When it was announced in April that ¥11.7 billion had been set aside in 2009’s supplementary budget to create a new National Center for Media Arts (NCMA) — a museum for manga, anime, video games and technology art — the news was greeted in the same way that most cultural-policy issues are in Japan.

In other words, except for a few short, businesslike reports, it was ignored.

By the end of May, however, the plan had rocketed to center stage. In his first debate with Prime Minister Taro Aso, new Democratic Party of Japan President Yukio Hatoyama devoted one of just seven questions to the supplementary budget and what he derisively referred to as the “State-run Manga Cafe.”

The need for a central facility to research, archive and exhibit the country’s popular culture — and to act as a kind of international clearinghouse for these art forms — has been debated in think tanks hosted by the government’s Agency for Cultural Affairs for around a decade. So long had deliberations dragged on that in an interview with The Japan Times this time last year, Tamotsu Aoki, the agency’s head, said he didn’t think the plan would get off the ground any time soon.

But what a difference 12 months can make.

Not only is the plan off the ground, but with the supplementary budget now enacted by the Diet, it is hurtling toward fruition at a very unbureaucratic speed. “Our job is to proceed with preparations as quickly as possible,” Aoki told this newspaper last week.

Yet while most commentators on cultural policy are cautiously applauding the development, important questions remain. Why, for instance, has the plan developed so swiftly over the last year? Why is the DPJ so hostile to it? And will the facility meet the expectations of those who have called for its creation for so long?

The answers to the first two questions are related. Put simply, the DPJ thinks the plan was fast-tracked either on the orders of, or to curry favor with, Prime Minister Taro Aso, who is a fan of anime and manga.

“It’s Taro Aso who likes anime. Now the bureaucracy has decided to build (a museum) for him. . . . It’s a nonsense and a terrible waste of money,” Hatoyama told an audience in Aomori on May 9. (For most media outlets, it was this speech that made the NCMA newsworthy.)

Yoshiyuki Oshita, a cultural policy specialist at Mitsubishi UFJ Research and Consulting, said that Hatoyama’s and the DPJ’s attacks could be explained in one of two ways. “Either they are being made without proper understanding of the Agency for Cultural Affairs’ proposed plan,” said Oshita, noting that the NCMA is not just for manga and anime, but also for technology and digital arts. Or the criticisms “represent a purely politically motivated intervention into the cultural sphere,” he said.

There’s probably some truth in both analyses. But the degree to which Aso was really involved in the plan’s genesis is debatable.

The first official mention of a national facility for media arts was made in February 2007, in the Second Basic Policy on the Promotion of Culture and the Arts. “There is a need to consider the establishment of an international facility for new cultural art forms such as media art,” noted that document — approved by then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet.

Even that was hardly out of the blue. The original Basic Policy, from 2002, had declared that “young media artists should be nurtured . . . and facilities related to these art forms” should be bolstered. And since 1997, the Agency for Cultural Affairs has been hosting an annual two-week Japan Media Arts Festival celebrating these arts.

Last year, just a year into his tenure as head of the agency, Aoki, an academic by training, created an advisory panel to examine ways in which Japan could improve the promotion of its culture abroad. In its final report, the panel urged that the issue of the establishment of a museum for media arts be “addressed quickly.”

Heeding that advice, in July 2008 Aoki set up a second committee to consider preparations for such a facility. Chaired by University of Tokyo Professor Yasuki Hamano, the body published a report this April that has become a rough blueprint for the new facility.

While the NCMA plan’s decade-long gestation period precludes it from having been initiated entirely at the behest of Aso, the timing of the Hamano committee’s report has raised eyebrows.

An Agency for Cultural Affairs spokesperson confirmed that “there had been talk within the committee that their report would be published in the summer.” For some reason, however, that date was advanced to April — in time to be included in the supplementary budget. The DPJ thinks this speed-up followed pressure from Aso, and that — in the words of DPJ Diet member, Seiji Ohsaka — “they’ve rushed it into the budget before anything is decided.”

Agency for Cultural Affairs head Aoki explained what happened as follows: “In March, we were told it would be possible to apply for funding for this kind of facility within the supplementary budget. We were very appreciative of this opportunity.”

In other words, the “pressure” — if it can be called that — was interpreted less as a stick than as a carrot, and a particularly attractive one at that.

“The Agency’s annual budget is very small in comparison with other countries,” Aoki added, noting its ¥102 billion allocation for 2009 is about a third less than South Korea’s and seven times less than France’s. “This opportunity was much appreciated,” he repeated.

Of course, the official line on the NCMA plan’s inclusion in the supplementary budget is that it will serve as a fiscal stimulus in the current economic downturn — which is why the supplementary budget was created in the first place.

Mitsubishi UFJ’s Oshita added his analytic weight to this argument, explaining that in terms of immediate economic stimulus, ¥11.7 billion spent on a museum is no worse, and no better, than spending it on a new road or bridge or, for that matter, “digging a hole and filling it again.” The important question, he said, is whether or not it can stimulate industry in the future.

Promotion of Japan’s so-called media-contents industries (including manga, anime, TV and film) has recently become a high priority within several government ministries — including the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry and the Foreign Ministry. Hence it was probably this prioritization, Oshita suggested, that convinced Cabinet members that the NCMA-as-fiscal-stimulus idea was worth a try.

The DPJ’s objections to the NCMA have subsided slightly since the ruling Liberal Democratic Party used their coalition majority in the Lower House to enact the supplementary budget — effectively overruling the objections of the Upper House’s DPJ majority. However, argument about the NCMA will likely flare again during the upcoming election. Importantly, the DPJ is refusing to say whether or not it will terminate the plan if it wins power. “We’re still considering how to approach that issue,” a party spokesperson said by phone last week.

For his part, Aoki would not be drawn on the consequences of a change of government. “We will respond to the circumstances in which we find ourselves,” he said.

So, as things stand — and with ¥11.7 billion now in the coffers for buying land and constructing the building — it is full speed ahead as far as the Agency for Cultural Affairs is concerned.

The April report tentatively names the new facility the Kokuritsu Media Geijutsu Sogo Senta (which, for lack of an official version, this writer translates as “National Center for Media Arts”). It also recommends that the center should be four or five stories high and around 10,000 sq. meters in total area — and that it should be built within the next two or three years in Tokyo’s waterfront Odaiba district.

As for its activities, the plan says the NCMA should research, collect, nurture and exhibit the work of young creators in the fields of manga, anime, video games and art forms using computers or electronic media.

It is envisaged that such a center would attract 600,000 visitors a year, including researchers and tourists from around the world, and generate ¥150 million in ticket sales annually.

However, nothing is set in stone, and deliberations on all of these details are set to continue within the NCMA “planning office” recently established within the Agency for Cultural Affairs, and also within a new committee of specialists that will be convened in the near future. An Agency spokesperson revealed to The Japan Times on Friday that the new committee will publish a revised “basic plan” for the NCMA in July and that an architectural competition will be held soon after that. In September the architect, location and a detailed NCMA “project plan” will be announced.

In terms of attracting researchers from abroad, most commentators agree that the potential is great. “Still,” explained Jaqueline Berndt, deputy director of Kyoto International Manga Museum’s research center, “I worry whether this will be a scholarly institution. At the moment we get many many e-mails from foreign scholars, especially graduate students, who want to research or want information or resources.” The new NCMA, she said, will need the resources and staff to foster such exchanges.

It is also expected that the facility will be popular with tourists. “This could be a really vital tourist resource,” said Takeshi Komiya, senior director of HIS Experience Japan, a leading inbound travel agency. But he warned: “You can’t just say, ‘OK, we built a center.’ You need to explain to visitors, ‘Yes, we have Kyoto and Nara, but this is also an important part of Japanese culture.’ “

In a quick survey of foreign tourists in Tokyo’s upmarket Ginza shopping district and in the “subculture Mecca” of Akihabara last week, The Japan Times found that in each location 60 percent of 20 tourists polled said they would visit such a facility.

Perhaps the most worrying aspect of the April report is that it says management of the facility will be outsourced to private enterprise, with the intention of it being entirely self-financing.

The closest thing to a precedent for such a business model would be Japan’s regional museums, management of which can now be outsourced to “appointed administrators.” The key difference, however, is that in the case of the regional museums, the appointed administrators are paid a set fee to run the facilities. The NCMA administrator would have to operate the entire institution solely on whatever income they manage to wring from it.

Even stranger is the suggestion that the NCMA’s collection would be bankrolled by its own income. It is hard to imagine that a private management firm appointed on a three- or perhaps five-year contract would bother expending precious operating funds on a cost-heavy, largely unprofitable collection.

“There has been talk of there being some manga artists willing to donate works to the NCMA,” one Agency for Cultural Affairs spokesperson said sheepishly, before Aoki added that this, too, is an area awaiting further consideration.

The planned NCMA has also been criticized from within the manga and anime fraternities.

Manga artist Kei Ishizaka declared at a DPJ hearing on the plan that, “manga fans would not come and look at original drawings hung in frames using government money.”

But, for every skeptic, there appears to be a supporter.

For instance, manga artist Machiko Satonaka was so “fearful that the plan would be swept aside” that she gathered like-minded colleagues and set up her own press conference on June 4 to register their support.

“The preservation and restoration of precious original manga drawings, which are deteriorating rapidly, is urgently required,” she told the assembled reporters.

Others still have voiced concerns that the NCMA plan might be a cynical attempt by the government to enlist manga and anime for the enhancement of Japan’s geopolitical influence. If so, that’s news to Berndt, of the Kyoto International Manga Museum. She recalled a recent foreign graduate student hellbent on uncovering just such a motivation. “Maybe from a European perspective, it looks like that, but in Japan . . . there really isn’t one,” she said, almost with a hint of disappointment.

Still, perhaps the most important point is one that Aoki, from his position as head of the Agency for Cultural Affairs, is at pains to make.

“People keep referring to this as a museum of manga and anime, but it is not,” he said. “It also includes all the technology and digital forms of expression.”

Mitsubishi UFJ’s Oshita went even further. “The definition of media art is very difficult. Although it does include manga and printed matter, I think at its core will be the idea of eizo (video content),” he said. “As can be seen from the popularity of (video-sharing Web site) YouTube, videos are now the central parlance of the Internet. They will change the way we communicate.”

Oshita sees the new facility as a potential clearinghouse to filter out and preserve the best of the myriad, but ephemeral, video content that now floods the Internet — from television programs to advertising to amateur-produced parodies and video diaries.

While not quite as revolutionary in his thinking, Aoki also has his sights set on distinguishing Japan from the rest of the world. “Japan has been a global leader not just in anime and manga, but in digital art,” he said. “Making a facility like this is a way to maintain that leadership.”

Perhaps. But while Aoki and others are keeping one eye on the world and the other on the task of quickly planning for their new facility, there’s a lingering threat that in the next few months their feet could be pulled from under them, and the museum could be demolished before it is ever built.

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