American influence on Japan’s soft-power push
By Roland Kelts
In 2002, American journalist Douglas McGray published an article in Foreign Policy magazine called “Japan’s Gross National Cool.”
After spending a few months traveling around the country, McGray concluded that Japan was transitioning from being a manufacturing exporter to a cultural exporter.
What he called “the whiff of American cool” that dominated most of the 20th century was being supplanted globally by “the whiff of Japanese cool,” in the form of cultural products such as manga, anime, fashion, and cuisine.
McGray cited the phrase coined by Harvard professor Joseph S. Nye (who was, incidentally, President Barack Obama’s first choice for ambassador to Japan in 2008): Soft Power.
Nye contrasted the phrase with hard power—the more conventional means by which nation states seek to coerce others into agreeable behavior via military or economic bullying.
Soft power might persuade others to do your bidding through the appeal of cultural products. In the case of the United States, that would mean Hollywood movies; jazz, pop, and rock music; fast food and blue jeans.
A conversation with Japanese baby boomers does much to bolster Nye’s claim.
Novelist Haruki Murakami, for example, is quick to highlight the attractiveness of American culture in postwar Japan, especially in the 1950s and ’60s.
“It was everywhere,” Murakami told me, “and everything was so shiny and bright. When I first heard the [US] Modern Jazz Quartet [band], it changed my life. And when the first McDonald’s opened in Tokyo, my friend and I held hands as we approached. We were so excited and nervous to find out what this thing called a ‘hamburger’ really was.”
But while most Americans have grown used to, and even cynical about, the global appeal of fast food, Levis, and other cultural icons of the homeland, most Japanese are stunned, even skeptical, when they are told their culture has an international audience.
Being in the spotlight can be jolting.
When McGray’s article was translated into Japanese, it sent shockwaves through the intelligentsia and government. Bureaucrats were scrambling to find ways to capitalize on what the American journalist had uncovered—a new identity and purpose for a nation mired in economic stagnation and perceived irrelevance.
McGray was invited back to Japan to deliver a speech on his findings to government officials. The American had unveiled a cool new Japan, and Japanese officialdom liked what they saw.
The birth of Japanamerica
A couple of years after McGray’s article was published, I was invited to lunch in Manhattan by an editor at Palgrave Macmillan.
The editor, Toby Wahl, had liked some of the stories I’d written about Japan, and wanted to commission me to write a book on Japanese popular culture, specifically anime, and how it was making inroads into US life.
I politely declined. While I had a Japanese mother, had attended kindergarten in Japan, and had discovered manga, anime, and Japanese tokusatsu (special effects monster TV dramas) as a kid, I was no otaku (geek with obsessive interests).
But Wahl and his colleagues were patient and persistent, finally convincing me that what they were seeking was a book for a general audience—something that could help my American father understand why a bright yellow Pikachu float appeared in a parade celebrating the most American of holidays, Thanksgiving.
So I dove into the project, renting several anime DVDs, reading manga as well as books on anime and manga, and arranging interviews. Among working titles for the book was "Animation Nation: Japan’s New Cultural Export."
I talked to American fans, academics, producers, and distributors. I even chatted to a couple of tolerant teenage girls at a manga display in a Barnes & Noble.
Soon after, I flew to Tokyo and began my research in Japan. But the nation that kept popping up in interviews and during my hours studying at the University of Tokyo library was … the United States.
Japanese pop culture, it turned out, had American DNA embedded in it.
The seven-year occupation (1945–52) and postwar bilateral alliance flooded Japan with American cultural artifacts—icons of soft power like Disney films and the TV series "Father Knows Best."
The father of modern manga and anime, Osamu Tezuka, lionized Walt Disney. He met the storied American at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York, and claimed to have watched the movie "Bambi" 81 times.
And so the book I wrote was no longer about one animation nation, but about two cultures densely intertwined.
Today, at Pixar’s studios in northern California, the most talented animators in America revere the greatest living animation artist and director—Japan's Hayao Miyazaki.
As we were vetting the final manuscript, my editor in New York sent an email to me in Tokyo: “We’ve discussed this at a meeting with the marketing team. The title we like is 'Japanamerica.'”
What is “Cool Japan”?
As I was conducting research and racing to finish the book in time for publication in 2006, Mika Takagi, then a recent graduate of Stanford University’s School of Business who had studied Silicon Valley, was appointed to head a Japanese government committee called “Cool Japan.”
The phrase was lifted from British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s “Cool Britannia” campaign of the late 1990s.
While it drew and continues to draw plenty of detractors (who calls themselves “cool” anyway?), it survives to this day, and is now the name of a 20-year, $375 million government fund to promote Japanese culture worldwide.
The road has been long, rocky, potholed, and might lead nowhere.
The Cool Japan Fund was rubber-stamped last summer. It may be renamed, but for now, it is the brand of a mission to share and spread Japan’s cultural soft power.
And as the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games approach, it is the only apt title for this freshly minted column. •
*Roland Kelts is a half-Japanese American writer, editor, and lecturer who divides his time between Tokyo and New York. He is the author of the acclaimed bestseller Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the US and the forthcoming novel Access. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The New Yorker, Time, Psychology Today, Playboy, and The Wall Street Journal. Kelts authors a monthly column for The Japan Times, and is also a frequent contributor to CNN and NPR.