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Japanamerica: The year Japan jumps the shark?

By Roland Kelts.

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“Jumping the shark” is an American idiom describing the point at which a television series, a career or just about anything that has developed popularity or momentum blows its own credibility and heralds its own demise.

The phrase was coined after the Fonz literally jumped over a captive shark while water-skiing. Many now see the shark-jumping episode as an omen of Happy Days‘ decline into cancellation.

The expression came to mind earlier this week, as I perused reports of Japan’s poor showing at this year’s International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, the bankruptcy of Japan Airlines, and the rising numbers of unemployed Japanese seeking government aid over the holidays, finding temporary shelter in bubble-era capsule hotels.

This news of sinking fortunes had me wondering: Can you jump the shark without actually doing anything? Paralyses that have long gripped Japan’s producers of popular culture, whose profits continue taking a beating overseas and at home despite growing global enthusiasm, are now damaging its gadget, travel and other industries. In Japan, the Year of the Tiger is looking a lot like the Year of the Great White.

Most revealing are the diagnoses of what ails a once proud and seemingly unstoppable system. Japan’s hidebound, hierarchical corporate structure, a pillar of stable growth in decades gone by, is now seen as an impediment to rapid change, product development and creative flexibility.

Its tendency to focus almost exclusively on internal markets and competitors also served corporate Japan well, or well enough, when domestic demographics were growing and globalization was much less fluid.

But with a declining population, anemic consumer growth, and a spike in low-cost, foreign alternatives like Samsung in electronics or H&M and Forever 21 in clothing (and Japanese consumers who welcome them), Japan today can no longer afford to think and act so locally.

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Finally, there is the Japanese obsession with physical production: monozukuri, or excellence in craftsmanship. One U.S. electronics marketer at the CES called this an “analog era” mentality – a virtue when growth was product-oriented, but a liability in a digital era, when the emphasis is on network effects, the advantages flowing from connections across various platforms.

“Passing the torch,” trumpeted one CES story headline: “The gadget world’s balance of power shifts from Japan to Korea.” Is 2010 destined to be the year Japan is toppled from the throne of gadget dominance, losing its grip on consumers and legions of geeks worldwide?

For many Japan-observers and industry players, of course, the news is hardly new. Be it Japanese pop culture, consumer electronics, flagship airlines or even national government, plug in the problems and you get the same result: a clear picture of a staggering Japan en route to irrelevance. Is it any wonder so many Japanese youth see their homeland as a hopeless enclave, plagued by has-been paradigms and unable to evolve? Why else would a dynamic culture relegate its younger resources to the margins, where they are withdrawing and shrinking away from engagement, while its neighbors race ahead on silver-streaked water skis?

When I raised the possibility that moribund company policies and outsourced labor in the anime industry might be hollowing out the next generation of domestic talent, a high-ranking executive producer in Japan replied: “We’re not really afraid of outsourcing, because no one can approximate original Japanese ideas, the true value of intellectual property. Low-wage labor is one thing, but it’s not the same as true creativity.”

That may be so – for now. But in an expanding age of rampant file-swapping, downloading, digital mashups and cross-platform network flow, “originality” may be an outdated analog virtue, losing ground to sheer speed and flexibility.

Those of us who live in or care deeply about Japan know full well how quickly and efficiently this nation can adapt, change and grow, and how sturdy its fundamental infrastructures remain. But if Japan in 2010 has jumped the shark by refusing to change, it will need to strike new ground with an alternative to its once-happier days – or learn how to swim, fast.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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: Sunday, January 24th, 2010.