Raising Japan's Cool Quotient

Japan, long admired for its manufacturing excellence, is boosting its cultural influence globally by exporting its particular brand of hip

For the last couple of decades, Japan has been far better known as a super-efficient manufacturer of autos, machine tools, wide-screen TVs, and super-computers than as a bastion of hip. Yet this decade, both former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and the current one, Shinzo Abe, have identified the competitiveness of the country's cultural exports as a huge priority.

Indeed Abe, in his first policy speech to the Japanese Diet last fall, called for a "Japanese cultural industry strategy" to promote everything from film to cuisine. It is a sort of massive global re-branding campaign to market the country as the epitome of cool and draw attention to its cultural influence.

While some may scoff that such efforts are so much hype—remember the "Cool Britannica" craze when British Prime Tony Blair came to power a decade ago? There is something to the argument that the country's "soft power" has been on the rise in recent years. Japan is no longer feared as a mercantilist economic predator as it was back in the 1980s. Today, Western nations are far more anxious about China and India's explosive economic ascendancy.

National Priority

But Japanese cuisine such as sushi and sashimi is ubiquitous in any major global city. Japanese anime characters such as Pokémon—short for Pocket Monsters—and Super Mario Brothers have spawned huge international video game franchises. Game players such as Nintendo's Wii and Sony's (SNE) PlayStation3 have become standard accoutrements for the global youth culture.

Japan's anime industry is no flash in the pan either, but generates about $20 billion in worldwide revenues for Japan—if you take into account related film, video game, and merchandising agreements, according to the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO). Export promotion of Japanese films, music, anime, and manga has become a big national priority, says Takashi Oku, deputy director of Export Promotion Division at JETRO in Tokyo, "We're hoping these…businesses would become Japan's key industry in the future."

Some of Japan's cultural exports seem to hold definite appeal abroad. J-Pop stars such as Chage and Aska, and pop diva Ayumi Hamasaki, have sizable followings across Asia.

Big on the Big Screen

Japanese anime film director Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away won an Academy Award in 2003 for Best Animated Feature, and actress Rinko Kikuchi won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her role as a troubled deaf girl in Babel, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu.

And though Warner Brothers bankrolled Letters From Iwo Jima, directed by Clint Eastwood, it is a Japanese-language film with a mostly Asian cast and stars Kensaku (Ken) Watanabe, who received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his role opposite Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai a few years back. Letters received four Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director this year.

It's also telling that some of the world's biggest retailers are observing Japan's fashion-crazy youth culture for hints about the next big trends. Abercrombie & Fitch (ANF) and Sweden's H&M (HM), are expanding into Japan in part for that very purpose. And New York-based bag maker LeSportsac gets about a fifth of the company's $300 million in global revenues from Japan, allowing it to get a jump on trends (see, 5/7/07, "Testing What's Hot in the Cradle of Cool").

Whether Japan can brand itself as the ultimate arbiter of the cool and fashionable is still a question, but there is serious money to be made for Japanese artistic talent and other content providers if the country can successfully export more of its culture abroad. Japan's flagship global manufacturers will remain the crucial link to the global economy, yet if the country can also develop a smaller—but meaningful—market for Japanese chic, it's going to be worth the effort.

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