Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

I was talking to Halley today about being cool. American's think they're pretty cool, but the Japanese are getting pretty cool these days too.

At the Japan dinner that I MC'ed this year, Tony Kobayashi, the former head of the Association of Corporate Executives talked about the Foreign Affairs article on Japan's Gross National Cool. Maybe Japan's coolness can save it. This was also the topic of the CNN interview that I did which should air any day now on CNN International when they find a boring day to fill. ;-p

Foreign Affairs
Japan’s Gross National Cool

Japan is reinventing superpower—again. Instead of collapsing beneath its widely reported political and economic misfortunes, Japan’s global cultural influence has quietly grown. From pop music to consumer electronics, architecture to fashion, and animation to cuisine, Japan looks more like a cultural superpower today than it did in the 1980s, when it was an economic one. But can Japan build on its mastery of medium to project an equally powerful national message?


I remember blogging that when it came out. Powerful stuff. Sort of reminds me of that PBS special on cool hunting. Rushkoff narrated, right?

The Japanese companies to watch here are the Sanrios (Hello Kitty) and Bandais (Pokemon/Yu Gi Oh) of the world, who seem to be able to make and market characters that are popular around the world with children and young adults and even many adults.

Of course Japanese anime and manga have been infiltrating further and further beyond Japan for quite some time now. Does anyone know how Weekly Jump is doing in the US? Have they started printing yet?

There is something really powerful about "kawaii"-ness. Within Japan it is like a religion. Outside of Japan, it seems to be growing like a weed.

That said, there's little to stop other companies from figuring out how to do "kawaii." I'd love to hear more thoughts on companies that have globally-powerful trademarked properties (Disney/United Features/etc.)

This is one key step that Japan can be making towards more of a knowledge economy, and away from manufacturing, albeit firmly within the intellectual property space.

I wonder how many lawyers Sanrio has fighting improper use of it's trademarks?

Japan has to get past the manufacturing mentality somehow. "Manufacturing" culture (or cool or whatever you want to call it) probably has more to do with the US economy and mindshare condinuing to be the dominant force worldwide.

Years ago when Japan exported Godzilla, Astroboy, samurai movies, "G Force", "Star Blazers", and lots of the other stuff us 30 somethings grew up on, most of us kids did not know we were consuming Japanese product. This of course is a brand management issue. Beyond anime/manga I'd say the same holds true of lots of cultural export today. I wonder how many Hello Kitty fans associate Sanrio with Japan?

The main problem I see is that Japanese companies seem to be reluctant to sell their content overseas, or not to even know it has much value outside Japan (the old "gaijin could never understand us" mentality). I dont know about in Europe, but in the US, the majority of translated anime/film/manga is imported by US companies looking for unique product rather than exported by Japanese companies. Good examples are Tokyo Pop who translate/publish lots of manga, Central Park Media, AnimEigo, Criterion/Home Vision Entertainment, AD Vision and others who translate/publish lots of anime and film. Pioneer Laser is one noteable exception of export in the case of anime.

The obvious successes at culture export while being known as Japanese companies are Nintendo, Sony and Konami, but outside of the videogame industry, only Bandai comes to mind. This may have something to do with the fact that outside of specialized niche markets, no one outside of Japan seems to be interested in consuming the muisc/fim/TV produced here. I think that has to do with the low production standards more than the quality of the "talent". Hollywood and the big 5 music companies do well exporting crap, but the US crap tends to look and sound more professional (IMNSHO).

Maybe I'm wrong about all this and the culture factories can continue doing just fine without developing global brand recognition. In any case, I sure would like to see more of a shift in that direction. It sure would do alot for the bottom line of industry.

That last post kind of leads me into an issue I've been curious about for some time: the death of japan's big movie studios. It is a mystery to me how tiny Hong Kong can make movies like "Hero" and "Shaolin Soccer" with incredible special effects and all the gloss in the world, but the average new Japanese film I pick up looks like it's one step away from a student film (as far as production quality).

Why can Square hook up with Hollywood and blow millions on a "Final Fantasy" movie that essentially flopped, but few companies/producers seem willing to pony up the cash for really great Japanese films unaffiliated with Hollywood? Sure, the original "The Ring" was okay, and I enjoyed "Battle Royale," but they both still looked cheap and cobbled together on a shoe string budget. With all the money in Japan that goes to shiny new superstructures in Roppongi and new robot pets, surely someone can inject some cash into the japanese film industry.

All that said, Japan does indeed have an above average cool rating internationally. Now, as Chris B said, people in Japan need to just figure out that the world is ready to consume mass amounts of Japanese cool...and it doesn't have to be "by accident" slipping upwards through the cracks in the underground culture.


yup, on my trip to SIGGRAPH this year, i walked into a comic store... and yup, i saw Shonen JUMP there... exact weekly telephone book thick format as it is here. was impressed. lots of other manga in the store too. this is san diego too!

anime and manga has picked up BIG time in the US. the anime DVD section is pretty large... can find an anime DVD section in almost any DVD store... unlike the age of video tapes...

japan is getting cool again... all by accident again... dragonball and pokemon... when i was in school, i wanted to be here with dragonball... now i am here, it's over there... i just can't win... :-)

btw joi, not cool to say: my spot is cool enough to fill in space they can't find anything else cool enough for... so, how "cool" is it?! ;-)

This new (at least rather new to me) trend in the analysis of the japanese situation is rather refreshing. Not really surprising, as the long-lasting trend of bad news and pessimistic-realistic articles on the economic situation called for something "new", but still, refreshing.

I have been thinking for a while that the japanese cultureal background, especially confucianism, could very well be (in spite of the partial and incorrect idea that confucianism necessarily implies a group-based culture of mindless drones) the best ground for the development of a new, reasonable individualism and related culture.

At first glance one could think that the youth responsible for this renewal of the japanese (pop, and thus cool) culture merges into the salaryman scheme as soon as one becomes a "shakaijin", but I think this is not true (at least less and less true): there is a whole generation in their 30s (and a generation of twenty-something) that is experimenting new ways of integrating (or should I say cohabitating with?) the japanese society - call them the superflat generation if you wish. I haven't been around long enough to know if this is a long-term trend, though...

What I'm pleased to see is that this generation and the culture they represent is gaining momentum and influence, if not power. Makes me want to start art/culture/business ventures everytime I discuss it.

I doubt this is the kind of feeling a "doomed japan" would create.

Japan - the nation ever so good at copying, changing, and churning out a better and brighter version. But making an original, its "unique own"? Only in extremely rare occasions. If the GNC is built upon a framework extended from other cultures, how far can this honestly take us? With little regard for intellectual property as a core asset (even Sony runs its R&D like a manufacturing plant), this "movement" just looks like a puff-cloud. Unless of course this new direction causes the "great collapse/massive destruction" that Joi has been calling for (although that seems to have waned in the past few months) :)

All this coolness doesn't come out of nothing... one visit to a Comic Market convention...

pounds into your head that there a LOT of "freeta" (underemployed) developing the skills necessary to break into the chara design industry.

Japan-- They have anime, what's not to like?

Japan-- They have anime, what's not to like?

Japan-- They have anime, what's not to like?

fyi, you should correct the reference on your blog. the original "Japan's Gross National Cool" piece ran in Foreign Policy magazine in 2002, not in Foreign Affairs (which would never have the imagination to run an article like that one).

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Is Japan Cool? from Gen Kanai weblog
August 7, 2003 2:33 PM

Some on my thoughts on Japan and being cool are on Joi's site. Joi Ito's Web: Japan's Gross National Cool... Read More