We haven’t checked in with Cool Japan lately. Back in 2013 when it first launched, we were optimistic that the various “cool” elements of Japanese culture such as manga, anime, and music were about to get government backing to expand overseas.
Two years later in 2015 the only thing Cool Japan seemed to be good at was playing it cool and keeping deathly quiet. It was enough to enrage musician and celebrity of refined tastes, Gackt, to launch a harsh criticism of the organization that once promised to help his industry.
“The Japanese government made a new attempt at this in the name of Cool Japan, but while they have set up a huge budget for it, they have no idea where that money should go. It’s no exaggeration to say it has fallen into a downward spiral of wasted tax money flowing into little known companies.
But the Cool Japan budget is still floating in the air. Who the hell is this budget for? I wonder if anyone living in Japan actually understands what Cool Japan does. I wonder what Cool Japan does. How many people can clearly answer that question?”
Indeed, back then a search of the Cool Japan website yielded promotions of abacus and gauze makers rather than, say, the "Naruto" musical which was playing overseas at the time. But that was back in 2015, perhaps shaken by Gackt’s drubbing, the Cool Japan Organization has stepped up their game since then.
Recently, journalist Joji Harano with Gendai Business wrote an update on Cool Japan, highlighting a few of its endeavors as of 2017. According to the article, two of Cool Japan’s major investments underway are Wakuwaku Japan and an Iseten department store in Malaysia.
Wakuwaku Japan is a satellite television channel which shows nothing but Japanese programming round the clock in the language of the Asian countries in which it airs. It’s actually a great idea… in theory. In reality it’s about half-a-dozen decent shows like The World Unknown to Matsuko and Signal on repeat, 24-7. The rest of the time its rather heavy-handed tourism promotion which no one is dying to see.
▼ However, I will admit this commercial is kind of cool.
Of course, getting the “come to Japan” message is an important factor of this project, but getting butts in front of the TV really should be job number one. Securing rights to really great shows like "GameCenter CX," "Geinojin Kakudzuke Check!" or "Gaki no Tsukai" (blackface scandal notwithstanding) should have been taken care of before the channel even launched or the mission should have been aborted.
At the very least, they should have gotten some of NHK’s popular shows like "Pitagora Switch." Considering they are the public broadcaster of Japan and Wakuwaku is a government backed channel, you’d think it’d be an easy arrangement.
But no, and as a result ratings for Wakuwaku are said to be lagging and the channel is currently in the red. Still, you could argue it was huge success compared to All Nippon Entertainment Works (ANEW).
ANEW was founded in 2011, when Cool Japan as we now know it was still germinating, with a cash injection of 6 billion yen from the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI). Its mission was to produce movies and eventually become a Hollywood studio, introducing Japanese filmmakers and franchises to western audience.
The initial investment got a starting line-up of seven films off the ground. However, due to chaos in the management of ANEW, not one movie was made. Having not made a single yen in profit, the government sold ANEW to a venture capital firm in 2017 for the low, low price of 34 million in order to cut losses. When all was said and done, 2.2 billion yen of tax revenue had been used up with absolutely nothing to show for it.
The other flagship endeavor of Cool Japan is Isetan the Japan Store, a five-floor department store in the heart of Kuala Lumpur stocked only with Japanese goods. Again, on paper this isn’t a bad idea. In China someone did the same thing, and despite everything being fake, it was very successful.
But if I were to describe Isetan in one word… it’d be unremarkable. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fine department store, but that’s all it is really. I’d never recommend Isetan to anyone for any particular reason, and come to think of it I wouldn’t even know how to get to the nearest Isetan from where I am.
Really it’s just a regular department store, and I’ve never been to Malaysia but I have to assume they already have department stores there. Not only that, but I’m going to make the rather safe assumption that everything in Isetan the Japan Store is more expensive too.
To make matters worse, Malaysia is said to be a sort of Bermuda Triangle for Japanese goods and services where 70 percent fail in the first three years. Opening an all-Japanese megastore seems like attempting to sail the Titanic into this Bermuda Triangle, no matter how superior a Japanese potato peeler may be.
Overall, Harano paints a pretty bleak picture of Cool Japan’s situation stating that among all of it’s 52.9 billion yen in public and private money invested in 25 projects, Cool Japan is operating at a loss of 4.4 billion yen.
But there are some points that should be made in Cool Japan’s defense. First, the project is set for a ten-year period after which it will be assessed. Since we’re only at the half-way point, it may be unfair to judge them just yet.
Secondly, Cool Japan themselves would probably be quick to point out that a secondary aim was to promote inbound tourism, and tourism to Japan has never been stronger.
How much of a hand Cool Japan had in that is unclear, but it’s a bit of a moot point anyway since the primary aim is to set up viable Japanese industries abroad.
Opening businesses in foreign lands can be risky business, so losses shouldn’t be a surprise. However, as seen by the examples above, the choices Cool Japan has made when it comes to what to export, have been downright mystifying.
Rather than opening up Japanese businesses in other countries, why not focus on ones that already have a foothold for a greater chance of success?
For example, Yoshinoya has already made some inroads in foreign countries, suggesting that it is viable there. By making a relatively low-risk investment in Yoshinoya’s expansion overseas, Cool Japan could turn a quicker profit which could then be used for incrementally more risky ventures like, say, bringing Coco Ichi or Kurazushi abroad… then focus on the department stores and abacuses.
Or how about Universal Studios Japan’s annual line-up of pop-culture themed attractions coincidentally also called “Cool Japan?” How much more of an obvious opportunity to export Japanese culture and make money in the process can there be than by the Cool Japan Organization investing in bringing Cool Japan attractions to Universal Studio parks in the U.S.?
These are just two ideas off the top of my head. I imagine given time to really think about it, there are even better ideas to promote Japanese culture while establishing profitable enterprises. In other words, what Cool Japan is trying to do doesn’t really seem that hard.
Some would suggest that this situation is a sign Cool Japan is either grossly incompetent or corrupt, but I’ll just say they are under-performing for the time being. There’s still five more years until its day of reckoning, during which a lot a lot of cool things can still happen.
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