It's been 50 years since Kyu Sakamoto's "Sukiyaki Song" became a worldwide smash. The only other Asian artist to replicate the feat? Psy, from rival South Korea, with his viral hit "Gangnam Style."
Even as Korean tech giant Samsung turns Sony into a has-been, Japan's erstwhile colony is also beating it in the pop culture sphere: A decade after journalist Douglas McGray famously calculated "Japan's Gross National Cool" and awoke the country to the potential of capitalizing on the global infatuation with its anime, games, J-pop, and manga, the concept of "Cool Japan" is under assault.
Artists whose work drove the trend are distancing themselves from the commercialized moniker. "Dear ad agencies and bureaucrats," tweeted renowned artist Takashi Murakami earlier this year. "Please stop inviting me to 'Cool Japan' events.... I have absolutely no link to 'Cool Japan.' "
But others say a more nuanced drive to deploy Japan's national cool as "soft power" could help heal the wounds of its devastating 2011 tsunami, smooth the creation of a postindustrial economy, and even boost Japan's manufacturers at a time when the country is competing with neighboring South Korea and China over everything from electronics to islands in the seas separating them.
Without such a change of strategy, some say, Japan's dream of cashing in on its global cachet will remain unrealized. "Japan was caught completely by surprise by the success of its popular culture overseas," warns Patrick Galbraith, an expert on Japanese pop culture. "The government has been content to bask in that success at a time of declining political and economic significance. It is high time to engage."
At the turn of the millennium, Japan was on a roll. In 2001, Los Angeles's Getty Center showcased Mr. Murakami's manga-inspired "Super Flat" movement. In 2002, Hayao Miyazaki's "Spirited Away" became the first animation feature to win top honors at the Berlin Film Festival. By 2006, Harvard and MIT had a joint Cool Japan research program.
Elated by the international attention, Japan's bureaucrats and CEOs reformulated the concept of "national cool" into a Cool Japan marketing campaign that could reach new consumers and add soft power to Japan's manufacturing achievements. And it seemed to work ... for a while.
Leading media soon had Cool Japan columns and programs. Tourists were invited to the country for Cool Japan tours and seminars, with obligatory stops at the kawaii (cute) capital, Harajuku, and the anime-drenched district of Akihabara.
How Things Backfired
But the hoped-for revenue streams didn't pan out. North American manga sales peaked in 2007 and then declined, resulting in a wave of layoffs at international manga distributors. (Read more Monitor reporting on the rise of manga here)
According to the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry's 2012 "Cool Japan Strategy" white paper, Japan exports only 5 percent of its Cool Japan contents – not quite one-third of US creative industries' 17.8 percent.
The industry created a bubble that has now burst, says Mr. Galbraith, author of "The Otaku Encyclopedia: An Insider's Guide to the Subculture of Cool Japan." "Some say anime is dead," he observes in Tokyo, "while others who still like it say it's overpriced, and end up illegally streaming it."
Even Japan's mighty video games are losing their worldwide cachet. Legendary game designer Keiji Inafune was recently accused of having a "Charlie Sheen moment" in his calls for Japanese studios to wake up to their growing irrelevance.
The marketing of the phrase Cool Japan itself creates an awkward problem: "To call yourself cool is by definition uncool – and it defies Japanese modesty," says Manabu Kitawaki, director of Meiji University's Cool Japan program.