May 2015 | www.selectasset.com
Whats so cool about Japan, anyway?

In Japanese media and cultural circles, one phrase that has been popping up with growing frequency over the past decade is “Cool Japan.” Starting out as a buzzword, it has grown into a tangible marketing campaign with some rather intangible dimensions and objectives. So what really is Cool Japan?

Generally, it is a catchall term for the promotion of Japanese popular culture abroad, but (a little) more specifically, it is a branding policy adopted by the Japanese government for its dual policy of 1) using “soft power, promote positive international impressions of Japan and 2) helping Japanese artists and entertainment companies grow and thrive in foreign markets.

Of these two aims, the latter has the clearest and most explicitly commercial focus, and this is backed up by government funding, channelled through the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI).

Birth of the Cool (Japan)

The term “Cool Japan” originated from 2002 article titled “Japan’s Gross National Cool” by Douglas McGray, published in the magazine Foreign Policy. The term, derived from the late-90s slogan “Cool Britannia,” took hold in the years that followed, culminating in 2010 with the establishment of the METI-associated Creative Industries Promotion Office, designed to facilitate coordination between public and private spheres in their promotion of Cool Japan-related artefacts and projects.

The policy took another step forward in 2013 with the establishment of the Cool Japan Fund. This public-private body distributes funds based on a combination of government policy aims and criteria modelled on venture capital. These are defined as:

  • Alignment with policy of bringing Japanese business to overseas markets
  • Appropriate managerial structure and potential for return on investment
  • Wider influence through collaboration, pioneering markets or creating a shared business base

In its January 2012 Cool Japan Strategy Document, METI defined “creative industries” as covering: advertising, architecture, art and antiques, crafts, design, fashion, movies and videos, video games, music, performing arts, publishing, computer software and services, radio and television, furniture, tableware, jewelry, stationery, food products and tourism. In the same document, METI estimated the value of creative industries as comparable to the automobile and consumer electronics industries. However, because creative industries are more demand-side focused, have unusual integrated structures and employ different strategies for distribution and growing market share, the document concludes that approaches to promoting Cool Japan products should be different from those for “heavy industries.”

Attracting cool customers

Based on the principles described in METI’s strategy documents, Cool Japan promotional activities initially focused on fashion, animation, food and regional specialist goods and crafts. These were areas where Japan already had a strong international brand image and the idea was to build from that strategic core.

In fashion, this strategy is behind the government encouraging participation in international events such as “Tokyo Fashion Week” and promoting the street fashion culture found in Tokyo’s trend-setting Harajuku district. Food and beverage promotions have included everything from high-end restaurants and sake to sales of rice cookers in the United States.

Pop culture has presented a greater challenge for Cool Japan marketers. “Anime” (Japanese animated films and videos) and its associated “cosplay” or dress-up fans attracts a sizeable international following, but remains more of niche market. Thus, there is limited crossover potential for anime to open doors for other major market media, such as pop music and commercial movies.

How about some Seoul Music?

In contrast to Cool Japan, the country’s regional rival Korea has successfully sold its pop culture abroad under the “Hallyu” or “Korean Wave” brand – particularly in Asia. Korean entertainment companies, such as SM Entertainment and YG Entertainment, have strong brands that allow for he production of large-scale package events in, for example, Kuala Lumpur, featuring several of their artists, which they then sell to Malaysian TV networks. In comparison, a typical Japanese talent agency such as Amuse, may market several high profile acts—electro-pop group Perfume, rock band One OK Rock, and heavy metal-themed idol group Babymetal—which are musically diverse with no clear, overall brand image.

One criticism of the Cool Japan approach is that it has been too short sighted. Many attempts have involved simply sending pop singers or groups to perform at special events or culture expos with little opportunity for interaction with the fans they are trying to reach.

Artist Takashi Murakami, one of a small number of international superstars to emerge from the Japanese art world, was particularly critical of Cool Japan, saying, as quoted by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, “It was intentionally created to satisfy the pride of the Japanese and is nothing more than ad copy to allow public funds to go to advertising companies.”

According to Murakami, a better use of the funding would be to redevelop some pop culture marketing infrastructure, for example, to create a more nurturing working environment for young animators. Meanwhile, many in the music industry suggest that the government should focus more on supporting artists who have already found success working overseas, because they are better equipped to survive in those markets.

It’s not a fool who plays it cool

Launch of the dedicated “Cool Japan Fund” in 2013, with financial backing of $500 million behind it, may have helped ease some of these problems by making money more widely available to those with the means and knowledge to use it.

While the Amuse talent agency may have been unable to compete with their Korean rivals on the same big-scale terms, they have made up ground by taking a more nuanced approach to overseas markets, exploiting individual niches and tailoring promotions to specific events. For example, the group Babymetal has successfully performed at rock and metal festivals in Europe, while One OK Rock toured Australia fronting for the American rock band Smashing Pumpkins. And Perfume made a much-touted performance in the 2015 edition of South by Southwest or “SXSW,” the mega music, film, interactive technology festival in Austin, Texas.

Perhaps the approaching 2020 Olympics has encouraged the government to shift emphasis of the Cool Japan project more towards the “soft power” aspect of its goal and away from the venture capital aspect. In any case, if Japan’s creative industries are encouraged to take risks overseas, the dividends are likely to include both financial return and good will.