The Return of the Cool

On a recent business trip to Singapore I was taken aback when told by someone well connected in the American business community there, “Japan? Oh that’s just a niche market, nobody’s that interested in it anymore”. What a wake up call for anyone who has devoted his career to this market! With its tendency to control and limit foreign goods and influences, it’s fair to say that Japan seems to have worked very hard to earn this position as a niche player. To anyone living in this huge market, the description as “niche” seems, frankly, ridiculous. However when you consider the Everest-style learning curve required and all the challenges of growing a foreign-owned business here, it’s easy to see how some would think of Japan as a large, but largely irrelevant market.

The thought of Japan as an irrelevant global player is something that clearly grates on the new Abe administration, not least because of its security implications. Frantic efforts at hard and soft diplomacy are underway to regain some of the influence that Japan has lost in the world in the past twenty years. Into the fray comes a key pillar of soft diplomacy — the so-called “Cool Japan” movement to the rescue. With the slogan having been in common use since the early 2000’s, the idea of Cool Japan is not a new one. It encompasses a large range of modern Japanese cultural outputs that have struck a chord overseas. Mainstays such as manga, anime, cosplay and Hello Kitty are key platforms of Cool Japan, but music, fashion and architecture have also played a role.

But why is so much Japanese cultural output considered cool? Perhaps the essence of Japan’s cool (modern) culture lies in its ability to take foreign aesthetics and use them to express a range of Japanese ideas without any sense of irony or self-consciousness. The ideas expressed are completely Japanese, appearing to the outsider to be completely within aesthetic norms but also completely unique. For a global culture constantly in search of something new, and to escape from its set of clichés Japan offers something completely fresh and exciting.

The political implication of Cool Japan is that these cultural elements that are so admired overseas can be translated into some sort of soft power, making publics overseas much more receptive to Japan’s exports and its agenda in general. In recognition of the importance to the nation of foreign receptivity to its culture, METI, the once feared Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry is officially in charge of the Cool Japan “project”. In its draft budget the national government has allocated a cool 50 billion yen (around $500 million) to the global promotion of fashion, anime and everything else “cool”. A public-private entity is in the works that will officially spearhead the spread of Japanese modern culture, especially into ASEAN markets.

The critic in me would say that whenever a government gets involved in the mix, I couldn’t think of anything more guaranteed not to be cool, but it’s clear that the Abe administration is cognizant of the need for Japan to manage its brand. South Korea, never slow to catch onto a successful trend started elsewhere, has also recognised the usefulness of being a part of global popular culture. Indeed, the “Cool-Japaners” probably looked on with not a little envy at the success of Psy’s “Gangnam Style”, which seemingly came out of nowhere to ride the heights of charts (and encourage some very silly dancing) in the US and the rest of the world.

Of course, trying to emulate the success of Gangnam Style is hard even for Psy, and herein lies the challenge for Cool Japan. The nature of “cool” is that it is ephemeral, and any attempt to create it deliberately usually has the opposite effect. In some ways, it was the very unselfconsciousness and unawareness that people overseas were watching that made modern Japanese culture so interesting. So a light touch seems in order. Also, it should not be forgotten that traditional Japanese culture generates a lot of interest overseas as well and that there is a wealth of solid cultural assets in this area that Japan can exploit to promote itself as well.

All in all, it is refreshing to see a government so committed to making Japan relevant in the modern world, and especially in Asia. This can only be a good thing for Japanese businesses selling from Japan and for those of us who stand to benefit from greater interest in this market. Nevertheless it would be a pity if all the good work in soft diplomacy runs aground on the rocks of history; and it seems that the Abe administration is equally forthright in promoting a version of history not agreed by its neighbours. It is one sign of the unique power of American culture is that its attractiveness persists even in those countries where the people are opposed to its policies. If Japan’s cultural exports are cool enough to override politics then that will be an achievement indeed.

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