Since the national government launched its “Cool Japan” initiative in 2013, Japan’s regional officials and agencies have been urged to tap the appeal of pop culture to lure tourists.
The government has tried to lead by example. In 2016, at the close of the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe popped up on a podium cosplaying as Super Mario.
Anime such as the film “Your Name.” and the series “Slam Dunk” and “One Piece,” which went on to become international hits, helped spawn an official Anime Tourism Association in 2018. Before COVID-19 struck, fan pilgrimages to locations featured in anime were becoming commonplace.
Last year, in preparation for the now-postponed Tokyo Olympic Games, the Tokyo metropolitan government released a line of tourism posters and videos called “Old Meets New,” pairing icons of traditional Japan with world-famous pop stars Hello Kitty and Hatsune Miku.
But beyond the visual impact, hitching the ancient to the contemporary does not always make for an elegant marriage.
Before the pandemic, I was invited to a festival based on the anime “Hanasaku Iroha” in an onsen village in Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture. The one-night parade through the town’s narrow main street was well-attended, but the next day the entire area was empty. A dearth of foreign-language signs and speakers left tourists in the dark, so they left.
Now that almost no one can travel, what do you do with the 400-year-old villa and gardens of a UNESCO World Heritage site in one of the country’s most beautiful seaside cities?
If you’re in Japan, you forge a link between today’s soft power standbys — manga and anime — and the enduring draw of samurai culture. And if you’re living through a pandemic, you do it the way nearly everything else is done these days: on Zoom.
For the first time in its history, Sengan-en, the estate of the Shimazu family, a samurai clan that ruled the southern Kyushu region from the 12th to 19th century, is going virtual.
In partnership with Shonen Gahosha, publisher of the manga “Drifters,” whose hero is modeled on the family’s legendary warrior, Shimazu Toyohisa, Sengan-en will present an online English-language event in three parts: a guided tour of the house and its grounds, an exhibition of over 60 original illustrations by “Drifters” artist Hirano Kouta, and a traditional sword-fighting demonstration.
The 90-minute program marking the 450th anniversary of Toyohisa’s birth will be livestreamed on Sept. 20, from 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.
Alex Bradshaw, a British expat and Kagoshima resident of 15 years, and Takuo Iwakawa, a historian and Kagoshima native, will co-host the Zoom event. Both work for Sengan-en’s owners, Shimadzu Ltd., the family’s manufacturing company, founded in 1922.
Iwakawa will explain how the ancient artwork of the estate is related to the modern aesthetics of the “Drifters” manga, displaying the armor Toyohisa wore on the battlefield in 1600. Editor Yoshiyuki Fudetani from Shonen Gahosha will conduct a question-and-answer session, and five viewers will be chosen by lottery to receive “Drifters” gift bags.
For the first time in 416 years, martial arts masters from the Jigen-ryu and Taisha-ryu schools of swordsmanship will perform together.
Iwakawa, who is also Sengan-en’s events manager, first tried five years ago to host a similar program based on the “Drifters” manga. But when its publishers saw the Shimazu name on the email, they assumed that the family had taken offense and were terrified of reprisal.
Even now, persuading the 32nd generation of Shimazu relatives to green-light the presence of pop culture onsite wasn’t easy.
“Iwakawa had to work quite hard to get permission,” says Bradshaw. “There was some consternation about holding it in the house due to its status as a place to welcome high-ranking dignitaries, including royalty from overseas like Nicholas II of Russia and Edward VIII of the U.K.”
The family remains selective, he adds, but with Japan closed to most overseas visitors, and domestic travel still in the doldrums, manga, anime and video games are irresistible tools for generating interest in history and tradition — especially online.
Foreign tourism to Japan has tanked about as far as it can go, plunging 99 percent year-on-year as of this June, according to government data. Usually bustling hives in the hub cities of Tokyo and Kyoto today resemble dormant movie sets.
Sengan-en was closed from April 13 to July 31 over COVID-19 fears. Local residents were allowed to visit, but only in groups of 20 and for limited sessions. Even after reopening, the house has seen a 70 percent drop in visitors compared to the same time last year.
In the “Drifters” manga, Toyohisa Shimazu escapes from the bloody and very real Battle of Sekigahara into a fantasy world of historical heroes. Bradshaw and Iwakawa are hoping their Zoom event on Sunday performs a similar feat for those who’ve grown weary of battling a pandemic.
“Drifters Original Artwork Virtual Tour,” produced by Stori Studios, will be livestreamed on Sunday, Sept. 20, from 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Registration costs ¥3,500. Japan Times readers get a ¥500 discount by entering the code JAPANTIMES. For more information, visit senganen.jp/en/2020/09/drifters-original-artwork-online-tour. Roland Kelts is author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S.” and a visiting lecturer at Waseda University.