Exporting ‘Japanland’

The government’s Cool Japan strategy of promoting the country abroad has taken another step as the trade ministry plans to recreate trendy districts of Tokyo in cities across the globe. The plan is aimed at promoting Japan and encouraging exports by organizing areas for Japan-style shops, restaurants and atmosphere in new markets abroad.

This approach may be economically feasible, but culturally its wisdom is questionable. Creating a Harajuku in uptown Manhattan or developing a Shibuya in Berlin may be a difficult goal.

The government has already held match-making fairs to find companies willing to set up shops overseas. Moving fashionable areas of Japan overseas may seem like a reasonable strategy in view of the drop in tourism due to worries about radiation from the Fukushima nuclear disaster. But it may be more difficult to take Japan to the tourists than it is to bring the tourists to Japan.

The stakes are high. Japan’s cultural exports are valued at ¥4.6 trillion a year, according to government figures. Most of that comes from singing groups, anime and manga, plus other pop culture consumer products. The government is said to be seeking to increase those profits to ¥11 trillion by 2020.

Exporting Japanese pop culture may be profitable, but it also holds a few potential pitfalls.

The first issue is what content will be included. The youth culture of Harajuku or the otaku culture of Akihabara is representative of one aspect of Japan, but maid cafes, Lolita fashion or karaoke shops with anime theme songs hardly represent the range, depth and complexity of Japanese culture.

Retail clothing chains and corporate-run izakaya provide a certain kind of atmosphere, but tend to be one step removed from the genuine experience of Japan’s vibrant urban culture.

Nothing in the plan is likely to turn into an economic failure, but neither is it likely to showcase the best of life in Japan. The government should ensure that only the best examples of Japanese culture are exported.

If a poor copy of Japan is presented through seasonal fashions, mass-produced images and exotic strangeness, the Cool Japan export strategy won’t remain viable for long.

The government’s encouragement of small businesses and its helping them move abroad is a positive step. But that process should also be about exporting Japan’s powerful traditions, genuine craftsmanship and uniqueness of artistic expression.

The plan to set up Japan-like districts abroad should show the real heart of Japanese culture. Only that will produce a strong image of Japan abroad, and ensure long-term profitability.