Japan's Ministry of Cool

Ahead of hosting the 2020 Summer Olympics, the country is ramping up government-sponsored efforts to promote its culture abroad.

Oleg Sklyanchuk/Flickr

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 online lifestyle retailer Tokyo Otaku Mode and the ramen chain Ippudo. And that’s just the start. There are plans for a Japan-centric TV station and many more projects aimed at promoting the nation’s culture to the rest of the world while generating money and interest in the 2020 Olympic Games, hosted by Tokyo. The effort isn't new: For over a decade, the country has embraced “Cool Japan,” a government-supported movement focused on selling what many have described as its “gross national cool.” This has involved touting cornerstones of pop culture such as cartoons, comics, music, and food overseas, as well as seemingly less hip products such as rugs and salt.

Last year, the Japanese government created the Cool Japan Fund, an organization tasked with helping businesses expand overseas, backed by an initial investment of several billion dollars. The country shifted to this approach several years after its “bubble economy” popped in the 1990s, turning to pop-culture exports in place of the industrial ones that helped Japan boom in the 1980s. There is some irony at work here—an eagerness to promote something as trendy usually signals the opposite—but for years the country's efforts have paid off. Now, though, Japan’s drive for coolness faces pressure from its Asian neighbors and growing concerns regarding who exactly Cool Japan is aimed at—the outside world, or the Japanese themselves.

The country's pop-culture creations have captured foreign attention since the end of World War II. Cartoons such as 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," writes David Marx at the Japan-focused website Neojaponisme. But as the economy declined, people in Japan started spending less, and companies looked abroad for new markets.

The California Sunday Magazine editor in chief Douglas McGray picked up on this, and in 2002 wrote an article for Foreign Policy focusing on the trend. He compared Japan’s “national cool” to the idea of “soft power,” wherein countries influence others in traditional ways. Consider the United States—American films, music, and TV shows are nearly everywhere globally, and they’ve been spreading an image of “American cool” for decades now. McGray’s piece proved influential, and by 2005 the Japanese government was publicly talking about the concept of “Cool Japan.” The slogan even prompted its own TV program, Cool Japan, aired by national broadcaster NHK and featuring foreign visitors being wowed by all aspects of Japan—from J-pop to candy to 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 is a professed lover of all things Japan-related, and the singer Sky Ferreira's song "Omanko" is about Japanese Jesus and Christmas.

But many explicit efforts to highlight domestic superstars—especially when it comes to Japanese music—have puttered out, while performers such as the pop singer 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, slipups and all. China has also been eyeing soft-power expansion, though beyond its Confucius Institutes (international nonprofit programs meant to spread Chinese culture and language abroad), it still has a way to go.

All three Asian nations’ soft-power pushes have been judged by how successful they’ve been in the West, particularly in the U.S. Even though the allure of “breaking America” certainly helps drive programs like Cool Japan, the real target is developing nations, especially those in Southeast Asia. Many have tagged the region as being on the rise, and as a stronger consumer class emerges, Japan wants to instil a positive image of the country: one that hopefully encourages spending on Japanese cultural goods. In The Japan Times, Roland Kelts writes how Cool Japan is also using Southeast Asia “as a launching stage” for various projects. Again, however, Korea has beaten Japan to the punch, as K-pop and Korean food have become trendy in the region.

One country where Cool Japan appears to be doing well, though, is Japan itself. The newspaper Mainichi Shimbun published an article near the end of February focused on a boom in “Japanese glorification.” The piece argued that, since the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, the country has embraced more and more media products that trumpet how great Japan is. It's a form of national coping that has only been egged on by the state of affairs in the continent, as Japan's status in the region shrinks compared to China's.

Television shows such as Rediscover Japan and Sugoi Desu Ne! Shisatsudan revolve around foreign visitors being interviewed about how cool Japan is—all dubbed in Japanese. NHK’s jingoistic Cool Japan program—one that isn’t easy to find outside of the country—similarly seems more focused on making even the most 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.