Monday, March 30, 2015

Why Cool Japan is Uncool

Last time we talked about PR as a primal activity, in which human beings try to project an image of themselves for some kind of advantage.  We do it. Chimps do it.

It is inherently strategic.  But there are better or worse strategies. And sometimes less is more. 

In the case of "soft power", however, governments' attempts at public diplomacy are inevitably complex:

a.)    Political —somebody is trying to control somebody!
b.)    Reductionist.  Japan is reduced to girl bands and idealizations of the service industry
c.)    Derivative.  The concept of Cool Japan was borrowed and formulated outside of the country
d.)    Deceptive.  The program does not communicate values—but tries to sell products—primarily J Pop and tourism.
e.)    Costly.  One billion dollars.
f.)    Ineffective.  The program does nothing to enhance Japan’s image abroad or improve its clout.

Cool Britannia

But what about Cool Britannia?  It was a success, right? 

Yes, indeedy. But consider the context

And consider also if the critera for governmentally mandated "soft power diplomacy" apply....


Cool Britannia was not created or organized by the Government, although one can see it as influenced by the actions of government in changing social rules -- which allowed it to develop organically.  

Cool Britannia was very much an expression of actual culture—especially, the 1960s youth counter culture—which was about freedom of expression and opportunity, creativity and individuality -- demonstrably cool things.    

In the UK, the advent of the counter culture appeared along with socialist reforms, which whittled away at the restrictions of the class system.  For the first time, education and opportunity were within reach of the young, no matter what their stations in life—and there was a burst of non-conformist originality which continued -- even with the advent of the Dominatrix Maggie Thatcher, and her foot sucker, John Major.

Margaret and John in their younger days
So “Cool Britannia” was political—but anarchistic, if not libertarian and sexy.


 In addition, Cool Britain was  expansive and inclusive— focusing on “out of box” values most obvious in the young – but not just in the young – linking to a much older tradition of respect for eccentricity.


An expression of  local social evolution -- this more fashionable and creative England was -- arguably -- influenced by global trends -- but it was still distinctively British.  The Beatles did LSD and meditation in India and John had Yoko – but they were still Liverpool Lads. 


Nor was it just deceptive marketing of consumer products—pop music or tourism—rather, Cool Britannia communicated values—creativity, nonconformity, originality, freedom, individuality—expanding the national persona.  It was crazy sometimes -- but that was not necessarily made-for-marketing weirdness.


It was also not expensive to the tax payers.  It mostly paid for itself.

The government did not jump on the band wagon—until the movement (if you can call it that)  was almost over and the UK was becoming…well… un-cool—thanks to Thatcher’s version of fifty shades of grey—which would be expanded by George Bush's Toy Boy Tony.  

Cool Japan

Now compare “Cool Japan”.

Politicized—and corrupt

The Prime Minister shills for pre-teen proto sex bands and the Japanese service industry, with its transparently fake omotenashi concept.  Yeah, he needs the political support of the ad and media companies and the big promoters for the Olympics.  Political?  Big time.   And make no mistake -- the bottom line is the profitability of big players in advertising and the media.

Reductive—and conformist

And “Cool Japan” is narrowly reductionist, as you would expect, in a highly conformist society.  The social values and trends seen in anime, manga, J-Pop, and so on are superficial, and often imitative, if not infantilized.  How many anime and manga characters have big, round blue eyes?

Japanese pop-art is to “culture” has many of the characteristics of good porn—it’s designed for frustrated people with no other outlets for emotional expression.

And Japanese movies?

When was the last time  Japan produced a good feature length film?   “Shall We Dance” maybe?    Australia and Scandinavia with much smaller populations produce  superb movies, one after the other -- not to mention,  interesting TV series that are remade for the American market.

Most Japanese movies are so bad—that foreigners scratch their head and judge them good—since they just can’t understand them—and think there must be some method in the madness.   Beat Takeshi (Kitano) a genius?  Really?

Japan arguably has never had a “youth movement” that really generates popular culture. Rather, popular culture is the creation of advertising and media companies. It’s a top-down system appropriate to a conformist culture that values order above all else.  Creativity is largely in adaptation, not in origination.  This is not to say that the Japanese lack creativity  -- just that independent originality is one of those nails that has to be beaten down flat into the wooden floor of social consciousness.

When you recycle shit, you can grow flowers -- but in Japan shit is not recycled -- popular culture is the same fecal matter again and again. 

Derivative – made in the USA – for fetishists

Cool Japan is also derivative—predictably the invention of foreigners.  

First came Colin Gray’s article which borrowed from Bhutan’s concept of Gross National Happiness to assert Japan’s “Gross National Cool”, keeping in mind that “cool” for the Japanese does not have the association of individuality or originality or  non-conformity that it does in English—but rather regimented conformity to match a trend of trends.    This too was a rip-off of Bhutan's concept of Gross National Happiness.

Then, New York Times coined the phrase “Cool Japan”—pointing out the popularity of Japanesey things in the US—from anime to manga to sushi to martial arts—failing to mention  (of course) that the trendiness of Japan was part and parcel of the overall popularity of foreign or exotic things  from Indian food to African design to Australian movies—to Brazilian jiu jitsu to the Dalai Lama -- and --oh yeah -- the fun of dropping bombs on swarthy people in the Middle East.

The foreign view of Japan has remained unchanged: Japan is exotic—weird.  Japanese culture—wonderful for cultural fetishists.  No, we don’t want to understand—because then there would be no magic. It's inverted racism, of course -- but at least inverted.

Such things encourage the grey-haired guys in Japanese ad companies from convincing their friends in the  political class to throw money at “Cool Japan”.

If the foreign world really does not want to understand the Japanese—that’s hunkey-dorey-daijoubu with Japan, which in fact doesn’t want to understand itself.  Ambiguity is protective -- a social foreskin.   

Here we have “tatemae” (face) on an international scale.  Misdirection.  Misinformation.    At some point, of course, the pendulum will swing and the world will learn to hate the Japanese again.

Costly– the rich get richer

"Cool Japan" is both expensive and ineffective.  Spending a billion dollars is a boon for ad and media companies—but they were rich any way.  All that cash will not improve the returns on Japan’s export of fetish products—nor will it bring in hordes of fetishist visitors.  Korean run sushi bars in LA do not generate revenue for Japanese consumers.

What Cool Japan Does Communicate

Ironically, “Cool Japan” does indirectly communicate a lot about Japan—just not what the Japanese want it to—diminishing the country, presenting a society that is conformist, infantilized, rule-driven, and uncritically unaware.  

The image of “kawaii” (cute) and the ultra-bloody, violent images of anime and manga are immature—if primal.  And perfectly match the refusal to own up to WWII atrocities as well as the popularity of rightwing ideologs such as Abe. 

Here’s the thing.  The harder you try to hide – the more you reveal.    The more you pretend, the more likely you are to be found out.  Sham is a shame game.

“Cool Japan” says little about who the country is – but it says a lot of it what it is not.   

Ultimately, "soft power" can not be communicated  by government programs using the media advertising-- the cultural personality of a country is simply too complex - rooted in history on the one hand --and dynamic and evolving on the other -- and simply put: not one thing.

Pickup Artist Group

Government programs that try to project "soft power" -- are all smoke and mirrors, about as "authentic" as a guy trying a line on a pretty girl in a bar.    

But at least pickup artists know that a pose is just a pose. A line is just bullshit.

"Cool Japan" is the guy on a expensive date unaware that he is just posing -- and his date is too. 

And the only one who will  really benefit from this charade is the restaurant, when the bill is paid.  

Spend your money on something that matters. 


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