COOL JAPAN: Why Japan Losing its Cool might be a Cool Thing

To boost cultural exports, Japan could start by improving its culture and giving money to artists, not ad agencies

by Christopher Johnson

Longtime Tokyo resident Dan Grunebaum’s report “Is Japan Losing its Cool” is one of the best articles ever about Japanese cultural industries.

Grunebaum, who writes about music and clubs for Metropolis Magazine while sitting at the copy editing desk of NHK World TV, has a rare back-stage view of the broad spectrum of Japan’s cultural industries. He can see the perspective of struggling indie musicians, who he valiantly promotes at his Saiko music events; and the view from the worn corridors and underground bunkers of NHK’s news division, where a coddled older generation of stodgy male bureaucrats suppress dissent, misuse talented foreigners and women, and milk public funds to propagate conservative interpretations of “Japanese culture”.

Grunebaum not only condenses two decades of insights into his article, he also quotes from a wide-range of Japan’s leading foreign experts who have dedicated much of their lives to studying and promoting Japanese culture. 

The shame, however, is that their wise words will likely fall on deaf ears, with zero impact on Japan’s election campaign or cultural evolution. The people who need to read and heed this article — from politicians to industry execs to rock stars to Grunebaum’s bosses at NHK — will likely never catch wind of it. 

Thus, in keeping with the times, I’m also going to add my observations into the pit of futility about how Japan can improve and boost its cultural exports. 

Here is Grunebaum’s thought-provoking article below, with my unvarnished comments in ((italics)):



It’s been 50 years since Kyu Sakamoto’s “Sukiyaki Song” became a worldwide smash. The only other Asian artist to replicate the feat? Psy, from rival South Korea, with his viral hit “Gangnam Style.” 

((Despite all the great music in Japan, Japanese musicians, in global terms, still remain a curio at best — think of The Boredoms opening for Nirvana, or Cornelius doing his idiosyncratic techy thing, whatever it is. Of the hundreds of musicians I know in North America and Asia, I can think of only a handful who ever heard of Sukiyaki. But almost everybody has heard of Gangnam Style. Why? It’s not because he’s Korean, or because Korea’s government supports Korean artists. It’s because the video is totally absurd. Anybody with a sense of humor can like it and imitate it. (Even I like it.) But it’s also a fad. Like other fads, it will soon pass and fade into memory — a quirk forever connected to the year 2012. Fortunately, Japan’s nastiest bands — Wrench, Sherbets, King Brothers, Molice to name a few I know personally — won’t go out of fashion as quickly.))

Even as Korean tech giant Samsung turns Sony into a has-been, Japan’s erstwhile colony is also beating it in the pop culture sphere: A decade after journalist Douglas McGray famously calculated “Japan’s Gross National Cool” and awoke the country to the potential of capitalizing on the global infatuation with its anime, games, J-pop, and manga, the concept of “Cool Japan” is under assault. 

((I prefer the word “criticism”. But in Tokyo’s polite society, any attempt at constructive criticism is often mischaracterized as an “assault” on someone. I believe this lack of healthy criticism is at the root of Japan’s cultural and economic malaise. Observers have been criticizing this lack of criticism since the early 1990s, to little avail.)) 

Artists whose work drove the trend are distancing themselves from the commercialized moniker. “Dear ad agencies and bureaucrats,” tweeted renowned artist Takashi Murakami earlier this year. “Please stop inviting me to ‘Cool Japan’ events…. I have absolutely no link to ‘Cool Japan.’ ”  

((Murakami has nailed it. The surest way to repel artists, in any country, is to invite bureaucrats and ad agencies to meddle with their art.))

But others say a more nuanced drive to deploy Japan’s national cool as “soft power” could help heal the wounds of its devastating 2011 tsunami, smooth the creation of a postindustrial economy, and even boost Japan’s manufacturers at a time when the country is competing with neighboring South Korea and China over everything from electronics to islands in the seas separating them.

((Even Japan’s government admits its economy is shrinking, not growing, and many investors worry that Japan’s government debt — 230 percent of GDP — is leading the country down the path of Greece, Italy and Spain. It’s perhaps not accurate to say that Japan is competing. Japan is in fact losing big time to South Korea, China and other rising nations in Asia. This diffusion of economic power in Asia is inevitable. The US favored Japan for years, when creative folks in China, South Korea, Indochina, Indonesia and others were buried under xenophobic dictatorships. These people — such as Psy in South Korea — are rising up now and expressing themselves, while Japan, in the view of many, is retreating or reclining in its massage chair.))

Without such a change of strategy, some say, Japan’s dream of cashing in on its global cachet will remain unrealized. “Japan was caught completely by surprise by the success of its popular culture overseas,” warns Patrick Galbraith, an expert on Japanese pop culture. “The government has been content to bask in that success at a time of declining political and economic significance. It is high time to engage.” 

((Galbraith has nailed it. The problem is rooted in the ruling elite being “content to bask,” in whatever they are supposed to be doing, instead of solving Japan’s core problems.))

At the turn of the millennium, Japan was on a roll. In 2001, Los Angeles’s Getty Center showcased Mr. Murakami’s manga-inspired “Super Flat” movement. (Read about the artist’s featured Google doodle, here) In 2002, Hayao Miyazaki‘s “Spirited Away became the first animation feature to win top honors at the Berlin Film Festival. By 2006, Harvard and MIT had a joint Cool Japan research program.

((The genius work of Miyazaki, dating back to his series about Future Boy Conan living on Left-Over Island after a nuclear armaggeddon, comes from his deep distrust and distaste for the Deep State of corporatist elites and their mangling of the natural instincts of Japanese people. Thus artists such as Murakami are resentful of their enemies in the Deep State trying to appropriate their culture to serve their own purposes.))

Elated by the international attention, Japan’s bureaucrats and CEOs reformulated the concept of “national cool” into a Cool Japan marketing campaign that could reach new consumers and add soft power to Japan’s manufacturing achievements. And it seemed to work … for a while. Leading media soon had Cool Japan columns and programs. Tourists were invited to the country for Cool Japan tours and seminars, with obligatory stops at the kawaii (cute) capital, Harajuku, and the anime-drenched district of Akihabara.

((At the same time in the Harajuku area, Tokyo authorities killed off the popular weekly Sunday festival of bands setting up gear on Inokashira-dori, directly across from NHK, and playing street concerts to the delight of foreign residents and tourists. Walk around Harajuku now with your friends from Busan, Shanghai or Taipei and you could go deaf from the right wing sound-trucks blaring xenophobic hate messages about Chinese and Koreans. Why did Tokyo authorities kill this carnival of creativity? The official reason was: complaints about the noise, though in fact the musicians were surrounded by trees and leaves in Yoyogi Park. Are the authorities reacting to complaints about the noise of the fascist sound-trucks? Nope.))

How things backfired

But the hoped-for revenue streams didn’t pan out. North American manga sales peaked in 2007 and then declined, resulting in a wave of layoffs at international manga distributors. (Read more Monitor reporting on the rise of manga here) According to the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry’s 2012 “Cool Japan Strategy” white paper, Japan exports only 5 percent of its Cool Japan contents – not quite one-third of US creative industries’ 17.8 percent. 

((These figures are particularly troubling because Japan, lacking in natural resources, needs to export its cultural contents more than countries that can rely on oil, grain or other raw materials.))

The industry created a bubble that has now burst, says Mr. Galbraith, author of “The Otaku Encyclopedia: An Insider’s Guide to the Subculture of Cool Japan.” “Some say anime is dead,” he observes in Tokyo, “while others who still like it say it’s overpriced, and end up illegally streaming it.”

((Illegal downloads are problematic for artists in all countries, not only Japan, but Japanese artists and industry types have been slow to adapt to this new digital world. As a result of lost CD or video sales, bands in Canada or the US, for example, are increasingly going indie and trying to earn livings from their live concerts or selling their swag directly at their shows. Japanese artists, meanwhile, often lose money by playing live, due to the unfair live-house noruma system, where bands have to rent the space, sell tickets to their friends, and absorb any losses, while the club owners avoid risk and reap rewards no matter how many people come. This crippling system is unlikely to change anytime soon. I’ve heard of no genuine attempt by bands in Japan to band together to boycott or refuse to accept this unfair system, which is, in effect, a local tariff barrier on Japanese cultural producers. How on earth are Japanese musicians supposed to sell their work overseas — competing against thousands of awesome bands in the US or UK — if they can’t even make money playing in Shibuya or Shimokitazawa?)) 

Even Japan’s mighty video games are losing their worldwide cachet. Legendary game designer Keiji Inafune was recently accused of having a “Charlie Sheen moment” in his calls for Japanese studios to wake up to their growing irrelevance.

((These attacks on Inafune underscore the root of the problem: suppression of dissent.))

The marketing of the phrase Cool Japan itself creates an awkward problem: “To call yourself cool is by definition uncool – and it defies Japanese modesty,” says Manabu Kitawaki, director of Meiji University’s Cool Japan program. “Creativity doesn’t spring from marketing,” he continues. “The Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry hired Dentsu for its Cool Japan campaign. It’s become a way to funnel money to a big ad firm.”

((Kitawaki speaks for many of us. I personally think Japan is cool, and many of my Japanese friends are way cool and even tre cool. But I think the Cool Japan marketing scheme is totally uncool. It’s an attempt by the makers of Cruel Japan to fool Japan into thinking that they — the eunuchs and mandarins who rule the country — are cool. They aren’t cool, in fact. They are exploitative. People around the world can see right through this cynical attempt at “branding a culture”, which is the Deep State version of being a wannabe or poseur. Former PM Taro Aso, the Shibuya resident and manga fanatic who lives near NHK, perhaps did more harm than good to his beloved manga makers when anarchistic geeks worldwide realized the Deep State was target-marketing them.))  

The otaku culture (a term used to describe people with intensive interests in anime or manga) celebrated by Cool Japan can also be problematic overseas. Critics complain of the use of the popular girl band group AKB48 as cultural ambassadors. “AKB48 may represent Japanese culture,” says Yukio Kobayashi, president of Tokyo music agency 3rd Stone From The Sun, “but underage girls in sexy clothing … to me it’s basically legal child porn.”

((Kobayashi is right. Few people in any culture will take pride in selling their cute little daughters to foreigners. As fun or frivolous as AKB48 might seem, it confirms the stereotype of sexist Japanese geezers exploiting women and youth for a quick buck. Even if it sells, AKB48 doesn’t inspire foreign awe for Japan as a whole. It makes us think: man, they are truly messed up.)) 

Experts also say the country focused for too long on producing highly developed but unexportable products.  They say the sheer size of the domestic market made foreign fans of Japanese culture an afterthought – and that when Japanese contents industries did look abroad, the rush of interest in Cool Japan created unrealistic expectations. 

((Grunebaum and other foreign experts are cases in point of how influential Japanese have tended to ignore or waste the talent of foreign residents and Japologists. These foreigners were all “foreign fans of Japanese culture”, and they have dedicated much of their lives to studying and promoting this culture. How has Japan officially treated them in return? As “outsiders” or “visitors”, generally speaking, not full-grown adults who have a valuable role in society. Grunebaum, Galbraith, McClure, and the others will probably never have the right to vote, and they won’t likely be named CEOs of Nintendo or Panasonic. METI should hire them to formulate Japanese government policy, and Japanese companies should employ them as consultants, not tokens or grammar polishers. Instead, Grunebaum and many others languish behind the scenes at NHK or their various companies or faculties, with little real power or influence over Japan’s direction.))  

“It’s the boiling frog scenario,” says the Ryotaro Mihara of the new Creative Industries Division at the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI). “With Cool Japan the market shrank bit by bit,” he says referring to Japan’s domestic manga, anime, and music markets, “so there wasn’t a sense of urgency” to reach international consumers.  

((Mihara’s right about this, and a lack of urgency is plaguing the entire economy and society, not just in the cultural industries.))

By contrast, says “Japanamerica” author Roland Kelts, “The Korean government invested a lot of money in its domestic pop industry and went after overseas markets. “Places where J-pop was formerly popular, like Southeast Asia, have switched to K-pop.”

((Kelts is right about this, and K-Pop has indeed replaced an earlier fetish in Thailand for J-pop, especially since the days of X Japan and Hide. In the case of Thailand, local bands and recording engineers have improved to the point where many fans consider them better than anything being sold to them from Japan or other countries. Even if Japanese execs “go after” markets in Thailand or Indonesia, they’ll be competing against a rising tide of local bands — such as Bodyslam or Big Ass in Thailand — who have a home-field advantage. Why should Thais buy Japanese products where they own homegrown stuff is just as good, or better?))

The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster then came along to deal a cruel blow to Japan’s image. “You can call Japan ‘cool’ all you want,” says Japanese film critic Mark Schilling, “but images of the tsunami and reactor meltdowns are stronger now in many foreign minds than any miniskirted pop idol.”

((Schilling, who has seen thousands of Japanese films, is absolutely right about this. Japan’s Deep State did immeasurable damage to its cultural industries by trying to hide and obfuscate the reality of the Fukushima meltdown, rather than fixing the problem in a humble and sincere way, as most ordinary Japanese would. Rightly or wrongly, many people worldwide now see Japan as dangerous and deceptive: they slaughter whales and dolphins; they run nuclear reactors on fault lines, and don’t care about children at risk; they make defective products that require recalls; they don’t care about the rights of women or foreigners or pets abandoned in the forbidden zone. It no longer matters what is true or not. Once people have formed stereotypes about a country — Colombia = Cartels, Greece = Debt —  it’s hard to break the mould.)) 

Goodbye Cool Japan

As the challenges facing Japanese soft power sink in, some say the first step to addressing them may mean ditching the Cool Japan slogan altogether. METI’s Mr. Mihara admits there has been criticism. “A debate is needed within Japan,” he says, “to come up with a better phrase to explain Japanese culture.”

((Better yet, a debate is needed within Japan to improve Japanese culture on the whole, meaning: more power to women, youth, minorities and artists; less groveling to loan sharks, Keidanren, and mandarins. But any attempt to question the tenets of Japanese culture is likely to draw accusations of racism or Japan bashing. Issues about how to heal the sickness in the heart of the culture — stress, alcoholism, suicide — aren’t likely to come up during the two-week election campaign about the TPP and NPPs.))

Rather than Cool Japan slogans, Japan may be better off promoting specific aspects of Japanese culture. “What you want is Cool X, Y, or Z,” says Steve McClure, former Billboard Asia bureau chief and publisher of “Branding a cultural movement in terms of national origin is dangerous.”

((McClure is dead accurate on this. We didn’t adore Akira Kurosawa, Kitaro or Haruki Murakami because they are Japanese, and therefore imbued with superiority over other races. We admired their dedication to their crafts, their imaginations going beyond borders, and the effect their work had on us. Any attempt to sell someone, based on their national origin, is going to offend people raised in multicultural societies trying to overcome racism. We don’t care if Psy is from South Korea, Mongolia, Kyrgystan or wherever. We admire his sense of humor, and we like imitating the dance moves. Japan has good reason to promote its plethora of underground female punk bands, not because they are Japanese, but because they can kick our butts.))  

This is an area where Japan should have an advantage. “Gangnam Style” may have 800 million YouTube views, but Japan produces a broader range of success stories. Last year in North America, vintage singer Saori Yuki had a No. 1 song on the iTunes jazz chart while dance music star Kyary Pamyu Pamyu topped iTunes’s electronic music chart. “It’s almost irrelevant whether Japan is cool or not, because there is enough cool stuff here anyway that will sink or swim on its own,” says Mr. McClure.

Instead of throwing money at marketing campaigns, experts say Japan should support its struggling domestic contents industries. Japan spent just 0.12 percent of its national budget on the arts in 2008, the latest year for which comparable figures are available, whereas South Korea spent 0.79 percent, and China 0.51 percent. Public funds would be effective in industries like manga and anime, where young “kamikaze” animators burn out from long days and salaries that average only just over 1 million yen (about $12,185) per year.

((Grunebaum and others make a very strong point here. It’s counterproductive to waste money on marketing when the artists themselves are struggling and often have to quit projects in order to take arubeito or temp work. Other countries, such as Canada, give grants or loans to artists to give them a head start, since they are, in effect, small-time entrepreneurs in start-up firms hoping to create jobs and wealth. Mandarins in Japan’s Deep State, however, tend to view artists as weirdos, maniacs or incurable dreamers who perhaps failed on college entry exams or didn’t get hired for lifetime work as salarymen or office ladies and wives. These people are supposed to be “Japanese first”, artists second. Somehow, official propaganda has die-cast “being Japanese” to mean having a paying job, groveling to bosses, respecting authority — not scribbling a moustache on the Mona Lisa.))

Indeed, though Japan once dominated the industry, work is increasingly done by its low-cost Asian neighbors. “There is a culture of manga and anime that is currently in critical condition,” says Galbraith. “The manga market cannot be allowed to fail. It is the base of the contents industry in Japan.” Public money would also be useful in helping Japanese artists make expensive trips abroad. “We get many requests from overseas fans,” says King Record’s Sayaka Yamada, who manages the international catalog of girl groups like Momoiro Clover Z. “Financial support would be very helpful,” she continues. “Japan should study Korea, which invested a lot to promote K-pop artists.”

Observers say Japan production houses should empower the “scanlators” who post pirated manga. “They need to join with other companies to make a Web presence that’s attractively priced and branded,” Mr. Kelts counsels, pointing again to South Korea, which has been much more proactive about utilizing the Internet and branding its culture. “When a Pixar film comes to Japan, it’s branded as a Pixar film,” Kelts says. “Nobody knows Japanese anime studios like Production I.G. Cool Japan was fine in the early phases, but at a certain point distinguishing brands have to emerge.”

An initiative by METI’s Creative Industries section, which was formed just last year, may speak to new efforts in this direction. METI funded a “Harajuku Street Style” market in Singapore. “Kawaii styles are very popular there, but Japanese fashion businesses have difficulty operating overseas,” METI’s Mihara says. “We provided a budget to help them get established. Pooling their efforts, we had 13 brands available in Singapore for the first time.” 

Conveying the depth of Japanese culture

Experts also say Japan needs to get away from stereotypes.  “We need to convey the depth of Japanese culture beyond manga and anime,” says Meiji’s Mr. Kitawaki. “Behind manga and anime there is a rich culture, for example the animism of Shinto. Or take modern Japanese design’s ability to manage extremely small spaces – this is also Cool Japan.” 

((Japan’s food culture is also extraordinary, arguably the best in the world. Yet the government is letting convenience stores wipe out mom-and-pop shops and restaurants. Japan used to be full of yatai street markets, like in Thailand and Vietnam. Where did they go? Environmentalists also point out that the government is paying hunters to kill whales and dolphins, while TEPCO and others get away with pouring toxic waste into the ocean, turning off thousands of people worldwide to eating sashimi or other Japanese items. Instead of wearing gorgeous kimonos or other traditional fabrics, Japanese schoolchildren are sentenced to wearing stiff uniforms based on 19th century European military sensibilities. The list goes on and on, to the point where it’s hard for many foreign visitors to find “Japanese” culture in Japan amid the clutter of Lawson’s, Family Mart, and 7-11s (among my favorite sources of junk food).))  

The massive worldwide outpouring by the likes of Lady Gaga after the Fukushima disaster hinted at the reach of Japanese soft power. And a recent global poll by research firm StrategyOne ranked Japan the world’s most creative country. Mr. McGray, in his famous article, foresaw two possible futures for Japan. It could either employ its vast potential soft power to reinvent itself, or, he warned, lurch toward further uncertainty.

He leaned toward optimism, saying, “Japan’s history of remarkable revivals suggests that the outcome … is more likely to be rebirth.”

((We certainly hope for the best but McGray perhaps overlooked a distinguishing factor of the era: Japan’s population is shrinking like never before. In many articles analyzing Japan, it is cliche to praise Japan’s rise from the ashes of the Pacific War after 1945. As the population exploded, so did Japanese creative industries; artists such as Kurosawa or Mishima were cultivated by a growing market who could increasingly afford to buy their work. (This is what’s happening in other booming countries with growing youth populations and rising disposable incomes.) Artists in Japan today, however, face a much more stark reality of shrinking potential fan bases, declining relative incomes, and increasing debt. Recent figures showed that only one out of every 10 people in Tokyo are under the age of 16. 

I don’t know any Japanese artists who expect to find an easy path to success at home. Everybody thinks its taihen, and the government is certainly not coming to help them. To be successful, ambitious Japanese artists might have to follow the road of Japanese athletes such as Kei Nishikori, who was trained in Florida from a young age to becoming a world class tennis player. Or they might have to forget about Japan or “being Japanese”, and do something really good, really radical — or really absurd — to somehow merit global attention. In this way, Japan “Losing its Cool” might just be a Cool Thing.))