global image, and there is little redeeming about this story of three reactor meltdowns, spewing radiation, power cuts to jury-rigged cooling systems caused by rats and worker error, and leaky storage tanks. This is not the cutting-edge image Japan once enjoyed overseas.

And what about “Abenomics,” the global buzzword signaling that Japan is back?

Abe visited the New York Stock Exchange and invoked “Wall Street” prince of greed Gordon Gekko to make a point about Japan’s revival — but probably not the one he had intended.

Similarly, the Financial Times recently ran a piece about whether Abenomics is for real. For example, Abe’s confidence is likened “to that of a man jumping from a skyscraper who, on his way down, shouts: ‘So far so good.’ “

It’s William Pesek, though, the Bloomberg columnist who covers Asia with wit and verve, who is the champion of the chimera school, arguing that Abenomics is unsustainable because the prime minister will come up short on structural reforms.

If he is right and the gamble sours, whither Japan? Will Abenomics then join Fukuppy in the pantheon of misguided initiatives?

Jeff Kingston is director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.

  • JS

    Japan should spend less time trying to manage peoples’ perceptions of Japan around the world, and more time fixing the root causes of the problems that plague Japan. Reality always catches up with the perception, sooner or later.

    Long gone are the days when perceptions and brands could get away with being disconnected to reality. In today’s interconnected world, brands can only exist insofar as they have some grounding in reality. This is something “Brand Japan” does not seem to comprehend.

    As an example, Apple, Google and Amazon are global brands, since people understand that underneath these global brands are global companies run by international people from around the world, with a physical and intellectual presence in countries around the world.

    Japanese companies, by and large, cannot project strong global branding anymore, since the companies, their management and the decision making at these companies is homogenous, insular and exclusively Japanese.

  • Sam Gilman

    This is an impressively incoherent article. Is it about commercial branding errors? Is it about the media handling of Fukushima? Is it about branding as part of foreign policy? Is it about the Tokyo Olympics vs the fate of Tohoku evacuees? Is it about nuclear power in general?

    Or is it just one long ex-pat whinge prompted by seeing the Fukuppy mascot meme on Facebook?