Cool Japan: Criticism?

Here’s my impression of Cool Japan.

The basic economic policy in the post-bubble Japan is one that generally conforms to what was hotly debated during the latter part of the last decade, and well into the 2012–the economics of government spending (in both actual spending and tax cuts) and its impact on the greater economy. Cool Japan, in spirit, is just another form of government spending aimed to develop or rehabilitate a specific industry sector.

And then, there’s this.

A refreshing image (made in Korea w)

I think here’s the problem. What makes Japan “cool” will vary from person to person. But what made Japanese pop cultural product profitable to the Japanese is not necessarily cool, and it doesn’t vary from person to person at all–it’s factual. It’s even translated into English. Cool Japan is kind of a misnomer–it’s more like “We-used-to-make-money-selling-cartoon-characters Japan.” But maybe some consider sending children to the hospital because your cartoons are too crazy psychedelic, a cool thing. In other words, Cool Japan, as the otaku know it, really started and ended with Pokemon. Akira, Ghost in the Shell and Ninja Scroll are not much more than an appetizer, a place mat. They are just more examples of Redline–cool and acclaimed stuff that makes relatively little amounts of money (Although over the years all three titles raked in good money, by some metrics). All that stuff made maybe a drop in the bucket in the larger scope of thing. You don’t have to take my word for it. In the US, we are talking about 4, 5 billions of dollars. Referencing back to the JETRO report, I think most of that “character good” bar graphs is just Pokemon money. And maybe some Yugioh stuff.

What bothered me with Surat’s story wasn’t that it lacks any kind of numbers to back up his claims. Or that it’s awfully US-centric (as I am often). Well, actually what bothered me the most is that the term Pokemon didn’t appear once. He kind of mentioned Power Rangers, which was a big deal in terms of Japanese profits and is a driver of a lot of early Cool Japan literature in the US, but he didn’t really talk about that in such contexts (It’s one of the biggest cultural export from Japan in the 90s I thought). He didn’t have to quote any numbers. He only omitted the potentially most important stuff.

Well, that may be okay. None of it really matter to the heart of his argument, which is that Cool Japan might be something some people parroted, a fabricated narrative in which promoted certain interests in light of this capital spending trend by the government. I would think that’s what all the Japanese kids are saying anyway. And as much as I cast lots of my own concerns with the reports and numbers I linked in this post thus far, I got nothing to prove it the other way. There are no indication whatsoever that Nintendo did not make a bijillion bux on Pokemon, or why Konami or whoever was in court with Upper Deck for a couple years. That’s where “Cool Japan” really lives. It’s about China/rest of Asia. It’s about Japan’s strange fashion industry. It’s about sushi. It’s really not about Akira. It’s actually about video games, right? I mean, the cultural cache value, if such a thing is defined, of FF7, is maybe 10 times larger than Cowboy Bebop.

With all that said, I think it’s good to criticize Cool Japan in the sense that it’s tax money going into certain industries that may very well not going to put that money into good use. After all, it’s a form of export, not exactly domestic spending. And Japanese politics is not quite that shining image of “acting for the public benefit.” But then again this money is the kind of money that footed the bills of things like Little Witch Academia and Death Billiards, so as beneficiaries of Cool Japan, it might not be in our place to really say much about that.

Well, no, we can still not like Cool Japan. Because until they solve this problem…well, I guess they are trying? It is a face thing isn’t it. I wonder if that ever crosses Koike’s mind.

PS. And here is Roland Kelts on Cool Japan 2013. You tell me what his take is.

PPS. Hello Kitty is a pretty cool story.

PPPS. This post is brought to you by XKCD.


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