It’s one thing to leave for Sydney when you’re still sick; coming back in a worse shape, however, is another state which I hope to never repeat. The only thing worse about preparing for a holiday is coming back feeling relieved that it’s all over.
So now with more time away from work until Wednesday, I scrolled through my Facebook newsfeed, and stumbled across an article by Japan Today, reporting on Gackt’s criticism towards the “Cool Japan” initiative and the lack of tangible results since the campaign started.
Quoting from his official blog, Gackt reflected on the poor audience turnout for the latest NARUTO musical, and questioned – above all things and in comparison to South Korea’s successful global cultural push – how the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) is using the ¥84 billion (US$685 million) budget for promoting Japan’s culture worldwide, and how its initiatives are being accounted for since 2013.
Meanwhile, I am sitting in front of my television, reading a note that “Hello! Japan” has ceased transmission on my cable network since July 1.
While I am shocked at the abrupt (and somewhat sloppy) announcement, two things come to mind: I’ve been unaware – and therefore surprised – of the size of the budget allocated for this global cultural push, and Gackt’s acute observation and criticism over the failure of Cool Japan to fulfill its objectives two years on. It’s a timely reminder to reflect on what worked and what needs working on.
I’d heard of Cool Japan when it was first launched. I knew of its intentions to push Japanese culture to a global audience, in particular its food cuisine, manga and anime, and music. And I think there have been some good things that resulted from this: there are more record labels featuring more artists and music videos on Youtube, and it’s not hard to watch the latest anime series that are finally catching up on cable television. It’s still slow, but it’s progress nonetheless.
Whether those things needed ¥84 billion, however, is another matter.
A quick glance-through at some of the messages for Cool Japan revealed a few things:
Japan is preaching to the converted. METI’s Cool Japan Facebook page seems intended to target those who have never been to Japan before – and by Japan, they specifically zoomed in on Tokyo by making it appear “creative and exciting”. But (outdated) cover photo aside, practically all content is in Japanese. The updates are sporadic and inconsistent. And boring. I have so much to say just from reading that first post alone (“NIPPON QUEST(tm) – your guide to discover the unknown worlds of Japanese villages – now launched!”). This really should have been a bilingual page. But instead, that job of posting content in English has been relegated to NHK – which posts completely different content.
Which brings me to my next point that METI may have missed the point of what makes Japan cool. Japan is more than its entertainment, food and courteous gracious people. Japan has always been special to me because people have always seemed to maintain a state of calmness, order, and resilience despite living on one of the most geographically chaotic places on earth. I love that its people try to communicate despite knowing their lack of language proficiency – and are trying to learn to get better.
The truth is, Japan doesn’t need to convince us foreigners that it’s cool. We know you’re cool, what with your ninja spies, samurai lovers, and the political dramas of the feudal era/Meiji restoration period. You have mesmerizing stories with visually stunning animation graphics. You’ve produced some of the greatest storytellers through Ghibli Studios and novelists through Haruki Murakami, as well as your fair share of avant garde artists such as Yayoi Kusama. Only you could come up with video games like Final Fantasy and Super Mario Bros. And yet you also have the time to come up with the weirdest shit, like tamagotchis and dakimakura pillows. You’re just as cool and crazy as the rest of us.
Unfortunately, METI has treated this campaign as one huge PR exercise that doesn’t seem to know its objective, and has become rather unfeeling and robotic. In contrast, the people making Japan cool are its citizens who are proactively engaged via social media. From competitive eater Yuka Kinoshita to Youtube couple Rachel & Jun, and hairstylist-by-day-photographer-for-life-made-famous-by-NatGeo Hidenobu Suzuki, it doesn’t take a lot of effort to find some really creative people with stories to tell, sharing their lives in Japan from their perspective, and how they themselves are finding ways to fit in with the changing world around them.
More than pushing Japanese culture to the world is giving the world reason to feel attracted to it. And that means strategic funding and investments for its local talent to find its place in the world, or make something that is globally appealing. We’ve idolized AKB48 enough. How about we see them as less of a popularity contest – relevant only for its domestic consumers, especially men – and more of a platform where these beautiful girls can find their own voice and do something unique and meaningful?
I’m no branding strategist, but I do think that part of the reason why Gangnam Style and Nobody (from the Wonder Girls) worked so well is because the appeal was universal. Korean is like Greek to me, but these videos were funny and easy to enjoy. A catchy beat that’s easy to follow. Beautiful people. Humor. Using social media and other channels that make them easy to share. Endorsements. Global push. Repeat.
I have so much more in my head to put here, but I’d rather not turn this into a thesis. And granted, many of the initiatives METI is trying to do may take years before they come to fruition, and I’m sure someone in there has thought this through with SMART targets in mind. But at present, they have some answering to do. Especially to Gackt.