The Mystery Of What Foreigners Like About Japan

Cars. Television. Game consoles. For years, these were what Japan was known for abroad. But that's not all.

Eight years ago, American journalist Douglas McGray coined the phrase "Cool Japan" to refer to Japan's soft power prowess. Culture is now a huge export for Japan — whether that be anime, manga or, yes, video games. Some pundits, like Roland Kelts, say Cool Japan is finished. The Japanese government, however, doesn't.

This past summer, Japan established a Creative Industries Promotion Office in hopes of promoting its soft power abroad. Other countries in Asia are already doing so — both South Korean and China work hard to promote their films internationally.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the goal is to increase "Cool Japan" revenues to the equivalent of US$616 in 2020. This isn't only about selling comic books abroad as things like make-up and fashion also fall under the Cool Japan umbrella. Culturally, Japan continues carries weight — whether it be through food, fine art or even industrial design and fashion.

The mystery for Japan is latching on to what foreigners think is cool about the country, and then turning that coolness into cold hard cash. A Japanese television show polled foreigners and learned that they think the coolest thing about Japan are the country's toilets — ho-hum and "normal" to Japanese people.

And Japanese people, on the other hand, might think things like its fireworks or festivals are pretty darn cool, but might find those have less appeal abroad. To help pinpoint this concept of cool, focus groups are being formed with foreigners who live in Japan, but who haven't lived in Japan long enough so the place seems normal.

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan is pushing forward with Cool Japan, viewing the campaign as one of the "national projects for Japan's economic recovery in the 21st century". Kan isn't alone. Former Prime Minister Taro Aso, now promoting cute booze, was also keen to use the Cool Japan power.

For years, the concept of "Cool Japan" existed in gaming even before there was a word to describe it. As early as the 1960s, Japanese animation was being repackaged for Western viewers. If you were a gamer in the 1980s, you played Japanese games. Characters like Mario have since superseded borders and are now part of the global cultural. As with the 1970s, that decade brought more toys from Japan like Voltron and M.U.S.C.L.E. figures. Kids that couldn't even find Japan on a map were playing with their toys. Even today, a trip down the aisle at your local Toys"R"Us turns up all kinds of goodies from The Land of the Rising Sun.

Can Japanese bureaucrats make a go of this? So many of Japan's biggest cultural exports were not designed with foreigners in mind. They were designed for domestic consumption and then taken abroad, where ultimately foreigners decided what they liked, and these Japanese exports were met with success. Or weren't. This is something that solves itself and not with focus groups. But there's money to be made, Japanese pop culture to be promoted.

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Comments

    Having been there twice in recent years, I'd have to say it's a shame that their festivals aren't garnering as much attention. I'd say they were pretty darn cool. But then again, that's not exactly something you can export easily.

    "... “Cool Japan” revenues to the equivalent of US$616 in 2020 ", I think that's supposed to be "US$616 billion".

    "US$616 in 2020"? Not very ambitious...

    $616 by 2020? Can they really do it?

    Very interesting. It's definitely true that the most popular Japanese cultural exports haven't been designed with foreigners in mind, but were instead developed internally and later exported.

    Perhaps it would be better to leave this spirit of innovation to its own devices rather than run focus groups or polling on the most popular Japanese products. Trying to 'design' appealing trends or soft power/cultural exports seems futile when so many of these have developed unexpectedly and without design.

    Otherwise we could see an advertising campaign based entirely on Japanese toilets, and that'd be kinda weird... ;)

    I agree with the last statement you cannot say that one thing will peak interest in a foreign audience especially with Japan.
    Having been to Japan there I can only say that most of it interests me and some more then others. However there is also a lot of stuff that didn't and stuff I won't waste money on...
    What did I bring home - what really took my interest - FIGMA, Evangelion (OK I liked that before I got there) and GUNDAM (I got to see the life sized one and LOVE IT...) and some Manga... real Japanese Manga (as well as English editions)
    I do hope that we get more cool Japan things in Aust... I just hope it's not the crap stuff mixed in...

      What's crap to one is another's treasure. Let's hope the more the better, and us consumers will sort it out :).

    Doubtful. Japan's games were once the pride and joy of the industry and in many ways are now playing catch up with the West. This difference will likely enlarge over time.

    But there will always be the emo/teen/otaku demographic to buy anime and creepy $500 pantied statues.

    Originally I would have agreed with all this, since I've been an anime fan for years, but after seeing pictures of the landscapes and cultural things from friends trips over there, THAT'S now what I want to go see. Technology be damned, I want to see the history.

    Dont try to be Western, Japan, just be yourself. The reason we like Japanese stuff is because its Japanese - not because its made in Japan, but because it could not of been made anywhere else!

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