A recent issue of the Japanese edition of Newsweek poses this question: Is Cool Japan going cold? The cover reads "Cool Japan Is Running Out of Steam" (息切れクールジャパン). The article centers on "Cool Japan", which was adopted by the Japanese government and trade organizations that hoped to tap into the country's soft power status. Cool Japan or not, this is something they've been doing for years. They just didn't know it. And they sure didn't have a silly, vague name for it.
The term "Cool Japan" first appeared in 2002, and it was a localized take on the UK's "Cool Britannia" idea of the 1990s, when the country's art and music were making splashes internationally. The idea of "Cool Japan" was centered on the country's position as a rising soft power superpower. Soft power is the culture influence countries have, while hard power is the influence from political, military, or economic power.
Sometimes Japan seems utterly oblivious to the fact that the outside world is interested in its culture—both pop and traditional. "Cool Japan" is the government realizing that and trying to make it profitable.
In the Newsweek piece, it's apparently argued that the "Cool Japan" idea—that Japan can export its pop culture—has not quite panned out as planned. Japan isn't exporting as much of its own culture, whether that be comics or cartoons, as, say, America is. The piece also asks if "the world's Japan boom" is over. This is an odd question because, as I mention below, "the world's Japan boom" that's been going on for a very long time.
The reaction online in Japan has ranged from, eh, whatever, to trashing one of the piece's authors, Dan Grunebaum.
But wait. Saying "Cool Japan" is over isn't new. Japan scholar and writer Roland Kelts said as much last year.
The real issue here is the concept of "Cool Japan" itself. The term is vague. What's cool? Who decides what's cool? Is old stuff cool? Or just new stuff? Isn't cool subjective?
The notion also seems to imply that before Cool Japan, Japan wasn't cool. It's to imply that the country was kind of dorky—that the entire country was one big middle-aged salaryman in a navy suit. It wasn't. It never was. That was the Western stereotype. Japan didn't change. The stereotype did.
Subjective or not, Japan was cool well before 2002, and it's had international soft power for a very long time—whether that's Nintendo games in the 1980s or Japanese art in the 1880s. To view Japan as an emerging soft culture power is to completely ignore the impact Japan has had on the West for many, many years.
Growing up, like so many kids in the 1980s, I played Japanese video games and watched Japanese cartoons. Ninjas (née ninja) weren't things that only existed in Japan, but in the popular imagination. And it wasn't just the kids of the 1980s who grew up with a steady diet of Japanese pop culture. The generations before were exposed to Japanese culture through martial arts, monster movies, cartoons, and samurai flicks. The world did take notice.
(Obviously, Japan's culture influence was muted during World War II. However, in the early 20th and late 19th centuries, Japanese art and fashion influenced Europe.)
But by simply focusing on the soft power of anime, manga, and video games, you can overlook the influence that, for example, the Japanese approach to manufacturing has had over the decades—namely, how super reliable Japanese cars have directly increased the quality of automobiles around the world. This was a revolution that made high quality cars affordable to the masses. This was a very powerful way of thinking. It was also cultural.
Dubbing Japan "cool" in the early 2000s is missing the point: Japan has been cool for long before that. Japanese soft power and influence has been so dominant for so long that people don't look at, for example, Nintendo and immediately think Japan. Yet, Nintendo is a very Japanese company. Nintendo, like other Japanese brands, have become global. So when people say the Japanese game industry is totally screwed, they need to either leave out Nintendo or overlook it entirely.
Japan didn't just start being cool. It didn't stop being cool, either. But government programs and trade organizations? Those were never cool.