Japan's Ministry of Cool


Japan wants the world to know just how cool it is. Over the past six months, the country’s government has announced plans to pump millions of dollars into companies eager to expand internationally, such as the Astro Boy , Speed Racer , and Gigantor played on American television in the 1960s, while singer Kyu Sakamoto’s “Sukiyaki ” sold over 13 million copies worldwide that same decade. The first big boom in Japanese pop culture came in the 80s thanks to the rise of Nintendo, Hello Kitty, and anime—with the latter playing a central role in the following decades as shows such as Dragonball Z, Sailor Moon, and Pokemon became staples of thousands of kids' daily routines. Coupled with the Tamagotchi toy, Japanese fashion, and the rise of the famed director Hayao Miyazaki’s animation company Studio Ghibli, Japan became a global powerhouse of kitschy trendiness.

Japan’s cultural ascent was made possible—and necessary—thanks to the economic bubble popping in the early 90s. In the previous decade, the country had arguably "the world's most vibrant consumer culture," construction .

The actual implementation of “Cool Japan” in recent years, however, has been spotty, especially in the Western world. Although peak popularity for anime and manga passed sometime in the middle of the last decade, shows such as Attack On Titan and One Piece have attracted foreign attention, while Japanese video games and film remain influential. Japanese pop culture, however, remains a niche interest, and in many cases not one to brag about (to be called a “Japanophile” or a “weeaboo” is not a term of endearment). There are, of course, exceptions: Gwen Stefani made Harajuku Girls a thing, the experimental musician Grimes Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and the metal idol band Babymetal have become YouTube hits without any Cool Japan help. The government department in charge of the project even interviewed the latter trio in order to figure out how they were doing so well without its assistance.

Japan's neighbors to the east are also putting additional pressure on the country. Despite many hailing Japan’s “soft power” at the turn of the century, South Korea has blazed past it, outclassing Japan’s efforts in recent years with its own government-supported cultural promotion, known as Hallyu, or "Korean Wave." Korean films, TV series, and music have made huge inroads globally, while Western performers have been eager to collaborate with K-pop stars. Snoop Dogg teamed up with Psy, while the American electronic music producers Diplo and Skrillex collaborated with the Korean pop stars G-Dragon and CL for the song "Dirty Vibe ." Korean pop culture remains a niche interest in much of the Western world: Even though the movement’s crown jewel, Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” was an accidental success following several musical failures, South Korea is still far ahead of Cool Japan, innocuous subjects seem like triumphs the Japanese should be proud of. Even travel shows supposedly focused on exploring other countries tend to end up zooming in on how Japan is represented abroad. Universal Studios Japan opened a special “Cool Japan” zone earlier this year, featuring attractions devoted to “four popular brands from Japan that are renowned across the world.” It’s sure to attract attention from Japanese visitors and foreign tourists alike, but in terms of promoting the country overseas, it comes off as a waste.

Japan, for the most part, still holds hefty cultural influence, and continues to hold sway with younger audiences. Big Hero 6, this year’s Academy Award Winner for Best Animated Feature, took place in “San Fransokyo,” a city loaded with Japanese cultural references. If the country wants to spread its soft power further, however—and not waste billions of dollars in the process—the Cool Japan program will have to expand its focus outside of its own shores, and realize consumers won’t automatically snap up whatever it spotlights. Just saying something's cool doesn’t make it so.

This article was originally published at http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/03/japan-and-the-power-of-coolness/387664/

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