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The Next Stage for ‘Cool Japan’: Enriching Modern Culture | Arata Sugimoto Chief Editor Cultural News Section Kyodo News [Date of Issue: 30/September/2014 No.0235-0941]

Date of Issue: 30/September/2014

The Next Stage for 'Cool Japan': Enriching Modern Culture

Arata Sugimoto
Chief Editor
Cultural News Section
Kyodo News

There have been signs of evolution in 'Cool Japan', the international communication of Japan's pop culture. Phase 2 is emerging, whereby not only finished products but also the knowhow to produce creative works is being communicated, encouraging the development of unique local culture.

One movie screening in Japan this summer which attracted strong public interest was a Hollywood reboot of Godzilla. The first version of Godzilla back in 1954 was recognized internationally as a Japanese special-effects movie, and spawned many sequels in Japan. Even Hollywood created its own version in 1998, and this year's contribution featured a terrifying Godzilla captured by the latest 3D technology. As soon as it opened in Japan in July, Hollywood's new Godzilla took out the top spot in weekly viewer rankings, and remained in the top 10 for some time after.

Two popular characters

At the heart of the first version 60 years ago was criticism of the nuclear tests conducted in the Pacific. Nuclear weapons appear in the latest version as well, but in tone the movie is far more a US action flick with an American soldier as the hero, and there is no foregrounding of the foolishness of human beings armed with nuclear weapons. There are of course many different ways to look at fiction, and many people enjoyed Godzilla as entertainment. In fact, a Hollywood sequel has already been announced. The power of Godzilla seems inexhaustible.

The news that the popular Japanese animated feature Doraemon will show on the Disney Channel in the US also drew attention in Japan this summer. Doraemon has been shown before in Asia and Europe with voiceovers and subtitles but retaining the same visuals. In the US, the visuals have been localized for the first time to reflect American local culture and customs. The characters use forks rather than chopsticks at the dinner table and receive their pocket money in dollars, while certain scenes where Nobita is bullied by Gian have been removed as too violent.

Both Godzilla and Doraemon, then, have been rearranged by the US as their export destination. In the world of production creation, a remake only becomes an option where there is an appealing original. While the physical size of the main characters is entirely different in the US and Japanese versions, they remain appealing characters in both versions.

The worldwide popularity of manga, anime and other elements of Japan's pop culture is known as 'Cool Japan'. This phenomenon originally spread independently of government and major companies but moved into the spotlight as of the 1990s. Looking at recent trends, not limited to the examples of Godzilla and Doraemon, 'Cool Japan' is showing signs of evolving still further. If we take as Phase 1 the 'Cool Japan' to date, in which other countries absorb Japanese culture, we now appear to be moving on to Phase 2-not, of course, in the sense of proliferating righteous values to the world.

The government-manufactured 'Cool Japan' includes not only films and anime but also Japanese food and traditional technologies, etc., and has a strategic concept that includes attracting tourists to Japan, but here we will focus on localized development of the pop culture which has been the force behind the transmission of Japanese culture.

Strengthening interpersonal relations

Phase 2 of 'Cool Japan' will comprise the development of new creative production activities around the world which have been inspired by the popularity of Japanese culture but which are grounded in local culture. In other words, people living in countries and regions where Japanese culture is popular will use that as a catalyst to create culture which they can perceive as their own. In Phase 1, Japan sold finished products; in Phase 2, the focus will shift to passing on the knowhow and concepts behind the creation of these products. And this will require strengthening interpersonal relations.

Let me give an example. This fall, publishing major Kadokawa will open schools in Taiwan and Singapore to teach anime and manga production knowhow. Courses will foster animators, manga artists, light novel writers and voiceover actors. Kadokawa Chairman Tsuguhiko Kadokawa expects the schools to produce 30,000 graduates in the next 10 years, creating many human resource networks as a result. Kadokawa plans to set up similar schools in Thailand, Hong Kong, Malaysia and elsewhere by 2016. While the inspiration may be rooted back in Japanese anime and manga, Kadokawa's schools surely look ahead to the next phase of 'Cool Japan'.

If the idea is only to transfer Japan's studios overseas, it won't be as meaningful to develop human resources there. The challenge will be to integrate local aesthetics to produce works with a different touch than those made in Japan. And if these works are eventually reverse-imported into Japan, we may even see culture cultivated on a two-way basis.

Opening markets through remakes

With television too, I want to look at not just sales of TV programs to other countries but also sales of program formats. Format sales entail television stations packaging the concept, set, production knowhow and other elements of quiz and variety shows and selling the rights to remake those programs elsewhere. In addition to a Vietnamese version of Asahi Broadcasting's Shinkon-san Irasshai! ("The Newly-Wed Game") and a Thai version of TBS's ("Takeshi's Castle"), NHK has successfully sold on the formats of various science programs. Evidently, what people find funny or entertaining can travel across borders. If selling ways of making things rather than finished products results in these technologies creating new products, this could even be considered as part of Japan's contribution to the international community.

According to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), the market scale of Japan's contents industry, which handles movies, animation, music and games, etc., was around 12 trillion yen in 2012, positioning it second in the world after the US. In recent years, however, factors such as Japan's falling birth rate and the graying of society as well as economic recession have resulted in ongoing negative growth. However, recognizing the growth potential offered by overseas expansion, offshore sales of TV programs are being targeted as an area meriting more resources in the years ahead.

In addition to concern about the industry's negative growth, another motivation in this regard is Japan's poor performance on program sales compared to Korea. According to the same METI materials, the value of Japan's broadcast programs fell to around 6.3 billion yen in 2010, less than half the Korean level. Conversely, of course, that means there is room to grow by developing markets. In addition to production knowhow, television offers a variety of other program-based business chances such as related merchandise and events.

Before Doraemon was broadcast in the US, the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) held an event in the suburbs of Los Angeles. Representatives from around 80 Japanese affiliates participated, suggesting ways of taking advantage of the new program such as creating original Doraemon menus in restaurants and using characters from Doraemon to promote car sales. In other words, the idea is for companies to play a role in the penetration of the localized Doraemon. Another option for companies doing business in areas where programs based on formats purchased in Japan are showing on television would be to sponsor commercials to boost their corporate profiles through that medium.

Phase 1 of 'Cool Japan' demonstrated that there are definite channels linking Japanese culture with other countries. Next, in Phase 2, we will hopefully see the Japanese contents industry move back into the black and play a role in enriching local cultures.

(original article : Japanese)
(For the Japanese version of this article)

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