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Japanamerica: Anime must eventually transcend Japan ‘national’ brand

By Roland Kelts.


The Super Bowl, the biggest American football game of the year, might as well be called the Super Brand in honor of all the advertisers who try to get a piece of its huge U.S. audience. But even as I was being dazzled by the commercial hoopla watching the game in person this month in Miami, I was reminded that the brand getting the most attention in the United States these days is a Japanese one: Toyota.

An American television network contacted me for an interview about a sudden, late-night press conference held by Toyota Motor Corp. President Akio Toyoda, whose brand was taking a beating over massive global recalls. I watched the press conference with some dismay. From an American perspective, Toyoda looked blinkered and fuzzy, bowing halfheartedly and reading from a prepared statement before stumbling through some impromptu English comments, apparently in response to non-Japanese reporters, to reassure Toyota owners that their cars were safe. “Toyota’s car is safety,” he said. While I winced in sympathy, the solecism was far from soothing to American ears.


En route to the TV studios, the paradox was stark: All around me, America’s domestic brands were swaggering as though they owned the world, while Japan’s biggest global brand, in a moment of crisis, was playing strictly to the home crowd, regardless of its international reach.

The same holds true in spades for Japan’s producers of popular culture, who are at far greater risk of implosion than Toyota.

While most Japanese know of a new Disney or Pixar film by its brand first, learning of the title and story later, Americans and other non-Japanese fans of anime and manga, with a few diehard exceptions, generally have little to no awareness of the studio names behind the medium. Instead, they bounce from one title to the next, possibly pursuing an artist, but developing no sense of a studio’s character or identity, and thus no brand loyalty.

Indeed, if there is a brand associated with anime and manga, it’s national. Japanese pop culture is branded as “Japan”: Cool Japan, J-Pop, and the former coinage, Japanimation.


National branding makes good sense in the initial stages of a culture’s soft power expansion. Discussing “American movies,” for example, probably sufficed in the early to mid-20th century – whereas today, a Disney movie is an entirely different creature from one by James Cameron, Kathryn Bigelow or Tim Burton, wherever you live.

The eventual separation of brand and nation may be a mark of cultural maturity, and a particular strength when the going gets tough.

Toyota’s predicament, notes Keith Dinnie, a Temple University Japan professor and author of Nation Branding, is far less precarious today, partly because Japan’s national brand is independently strong. “The Toyota recall has generated almost zero media criticism of the ‘made in Japan’ label,” he tells me from Tokyo. “[It] has been treated as a company-specific problem, rather than an indicator of a wider country-of-origin issue affecting all Japanese brands.”

It’s a stark contrast to China’s national brand, Dinnie adds, which is tarnished by news of any product recall.

A day after the Super Bowl, I learned that Imagi Studios, the Hong Kong, Los Angeles and Tokyo producers of last year’s Astro Boy feature film, and developers of other anime-related projects, was shutting down.

The announcement prompted the usual premature rumors that Hollywood and Japan were parting ways – rumors belied by the news that Warner Bros. is planning a live-action remake of the anime classic Akira. Even so, if anime producers are looking for ways to identify their brands as independent from their nation, the time to do so is now.


Roland Kelts is a Tokyo University lecturer who divides his time between Tokyo and New York. He is the author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S. This article is hosted by 3:AM and Daily Yomiuri.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, March 3rd, 2010.