The Mystery Of What Foreigners Like About Japan

Cars. Television. Game consoles. For years, these were what Japan was known for abroad. But that's not all.

Eight years ago, American journalist Douglas McGray coined the phrase "Cool Japan" to refer to Japan's soft power prowess. Culture is now a huge export for Japan — whether that be anime, manga or, yes, video games. Some pundits, like Roland Kelts, say Cool Japan is finished. The Japanese government, however, doesn't.

This past summer, Japan established a Creative Industries Promotion Office in hopes of promoting its soft power abroad. Other countries in Asia are already doing so — both South Korean and China work hard to promote their films internationally.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the goal is to increase "Cool Japan" revenues to the equivalent of US$616 billion in 2020. This isn't only about selling comic books abroad as things like make-up and fashion also fall under the Cool Japan umbrella. Culturally, Japan continues carries weight — whether it be through food, fine art or even industrial design and fashion.

The mystery for Japan is latching on to what foreigners think is cool about the country, and then turning that coolness into cold hard cash. A Japanese television show polled foreigners and learned that they think the coolest thing about Japan are the country's toilets — ho-hum and "normal" to Japanese people.

And Japanese people, on the other hand, might think things like its fireworks or festivals are pretty darn cool, but might find those have less appeal abroad. To help pinpoint this concept of cool, focus groups are being formed with foreigners who live in Japan, but who haven't lived in Japan long enough so the place seems normal.

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan is pushing forward with Cool Japan, viewing the campaign as one of the "national projects for Japan's economic recovery in the 21st century". Kan isn't alone. Former Prime Minister Taro Aso, now promoting cute booze, was also keen to use the Cool Japan power.

For years, the concept of "Cool Japan" existed in gaming even before there was a word to describe it. As early as the 1960s, Japanese animation was being repackaged for Western viewers. If you were a gamer in the 1980s, you played Japanese games. Characters like Mario have since superseded borders and are now part of the global cultural. As with the 1970s, that decade brought more toys from Japan like Voltron and M.U.S.C.L.E. figures. Kids that couldn't even find Japan on a map were playing with their toys. Even today, a trip down the aisle at your local Toys"R"Us turns up all kinds of goodies from The Land of the Rising Sun.

Can Japanese bureaucrats make a go of this? So many of Japan's biggest cultural exports were not designed with foreigners in mind. They were designed for domestic consumption and then taken abroad, where ultimately foreigners decided what they liked, and these Japanese exports were met with success. Or weren't. This is something that solves itself and not with focus groups. But there's money to be made, Japanese pop culture to be promoted.

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