Header Cool Japan

In the past few years, something called Cool Japan is having a rising presence in Japanese popular culture scene. But what actually is this Cool Japan thing? Me and my fellow otaku students and alumni of International Relations from Universitas Indonesia had conducted a discussion to understand more about this topic; covering what is meant by Cool Japan, its origins and developments, as well as the agenda of the Japanese government in it. The participants of this discussion are:

  1. Halimun Muhammad (HM), contributor for KAORI Nusantara as moderator;
  2. Bagus Yudoprakoso (BY), observer of Cool Japan and creative economy as key speaker;
  3. Ganesh Aji Wicaksono (GAW), observer of East Asian politics as participant;
  4. Jochanan Lintang (JL), active student of International Relations at University of Indonesia as participant; and
  5. Tangguh Chairil (TC), lecturer of International Relations at Bina Nusantara as participant.

Here is the summary of the discussion. Hopefully, it could provide some insight to better understand about Cool Japan.

HM: Good morning and welcome to our discussion about Cool Japan. Our key speaker for this occasion is Bagus Yudoprakoso who had studied Cool Japan in Japan’s foreign politics and economy between 2002 to 2013 for his undergraduate thesis. Let us begin by asking some basic questions to Bagus. First off, what is Cool Japan?

BY: All right, good morning. What kind of creature is this Cool Japan? This is a difficult question.

Today, we know it as Japan’s efforts to greatly enhance the promotion of their popular culture globally. Cool Japan was first used publicly in a program of NHK World (international service of Japan’s public broadcaster, Nippon Hōsō Kyōkai), also titled Cool Japan, which introduces unique things from Japan to foreign audience.

In its broad usage, Cool Japan becomes a part of the policy of MOFA (Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs) to promote Japan’s popular culture.

However, in 2011, Japan’s government had stepped further. Cool Japan was put under the auspices of METI (Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry), which means Japan now has economic agenda related to Cool Japan globally. To put it simply, they made structured and intense attempts to monetize or making money out of their popular culture.

HM: So, to be precise, the concept of Cool Japan refers to Japan’s uniqueness and its popular culture, which then, the government attempted to take advantage of through their programs, do I get that right?

BY: Yes, it’s pretty much like that.

Japan’s popular culture has been spread to many countries since the 1960s. Curiously, the Japanese government wasn’t aware of the potential of popular culture before a foreign journalist named Douglas McGray wrote in early 2000s that Japan is a cultural super power. It was from his article the term Cool was adopted. McGray mentioned that Japan at that time is not a rich country in terms of economy, but rich in terms of culture. Not excelling in terms of Gross National Product (GNP), but in Gross National Coolness (GNC). After that, the Japanese government attempted to take advantage of the popularity of Japanese pop culture for their cultural and public diplomacy to form a positive image of Japan globally. Only later the Japanese government also utilizes it for economic benefits.

HM: Okay. So, what’s “cool” about Japan? What are the things that made up Cool Japan?

BY: Okay, on the subject of Cool first. What’s “cool” about Japan?

There is an extensive debate on this. Some would mention ‘anime/manga,’ others would mention ‘J-music,’ or maybe Japanese cuisine, etc. Some even said that Japan is not cool! Broadly speaking, what could be considered cool is of course, relative. Looking at McGray’s article, the keywords are in popular culture; anime, manga, cuisine, fashion. If we look at NHK World’s Cool Japan program, what’s Cool encompass all unique and positive aspects of Japan, including highly advanced toilets, healthy dietary habits, innovative packaging design for cup pudding, etc. Perhaps it’s from here that the Japanese government opted to keep using the word Cool.

Yep, the word Cool is a jargon of the Japanese government. It’s political. It’s used for branding because it ‘rings well.’ One more thing, Cool Japan can also be traced back to Cool Britannia, a similar policy of Great Britain regarding their creative industry. Because this Cool Britannia is the benchmark for Cool Japan.

Next, what are the things that belong to Cool Japan? Anime, manga, music, cuisine, fashion… Are there others? Plenty!

I’ve mentioned before the term ‘creative industry.’ This industry is different from automotive or electronics industry whose products can be conceived concretely by the general public. Creative industry can encompass many things.

Cool Japan adopted the 13 industries in Cool Britannia’s classification of creative industry, and added another 5. There are a total of 18 industries in Japan’s creative industry.

  • Advertising
  • Architecture
  • Arts
  • Crafts
  • Design
  • Fashion designing, textile
  • Movies & video
  • Music
  • Performance arts
  • Publishing
  • Computer software & service
  • Television & radio
  • Tableware
  • Jewelry
  • Stationary
  • Leather products
  • Toys
  • Furniture

HM: Okay. So people’s perception on what’s “cool” is relative. But there are various aspects of Japan, in its popular culture as well as in design innovation and products for daily life that can appeal differently to people with different interests, is that so? Interesting!

All right, from here on I also allow other participants to response with comments or ask questions. Let’s turn our attention to government again. How is the Japanese government’s involvement in taking advantage of Cool Japan? And what purpose that the government aims to achieve?

BY: Actually, I have also touched on this before.
The Japanese government initially wanted to use Cool Japan, particularly its popular culture, for the purpose of cultural/public diplomacy. To create a positive image of Japan as a peaceful and culturally rich nation to the world. But then, they also realize the potential to reap economic benefits.

In 2005, Japan Export and Trade Organization (JETRO) reported that the sum of profit generated by Japan’s creative industry (anime, manga, publishing, film, recording, etc.) reached half of the profit generated by Japan’s automotive industry. After the publication of JETRO’s report, the Japanese government initiated two strategies: Cool Japan as a tool of public diplomacy and as economic engine. This could be glimpsed from former Prime Minister Aso’s ambition for anime and manga industry to become a new productive sector and create more jobs.

Of course, this is different from the period from before McGray’s article was published. While creative industries have existed earlier, it’s mainly operated by private corporations without much participation from the government. If we take a look at the campaigns of Japan Foundation (JF) prior to 2000s or in early 2000s, it is apparent that the Japanese government hasn’t promoted popular culture that much. Cultural promotions mainly had ikebana (flower arrangement), chanoyu (tea ceremony), shodo (calligraphy) courses, and other traditional cultures. Only in 2004 that JF begun to actively promote popular culture.

MOFA itself only begun to actively sponsor some popular culture events such as World Cosplay Summit starting from 2005-2006. Whereas METI followed suit in sponsorship activities in 2008 and actively coordinating cultural promotion and trade of Japan’s cultural commodities beginning from 2010-2011. As of now, the Japanese government is sort of a coordinator as well as active supporter in Japan’s cultural promotion campaigns in various countries. The purposes are image and economy.

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