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Is Japan losing its cool?

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The marketing of the phrase Cool Japan itself creates an awkward problem: “To call yourself cool is by definition uncool – and it defies Japanese modesty,” says Manabu Kitawaki, director of Meiji University’s Cool Japan program.

“Creativity doesn’t spring from marketing,” he continues. “The Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry hired Dentsu for its Cool Japan campaign. It’s become a way to funnel money to a big ad firm.”

The otaku culture (a term used to describe people with intensive interests in anime or manga) celebrated by Cool Japan can also be problematic overseas. Critics complain of the use of the popular girl band group AKB48 as cultural ambassadors. “AKB48 may represent Japanese culture,” says Yukio Kobayashi, president of Tokyo music agency 3rd Stone From The Sun, “but underage girls in sexy clothing … to me it’s basically legal child porn.”

Experts also say the country focused for too long on producing highly developed but unexportable products.  They say the sheer size of the domestic market made foreign fans of Japanese culture an afterthought – and that when Japanese contents industries did look abroad, the rush of interest in Cool Japan created unrealistic expectations. 

“It’s the boiling frog scenario,” says the Ryotaro Mihara of the new Creative Industries Division at the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI). “With Cool Japan the market shrank bit by bit," he says referring to Japan's domestic manga, anime, and music markets, "so there wasn’t a sense of urgency” to reach international consumers.  

By contrast, says “Japanamerica” author Roland Kelts, “The Korean government invested a lot of money in its domestic pop industry and went after overseas markets. “Places where J-pop was formerly popular, like Southeast Asia, have switched to K-pop.”

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