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Cool response to Cool Japan drive

ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

Publication Date : 14-01-2013

 

The Japan and South Korea rivalry is recasting their national identities and cultures

 

Anyone who has spent some time in Asia in the past 10 years cannot help but notice the spectacular rise of the Korean Wave or Hallyu, as K-pop and drama swept the region.

Even Japan was invaded by Korean pop musicians and dramas, beginning with the hugely popular Winter Sonata. Till today, Korean male singers and actors continue to set the hearts of Japanese women aflutter.

A July 2011 survey conducted by ad agency Hakuhodo in 10 Asian cities from Taipei to Mumbai was telling. Japan was tops in anime and manga. But it tied with South Korea in pop music, and was completely outdone by the Koreans in dramas and movies.

Now Japan wants to fight back, but can it?

The Korean Wave started off with the popularity of Korean TV dramas across East and Southeast Asia in the late 1990s, followed later by Korean movies, K-pop, food and the Korean language. In 1999, then President Kim Dae Jung came in with government backing - in the form of US$148.5 million in funding for his country's cultural industry. Along the way, the Korean Wave has helped boost tourism to South Korea and sell more Korean cars and TV sets.

Japan is now on the verge of launching a similar branding exercise, betting that Cool Japan will displace Hallyu in Asia and allow Japan to capture up to 11 trillion yen (US$123 billion) of an estimated 900 trillion yen global cultural market in 2020.

Despite the fact that much of the world is now already flooded with the likes of Hello Kitty and countless Japanese anime and video games, the Japanese government wants to go one step further by broadcasting anime, dramas and other content in some 10 Asian cities by 2015.

They will be seen on a dedicated "Japan Channel", beginning with Singapore, whose excellent infrastructure made it the top choice with which to kick off the enterprise. The Cool Japan moniker was said to have been coined by an American journalist in 2002 to describe Japan's growing soft power in popular culture, at a time when Japanese anime was all the rage in Europe, and Japanese fashion and cuisine were winning fans around the world.

Often seen as a take-off from former British prime minister Tony Blair's Cool Britannia in the 1990s, a call quickly derided by the British, Cool Japan no doubt left many Japanese cold, too.

It was a vague concept to begin with. If Cool Japan was used to describe the quirky anime favoured by Japanese nerds that blossomed in Tokyo's Akihabara electronic district, did that mean traditional icons like Mount Fuji, Kyoto and hot springs, which never fail to entrance visitors to Japan, are not cool anymore?

On the other hand, a television programme asking foreign residents what they found most cool about Japan found that "high-tech bidet-style toilets" topped the chart - certainly not quite what the proponents of Cool Japan had in mind.

If the Japanese cannot quite decide what Cool Japan is, neither can they decide how to go about selling their country to the world.

The Japanese cannot be blamed as Japanese pop culture was well received around the world before the advent of the Korean Wave and hardly needed any promoting by the government.

But three years ago, a sense of crisis finally emerged.

In a 2010 editorial, the largest-circulating Yomiuri Shimbun daily lambasted the government for being happy to be seen as "cool" overseas and, by not doing enough, had allowed South Korea to become a strong competitor.

The government swung into action, but the bureaucracy that leads the Cool Japan initiative is divided by traditional turf wars. No obvious efforts have been made to coordinate action.

In 2011, the Trade Ministry set up a task force to promote Cool Japan but was obliged to limit its efforts to selling the country's "creative" sector.

Cultural exchange is the preserve of the Foreign Ministry and anything to do with food comes under the Agriculture Ministry.

The broadcasting project is spearheaded by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, which controls the country's broadcasting sector. But programming content falls under the jurisdiction of the Trade Ministry while copyright issues come under the Cultural Agency, itself a part of the Education Ministry.

So far, financial aid from the government appears to be limited to subsidies for the cost of dubbing and subtitling programmes.

Said broadcasting executive Ken Sato: "Content that is already well known sells itself and does not need government handouts. Content that needs subsidies probably will not take off anyway."

Some are wondering if it would be better for Japan to leave the Cool Japan initiative to the private sector instead.

Said management consultant Shotaro Kobayashi: "The private sector should be the main player. If not, Cool Japan will simply be a one-off project aimed at using up a pre-allocated budget, something the bureaucracy is good at doing."

Cool Japan suffered a major setback in January last year when pop artist Takashi Murakami, arguably one of Japan's most visible global citizens, distanced himself from the initiative, calling it an advertising gimmick designed to squeeze money from the government.

In fact, Japan was not spending nearly enough.

Its 2011 budget for promoting the cultural sector was less than half that of South Korea's and mostly spent on tourism and food. Meanwhile, South Korea was pouring eight times as much money as Japan into promoting creative content.

But before Japan seeks to spend as much money or more, first, it must learn to get its act together.

 

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