What’s So Cool About Japan?

What makes Japan “cool”? Anime and manga? Technology such as cars and robots? Or is it something more traditional such as a tea ceremony, calligraphy, or kimono? What about the cuisine, which was recently added to the UNESCO intangible heritage list?

The government of Japan is so focused on pinpointing the elements of its culture that are considered “cool” by other countries that it appointed cabinet member Her Excellency Tomomi Inada to lead the country’s “Cool Japan” strategy.

Cool Japan, Japan, Japanese government, ramen, Japanese cuisine, anime, manga, video games, fashion, Lolita, kimono, tea ceremony, culture, Japan Society, NYC, Tomomi Inada

Her Excellency Tomomi Inada

On Monday, January 13 Minister Inada was in New York, presenting her initiatives to a sold-out crowd at Japan Society. The “Cool Japan” Strategy: Sharing the Unique Culture of Japan with the World” highlighted Inada’s goals as Japan strives to increase its appeal overseas.

Fred Katayama, award-winning anchor for Reuters Television and a member of the boards of directors of Japan Society and the U.S.-Japan Council, moderated.

“’Cool Japan’ is a phrase used to describe Japanese commodities, contents, and cultural products that are considered ‘cool’ by non-Japanese persons,” explains Inada, who is looking for the widest range of appealing products from Japan.

Maybe, writes Matt Alt in The Japan Times, the range is too wide.

“If you’re a fan of manga or anime or Godzilla flicks, you might reasonably assume that the moniker covers your interests, which it does,” Alt writes. “But the Japanese government is using Cool Japan as a catch-all to fund all sorts of cultural endeavors – not just the ‘usual suspects’ of anime and manga, but also fashion, music, food and even traditional arts and crafts. With such a broad focus, it’s all too easy to imagine Cool Japan policies being spread too thin to affect real change in the anime industry, which arguably jump-started the entire Cool Japan phenomenon in the first place.”

Cool Japan, Japan, Japanese government, ramen, Japanese cuisine, anime, manga, video games, fashion, Lolita, kimono, tea ceremony, culture, Japan Society, NYC, Tomomi Inada

One Piece. Still from wallpapervortex.

Inada thinks there is room for all of these aspects in Cool Japan, saying that the Japanese attention to detail is the essence that ties films, TV programs, cute characters, video games, fashion, goods, and toys together.

These things may be cool, but they haven’t been profitable. From 2006 until 2011 the Japanese contents market has had zero or negative growth.

“If we compare the nation-by-nation statistics from 2012, we see that Japan is 33rd in terms of the number of visitors from abroad, just below the UAE, the Czech Republic, and Switzerland,” says Inada. “I think that considering what Japan has to offer, this is an extremely low ranking.”

The Japanese government launched the Visit Japan Campaign ten years ago with the primary goal of increasing tourism. Why are the numbers still so low after a decade? Inada points to the recession and the global financial crisis, as well as the triple disaster of March 11, 2011, but she also finds blame within Japan itself.

“Until now, there has not been adequate cooperation among the various governmental agencies, and as a result, efforts to share Japan’s culture with the world have not been effective,” Inada says. “To address this, the Abe administration gave me the honor of being appointed as the first minister in charge of the Cool Japan strategy. In this post, my aim is to maximize the effectiveness of the strategy, which has fallen short of its goals.”

Promoting cooperation among government agencies and industrial sectors has been one of Inada’s tasks since being appointed Minister, but before the Japanese can push what is cool about Japan to people from abroad, they must first understand for themselves what Cool Japan is. Right now Inada says her fellow Japanese don’t seem to know what’s cool about their own country, at least from a non-Japanese point of view. Inada gave as an example a French woman who sells beautiful lacquered bento boxes. The Japanese have no idea why the French think this is cool because to them, a bento box is an ordinary, everyday item.

“So basically this is to wake up Japanese people to realize how cool Japanese culture is,” says Inada of her domestic initiatives. “I want everyone in Japan to take a fresh look around and rediscover the things they love.”

Cool Japan, Japan, Japanese government, ramen, Japanese cuisine, anime, manga, video games, fashion, Lolita, kimono, tea ceremony, culture, Japan Society, NYC, Tomomi Inada

Is bento cool?

Inada says Japan met its goal of 10 million visitors last year, “thanks to the policies of the Abe administration,” and ultimately Japan would like to reach “30 million overseas visitors by 2030 and 10.3 billion dollars in agriculture and food products exports by 2020.”

Some audience members were concerned that Minister Inada wasn’t specific enough with how she plans to reach the lofty goals of Cool Japan. Although she didn’t name specific partner companies or offer definitive ways in which Japan will achieve 30 million overseas visitors, she did outline the groundwork for forging ahead.

Infused with $485 billion in government funds and $29 million in private-sector investment, Inada created the Cool Japan Promotion Council, which includes seven members of the private sector, whom she calls the “Seven Samurai.” She also established the Subcommittee on Pop Culture to incorporate the views of young people.

The government participated in two cultural outreach programs last year, the African Fair and Tokyo Crazy Kawaii Paris. At the Tokyo International Conference on African Development, African and Japanese products were exhibited, and Minister Inada and Prime Minister Abe both took part in the opening ceremony, where they engaged in discussions with top governmental officials and business executives from many African nations.

Cool Japan, Japan, Japanese government, ramen, Japanese cuisine, anime, manga, video games, fashion, Lolita, kimono, tea ceremony, culture, Japan Society, NYC, Tomomi Inada

Is ramen cool?

Inada went to France for Tokyo Crazy Kawaii Paris, introducing various elements of Japanese culture, especially subculture. Organized by Japanese corporations, the event featured cuisine, music, video games, contemporary fashion and traditional dress.

Inada hopes that these efforts will unite the entire nation of Japan while enticing people from other countries to purchase Japanese products and vacation in Japan.

“I believe the point of Cool Japan is not forcing our culture on people from other countries, but rather joining together in a solidarity movement to show the world what our nation has to offer,” says Inada.

What do you think is cool about Japan, and how do you feel about the Cool Japan strategy?