Japan Spends Millions in Order to Be Cool

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The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images

Participants pose for photographs during the World Cosplay Summit in Nagoya, Japan, on Aug. 5, 2012

Just as Washington shuts its stimulus chest, and with the economies of Europe tightening their purse strings in times of austerity, Tokyo’s wallet is suddenly very fat and visible. The object of its lavish spending this time is culture.

Japan’s upper house gave final approval on June 12 for a $500 million, 20-year fund to promote Japanese culture overseas. Called Cool Japan, the multidisciplinary campaign is designed to plug everything from anime and manga to Japanese movies, design, fashion, food and tourism. Overseen by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), the campaign will woo private investors later this year to hit an eventual target of $600 million. It’s unfortunate that the name of a campaign to showcase creative originality strongly echoes Cool Britannia, the pop-cultural flowering that took place in the U.K. in the 1990s, but it’s early days for Tokyo’s own soft-power push.

Naturally, there’s a bottom line. Creative content, says Mika Takagi of METI’s international-economic-affairs division, will “help sell goods.” One inspiration, she suggests, is South Korea. In 1998, according to METI, the South Korean government invested $500 million into a cultural-promotion fund. Fifteen years later, its artists dominate the pop-music charts in Asia, its television and movie titles are top sellers throughout the region, and the whole world knows a South Korean rapper named Psy. Even better, South Korean goods — think of Samsung phones or Hyundai cars — have become global successes, with an image that’s modern, young and fun.

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“South Korea is keenly aware of the global reach of its entertainment content,” says Seiji Horibuchi, a pioneer in the business of marketing Japanese culture abroad who, in 1986, founded North America’s Viz Media, one of the first overseas distributors of Japanese manga, anime and popular culture. “They have created a successful model that Japan could emulate.”

Horibuchi’s latest venture is a bricks-and-mortar retail outlet: he is the CEO of New People, a Japanese pop-culture shopping mall located in San Francisco’s Japantown. “I hope [the METI fund] will bring a new Japanese star or hit property to the global market,” he adds, “but it takes time. It took us over 20 years to finally see anime and manga culture take root in the United States.”

Of course, many will ask why Tokyo should follow Seoul’s lead, given that Japanese design is internationally synonymous with chic, and such things as sushi, the films of Hayao Miyazaki and “cosplay” are already global phenomena. The answer, according to the Japan Times, is that Japan’s cultural exports have been of a random and piecemeal nature, and there has been no sustained attempt to exploit merchandising opportunities. This is because creative companies, in the main, tend to be small or medium-size and lack the resources to establish a global presence. Anime producers — responsible for one of the country’s best-known cultural exports — are struggling because of plummeting DVD sales, while the Asian regional market in content and electronics is dominated by South Korea and China.

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Politically too, Japan is in an unenviable position. Its American ally won’t be the world’s only superpower for much longer. At the same time, Japan is both alien to and suspicious of its rising Asian neighbors. In this respect, the timing of Cool Japan makes sense. But the idea isn’t new. Since 2002, when a short essay by American journalist Douglas McGray titled “Japan’s Gross National Cool” was translated into Japanese and disseminated among politicians in Tokyo, the Japanese government has been hankering to promote its contemporary pop culture abroad, and there has been lot of chatter about Japan’s international “soft power” — the phrase coined in the late ’70s by former Harvard Professor Joseph S. Nye to denote the appeal of a culture’s sensibility and products, and the geopolitical influence that can accrue.

For years, however, official attempts to promote Japanese culture have been cringingly awkward. In 2008, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs chose an “anime ambassador,” a blue cartoon cat named Doraemon, whose domestically beloved television series has never aired in most English-speaking countries. One year later, it dubbed three young girl models in maid frills and short skirts the kawaii (supercute) ambassadors, sending them around the world as emissaries of Japanese fashion. Taro Aso, one of Japan’s many fly-by-night former PMs, announced with great fanfare in 2009 plans for the first national manga museum — which was abandoned shortly after he was.

Now, however, there is both political and economic impetus for getting it right. “This is more like a venture-capital fund,” says Chizuru Suga, deputy director of METI’s media-and-content-industry division and the current leader of the 50-employee Cool Japan fund. “In the past, support for Japanese content was relegated to old industrial divisions, manufacturers who didn’t really understand the meaning and value of intellectual property. Now we have a young staff, and we have vision and economic support, and we need to be responsible. We started researching this fund in 2010, and we think we have it right: use Japanese content to sell Japanese products.”

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One veteran Japanese movie producer, who spoke to TIME on condition of anonymity, has a more cynical take. “The government money will be funneled into big Japanese corporations [and] advertising agencies like Dentsu and Hakuhodo,” he says, “and they will filter it away into their own accounts through paperwork. No real domestic artists will receive the money — and they are the ones who truly need it.”

Need is an understatement. As the author of a book about Japanese popular culture, I have been tracking the government’s actual commitment to it very closely. And while this new fund is unprecedented in size and hoopla, it does nothing to support Japanese artists domestically, many of whom labor in sweatshop conditions with unsustainable pay. Anime artists in their 20s, for example, make roughly $11,000 annually — living in one of the most expensive cities in the world.

“Those artists work for private companies,” counters Takagi. “If their companies are not successful, that’s not our fault.”

Maybe. But without domestic support, the content METI is counting on to drive its campaign may not be particularly inspired or forthcoming, and Cool Japan may meet with little more than a cool reception.

Kelts is the author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S. He divides his time between New York City and Tokyo.

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