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.