Is Japan still cool?

[un]cool Japan 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.

Screen Shot 2015-07-06 at 17.05.20
Source: Hello Japan Facebook page

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:

Source: METI Cool Japan Facebook page
Source: METI Cool Japan Facebook page

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.

Source: NHK Cool Japan Facebook page
Source: NHK Cool Japan Facebook page

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.

Kinoshita Yuka
American wife Rachel with Japanese husband Jun
Mount Fuji by Suzuki Hidenobu

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.


3 thoughts on “Is Japan still cool?

  1. I hate to be the bringer of bad news. But Cool Japan always and will be a failure. Cool Japan has been under fire many time. I mean the comments on Rocketnews24’s report on Gackt’s comment:

    They pretty much agreed with Gackt on Cool Japan. I blame it not only on METI, but also the Japanese entertainment industry for not exporting their J-pop and J-dramas. They didn’t even cashed in on the drama fad that K-drama created when Taiwan did this. Here’s another article that might tell you more upsetting fact about Cool Japan:

    I mean for the last few years South Korea has been outdoing Japan on the pop culture mass export game. Just last year, it’s already been acknowledged that South Korea “outcool”-ed Japan:

    To make this worse, Japanese language classes in the United States has decline for the last few years while Korean language classes enrollment in Korean rised sharply, read the data from MLA (Modern Language Association):

    According to the data from MLA, between 2009-2013 Japanese language classes in US has declined by 7.8%. At the same time period, Korean language classes in US jumped up 45%. We’ve been getting a lot of anime simulcast stream on sites like Crunchyroll and Hulu, and yet Japanese language classes didn’t go up. The report doesn’t say why Japanese language classes decline in the US but I can rule out the “Japanese is so hard for non-native speakers, and foreigners” excuse since Chinese language went up 2% (and didn’t decline like Japanese did) during that time period. A lot of people in US say both Japanese and Chinese are hard languages. So the only culprit for the decline: Cool Japan failed to take advantage of the drama and pop music that K-pop and K-dramas created.

    The jumped in Korean language classes got a lot of attention from US and Korean media:

    And it was all because of K-pop and K-dramas. So, what does that indicate? Well, Cool Japan failed and also anime and manga is not making people want to learn Japanese language.

    Speaking of J-pop, a lot of people complain about the accessibility of J-pop/J-music:

    Also a lot of people have complain about why J-dramas catalog on streaming sites like Dramafever, Viki, and Crunchyroll are so small compared to Korean and Taiwanese counterpart, look at this from Dramafever:

    Also the J-dramas that are played on Hello! Japan channel, they’re not even available on streaming sites like I mention. Dramafever nor Viki don’t have the J-dramas that Hello! Japan broadcasted. Also many of the J-pop music programs aren’t even streaming outside of Japan when I can watch K-pop music program from MBC, SBS, KBS (and KBS World), Arirang TV, and Mnet without any issue. I also noticed J-pop doesn’t interact with their international fanbases outside of Asia like K-pop do, I mean read this article:

    I never seen J-pop ever doing this. The bad news is that Japan doesn’t know how to market themselves right, I mean South Korea does it better, watch these video:

    See that’s how South Korea market themselves. If Japan had used AKB48 and Johnny’s idol to market Japan, it could’ve hold candle to these 2 video above. So yes, Cool Japan fail and South Korea seem to know how to do it better.


    1. I feel your passion about this subject even from here! But thank you for those links, they’re very good.

      I absolutely agree with you about anime and manga losing their appeal as “cool” factors. Their target market is still very narrow and they don’t leave impressions too well. I blame the lack of good content to red tape and poor accessibility.

      I’m probably too old for Korea as a brand, but there is no doubt that the campaign to push this image out globally has been a phenomenal success. I can’t comment on their firm hand on publicity, but their celebrities certainly make an effort to learn.

      I think it comes down to the risks and choices that Japan and Korea made. Japan chose to create and feed an image that doesn’t paint a full, honest picture, whereas its neighbor chose to be open and learn what appeals to the masses.

      Thanks for sharing!


      1. Thank you for taking the time to read my comment and replying back to me. I too am a long time anime/manga fan. I became a K-pop/Hallyu fan in 2013 and I was amazed to see South Korea not only “outcool”-ing Japan and doing something that Japan and Hong Kong was never able to do (ie: TV dramas, and pop music). But really surprised a lot of skeptic when it comes South Korea.

        BTW, I too am old, I’m 28 years old. So I’m probably as old as you are.

        But back on topic. Beside red tape and accessibility. I also blame incompetent marketing, Japan is pretty infamous for it:

        So that is another factor why South Korea kinda beat Japan, the marketing. But I’m afraid it doesn’t get any better for Japan (it’s going to get worse in the future for Japan to be more exact). Now because South Korea was the first Asian country to do something that Japan and Hong Kong can never do, other Asian countries are trying to replicate Korea’s success. Taiwan is showing a similar ambition and they have made some success so far.

        I may have to create another reply talking about Taiwan (since I don’t want to give you a headache). But I’m going to stick to South Korea and my criticism for Japan and Cool Japan.


        when it comes to interacting with international fandom, K-pop seem to win hands down:

        Last month, Naver (Korea’s equivalent of Google) has came out with an app that keep K-pop idols closer to their international fandom:

        So this V App will make sure that K-pop will never “drop the ball” to their fanbase. And I don’t think you’ll never see this type of interaction between J-pop and international fanbases. K-pop is way ahead when it comes to international fanbases.

        Also I never seen J-pop doing a free concert with big name artists to attract tourist when K-pop does this like a few days ago:

        They also did this in early of August:

        J-dramas/J-variety shows:

        As I explained, the J-dramas catalog is unbelievably small on Dramafever, Viki, and Crunchyroll. But there something else that you may find very confusing. I know J-dramas are played only in Asia like Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore (like you noted), and Indonesia. But they never target Latin America. Why do I point out Latin America? Well because K-dramas are extremely popular in that area:

        This is where it’ll make you facepalm. After Korean dramas got popular in Latin America, Taiwan took advantage of the drama popularity by having some of their Taiwanese dramas got dubbed in Spanish and they got popular just like their Korean counterpart (I’ll explain more about Taiwan’s global ambition in the 2nd reply). But since then, I never seen a J-drama getting a Spanish dub and broadcast. I can’t find any evidence that any J-dramas been shown on Latin American TV with Spanish dub. I mean have a look:

        Notice anything from Latin Media? There’s not a single J-drama that got pick up for release and dub for Spanish-speaking audiences. They’re either Chinese, Taiwanese, or Korean dramas, not a single drama from Japan at all. So Japan has missed that opportunity to target the Latin American market for J-dramas.

        Overall I want to end this first set of reply by saying that Japan did indeed drop the ball and allowed South Korea to outcool them. Now Japan has lost it’s international “cool” to the world. That now belong to South Korea. It doesn’t look like Korea will “drop the ball” like Japan did, have a look at what they’re doing to make sure they still have the “edge”:

        From my assessment, South Korea may dominate for the next 20 years maybe. I may have to factor in Taiwan if they pulled it off. Meanwhile, I don’t see any hope for Japan.


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