Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Japan throws cash at pop culture -- pop culture responds: my Japan Times column

latest column for The Japan Times:

Can METI’s ¥50 billion fund unfreeze ‘Cool Japan’?

BY ROLAND KELTS

Naysaying is almost always risk-free, especially if you do it online. If you’re a cynic, you’re usually right, and if you’re wrong, you can just delete those errant tweets and posts and join the party.

So last month, when Japan’s Upper House rubber-stamped a culture-promotion fund called Cool Japan, I expected little more than bemused shrugs from the anime industry and scorn from Internet otaku (fanboys).

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu
The government has been trumpeting its support of Japanese pop culture since at least 2002, when journalist Douglas McGray’s essay, “Japan’s Gross National Cool,” helped awaken politicians to a post-manufacturing path to global relevance. At the time, populist Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, an Elvis fan with a storm-trooper-like helmet of gray hair, announced that Japan would be King of content par excellence.

Here’s what happened: Doraemon, the blue cat character from the series of the same name, which has rarely aired in English-speaking countries, was chosen by the government as Japan’s “anime ambassador.” The following year, three girl-next-door models dressed as a Lolita, a Harajuku-girl and a schoolgirl posed for photographers at the Japan Expo in Paris. But they weren’t cosplaying; they were there as government-sponsored “kawaii (cute) ambassadors of Japan.”

In 2009, a British radio program interviewed me in Tokyo on the significance of then-Prime Minister Taro Aso’s proposed National Center for Media Arts — what the media called the Manga Museum. This would be the first major government-sanctioned repository for Japan’s popular arts post-1945, aimed at a new generation of tourists for whom Japanese pop culture was not merely cool, but worthy of curation and study.

Museum ground was never broken.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

On the Japanese government's (METI's) new COOL JAPAN fund for Time magazine


Latest for TIME on METI's newly passed "Cool Japan" content fund and campaign.

Japan Spends Millions in Order to Be Cool

By Roland Kelts 

Just as Washington shuts its stimulus chest, and with the economies of Europe tightening their purse strings in times of austerity, Tokyo’s wallet is suddenly very fat and visible. The object of its lavish spending this time is culture.


Japan’s upper house gave final approval on June 12 for a $500 million, 20-year fund to promote Japanese culture overseas. Called Cool Japan, the multidisciplinary campaign is designed to plug everything from anime and manga to Japanese movies, design, fashion, food and tourism. Overseen by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), the campaign will woo private investors later this year to hit an eventual target of $600 million. It’s unfortunate that the name of a campaign to showcase creative originality strongly echoes Cool Britannia, the pop-cultural flowering that took place in the U.K. in the 1990s, but it’s early days for Tokyo’s own soft-power push.

Naturally, there’s a bottom line. Creative content, says Mika Takagi of METI’s international-economic-affairs division, will “help sell goods.” One inspiration, she suggests, is South Korea. In 1998, according to METI, the South Korean government invested $500 million into a cultural-promotion fund. Fifteen years later, its artists dominate the pop-music charts in Asia, its television and movie titles are top sellers throughout the region, and the whole world knows a South Korean rapper named Psy. Even better, South Korean goods — think of Samsung phones or Hyundai cars — have become global successes, with an image that’s modern, young and fun.