Monday, June 14, 2010

Misunderstanding America: Tokyo Talk Report

SOFT POWER HARD TRUTHS / Soft power useful, but Japan needs to find smarter approach

"The Politics of Pop Culture" was the title and theme of an academic conference hosted by Temple University's Tokyo campus last weekend and featuring an international roster of scholars and authors. Topics included video games, otaku culture, anime and manga--and especially, the still nebulous concept of "soft power." Most participants were dubious about the idea at best, poking at the phrase all day until it practically deflated. (One Japanese professor went so far as to call it "rubbish.")

Joseph S. Nye's original coinage in the late 1980s referred to the power of political persuasion derived from a culture's attractiveness to others. Nye has addressed this notion several times since then, notably in 2005, when he argued that American soft power was on the decline during the George W. Bush administration, and warned that the global coalitions necessary to fight the so-called "war on terrorism" would be at great risk without it.

But it was the use of the term in reference to Japan, published in a 2002 article cited in this column last month, that seemed to change everything, at least on this side of the Pacific.

Prof. Kukhee Choo from the National University of Singapore presented ample evidence of how the phrase suddenly ignited governmental efforts to exploit soft power. The number of meetings and proposals related to those efforts spiked dramatically, starting in the early years of the 21st century. The bureaucrats' catchall term of focus, Prof. Choo noted, has just recently shifted from "content" to "brand."

Political support for pop culture appeared to peak last year under the short-lived prime ministership of avowed manga fan Taro Aso, whose much ballyhooed plans for a national anime and manga museum were scuttled as soon as he was. But Choo told of her encounter with even shorter-lived former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, who scoffed defensively at her suggestion that his props for pop might be lacking.

The scheduling of the conference turned out to be auspicious: Only a few days earlier, Hatoyama's humiliating resignation after less than a year in office provided a convincing backdrop for talk of lacking leadership--a softening of power, indeed. [more; and @ 3:AM here]


ArthurFrDent said...

Interesting... yes I suppose I wouldn't recognize doraemon either, immediately. Seemed like your article ended one paragraph early... so what's to be done?
I fear there is such a mutual mis-understanding of markets that the application of power is failing by that. In some ways I mean a physical marketing and in other the market of ideas. Taking Anime as an example, here's the short story... I dig a show from a year or 2 back called Natsu no Arashi... It's available on Crunchyroll, and I have watched several times, even though I detest watching on the computer. I have a doubt if it will get picked up for R1, but I thought I would pick up the first Japanese DVD from just to have it, even without the subs. $75 per disc. plus shipping.
Do Japanese people pay so much? Obviously they do. Macross Frontier $30/disc depending if DVD or BD per disc. That's the market there for these properties. The niche market in the US would NEVER support that. Even when Geneon previously and Bandai now try to release singles, people don't go for it, unless they just can't live without a series. I bought a Bandai series called Kannagi that way... The R1 was $50 for 12 eps. Because I was amused by it that much.

...and then I proceeded to ramble on about physical vs. mental markets, and how anime doesn't tell us much about overall marketing because fewer people in the US know or like it. And then I lost that part pasting it.

So. You know all this stuff, about how the slow carefull method of Japanese dealings is sometimes an Achilles heel, because of the lack of dynamic. About how many Japanese see the US as not a market they care about, because they don't look at expansion in that way.

How those markets are perception, but don't have much to do with military bases, or diplomatic dealings. Except in the way that retail markets are in some ways an analog for the ways that we percieve each other.

I think that a more interesting tangent, is why choose 3 cute girls as culture ambassadors, when there are cute girls everywhere? One reserved woman in a kimono would trump that EVERY time, for identification, for branding if you will. She could be anywhere, and still represent Japan in an identifiable way, in a way that appeals to every age group and both genders. Pair her with other things, as a touchstone. If you want to change the perception of Japan, you would pair your touchstone with what you want to change to.

I think Japan as a brand has to dicide on what it wants to look like, but also needs to see how that look works in the target market. Essentially what is the target market's needs and how can Japan as a brand fill them.

At least that's one spectator's take, odd as it is...

Roland Kelts said...

Not odd at all. In fact much of what you write is spot on, and you nail the real problem: the anime industry, among others, has no real grasp of its target audience overseas--including the price points, fan preferences, consumer access (i.e., so-called web 2.0), et cetera. It's not unlike the provincialism seen here in other industries, many of whom are being beaten to the punch overseas by S. Korean, Chinese and other competitors.

And you're right: The article ends one graf early, partly because of column inches/word counts, but also because I'm just now working on a project to help clarify 'what's to be done' and how to do it.