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It has been 10 years or so since the government launched its Cool Japan marketing strategy abroad and, in spite of some criticism, there are certainly a few key elements that can be held up as examples of the program’s success.

The spread of anime and Japan’s food culture worldwide has come a long way since Studio Ghibli’s award-winning animated feature “Spirited Away” broke records at the box office in 2001 and Japanese cuisine was predominantly associated with the California roll. What’s more, Japanese crafts, sake and manga are now relatively easy to find in locations around the world.

A dedicated government initiative has played a role in the promotion of these exported cultural trends over the past decade. The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) launched its Creative Industries Promotion Office in June 2010, formalizing and publishing objectives for a strategy it officially dubbed “Cool Japan” by the end of 2011.

The phrase “Cool Japan” can be traced back to the 1980s and ’90s, partly inspired by the United Kingdom’s “Cool Britannia” movement, and referenced by Douglas McGray in 2002 in an influential report titled “Japan’s Gross National Cool.”

Not every part of the initiative has been a success, however, and the agency has faced criticism over the years for failing to understand what markets overseas actually want.

A decade after the government decided to commit financial resources to the initiative, it’s time to reassess the successes and shortcomings of the Cool Japan campaign to date.

Cosplay conventions inspired by Japanese anime have been attracting fans in the United States. | ANIME NYC
Cosplay conventions inspired by Japanese anime have been attracting fans in the United States. | ANIME NYC

Initial strategy

From 2012, the Cool Japan campaign had a designated minister in the Cabinet Office coordinating various promotional policies across different government entities. A policy document published by METI at the time stated that the campaign’s primary objective was essentially commercial in nature, a strategy that was partly the result of the country’s grim economic situation in the late 2000s and early 2010s. Faced with a prolonged period of deflation, depopulation and declining domestic demand, Cool Japan sought to utilize global demand to break out of the domestic doldrums.

The policy document noted that while Japanese fashion, food and cultural content were all popular abroad, they typically didn’t bring much revenue into Japan. As an example, the report noted the low export rate of Japanese textiles to China despite the huge popularity of Japanese fashion magazines there.

“In the first few years, the focus was to promote Japanese anime, manga and content to foreign markets, and then it widened its scope,” says a government official working on Cool Japan, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on behalf of the campaign. “We felt like that was a success, so two years ago we changed our objective to strengthening soft power. Currently, we are planning to establish new key performance indicators to reflect this new objective.”

Cool Japan initiatives sprung up from there, starting with an annual budget of ¥20 billion in 2011 and rising to ¥55 billion in 2020.

The Cool Japan Fund was launched in 2013 to invest in businesses that promote the development of demand for Japanese products and services. The fund has since invested more than ¥100 billion in around 50 projects over the past eight years.

The Japan Content Localization & Promotion Support Grant also began in 2013 to help fund translations of Japanese entertainment and content overseas. The government invested in promoting Japanese arts and culture overseas, as well as establishing international marketing hubs and export groups.

Anime director Makoto Shinkai poses for a photo in front of posters of his animated film
Anime director Makoto Shinkai poses for a photo in front of posters of his animated film “Your Name” in November 2016. | REUTERS

Anime forges a path

In 2020, the value of the Japanese animation market reached a phenomenal $24 billion, up from just $13 billion in 2011. According to data from the Association of Japanese Animators, almost all of the growth in the market has been international since 2014.

As an example, anime and cosplay have increasingly become popular in conservative India, where locals have noted its similarity to traditional costume festivals. Annual anime conventions have been held in India since 2010, and new cosplay and animation conventions have been held in cities such as Chennai.

Cosplay has increasingly become popular in India, where locals have noted its similarity to traditional costume festivals. | KYODO
Cosplay has increasingly become popular in India, where locals have noted its similarity to traditional costume festivals. | KYODO

Kim Morrissey, a reporter at Anime News Network, says much of the appeal of anime overseas lies in its detailed two-dimensional animation and impressive storytelling.

“A lot of these stories are drawn from manga, which itself has a rich literary culture,” Morrissey says. “The quality of storytelling is a higher level than what people expect to see from a cartoon.”

The 2010s anime boom continued a trend that first took off in the 1990s and slowly gained steam.

“The major breakthrough of the past few years is the growing availability of anime on different legitimate internet platforms,” says Miki Bul, a professor of Asian Studies at the University of Haifa. “In particular, Netflix’s entrance to the anime market as a distributor and as a producer has been what one may call a ‘disruptive technology.’ There is a significant increase in revenue from overseas markets thanks to legitimate streaming channels.”

Anime streaming service Crunchyroll has also played a significant part in improving access overseas.

Cool Japan has advanced myriad anime-related initiatives since 2011. The government has promoted anime tourism and Japanese content at trade fairs around the world. The Innovation Corporation of Japan, a public-private partnership, established All Nippon Entertainment Works Co. to coordinate rights and global expansion via Hollywood. The company, which was sold in 2017 for 1.5% of the original investment to Future Venture Capital, is working on live action films for titles such as “Tiger & Bunny” and “Shield of Straw,” but, as of yet, hasn’t had any notable hits.

The Cool Japan Fund has also made investments in anime initiatives. In 2019, the fund invested in Indonesian tech startup Go-Jek to add Japanese content to the company’s video streaming services and promote Japanese cuisine. Last September, the fund provided capital to Sentai Holdings to bolster anime licensing for North America.

“I’m hopeful about Cool Japan’s recent crackdowns on piracy and stricter copyright frameworks and the fund’s $30 million investment in Sentai Filmworks’ Hidive,” says Roland Kelts, author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Invaded the U.S.” “(There are) too many failures to mention, especially the Daisuki anime streaming site and WakuWaku Japan TV, a global Japanese linear TV content channel, both of which seemed promising not too long ago but were mismanaged. Overall, individual brands, apart from maybe Nintendo, remain poorly promoted.”

Morrissey highlights “Isekai Izakaya Nobu,” an anime series funded by Cool Japan, as another example of a stifled initiative.

“The series felt more like an advertisement for Japanese food,” Morrissey says. Tokyo’s “Asagaya Anime Street” shopping area, funded by the government, also closed in 2019 after failing to draw crowds.

Other investments have played their own part in the advancement of anime and Japanese content overseas. Some experts were surprised that the initiative has had any success at all.

“I anticipated that (Cool Japan) would hinder the global popularity of Japanese popular culture,” Bul says. “(But) it seems that in overseas conventions, fans do not mind its presence and the financial support of Japanese governmental organs.

“I think that the image of Japan has changed dramatically since the 2000s … and I believe that the private sector and fans have played a more important role, with government activities supporting the shift in a marginal way.”

Anime conventions have been attracting fans in the United States. | ANIME WEEKEND ATLANTA
Anime conventions have been attracting fans in the United States. | ANIME WEEKEND ATLANTA

Culinary delights

Along similar lines, global consciousness of Japanese cuisine has been on the rise for decades. But in contrast to previous food booms in recent decades — for example, promoting sushi as a luxury item or a healthy product — the past decade has witnessed a more varied and widespread global growth. The 117,568 Japanese restaurants that were officially registered as operating overseas in October 2017 were five times the number that had registered in 2006.

“There has been a very substantial increase in Japanese restaurants over the past 10 years,” says Melinda Joe, a Tokyo-based food journalist. “Now we see a very wide variety of Japanese dishes represented. You have izakaya in Milan, kaiseki in Singapore. It’s not just sushi and tempura anymore.”

Joe points to the long tradition of craftsmanship in Japan as one factor in Japanese cuisine’s popularity.

“There is a thirst for all things artisanal and boutique and I think Japan’s image is very strong in that area,” she says.

Cool Japan initiatives have paid a lot of attention to capitalizing on and promoting this culinary boom. The Cool Japan Fund has invested in a number of food-related ventures abroad, assisting the Japanese Food Town in Singapore, helping Ippudo Ramen to expand its international chain and offering support to the U.S.-based Tastemade network to produce a series of videos that introduce Japanese dishes and tourist destinations.

While the Cool Japan Fund has taken heat for losses that totaled ¥10 billion as of 2018, the culinary initiatives in particular have yielded both profits and inroads for Japanese cuisine abroad.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appears at the closing ceremony of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 dressed as the video game character Mario. | REUTERS
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appears at the closing ceremony of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 dressed as the video game character Mario. | REUTERS

“Our challenge as a public-private fund is to achieve our stated objective of balancing profitability and policy orientation,” says Shinnosuke Kameyama, public relations general manager at the Cool Japan Fund.

The Isetan department stores operating in Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok reflect both the successes and challenges of these investments. Offering a curated collection of traditional utensils, apparel and food, the Malaysia store initially reported a significant operating loss, but new leadership has eventually helped turn the store into a success. Meanwhile, the Isetan department store in Bangkok closed in 2019.

But analysts have suggested that the closure represented a positive stage of development for the growing Thai love for Japanese pop culture, with demand for more authentic experiences like ryokan and omakase sushi on the rise instead.

The story of the Isetan department store in Bangkok shows why the success of Cool Japan is difficult to measure in economic terms: A closed store might actually reflect a positive development. Thailand has become one of the largest Japanese food markets outside of Japan, with 3½ times the number of Japanese restaurants compared to 2009.

Cuisine has also served as a major part of Japan’s inbound tourism growth from 2012 to 2019.

Kurt Low, head of content at Voyagin, a travel booking platform, says that cuisine has been especially important for Asian tourists, which consisted of 80% of Japan’s international visitors in 2019.

“The vast majority of tourists to Japan are from nearby Asian countries, and one thing many of us have in common is a passion for good food,” Low says. “While many Cool Japan initiatives tend to focus on manga and anime, I think the ones that promote Japan’s dynamic food culture have had a major impact.”

Ruth Jarman, CEO at Jarman International, an inbound tourism marketing company, highlights Japan’s 2014 regional revitalization strategy as the government’s best investment in boosting tourism.

“The government applied a whole bunch of money to all the prefectures, which earmarked part of it for inbound,” Jarman says. “I think the Japan National Tourism Organization did a good job of promoting at certain travel fairs, but regional revitalization really spurred this.”

At the same time, Jarman remains somewhat critical of Cool Japan’s approach.

“I don’t think that there was enough focus on figuring out what non-Japanese people actually think is cool about Japan,” Jarman says. “These entities want some sort of equation for how to be successful in inbound, but there’s no simple answer.”

Tokyo's Akihabara neighborhood is popular with foreign tourists. | HAKAN NURAL
Tokyo’s Akihabara neighborhood is popular with foreign tourists. | HAKAN NURAL

Lingering issues

While some individual initiatives have floundered, Cool Japan has played a definitive role in the growth of Japan’s cultural products by providing funding and promotion.

Still, experts tend to see this growth as organic and unpredictable, rather than government-driven.

“The government’s vision of Cool Japan doesn’t overlap with what a lot of consumers’ image of Cool Japan is,” says Matt Alt, author of “Pure Invention: How Japanese Pop Culture Conquered the World.” “When the government gets involved in cultural production, it introduces all sorts of problems ranging from the logistical to the moral.

“They’re lumping in anime and manga with traditional craft, and people tend to focus on the direct promotional stuff, which takes a lot of heat. But there are quiet initiatives that people don’t pay attention to that are quite effective,” Alt says, pointing to J-LOC’s and J-Lit’s translation subsidies, which offer to cover localization costs for cultural products.

It’s worth noting that not all cultural sectors have been as successful as anime and cuisine. Despite also receiving attention from Cool Japan, Japanese cinema and music struggle abroad, especially when compared to exports from South Korea. Japanese creators in several creative industries suffer from poor wages and working conditions. And the coronavirus pandemic has undercut everything.

Over the past year, Cool Japan has focused on simply keeping creative industries alive with direct funding available to corporations, business owners and freelancers.

“These industries need quick money to secure their survival, so we have primarily provided money to the creative industries and the people working in those sectors over the past fiscal year,” the Cool Japan official says.

As evidenced by its potential to fund localization, invest in promising businesses, and attract tourists and foreign residents to Japan, the Cool Japan campaign clearly has a role in sustaining Japan’s cultural industries and remedying underlying economic issues.

As always, though, the biggest challenge lies in the campaign’s execution. And, perhaps more importantly, can it adjust to try and solve ongoing problems plaguing Japan’s creative industries? After all, creators and innovators need to be able to thrive independently for there to be culture for the government to support in the first place.

“Authenticity is poisoned by big organizations and governments stepping in and saying, ‘This is cool,’” Alt says. “The thought that anyone, let alone the government, could promote the next big thing is a fruitless exercise. It’s literally fruitless because you need the fruit first.”

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