Uncool Japan


Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on November 2013

I blame Douglas McGray. He penned an article for Foreign Policy magazine with a most catchy title: “Japan’s Gross National Cool.” It was 2002 and McGray announced that Japan was reinventing itself as a superpower of culture. “Over the course of an otherwise dismal decade, Japan has been perfecting the art of transmitting certain kinds of mass culture,” he proclaimed. The Japanese government pounced. It adopted the most unimaginative title, “Cool Japan,” to rev up its commercial footprint in the midst of its economic malaise known as the lost decade. Think of Cool Japan as pre-Abenomics for the runway or maid café set.

In the 21st century, nation-states are obsessed with their brand image. Gross National Propaganda (GNP) is the new public face of globalization. While Marx had his theory of alienation, Cool Japan is about engaging the logo within you. So why pick on Cool Japan? Isn’t everybody doing it?

Cool Japan is anything but. A fundamental rule of persuasion is that if you have to identify yourself or your institution as “cool,” then you aren’t and it isn’t. Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. would have never made the Rat Pack such an American cultural phenomenon if they had announced their coolness at every stop. “Hey cats. Aren’t we cool? Look how we dress, drink on stage, and have bromance banter with one another. Cool, huh?” The Rat Pack allowed others to define their style and manner.

If we go by how others view Japan, this can be a most uncool nation. Young men and women are not coupling as needed for reproducing future generations, women are mostly invisible in executive positions, adult diapers now outnumber baby diapers, people still die from overwork and doe-eyed fembots are anatomically incorrect. I’ve yet to see such buxom Japanese women who can match the cartoonish dolls that cover the pages of manga in the local Lawson. The leading indicators of Gross National Propaganda present a male geek—or perhaps just male—fantasy of cute femininity to an unreal extreme. Recall Real Women Have Curves. Here in Japan, we need Real Women Transcend Cuteness.

It doesn’t take a Chinese female astronaut to conclude that Cool Japan is a government and industry production directed predominantly by men with a feminine ideal that doesn’t exist. Where are the images and ideas of the women scientists and financial executives, as well as the geek girls who don’t want to be viewed through the narrow confines of pubescent cuteness? I’m not against cuteness, just its monopolization. Why not fund the next Akira Kurosawa or Yasujiro Ozu rather than the next AKB48 spin-off?

Cool Japan is a retread that’s all been done before. Remember the Union Jack outfits on the Spice Girls, the 1990s girl group that took over the world before Kanye and Kardashian? They were part of the UK’s Cool Britannia promotional campaign before Tony Blair became uncool as Bush’s lapdog post-9/11. Hear much about Cool Britannia these days? As soon as Downing Street became too closely associated with BritPop, the end was near.

The same thing could happen to Cool Japan. The Japanese government has announced a USD$500 million spend over 20 years for Cool Japan branding, which was followed by the winning bid for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Prime Minister Abe’s pitch to the IOC in Buenos Aires was a public relations success, though not one steeped in reality. Despite his promise that the situation in Fukushima is “under control,” the disaster-struck region will not be decontaminated until a projected 2017—just three years before the Summer Olympics. If this nuclear elephant in the room isn’t fixed in time, then no public relations or consumer market goods promotion campaign will be able to gloss over the reality of a lost homeland for those displaced by the disaster. And that’s probably the most uncool prospect for Japan.