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Japanamerica: Why ‘Cool Japan’ is over

By Roland Kelts.

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American journalist Douglas McGray’s 2002 Foreign Policy essay ‘Gross National Cool’ crystallized for many not only evidence that contemporary Japan had become hip and attractive, but also a nifty phrase to go with it. From Boston to Australia, “cool Japan” subsequently appeared in the titles of academic conferences, essays and articles addressing everything from Japan’s anime and manga imagery to fashion, style, pop music, and even food. It signified a national brand that packed a lot of soft power – the appeal of a culture’s sensibility and products.

But that was eight years ago. And like most bits of journalistic shorthand, the phrase “cool Japan” is as convenient as it is vague. Does it refer to an aspect of the national or ethnic character that is fundamentally cool? Is it Japan’s capacity to absorb and then reinvent a range of outside influences that makes it so au courant in our smorgasbord 21st century? And, perhaps most pressing: If Japan is cool now, can it possibly stay that way?

These questions resurface every time I make a round of appearances at anime conventions and university campuses in the United States, as I have during the past few months. Audiences are large, sometimes massive, and very colorful. They are knowledgeable, too, at least about the titles and characters they love – so much so that they are often costumed and made up to look exactly like those characters.

But there remains an unsettling gap between the American fans of cool Japan and the Japanese who actually make what’s cool. While the faces of popular anime and manga characters elicit oohs and aahs and sometimes squeals of recognition when they flash on projection screens or parade past in cosplay events, the industry that creates them – producers, publishers, artists and animators – continues to be virtually faceless outside of Japan.

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I’ve taken to calling this Japan’s pop culture branding gap. While cool Japan has amassed a vast audience overseas in the past decade, very few of its fans know anything about the brands behind it. Industry stalwarts such as Studio Pierrot, Madhouse, Production IG, Shogakukan and Shueisha barely register at U.S. anime conventions, where fans passionately recite and reenact their creations. You might hear the words Ghibli (usually mispronounced), Toei and Bandai batted about in conversation among older generations of American fans, but with scant enthusiasm.

Look up these companies online and visit their Web sites, and you won’t be surprised: If you find any information in English, it will likely be provided by the enterprising folks at the Anime News Network, an English-language news portal site, some posters on Wikipedia or ardent fans in their blogs. Quite a few industry producers and publishers still maintain Japanese-only Web presences, but that hardly matters. In either language, most of the industry’s online offerings are amateurish, hard to navigate, and worst of all, dull – just the opposite of their vaunted products.

This antiquated, inward-looking and provincial approach to brand marketing may have sufficed when Japan’s domestic market was still breeding successive generations of native otaku. But today, with a shrinking youth demographic, imperiled economy and new competition from their Asian neighbors, Japan’s producers of pop culture can no longer afford to ignore the overseas market.

Unfortunately, they may be too late.

According to a recent industry white paper, manga sales dropped in North America for the second straight year in 2009, from a peak in 2007. The slip means that North American publishers will release the lowest number of new manga titles this year since 2004. The brutal layoffs and cuts at TokyoPop, one of the United States’ most active promoters of cool Japan products, two years ago have been followed earlier this week by massive layoffs at VIZ media, the veteran San Francisco-based distributor formed by five Japanese publishers in the late 1980s.

About the only bright spot in the recent spate of reports is news from Crunchyroll.com, the former anime fansite – by and for fans, with pirated streaming content – that went legit via licensing deals with Japanese producers in 2008, when I interviewed them for this column. Vu Nguyen, the site’s co-founder and Vice President of Business and Development and Strategy, told me: “The fans genuinely want to support creators and the industry. They just haven’t been educated on how the industry works. We’re doing our best to inform them.”

Earlier this month, Crunchyroll announced a 250 percent growth spurt in the first quarter of 2010 over the past five quarters, with 5.5 million unique visitors per month. “Creating an Internet presence is about cultivating a two-way relationship with the user,” says Vince Shortino, Representative Director of Crunchyroll’s Japan office. “The old model of neglecting content on one-way video sites has become less and less effective.”

One-way content delivery is over. Tell that to cool Japan. Fast.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Roland Kelts is a Temple University, Japan Campus, 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: Monday, May 17th, 2010.