Cool Japan appears to be a fascinating subject to be discussed for those interested in Japanese popular culture. Since Douglas McGray’s article “Japan’s Gross National Cool” was published in Foreign Policy in 2002, the jargon ‘Cool Japan’ has been widely circulated in the discussion regarding the spread of Japanese popular culture and has become a trend amongst analysts and policymakers. On the other hand, ‘Cool Japan’ has also become a subject of controversy. Criticism towards Cool Japan has been put forward from many sides, from Japanese artists to academics.

Here, I would like to argue that it is necessary to thoroughly evaluate how the topic of Cool Japan is to be discussed, because there are implications that needs to be examined critically. Here are some critical points to consider for anyone who wish to further discuss the topic of Cool Japan.

Clarifying the Subject of Analysis

cool japanFor starters, what exactly is “Cool Japan”? Generally, we can say that the term can refer to two things. First, as explained in the previous discussion about Cool Japan in KAORI, Cool Japan was originally conceived as a term that describes the appeal of Japanese popular culture to foreign recipients. Second, Cool Japan was then used by the Japanese government, along with participating businesses, as a brand for their efforts to strengthen the promotion of Japan’s popular culture on the global stage, and take advantage of its appeal for political and economic interests.

While there is certainly overlap between the two major points that can be discussed regarding Cool Japan above, each can also be examined more extensively on their own. The first point addresses an aspect that is more abstract, that is, the acceptance of Japanese popular culture by recipients outside of Japan. Meanwhile, the other point concerns more tangible aspects, namely the policy and the funding of the Japanese government and the strategies of the involved Japanese businesses abroad.

Acceptance of Japanese Popular Culture in  Foreign Contexts

When discussing the notion of Cool Japan that relates to the appeal and acceptance of Japanese popular culture in foreign contexts, there are a few things to note. First, it can be asked why does Japanese popular culture can gain acceptance by fans from outside of Japan. Here, it is useful to examine a variety of contexts, including socio-economic backgrounds, that the recipient fans experienced in their home countries. Eiji Ōtsuka (2015) for example, suggests that factors such as class and race should be taken into account in understanding the reception of popular culture such as anime and manga by foreign fans. This suggestion is based on the observation that Ōtsuka while visiting conventions abroad. He noticed that anime fan communities in the United States and Europe have a significant amount of fans from minority groups. He suggested that the consumption of anime could function in the reconstruction of identity for fans from minority groups. Thus, it is important to examine how the reception of Japanese popular culture affected the fans’ sense of identity and their social relations.

Doujin market as a form of reception of Japanese popular culture through fanmade creations.

In addition, we could explore the variety of responses to Japanese popular culture among foreign fans. We could observe that the fans’ responses are not just in the form of passive consumption, but including production of expressions through creative activities such as fan art, fan fiction, dōjinshi, cosplay, modifications of personal belongings such as itasha, photography, and many others. Things that are cherished from the Japanese popular culture could even become a source of inspiration and motivation for local creators to create their own original works. Through activities like these, fans are able to build their own social networks and communities on their own. In this case, Thomas Lamarre (2013) brought the concept of production of consumption from Deleuze and Guattari that may be useful to guide our analysis. There are two sides to production of consumption that needs to be considered: what is produced by consumption (social relationships, knowledge, and objects) and what produces consumption (subjectivity in receiving Japanese popular culture).

Activities in the fans’ social networks help facilitate the spread of Japanese popular culture outside official distribution channels. Fansub, scanlation, torrenting/illegal streaming, dōjinshi, cosplay and so forth, for example, helped to introduce fans to various anime/manga series along with their characters. Lamarre (2004) and Galbraith (2011) both argued that the reception of Japanese popular culture cannot entirely be subjugated to business exploitation or control of market preferences. But they believe that fan reception may have some sort of autonomous existence in shared activities amongst fans. Simply put, there will always be something produced by the fans themselves based on what they are passionate about as a way to express their affection. However, there are potential ethical and legal issues that might emerge, particularly when when official promotion of popular culture through government agenda encourage stakeholders to enhance the enforcement of copyright laws.

Next, we also need to question again whether the use of the term “cool” accurately illustrates the attractiveness and acceptance of Japanese popular culture. Does liking Japanese popular culture make fans feel “cool” or deemed “cool”? Eiji Ōtsuka (in Galbraith, 2014) was skeptical of that assumption. According to him, anime fans “don’t really care” whether other people consider his/her hobby is cool or not; the only important thing is that he/she likes it. Issues concerning this “cool” image also has other implications related to the issue of Cool Japan as government policy, which will be explained later.

Another important thing to look out is the risk that the study on this issue might reproduce a narrative that illustrates Japanese culture and nation as exceptional. Eiji Ōtsuka cautioned that the interest to study the spread of Japanese popular culture can stroke the ego of Japanese policymakers and interest groups. Because of this, the study to understand the acceptance of Japanese popular culture in foreign contexts needs to take into account of the social, cultural, economic, political, and legal contexts in a comprehensive manner, so as not to merely reproduce the narrative that spoils the interests of the elites in Japan.

Next page: Unpacking Government Programs, Return to the Beginning, and Reference Lists.

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