Selling Japan: How Much Is a Nation’s Culture Worth?

Via the billion-dollar Cool Japan Fund Inc, Japan is aiming to become one of the world's dominant culture forces. But can a national culture be commodified so easily?

Via the billion-dollar Cool Japan Fund Inc, Japan is aiming to become one of the world’s dominant culture forces. But can a national culture be commodified so easily?

In the sprawling, self-contained world of Japanese anime, Shinichiro Wantanabe is not a name to be ignored. Otaku in both hemispheres know the Kyoto-born writer-director as the man who realised Cowboy Bebop — an anime which came as close to perfection as any work of art can hope for — along with a slew of other projects which have, almost universally, brought him critical and popular acclaim. Consequently, the anticipation surrounding his latest project, the sci-fi comedy Space Dandy, was only to be expected. (In case you were wondering, the title is self-explanatory. It’s about a dandy. In space.)

What was unusual was the manner in which the new series was broadcast. Traditionally, anime fans in the West have to endure a waiting period, ranging from months to years, before new series are dubbed, subtitled and released for non-Japanese audiences (the result of which has been an online cottage industry of pirate ‘fan-subs’, translated by determined bilingual otaku who lack patience, often with mixed results). Space Dandy, by contrast, premiered in the US before Japan, airing on 4 January on Adult Swim’s Toonami block, complete with an English dub recorded simultaneously with its Japanese counterpart. On 5 January, the show began airing in Japan on Tokyo MX, with foreign broadcasts quickly following suit.

In a interview with the Anime News Network in September 2013, Wantanabe reminisced about that ancient, mysterious age known as The Nineties, when many barriers between different cultural markets were still firmly in place: “Back when Cowboy Bebop was in production, we never knew that Japanese anime would have any impact overseas, so we totally didn’t see Westerners being exposed to the show. We just made what we enjoyed making, and the fact that it got accepted in the West at all was the most surprising thing.”

Things are certainly different now. Appreciation of anime in the West has exploded since the Millennium, and the near-simultaneous broadcast of Space Dandy demonstrates the extent to which the once-insular Japanese anime industry has become conscious of overseas markets. Such revitalised awareness is not limited to anime, either. The move reflects a wider philosophical and commercial shift in how Japanese culture is to be presented globally – a shift which raises questions that have, in recent years, become disturbingly relevant to us all.

How exactly do you sell a national culture? What becomes of those parts of the culture that cannot be sold? And what happens to that culture, as a result of selling it?

“Japanese people today think of money, just money: Where is our national spirit today?”

— Yukio Mishima, final address at Ichigaya Camp, 1970

Imagine being hired by your government, presented with the rough equivalent of one billion American dollars, along with the symbolic entirety of your nation’s culture, and told to do whatever it takes to push the stock up. What would you do?

Glibly put, this is essentially the case of Nobuyuki Ota, a former fashion executive and ex-CEO of Issei Miyake Inc., when he was appointed chief executive of the rather inelegantly named Cool Japan Fund Inc., launched in November 2013. The Fund itself personifies and incorporates ‘Cool Japan’, a cultural strategy which has been developing for the past decade, the stated goal of which is to make Japan one of the dominant cultural forces on the planet. To which, anyone with a passing interest in international pop culture over the past 15 years might reasonably ask: haven’t they done that already?

Japanese culture is being either bribed or press-ganged into service for the sake of the national economy.

Though it may be hard to believe, the 21st century’s international fascination with Japanese culture was largely unintentional, occurring organically and unexpectedly. Compared to neighbours such as South Korea, which has long had a policy of heavily promoting its cultural exports, Japan has traditionally focused on its own sizable domestic markets. Paradoxically, this is what lends so many of its creative industries the distinctly Japanese character which has become so internationally saleable.

In the midst of a global recession however, a change in strategy was almost inevitable. Old markets are no longer as reliable as they once were. Thus, the Cool Japan Fund Inc., a collaborative initiative between the Japanese government and private sector, was inaugurated with an initial budget of ¥37.5 billion ($371 million) — set to rise to 90 billion yet by March 2015 — to promote the most commercially viable aspects of Japanese culture to a wider world. So far, fashion, cuisine, TV and cinema have been the most prominent, but more is promised to follow.

Now, under most circumstances, a good rule of thumb is to avoid taking one’s lead from Tony Blair. The former British prime minister/war criminal’s wheeze of ‘Cool Britannia’, dreamt up in the pre-Millennial early days of his premiership, was widely mocked from its first articulation, largely due to its unashamed shallowness, but also because of its lack of realism. In the late ’90s, as far as ‘cool’ nations went, the United Kingdom was on roughly equal footing with Turkmenistan. Predictably, ‘Cool Britannia’ was quickly abandoned, like all failed marketing slogans. Nevertheless, Japan, with more cultural clout than Britain has enjoyed in a hundred years, is approaching the situation in a considerably different manner.

The Fund’s name, perhaps deliberately, echoes that of ‘Japan Inc’, the popular nickname for Japan’s ’80s-era status quo, which saw the government not merely facilitating the ease by which Japan’s corporations did business, but actively joining them in public-private ventures, crafting the image of an economic monolith and fueling Japan’s seemingly indomitable rise in international business, finance and technology. This rise was eventually struck down by the slow deterioration of Japan’s asset price bubble, and the following national recession swallowed most of the ’90s, a period many Japanese still refer to as the ‘Lost Decade’. Bearing that in mind, it seems only natural that Japan, as the rest of the world still fumbles with crude austerity measures, should try something new and unorthodox.

Since 2002, it has been the policy of the Japanese government to make Japan “a nation built on intellectual property”. Them’s fightin’ words, make no mistake, especially in an age where no one truly rules the Internet’s waves with anything approaching authority, and attacks upon the value and validity of intellectual property are constant. Still, the sheer size and scope of Cool Japan Fund Inc. should demonstrate the Japanese government’s seriousness of intent.

What non-Japanese observers should also bear in mind is something that many in the Japanese creative industries have been acutely aware of for years: no matter how significant or subtle we may consider the impact of Japan upon Western pop culture, it is still often seen in a reductive, generalised, simplified light; as being cultish, niche and ‘other’. But as far as its government is concerned, Japan has bigger ambitions than simply being a global minority interest.

It is a battle with many fronts. In late December 2013, funding of ¥15.5 billion announced for a new ‘Japan Channel’, showcasing Japanese anime, music and drama programming for an exclusively international audience. With an initial launch in Thailand, Indonesia and Cambodia this year, plans are under consideration to expand the channel to the United States, Europe and Africa.

Meanwhile, last October, the Japan Fashion Industry Council was formed, in close partnership with the Japanese fashion industry, to boost national brands and designs on the international market, perhaps even to the level of their ’70s-era heyday, when designers Issey Miyake, Comme des Garcons’ Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto put Japanese fashion on the map.

And in December, “Washoku” — traditional Japanese cuisine — after a long, hard-fought campaign by the Japanese government, was added to UNESCO’s ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’ list, preserving an ancient, national style of food and drink, as well as raising the prospect of increased exports and tourism. As a 19 November 2013 article on BrandChannel.com rather ominously put it, “Cool Japan Fund Wants You to Eat, Wear and Watch All Things Japanese.”

Since the economic collapse of 2008, those countries ravaged by recession have seen sweeping, debilitating cuts in funding for the arts and other cultural arenas. It would be easy to define the Cool Japan initiative as an attractive alternative: spending money to make money, all while pushing aspects of culture which have an inherent value beyond money. Unfortunately, it would be wrong to perceive the Fund as cash simply flowing in the other direction, in defiance of austerity, philistinism and fear. The creative classes of Japan are not playing ‘Let the Good Times Roll’ quite yet.

“Keep clear of economic justifications for the arts. If you do that, you hand a weapon to the other side… You invite them to measure everything in terms of economic gain. My advice would be to ignore economic arguments altogether.”

— Philip Pullman, Oxford Literary Festival, 2013.

Concerns were first voiced, obviously enough, within Japan itself. Given the amount of private companies involved in the Cool Japan initiative, many were uncertain, if not downright hostile, about the level of public investment being put on the table in order to maximise corporate profits. Nobuyuki Ota’s justifications were pragmatic, if questionable: “A state-backed fund can do what private investors cannot. Private investors sell their assets once their investment targets become profitable. We can be a long-term investor because it takes time for those small companies to grow.”

This is the classic, even original contradiction of state funding for arts and culture. The traditional view is that such funding go to those areas which are worthwhile in their pursuits (how to decide that worth is another, more complicated matter), but for whatever reason, are incapable of raising the funds to sustain themselves. For those signing the cheques however, the temptation — indeed, the necessity — may be to direct funding where it will yield a return, one way or another. An investment in culture soon becomes just another investment, and artforms both ancient and modern face the question: “What have you done for us lately?”

It’s hard not to imagine what those working in the manga and anime industries think about this: for two decades at least, they have been providing some of the most visible cultural exports Japan has to offer, often with little financial recompense. Now, they are being instructed to make more money, for the good of the country. Matt Alt neatly summed it up in an editorial for the Japan Times:

Assisting Japanese content producers in making better deals for themselves abroad is a laudable thing — but there is no question that the creators and architects of many Cool Japan industries are struggling. This is particularly true of the anime industry. Anime shows and films are funded by “production committees,” consortiums of sponsors, advertisers, television stations and the animation companies themselves. An enormous number of fingers in the pie deprives studios of ownership of their creations, and thus the vast majority of the profits. If Japanese anime truly represents the cornerstone of Japanese industry, shouldn’t artists and employees make a living wage?” (‘Will Cool Japan finally heat up in 2014?’, 9 January 2014)

The worry Alt articulates is that too much of Cool Japan Fund Inc’s resources are focused on promoting cultural products already in place, instead of enabling the next generation of Japanese creativity. In a way, this is unsurprising: investors like to invest in known brands with guaranteed returns. Also, as the past two decades have repeatedly demonstrated, no one has ever been able to reliably predict the next evolution, or commercial success, that Japanese culture will produce.

Cultural development, particularly in the arts, is almost always chaotic, no matter what country you’re in. But the curious surprises and paradoxes of Japan make it an extreme example. Consider one of the most successful, discussed and most divisive anime of all time, Neon Genesis Evangelion: an allegorical exploration of Freudian psychology and post-modern existentialism, created by Hideaki Anno, a man who had no intention of keeping his worsening depression out of his work. To this day, the franchise persists as one of anime’s biggest money-spinners. I’m not sure what kind of odds your average bookie would give you on something like that.

For further proof, take Japanese literature — a field so far largely untouched by ‘Cool Japan’ — and its most visible exports: Yukio Mishima and Haruki Murakami, the two Japanese novelists who have arguably made the most impact in the West over the past 50 years (if only because most of us are woefully ignorant of contemporary developments in literary Japan). Mishima was a always walking contradiction; a great writer and a questionable human being who embraced the cause and aesthetic of imperial Japan at a time when the rest of the country was trying hard to forget it. It was doomed passion that eventually saw him end his life by hara-kiri, following an abortive, quixotic coup d’etat.

Murakami, by contrast, is not only pretty benign towards modern society, but also a writer drenched in Western influences — jazz, noir, American cinema — making the unplacable syncretic tone of his novels intriguing to audiences of all nationalities. You could not find two more different artists if you tried. And yet Japanese culture, bigger than any outsider can comprehend, can somehow contain them both. Fitting all that into a marketing campaign might prove trickier.

Discussing the culture of an entire nation, stretching back thousands of years, almost inevitably descends into generalisation, dealing with subjects that are clearly too large and complex to easily be summarised. Insofar as that is possible however, it would be fair to say that much of Japanese culture has been the nation’s long, difficult conversation with itself. In this, Japan is not unique. It is not insular or isolationist: it is how nations decide how they wish define themselves.

The impossibility of condensing such a conversation into a sales pitch should be self-evident. One should never read too much into marketing — lest marketing, like the Nietschzean abyss, starts to read into you — but the word ‘cool’, and the concept that follows it, should give us some pause. It is a concept that rules us, even as we seek to escape it. And, at some point, we will all try to escape it, because it is always flawed, always constraining, and always incomplete. Japan is not ‘cool’. It is so much more.

As the push for Washoku’s ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’ status shows, the Japanese government’s aim, ostensibly, is to preserve as well as promote. Whether that is possible is another matter.

Art, culture, entertainment, national identity and international finance: none of these things are the same, yet they are all connected. ‘Cool Japan’ aims to entwine them even further; the result may be the commodification of Japanese culture to an extent never before previously imagined. As certain bearded Germans have pointed out, strange things happen when something becomes a commodity. The act of selling something can changes the thing being sold.

“Nature has been defeated in the name of development.”

— Yasunari Kawabata

A lot of these arguments may sound academic, but the Japanese government’s are not. Many commentators have suggested there may be more to ‘Cool Japan’ than economic strategy. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has not made himself popular in the past year; to the consternation of Japan’s neighbours like China and South Korea, his efforts to avoid associations with his country’s imperial past have been mild, to say the least. Some suspect that the monetary might of ‘Cool Japan’ is being used to improve the national image that the government has tarnished.

Politicians have long understood, or at least appreciated, the power of art to transcend their own squalid exploits. If you need any proof, see how much of Britain would prefer their fading, broken, post-imperial identity to be defined by Doctor Who and James Bond, rather than a decaying Ruritarian monarchy and the corrupt political class that props it up. So what does this prove? That a nation’s cultural endeavours may be more palatable to the rest of the world than its political ones? So it is with almost every country. No one’s going to stop the presses for that one.

But whatever the government’s reasons, Japanese culture is now being either bribed or press-ganged into service for the sake of the national economy. Bureaucrats and businessmen have in their control what should rightfully belong to artists and artisans. Japan, like every culture, has a way of containing infinity, unending in its potential, and always with the power to fascinate those who come at it from the outside. But if we are to be entranced by Japanese culture, we should care about it, and the people who keep it alive. Instead, we are being encouraged to treat it like a commodity, disposable and ephemeral.

Japan’s government owes its nation better than that. And so do we.

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Photo: Shinichiro Wantanabe’s Space Dandy.