• by Matt Alt
  • Special To The Japan Times


After years of talk, 2013 marked a watershed moment in the government’s Cool Japan campaign. Which begs the question: Is Japan cool?

As a robot-obsessed kid growing up in the 1970s and ’80s, I always thought so. But for years, the anime and manga that drove me to learn Japanese and start a career in Tokyo was maligned as “junk culture” at best and scandalous at worst. One of my all-time favorite manga artists, Go Nagai, was even branded an “enemy of society” by Japanese school PTA groups after the publication of his admittedly edgy “Harenchi Gakuen (Shameless School)” in the early ’70s.

Somewhere around the early 2000s, things started changing. After a string of international anime successes such as “Gundam Wing,” “Pokémon,” “Dragonball Z” and “Sailor Moon,” the Japanese government belatedly began waking up to the influence of the nation’s pop culture — a phenomenon dubbed “soft power,” as a counterpoint to “hard” exports such as cameras or cars. By 2003, the concept seemed like a no-brainer. Anime was everywhere. The creators of the hit “Matrix” films cited anime as a direct inspiration, director Hayao Miyazaki won an Oscar for his film “Spirited Away” and director Quentin Tarantino incorporated an extensive anime sequence into “Kill Bill: Vol. 1.” So Japan was cool, once and for all.

Or was it?

For all the promise anime had shown as a worldwide phenomenon, the next decade would see a long slide into irrelevance for Japanese pop culture. With the exception of a few shining stars who continued to push boundaries, such as Miyazaki, Satoshi Kon, Shinichiro Watanabe and Mamoru Hosoda, the anime industry increasingly turned inward rather than outward, choosing to target a tiny but reliable domestic audience of die-hard anime otaku (obsessives) rather than gambling on new productions for the mainstream.

Still the Japanese government continued its Cool Japan push. Politicians such as 2008-09 Prime Minister Taro Aso cited soft power and Cool Japan as cornerstones of the nation’s 21st-century economic strategy, but in the real world, outside of the government cocoon of Kasumigaseki, it was obvious the cornerstone was being whittled down to a pebble.

A 2005 JETRO report revealed that two-thirds of anime-industry workers toiled at near poverty-level wages, with a quarter below the poverty line. By 2008, years of outsourcing had hollowed out the Japanese animation industry to the point where even top directors couldn’t find enough local talent to create anime by hand anymore. Director Mamoru Oshii famously complained of needing to turn to computer animation to finish his 2008 film “The Sky Crawlers” for lack of experienced animators.

Even the world of manga, the traditional proving ground for series slated for animation, seemed to be grinding to a halt. “The industry is struggling,” researcher Masaharu Kubo told Toyo Keizai Shimbun in 2009. “There’s a sense that the marketable standout series have been exhausted.”

In January 2013, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced a ¥10 trillion emergency economic stimulus package to great fanfare. In March, the administration debuted the Japan Brand Fund — “an organization to fund and support business activities to cultivate overseas demand for Japan’s attractive products and services.” That included manga, anime and other “soft” exports.

The Cool Japan Promotion Council convened, announcing a plan to study establishing “International Pop Culture Zones” that would be given special tax incentives for animation production companies. Somewhat confusingly, given that the vast majority of anime is produced in the Tokyo area, Okinawa and Kyoto were cited as potential locations. (This probably explains why we haven’t heard a peep about the plan since, but it was a nice thought, anyway.)

By mid-year, a Cool Japan Promotion Fund was launched, followed by the first proper flexing of the Japan Brand Fund, giving rise to an entity called the Cool Japan Fund, Inc. Boasting an initial government investment of ¥37.5 billion, and helmed by former fashion mogul Nobuyuki Ota, its mission is to invest in small- to mid-sized purveyors of cultural products — everything from lacquerware to action-figure manufacturers.

And finally, at the end of 2013, the government announced plans to fund a dedicated Japan Channel for cable television in Southeast Asia, budgeting millions of yen for subtitling, dubbing and promotion costs. The plans are to launch it in Thailand sometime in 2014, with other markets to follow.

After decades of talk, this represents the first time the Japanese government has really put its money where its mouth is. But even so, Cool Japan’s prospects are hazy for 2014.

One major concern is lack of focus. “Cool Japan” means different things to different people. If you’re a fan of manga or anime or “Godzilla” flicks, you might reasonably assume that the moniker covers your interests, which it does. But the Japanese government is using Cool Japan as a catch-all to fund all sorts of cultural endeavors — not just the “usual suspects” of anime and manga, but also fashion, music, food and even traditional arts and crafts. With such a broad focus, it’s all too easy to imagine Cool Japan policies being spread too thin to effect real change in the anime industry, which arguably jump-started the entire Cool Japan phenomenon in the first place.

Another concern is that the government’s focus is on pushing existing products rather than promoting or fixing the industries that create them. Assisting Japanese content producers in making better deals for themselves abroad is a laudable thing — but there is no question that the creators and architects of many Cool Japan industries are struggling.

This is particularly true of the anime industry. Anime shows and films are funded by “production committees,” consortiums of sponsors, advertisers, television stations and the animation companies themselves. An enormous number of fingers in the pie deprives studios of ownership of their creations, and thus the vast majority of the profits. If Japanese anime truly represents the cornerstone of Japanese industry, shouldn’t artists and employees make a living wage?

And finally comes a question of relevance. During the golden age of Japanese anime in the ’80s and ’90s, foreign companies clamored for Japanese content because it represented the first they had ever seen of animation for an older audience. Although manga and anime still retain a certain cachet abroad, Americans and Europeans who grew up on Japanese creations are now happily creating their own films and series aimed at this demographic, domestically addressing the gap in demand that Japanese content once filled. American-produced shows such as “Avatar: The Last Airbender” and “The Boondocks” target older audiences with obvious anime flair, and Pixar’s John Lasseter has gushed that his smash hit “Toy Story” “owes a huge debt of gratitude to the films of Mr. Miyazaki.”

But it’s too early to count Japanese content creators out. Take “Space Dandy,” for example, a new anime series that debuted on America’s Toonami channel on Jan. 4. Directed by foreign fan-favorite Shinichiro Watanabe, it has been crafted to appeal to both Japanese and foreign audiences. It’s too early to know if the exploits of the series’ titular alien-hunter represent a new frontier for Japanese anime abroad, but here’s hoping.

Another new development is the emergence of crowd-funded animation, such as Production IG’s “Kick-Heart,” a 12-minute short whose entire budget came entirely from (largely foreign) contributors at crowd-funding site Kickstarter. Handily accumulating $200,000 within a month, Production IG debuted the short on Toonami in 2013. Proponents hope this could represent the dawn of a new era of co-productions, where foreign fans and Japanese artists create content outside of the confines of the Japanese “production committee” system.

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