Michelin Can Keep Its Stars, This Is Way Cooler: William Pesek

Michelin just added to its roster of three-star eateries in Tokyo. More insights can be gleaned at the other end of Japan’s food scene: the bento.

Rather than go the posh route last week, I met with Makiko Itoh, the popular blogger who boasts more than 360,000 daily readers worldwide. Her new “Just Bento Cookbook” is aimed at aficionados of home-packed meals common in Japan. Its release dovetails with an explosion of interest in Japanese culture and hints at an underappreciated recipe for ending deflation.

Itoh’s book is the latest wave of “Cool Japan,” which economists are realizing could have more commercial punch than once believed. Japan has few growth industries, and manufacturing giants like Toyota Motor Corp. are being squeezed by global competition. Why not do more to create jobs, wealth and tax revenue around Japan’s unique qualities?

“We are realizing more and more that there are big, big opportunities here that will help the economy,” says Akihiko Tamura, a Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry official who works on bolstering ties with Asia-Pacific nations.

The concept of Cool Japan isn’t new. Yet earlier this year, Japan set up a creative-industries office to accelerate things. Data show fast-growing interest in Japanese food, fashion, animation, comics, films and music. There is also growing determination to make Japan’s image about more than Hello Kitty and Pokemon -- and to make lots of money in the process.

Japan’s Model

Okay, this may sound like a reach. Sony Corp. coming out with the next Walkman or automakers rolling out affordable electric cars would seem to make more sense given Japan’s economic model. And efforts to promote Japan overseas haven’t been without their awkward moments.

In April 2009, the government of then-Prime Minister Taro Aso thought the way to do it was sending three mini-skirted teenage girls around the world. One dressed as a Japanese schoolgirl, one in the doll-like “Gothic Lolita style” and one showing off the funky “Harajuku style.” The campaign had creepy written all over it.

“There is so much more Japan can do to market itself overseas, and food may be a perfect way,” says Itoh, 47.

Sushi, after all, has transcended fish-bait jokes and is now served even at U.S. sporting events.

Itoh’s book is also timed for a recessionary world. The big news in Japan last week was Michelin naming four new three-star restaurants, taking the nation’s tally to 26, the same number as France.

Economical Recipes

Itoh’s focus is in the opposite direction: economical recipes. That’s fitting not only for Japan but America, where high unemployment has consumers cutting back. The bento lunch is catching on fast around the globe, as evidenced by a proliferation of newspaper articles and blogs.

And it’s as good an example as any of the business opportunities that are slowly, but surely coming to light. The government hopes to increase Cool-Japan revenue to 57 trillion yen ($678 billion) by 2020 from 49 trillion yen in 2007. That’s more than the annual gross domestic product of Turkey.

It’s a conservative estimate. It doesn’t account for how government policies could encourage a wave of entrepreneurship. Tax tweaks aimed at spurring the creation, marketing and export of cultural industries could go a long way toward fostering the ground-up energy so lacking here.

Market Share

South Korean names like Samsung Electronics Co. and Hyundai Motor Co. are grabbing Japan’s market share. Sky-high labor costs also are undermining its competitiveness in the age of China. Just wait until the Communist Party in Beijing loosens up and moves to support startup companies. That would put more pressure on Japan Inc.

Even after a dozen years of deflation, Japan remains an expensive property in a relatively cheap neighborhood. Low-cost China is now Asia’s dominant trading power, and India won’t be far behind. The only way Japan can compete is innovating and cultivating new industries. Green technologies hold obvious potential. So do cultural exports.

J-culture is hip, and it’s spreading. The trick is to excite a new generation of innovators to get aboard this potential bullet train of profits. The timing is somewhat serendipitous, too, given the difficulty young Japanese are having on the job front. Times are tough, and more and more 20-somethings are eschewing the 9-to-5, gray-suit drudgery of their parents’ generation.

Hip J-Culture

Japan’s best-seller lists show interest in Japan is growing. Take Itoh’s publisher, Kodansha International Ltd. Its recent titles include “The Otaku Encyclopedia: An Insider’s Guide to the Subculture of Cool Japan,” “Japanese Schoolgirl Confidential: How Teenage Girls Made a Nation Cool” and “Arcade Mania: The Turbo-charged World of Japan’s Game Centers.”

All things Japanese also will be in the news come Dec. 11, when a film based on Haruki Murakami’s best-selling 1987 novel “Norwegian Wood” hits theatres.

Cool Japan isn’t the answer to all of Tokyo’s problems. It alone won’t pay down a public debt that’s double the size of the economy, address demographic challenges or get interest rates away from zero. Yet in a nation lacking growth industries or clear recipes for ending deflation, the phenomenon is more than just food for thought. It offers a ray of hope.

(William Pesek is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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