Who out there cares about ‘Cool Japan’?


These days the government is jumping on the bandwagon. The Foreign Ministry is singing in tune. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has hopped on, with a conductor’s baton in his hand and a spring in his step that you don’t even see when he’s ascending the stairs to pay his public-private respects at Yasukuni Shrine.

This is the bandwagon of popular Japanese culture overseas. Let’s label it “MASK”: Manga, Anime, Sushi, Karaoke. These four phenomena have taken the world by storm.

Back in 2003, in his opening address to the Diet as prime minister, Koizumi heaped praise on Japanese anime and its role in promoting Japanese culture overseas. The Foreign Ministry, for its part, has recognized Japan’s popular culture as its most unassailable diplomatic asset.

To politicians and bureaucrats alike, this phenomenon is order made. They can claim that the worldwide influence of Japanese culture is growing by leaps and bounds, while at the same time not lifting a finger to finance it. All they need do is create photo ops of themselves beside its icons: Embrace Hello Kitty, the cat’s pajamas of merchandised cute; sail around the world with Sailor Moon as she is seen on television in more than 20 countries; pocket your own private Pokemon — and when you need to prove your commitment to your culture, simply yell “Ike, Pikachu! (Go, Pikachu!)” and throw the magic ball at your adversaries.

Koizumi, master pocket-monster hurler that he is, may not exactly see himself as the Emperor of Pop; but his identification with this “Cool Japan” has, in my view, contributed at least as much to his popularity at home as his comic-book promises of reform . . . maybe even more so.

Pop vocabulary

As proud as many Japanese are of their newly discovered universal culture, my belief is that the MASK bandwagon is, as taken up overseas, ethnically neutral. This culture represents a kind of pop vocabulary — in pictures, design, cuisine and technology — that has been borrowed, assimilated and localized by the foreign world. As such, its propagation is a great example of cultural marketing, and that is why politicians, who are first and foremost market followers, are attracted to them.

Start with S for sushi. How often have I heard in the media that Japan is now popular thanks to the enormous amount of sushi consumed overseas! It’s true that you can get California rolls at U.S. ballparks, and sweet inarizushi at train stations in Australia — though many of the sushi take-aways Down Under are run by Koreans. Chirashizushi is dispersed from Amsterdam to Zagreb, and far beyond. But does this really indicate an interest in or admiration for Japan and its culture? I doubt it.

I grew up in Los Angeles in the 1950s, and once a week my parents took me and my brother to one of several Chinese restaurants — all of them run by Chinese people and with menus written in Chinese and English. We had at the time, however, no interest whatsoever in China, nor did we ever find anything out about the people working at the restaurants or their culture. Eating Chinese food was an essential American ritual. Even my old kosher cookbook has a recipe for sweet-and-sour chicken (sorry, no pork). The mass phenomenon of Chinese food in America was totally divorced from anything to do with Chinese cultural influence, and I suspect the same is true today.

As for the K in MASK — karaoke — this has become almost as popular around the world as it is in Japan. But those all over who belt out their tunes to the delight and chagrin of others do so in their own language. How many of them know that karaoke, pronounced “carry-okey” in American English, originated in Japan? What, at any rate, does it have to do with Japanese culture?

M and A — manga and anime — have taken over the world like no other pop phenomenon of their ilk. More than 60 percent of anime broadcast on televisions around the world are Japanese. Detective Conan pulls off his clever work in Arabic in Dubai, and “Heidi (Arupusu no Shojo Heidi)” is seen on German TV. Of course, Heidi doesn’t look Japanese, and she speaks fluent German. I am sure that German kids would be surprised to learn that she originated, in this form, in Japan.

Grand outpouring

In fact, Japanese anime has been on televisions outside Japan for decades. Children in Australia were glued to Osamu Tezuka’s wonderful “Astro Boy (Tetsuwan Atomu)” and “Kimba the White Lion (Janguru Taitei)” in the 1960s and ’70s. It wasn’t “cool” to be Japanese then, and most young Australians would only have known those shows were Japanese if they took notice of the credits. Good business for Japanese anime producers it was. But a wave of Japanese culture inundating Down Under, it wasn’t.

The Meiji Era (1868-1912) and the decade succeeding it saw a grand outpouring of Japanese culture, with the unique Japanese sense of design, color and form — in the woodblock print, in the kimono and in every variety of craft — having immense influence on the arts and cultures of the East and West. People around the world at that time knew where that culture originated, and they held its creators in the highest regard. It wasn’t until Japanese militarists manipulated and later destroyed their contemporary indigenous culture that the world, as a result, lost its enthusiasm for its rich gifts.

Our current Heisei Era has seen a similar outpouring, though in a much more pop and ethnically neutral form. Politicians and bureaucrats in Japan, who have done little or nothing to contribute to this phenomenon, are anxious to capitalize on its effects.

But it is doubtful this time whether the world sees the present pop boom as intrinsically Japanese. And the bandwagon, in any case, has long ago left home. This makes the aspirations of government officials all the more blatantly opportunistic and intrinsically vacuous.