Monday, August 14, 2017

Tokyo on Fire? Or Just Smouldering

Tim Langley has   the only  regular  English language programs on Japanese politics broadcast from Japan -- Tokyo on Fire and Brand2020.

I don't always agree with some of the opinions expressed -- and I am sure you won't either -- but difference of opinion is the point of such programs - which makes them the place to go to for substantive discussion of things Japanese --and, at least, a look at how Japanese-based foreign residents see Japan.

As I suggested in my blog post on Koike Yuriko, Tim Langley has -- among other things -- a unique ability to ask all the right questions.

Of course, he doesn't have all  the answers.  Or at least if he thinks he does - he's not going to tell you.  He would rather you thought about  it and came to your own conclusions.

Most recently, Langley had Ichita Yamamoto of the ruling LDP on board to talk about "Cool Japan".

Right at the beginning of the interview, it went sideways with both Langley and Yamamoto seeming to talk about "Cool Japan" as "nation branding."  For Langley-- if it were national branding -- Cool Japan should be Amazing Japan,   meaning that the program should be advertising the many ways that Japan is interesting and unique.  Yamamoto seemed to agree -- even if he seemed oddly focused on common American (note: American only) stereotypes of the Japanese as "youthful" and having a national healthcare system 

(Please Mr. Yamamoto: many countries have NHS systems better than Japan's!  The US is the only OECD country without universal natioanal healthcare.)

 However ...

Cool Japan is most definitely not....
  •  "soft power"    
  • "nation branding"
  •  "public diplomacy"

Nation Branding?
As a professional in the branding and marketing business -- with no financial attachments of any kind to Cool Japan, I can tell you what it really is:
  • Government funded "J-marketing" of "Japanesey" niche products  
  • Corporate welfare for companies suffering from competition from the Koreans and Chinese
  • PR for the Tokyo Olympics
What is "J-marketing"?  It is selling things using the exotic ethos of Japanese culture.

 So "Cool Japan" focuses on  Japanese things that had become very trendy in the US, reaching a peak 15 years ago  -- notably, manga, Japanese animation, Hello Kitty, young Japanese girls ( or the fetishism associated with J Pop)  and so on.   It uses some Japanese words like "omotenashi" -- not in the traditional sense but in the modern sense as "welcome" or "hospitality",  stripping it of its cultural meaning, which goes back centuries.  
The Omotenashi Bra

The odd thing here is that manga and animation makers (with some notable exceptions) have been "internationalizing" their products for years, cutting away cultural content that might interfere with saleability.

So, no,  the manga you read abroad (translated, of course) is not the manga Japanese read!    "Lost in translation", indeed!

Ghost in the Shell: Original and Remake
With the Korean and the Japanese entertainment industries booming -- particularly in film --  Japan faces a lot of competition.   
This situation is similar to what the UK faced in the late 1990s when Tony Blair came to power.  At that time, popular culture had reached a peak in Britain.   "Cool Britannia" was the unofficial slogan of the youth counterculture -- but those young people who gave it meaning in its  glory days in the 1970s -- were now twenty years older and had kids and mortgages.  

Tony's "Cool" Britannia  was a a failure as the Iraq War soon showed. 

"Cool" Japan suffers from the same problem.  It is  government program intended to shore up a cultural phenomenon that began to die the moment every supermarket in the US -- and the convenience stores -- offered California Rolls and Koreans and Chinese started opening sushi shops.  Sorry, it aint 2005 any longer

"Cool" is all about "trendy" -- and trendy means temporary. A problem with Japan is that it usually five to ten years behind the trends elsewhere.

If only most of the money allocated for Cool Japan events went to stimulating innovation among young people and providing them with creative opportunities!  

Ironies abound. 

Blair's "Cool Britannia" reveled in the counterculture once that phenomenon was dying.   Perhaps that is the nature of such programs - they are run by old, rich men, without an ounce of art themselves.

Japan?  Did Japan ever have a counter culture?   Benjamin Boaz writes that the problem is a lack of input from the foreign world. While it simply commonsense that you cannot market when you don't know what the market wants, content markets like entertainment are drive by creativity.

So the real issue is a lack of input from creative people in Japan itself.  No, not Beat Takeshi or Takashi Miike,   who milk Japanese classic films adding violence porn.  But the real creative people.

So, to return to Langley and Yamamoto, both of them seem to recognize that "Cool" Japan is not -- and cannot be "nation branding".  

I wish they had come out and said that straight, although I recognize that it might be hard for them to do so.  I can do this -- but only because I am anonymous (the "Oracle").

Yamamoto, in particular, has to look more carefully at where the money goes.  He's a smart man, obviously educated and flexible, with real ideas.  He needs to stop focusing on what he thinks Americans think about Japan -- and think more about Japan's "amazing" culture and history -- and the spirit of innovation that has driven the country for 2000 years.

Yes, Innovation.    That's why Japan is different.

 If Cool Japan is set up to support the Japanese entertainment industry - that is what it should do -- grow it!  That means  stimulating  that spirit of innovation by opening up opportunities for young artists and filmmakers and story tellers.  

Japan needs a popular counter culture, rather than a hidden one. 

James Cameron.  Professor.  Beijing Film School

Next time:  successful examples of Japanese branding

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