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