executive impact

Cool Japan Fund CEO on what’s uncool about how Japan handles its cool

23 Comments
By Alexandra Homma

Ever since the Japanese government first began discussing the idea of promoting Gross National Cool as a national resource back in the early 2000s, the discussion on how Japan should stand out on the global stage and how it should promote its culture abroad, has never lost its momentum. In 2013, the country went as far as to establish the Cool Japan Fund, the only public-private company to actively promote Japanese brands overseas by investing billions of yen in businesses that show Japan in its best light abroad in fields stretching from media to food and fashion. Currently in its third year, the fund has invested in 19 projects, including the highly successful pop culture media Tokyo Otaku Mode, the WakuWaku Japan, a TV channel broadcasting Japanese contents in foreign languages, and the most recent project, the Isetan - The Japan Store shopping complex, which opened in Malaysia in October 2016.  

But the outcome of “Cool Japan” is still vague; the project turnout is slow, and the core question of “what is cool about Japan?” still remains ambiguous. One of the key issues behind this, argues Cool Japan Fund CEO Nobuyuki Ota, is that Japan still lacks what it takes to promote itself as good as the severe global competition demands — a cement ceiling he is on a mission to break.

Japan Today catches up with Ota, a man with years of experience at the frontline of Japan’s top high-end fashion brand and department stores, such as Issey Miyake and Matsuya, in his very cool office in Tokyo’s Roppongi, to learn more about the fund’s challenges, goals and visions for the future.

What was your initial reaction when the Cool Japan Fund was launched three years ago and you were appointed as CEO?  

At the time I already had over 10 years of experience working as a president of another company, so I thought that I’ve had enough of that. To add to that, I had no knowledge about anime and pop culture. So at first I declined the opportunity. But then it got me thinking.  For years I was involved with promoting Japanese brands abroad and I had experience working with foreign businessmen, establishing myself as a leader who doesn’t flatter foreign businesses and doesn’t crack under their pressure, which many companies still do. So, I began thinking that I want to promote a Japan that doesn’t curry favor with foreign countries at its expense, and I found that to be my next mission.

Japan is good at manufacturing high-quality products and services, but our designs and PR skills have always been weak. No one ever knew how to say “Hey, we’re cool, but we’re not cheap.” The way Japanese business has been operated until now was simply not cool. So I thought that if I was allowed to express and change this through my work [at the fund], I would take the position.  

What were your goals for the fund and have they changed over the time?

I imagined that we would be able to have more investment projects, but we’ve not reached that point yet. One of the major reasons is that cool is such a broad topic — how far can it really extend to? I wish someone had a concrete answer for this. This dilemma creates space for thinking and rethinking, which eventually slows down the business.

The words "Cool Japan" have been overly discussed since the government first introduced this concept. But to many foreigners, this is a rather poor name. What do you yourself think of this name?

I agree. To be honest, I had my doubts whether it was appropriate to call my company “Cool Japan.” I actually suggested that we call it “Cool ni naritai Japan” (Japan that wants to be cool) (laughs). However, if the company’s concept is bound by the principle that Japan is eager to stand up for its brands without selling them cheaply, then any name was fine.

Cool Japan means different things to Japanese and foreigners. For example, what Japanese think is cool about Japan may not be cool to foreigners. Do you have foreign consultants who advise you on what projects to invest in that may resonate overseas?

No, we don’t. Even among my foreign friends, everyone has a different opinion, because it’s not easy to put everyone under one single category “foreigners.” There are people from various backgrounds and cultures, who base their perceptions on too many different factors.

But your purpose is to export Japanese brands abroad, so it makes sense to consult people on the receiving side?

No, we don’t think that way. For example, if a French restaurant wants to open in Japan, do they consult Japanese experts? No. They also don’t create their menu and interior based on Japanese people’s preferences. They base it on their own brand’s image. If some customers don’t like that, they will go elsewhere. I think that the idea of localizing is against our branding principles. The most important factor in branding is to have pride and faith in the products you’re delivering. Of course, it is important to listen to customers’ feedback and take it seriously, but it’s odd to ask “What should we do?” If you do anything creative, you’ll always be criticised. But if you’re afraid of that, you can’t do anything unique.  

How do you decide what is cool when investing in new projects for the fund?

I always think whether the project we consider will be interesting for people overseas. I don’t intend to make it appealing to everyone per se, but it should be something that will attract attention in other countries. There are three criteria that we always base our selection on: whether it’s promoting Japan well; whether the company behind the project is passionate, and whether they’ll be able to sustain it.

Due to the nature of your business, you must be dealing with quite a lot of negative feedback as well. How do you cope with that?

It’s natural that we can’t please everyone. It’s also normal to receive criticism. But I believe that if people don’t like what we produce, they shouldn’t be using it. If we receive constructive criticism regarding issues we need to tackle, we listen and we take that into consideration. But we can’t pay too close attention to negative feedback. Japan needs to have stronger confidence in its brands and it should quit being a country with no face.

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics are coming and more foreigners are expected to live/work in the city. Apart from the “omotenashi” spirit, what kind of element is needed for Japan to accept growing numbers of foreigners?

I think Japan should start promoting its countryside to foreigners. Everything is currently centered in the big cities. But there are so many exceptional things in other regions in the country that require more attention. How about a “Tokyo-through” plan, for example? Visitors should be encouraged to go to other destinations and only use the capital as a transit point, to explore other Japanese regions.

But this is also a branding issue. Cool Japan Fund is currently working on that by promoting local specialities from areas such as Toyama, Nagasaki and Aomori, for example. Japanese apples sold abroad are labeled as “Japan made,” not “Hirosaki [Aomori] made.” But why not turn that into a brand? Japanese countryside municipalities don’t know their own value and that is a big mistake. Every producer should establish their brand as a unique one and show why it’s different from the rest. If that is successful, more people will be interested in visiting relatively unknown areas.

Do you think this is something that lacks in the way branding is currently operated in Japan?

Yes. I think the most difficult thing about running Cool Japan projects is the branding itself, a concept that Japan as a whole is still very poor at. A strong brand is good on the inside and outside. It should be visually cool as well and it should have a story to tell. Japanese businesses’ weakest point is exactly this. The quality of the products and the service are great, but it is presented poorly and cheaply. Take Japanese sake and tea, for example. One of the main reasons why they’re not selling as they should be is because they look old and cheap. Japanese sake bottles are always tucked away in the darkest corners of the department stores. Most of them don’t even come in boxes — they are just bare bottles. There’s a reason why women line up to buy certain liquor brands for Christmas instead of buying Japanese sake. It’s the ribbons, the colorful boxes and the careful presentation that is part of the entire branding process. After working for so many years in various brands, I know this well and that is exactly why I think I was appointed for this position. In a sense, Cool Japan for me means changing the way business is done in Japan. If you do ordinary things, you’ll achieve “ordinary Japan.” You need to do something unique and brand it well to make it “cool Japan.”

What are some of your upcoming projects?

Up until now we’ve been investing in projects that sell Japan abroad, but from now on, we’d like to also focus on the inbound business within the country. We’re currently looking into fields like medical, entertainment and sport tourism, for example. Japanese patients are treated as customers as part of the “omotenashi” spirit and I strongly believe that it is exactly this spirit that will lead to successful business for Japan’s future. If we manage to provide proper explanation about the quality of our medical system, I am positive that this field will be very prosperous.

With all this on your plate, you’re a very busy man. How cool are your days off?

Unfortunately, not cool at all. I’m either working or spending the whole day at home in my pajamas. It’s ironic, because I’ve worked in the fashion industry for such a long time. But I love to spend time walking around stores and browsing through different products. I love to cook and eat, so you can occasionally find me at various food markets. I also stroll around cosmetic counters at department stores and if I think something is cool, I buy it and give it to my family. I can feel the change of times and trends when walking around shops and that always makes me happy — or angry, when I see things are not presented well. So I take my staff and analyze what’s the problem behind the obvious lack of sales (laughs).

© Japan Today

©2019 GPlusMedia Inc.


23 Comments
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Well, based off of about a dozen different things this guys says in the interview, I can rest assured that "Cool Japan" will continue to fail to do anything more than provide another white elephant that the government can throw money at.

17 ( +17 / -0 )

The problem with 'Cool Japan' is that Japan is basically ' not cool'. If Japan really is serious about becoming 'cool' to the outside world,they should hire international PR companies to promote Japanese products. Then the world at least has a chance to see for themselves if Japan is cool or not.

14 ( +14 / -0 )

The problem is Cool Japan Fund is not cool.

7 ( +8 / -1 )

I think Japan is a pretty much cool place, full of inovation, great culture, very safe and its people very calm and tolerant, making up this great country without major conflicts you see in other societies. The great problem is how they deal with anybody that isn't japanese, the inferiority complex toward westerners, the superiority complex toward other asians. I just wonder how less people would badmouth and bash Japan (while pointing all its society/cultural flaws) if the japanese had a difference approach while dealing with foreigners. Japan is a pretty much amazing place as we all know. But I have to confess I loved this place waaay more before actually living in. Actually would pick a fight with anybody that dared to say anything bad about Japan. Once you are just a spectator, it's easy to see only the Cool part of Japan.

-1 ( +3 / -4 )

@article: But your purpose is to export Japanese brands abroad, so it makes sense to consult people on the receiving side? .... No, we don’t think that way. For example, if a French restaurant wants to open in Japan, do they consult Japanese experts? No. They also don’t create their menu and interior based on Japanese people’s preferences. They base it on their own brand’s image.

The oddest comment ever made by someone regarding foreign restaurants in Japan. All the restaurants offering cuisine from my country have adjusted their recipes to match the taste of their Japanese customers. The same with most of the French and Turkish restaurants here: go try the same dishes in the country of their origin and compare the taste you get here!

@article: I think Japan should start promoting its countryside to foreigners. Everything is currently centered in the big cities.

JNTO has already begun promoting Japan's countryside. And a number of local authorities and local producers have been doing so for more than a year now. Which world does this guy live in?

@david v: I can rest assured that "Cool Japan" will continue to fail to do anything more than provide another white elephant that the government can throw money at.

Well, with the rapid growth of foreign visitors this year, too, I would not say that Cool Japan has failed. The point is that they need to adjust to the environmnet and not be stubornly set in their own ways. The world is changing and so should any organization which is trying to sell a product (be it a destination or anything else).

5 ( +6 / -1 )

There seems to be a fair bit of inconsistency in what this man is saying. First he tells us that he is against adapting Japanese brands to satisfy foreign preferences:

If some customers don’t like that, they will go elsewhere. I think that the idea of localizing is against our branding principles.

But then he goes on to talk about how important the 'Omotenashi spirit' is for success:

Japanese patients are treated as customers as part of the “omotenashi” spirit and I strongly believe that it is exactly this spirit that will lead to successful business for Japan’s future.

Which is it? It can't be both, unless Omotenashi is just a meaningless PR gimmick.

It's also amazing that they have no foreign consultants working with 'Cool Japan'. Imagine an American or European company tasked with promoting foreign products in Japan deciding that they didn't need to hire a single Japanese person. It completely boggles the mind.

13 ( +13 / -0 )

Very unclear what the objectives of this organisation are - to make money, or to spend money in promoting things they deem 'cool'? With such confusion of goals, it is unlikely to achieve either.

9 ( +9 / -0 )

M3M3M3DEC. 26, 2016 - 01:55PM JST

First he tells us that he is against adapting Japanese brands to satisfy foreign preferences:

Which is it? It can't be both, unless Omotenashi is just a meaningless PR gimmick.

Tourists do not come all the way to Japan to eat the same breakfast as they eat everyday in their homeland. They come here to experience exotic things. The new experience can be enjoyable or can be embarrassing. To make the experience as enjoyable as possible is the spirit of omotenashi.

The two are not contradicting.

-9 ( +0 / -9 )

@CH3CHO

Your definition of Omotenashi being about alleviating embarrassment is one that I haven't heard yet. Thanks. I'll add it to the 10 or so other definitions of Omotenashi I've been given over the past few years.

However, I think anticipating/accommodating your customers' wants and needs is a far more common definition. With that in mind, I don't see how it's compatible with saying 'If some customers don't like that, they will go elsewhere'

5 ( +5 / -0 )

The word "cool" still conjures an image of the 1960's, a decade that Japan is still stuck in.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

Wish to be, but what is not. Not cool.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Issey Miyake and Matsuya, in his very cool office in Tokyo’s Roppongi

All three stopped being "cool" around 1992, if they ever really were "cool".

"Shopping, temples and crowds", said my friends who visited recently....

4 ( +6 / -2 )

haha, brilliant interview which simply goes to show that this is exactly the wrong person to lead this project. Starting from himself not really being on board with the name and so forth.. , I think he strongly misunderstands Japanese strengths and weaknesses . In addition his sense of self importance and the way he dismisses consultants is ridiculous. In fact most foreign firms that are successful here , go to great struggle to adjust to the market or simply fail. and no ribbons is not what sells good wine.

12 ( +12 / -0 )

Oh, the arrogance of omotenashi!

5 ( +5 / -0 )

Well this fascinating interview proves what I think many foreigners suspected: no-one in Japan responsible for selling Japan to the outside world cares about the actual preferences of the customers it is trying to attract.

I guess that, despite his professed dislike for feedback, there is an outside chance that Mr. Ota will read the comments on his interview so, here goes, let me literally provide a million dollars worth of free advice.

Mr. Ota, you, and the other executives in the Japan Tourist Office and the Foreign Ministry, do not listen to the opinions of non-Japanese people on how you should express yourselves in English. And do you know what?

We can tell. It's why Japan produces tourist slogans like Yokoso Japan! where 50% of the slogan cannot be understood by the target audience. It is why after the 3/11 earthquake the government spend thousands of dollars promoting stickers saying Thank you. Japan., that make no sense in English.

I've always wondered why this is so. Why does Japan deliberately sabotage its own efforts to promote itself overseas through poor communications strategies that almost any educated English speaker could point out if asked for their opinion?

You say "I began thinking that I want to promote a Japan that doesn’t curry favor with foreign countries at its expense".

Since you say you don't want any advice from outside Japan, could we say that you think listening to foreign consultants regarding how Japan should present itself represents some sort of defeat for the Japan's ego? That if you follow the directions of people from other countries you are 'currying favor'?. If this is the case I think you fundamentally misunderstand you mission.

This attitude is also why the structural issues with Japan Inc.'s self-promotion go far beyond poor English, even if this is one of its most visible manifestations.

One way I hope I can get you to understand where you are going wrong is by considering the Japanese reacting to events heavily promoted by central government including the Aichi Expo a while back and the Tokyo Sky Tree opening. The government says we are doing this, this will be great, and people turn up in their millions.

That is not how it works with people overseas (or a least from English language speaking countries which is all I can really comment on). People are not as susceptible to message from official sources saying 'this is what you should like, go see it'. The cultural and historical reasons for this discrepancy are deep and complex, but a man in your position should know far more about this than me.

This also ties in with the argument in the thread above about whether omotenashi can be consistent with not altering the service to the customers tastes. I think that from a Western perspective omotenashi based on 'this is what is great, you will like it' is not omotenashi at all.

But from a Japanese perspective, omotenashi can indeed consist of getting people to recognize and appreciate quality. It ties in to Japan long artistic traditions and the greater consensus in Japan about what is good and worthy.

But you can't take a top-down a approach like that with Western audiences. If you say, 'this is great and the only reason you don't like it is because you don't understand it' you come across as unbelievably arrogant. This is because Western audience prioritize individual preferences, self-discovery and, in the context of travel, the generation of a unique experience that is not governed by official diktats on what they should see and do.

By way of example, take two of the most successfully examples of tourism growth among Westerners in Japan (and yes I realize the majority market is tourists from Asia, but I am not qualified really to comment on that). The two examples are ski-ing in and around Niseko and adventure tourists in Minakami, Gunma. While the latter is admittedly still a niche activity, both of these are useful case studies.

Both the Niseko and Minakami industries grew through a combination of foreign and local investors and entrepreneurs identifying areas where visitors to Japan could find for themselves a unique, enjoyable and reasonably priced experience. They have tailored the experience to the customers needs without defining for them precisely how they should enjoy themselves. A context is created and the customer exercises choice to enjoy themselves within that context. It is not top-down but grows organically based on individual preferences.

So how could this translate in to promoting amine, manga and other aspects of 'Cool Japan?'. I don't know. But there will be experts who do. And you need to hire them. And any efforts will clearly start through research to find what consumers might be interested in rather than saying 'look at this, we think its great, you should too'.

Let's get back to your French restaurant example. As someone has said, French restaurants may make allowances for Japanese tastes, but even if they don't French cuisine has already established a global reputation. Millions of Japanese customers already know they like French food and actively seek it out. So a comparison with Japan, which is in the position of trying to widen its appeal as a cultural force and as a tourist destination, quite obviously does not stand up at all.

Without foreign advice, you will fail to appreciate that overseas markets do not have the same characteristics as Japanese markets.

Take the issue of your proposal for every location to have its own local brand. That's a great idea for the domestic market, where the tradition of taking a domestic trip and returning home with the 'tokusanhin' is already well established. But is it realistic to expect overseas visitors and consumers to build up such a detailed mental landscape of Japan's different regions and products in a way that will meaningfully influence their purchasing behavior? I would suggest not. Apart from the level of knowledge and detail, which is unlikely to reach the level of the domestic consumer, we are once again in this top-down trap saying, this is what we have, this is great, you will like it.

All of the above structural problems will hamper your efforts, as will the ongoing tendency to use unwieldy (or just flat out incorrect English).

Get outside advice. Carry out market research. Find out how to create a space that guides but does not explicitly direct the consumer. Let the consumer exercise choice and build their own experiences.

There's your million dollars. You're welcome.

13 ( +13 / -0 )

jpn_guy articulated many of my thoughts on this matter. He obviously is not listening to 'outside' consultants otherwise the entire name of 'cool Japan' would have been changed. He is really not the right guy for the job - and that's the most polite thing I can say about him.

8 ( +8 / -0 )

Ota san.............sorry I also think from reading this your not the person for the job, seems like your just coasting, the job doesn't depend on success... it just exists & with a BAD name. LOSE the cool Japan thing, its totally UN-COOL, I know you didn't create it, but YOU should try to change it for starters.

and THEN hire Jpn-guy & you will much farther ahead than you are now which seems like a company/idea with no direction or goals

I wish you luck you will need it likley

2 ( +4 / -2 )

Anyway French cuisine is hardly French cuisine anymore- its modern cuisine- you'd be struggling to find a traditional Parisian cusine with only its rich complex sauces- they prefer to respond to other influences. Certainly no Provincial cuisine outside outside of the provences- just too simple.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

For example, if a French restaurant wants to open in Japan, do they consult Japanese experts? No. They also don’t create their menu and interior based on Japanese people’s preferences. They base it on their own brand’s image.

This is complete nonsense. As others mentioned above, restaurants clearly make choices to cater to Japanese tastes. The most obvious way is in spiciness, which is waaay toned down for Japanese tongues. Anyone who thinks "hot" food in a Japan-based Indian or Thai restaurant reflects what "hot" food in India or Thailand is, is crazy. Another is in how food gets eaten. Japanese people prefer not to touch their food with their hands, which has led to things like the paper pocket thing used to hold a hamburger in Japan-based restaurants. An overseas hamburger restaurant that doesn't offer those might be in trouble. Go to China or Taiwan (among other countries) and a lot of "street food" is served in take-out boxes and meant to be eaten while standing on the street. That never happens in Japan (except at a matsuri), so someone attempting to open one of those types of food stands would also likely be in trouble.

The point is, it's utter nonsense to state that foreign restaurants don't adapt to Japanese preferences and styles when opening locations here. It's a ruling principle of doing international business to study up on the host country's mannerisms. To not do that is a combination of stupidity and arrogance.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

The problem is the actual name "Cool Japan". Cool is something that comes naturally, not some campaign to make it so. Rename it to something like... The Promote Japan Fund.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

Replace the self important, another era, 60 + year old oyajis in leadership positions with younger, outward oriented and internationally experienced managment team willing to listen to non japanese advice ( ala the excellent jpn-guy post above ) and watch your "coolness " factor and return on investment shoot up. Unless of course this whole exercise is not really about getting value for the taxpayer funds spent on this but just about creating another body to park some of the amakudari army soldiers. Couldnt be ,could it?

3 ( +6 / -3 )

I was going to write something but jpn_guy knocked it out of the park...

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Definitely not the right guy for this job... First criteria is open mind and that is obviously lacking. Japan has a lot more to offer the world so ditch this guy and get someone who can really lead the effort. One thing to understand it is not about changing or even adjusting what you are trying to offer overseas but understanding what projects are most desirable or "cool" to overseas consumers and focusing your efforts on those projects.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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