Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Hot Japan?

The Japanese just love foreign expressions .  Yes, "asshole" and...umm..."godstomper, rad, connoisseur" -- and, of course, "cool", which is just really, really "sexy", not that anyone really knows what any such words mean.

And that is the problem with “Cool Japan” .  Nobody knows what it means, even the godstompers in the ad companies.   

Rad Japan
National slogans? Rad, baby, rad.

You want them to express a clear concept of national identity – not only what you think it is --or (more correctly)  has been – but what you want it to be.   

“Cool Japan” doesn’t do that.    
Japan Joins the 'In' Crowd.  Rad!

General MacArthur referred to the Japanese as a nation of children.  He was right.  If he were alive today he would have to say a nation of childish nerds -- or "otaku" as the Japanese call it.

"Cool Japan" is just that geeky kid hoping against hope to join the "in" crowd, unaware that "in" is just another kind of pre-pubescent nerd-dom.  
Japan and the World

The only thing that distinguishes "in" and "out" is the circle.

No matter-- Japan wanted to emulate “in” countries like the UK.   Not what it is -- what it was.

“Cool Britannia” was a slogan generated by the  Brit Youth Movement in the 70s --all about the creativity, individuality – and most important of all – the rebellion of horny young people.  Sadly, Japanese young people are into conformity not revolution, not into sex either.  

The Model for Cool Japan

This is a country that has just legalized dancing.  No tattoos here.  No body piercing either.  And a joint will get you 5 years in prison. 

Can Canadian PM Trudeau visit Japan?  He smokes dope, too.

Another “in” country is/was the US, where exoticism became “cool” in the late 20th and early 21st Century – with ethnic everything -- trendy  Mexican food, German cars and French fashion, African music, Kung Fu, and …oh yes…sushi, Japan animation and manga and bukkake.  

After all, America is the “melting pot” and their theme song:  “We are the World”.


Not that the Japanese want diversity.

When the Americans decided Japanesey stuff was “cool”, Japan reacted like a nerd who’s just be invited to sit at the Cheer Leaders' table in the cafeteria -- oblivious to the fact he was only invited because his parents have money and they want to use his house for a party.  
Fashion Advice

When Douglas McGray wrote his article Japan’s “Japan's Gross National Cool" in Foreign Policy, it caught on -- and the Gaimusho wet its collective pants.   A nation of children indeed.  Especially the Todai people, who populate the ministries.

Nope. Japan isn't that cool!

Still another “in” country is/was Bhutan whose Idea of Gross National Happiness (1972) was, evidently, the stimulus for McGray’s article.   In Bhutan, marijuana grows everywhere and is mostly fed to pigs.  The Bhutanese didn't realize it was drug until TV arrived in 1978.   Then -- they got really happy!

Nobody in Japan knows where Bhutan is – or what it is.  Or why it's Gross National Happiness was so successful.  But, hey, they (the Bhutanese and their pigs)  are “cool” aren’t they?  Ask Puff the Magic Dragon.

Blonde, blue-eyed kakko-ii 

In Japanese ‘cool” is often translated as “kakko-ii” – basically, something that looks good – not necessarily something that is good or is different or unique – and certainly not something that individuates you.  

You are “kakko-ii” if everybody around you (‘the “mawari”) confirms you look good.  Yes, conformity -- not creativity.

Stand in not out
To the extent that the Japanese fear being “dasai” (crude, vulgar, or from the suburbs) – they often confuse “cool” with snob values – thinking that high price tag or a brand name makes something “cool”.   Taste has to be certified.  And certification is through advertising.  
Paper is cheaper

This obsession, of course, makes the Japanese the object of ridicule worldwide -- at least in places where people realize that good taste cannot be bought and quality is not the same as price: that “premium” is not the same as “cool’-- indeed, often the opposite.

 By foreign standards, the Japanese are irredeemably bourgeois. 
Are the Japanese bourgeois?

One of the main points of the ethnic craze in “noughties” in the US and elsewhere was choice -- being able to choose from many alternatives -- discriminating value from price, inherent value from advertising.      

The point was not going to expensive French restaurants in Manhattan and getting a tiny bit of beef on a huge plate with gold cutlery – it was knowing the best restaurant for a date– sometimes a little hole-in-the-wall Italian restaurant in Soho – where the chef’s name is Luigi and comes from San Remo and you don't know the name of the wine but it's always really, really good.  You can’t buy “Cool” – any more than you can buy ambiance -- it's something you are supposed to know


National identity is very much like personal identity.  In this sense.   US, “cool” really has two sides – one is uniqueness – which individuates and confers status.  The other is cosmopolitanism – in personal terms, what you share with other people, making communication, friendship and social inclusion possible.  

So, “cool” is  both interactive and creative.   It takes advantage of existing conventions and traditions and re-makes them, creating new rules, standards and values – which inevitably confirm old ones.  And by so doing allows you social access.

Creativity is universal

This why Japan is missing a huge "soft power" opportunity by selling “Cool Japan” as “Kakko-ii Japan”, which is necessarily backward looking, imitative, and conformist. For Japan, "soft power" is literally a limp dick.

Japan should be selling itself for what it really is.

This is a country with a unique culture – derived from an exceptional history and traditions, including customs and arts.

There are many ways to get a seat on the subway

It is also a country with a cosmopolitan culture – that offers something for everyone – that partakes of the best that the world has to offer –on its own terms.   The two things go together.  Japan is insular – but to survive it has had to look outwards to the rest of the world.  

Where do  you think much of Japanese culture came from, including its writing system, back in the mists of time?  Yup, China and Korea.  Japan has always borrowed from other countries and adapted what it has borrowed to its own needs.
Ummm...maybe Japan is "alien"

The end result is that when people visit Japan, they realize it is not an “alien” world – the gravity is not different and you can breathe the air –but there are lot of things that are different -- and fun and interesting.  

At the same time, you can all the conveniences and comforts of home.
Actually Howard Schultz doesn't drink coffee

The trouble is that the Cool Japan program is not communicating this.  It is just giving money to various companies to help them promote their products abroad – fostering cultural stereotypes --which the world would do anyway.  The Japanese government evidently hopes that world will visit Japan to experience the Otaku world.   

What Japan needs is international advertising that targets both Japanese uniqueness and cosmopolitanism in an innovative way that catches the imagination of the foreign public.    

Now, that would be cool!

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