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Chronicles of Coolness

From Anime to J-Pop, Japan is In

April 14, 2004


TOKYO -- Cute animal characters roam about amid full-size figures of robots and action heroines busting out of their halter tops. Posters advertise titles such as "Rave Master," "Fullmetal Alchemist" and "Creamy Mami." One exhibit, built like a haunted house, is so popular there's a line to get in.

This isn't a theme park and the people wandering the aisles are not tourists on holiday; they're businesspeople in suits, carrying briefcases and hoping to make deals. It's the Tokyo International Anime Fair, held recently over four days, and even the American television networks sent people.

Japan's unique form of animation -- known as anime, pronounced a-nee-may -- is just one aspect of Japanese pop culture being embraced by the young and the hip around the world. From food and fashion to art, video games, "J-pop" music and manga, or comics -- if it's Japanese, it's in.

"The influence of 'all things Japan' on American culture has hit an all-time high," Kristien Brada-Thompson, a spokesperson for Los Angeles-based manga distributor TOKYOPOP Inc., said in e-mailed comments. "Manga (and especially its animated counterpart, anime) is everywhere ... and I believe we're just now seeing the start of it."

This new image, as the purveyor of all things cool, is a sharp turnaround for a country that has endured persistent negative stereotypes in Western culture on top of being beaten down by one recession after another in the last decade. It is now helping to buoy the collective mood as the economy shows signs of entering the first sustainable recovery in a long time.

"In the past, most foreigners' image of Japan was of an economic animal or people with teeth sticking out, wearing suits all the time," said Masakazu Kubo, the man behind the worldwide Pokemon phenomenon. "But foreigners' perception of Japan has changed. Because Japanese anime and games are going to overseas markets, foreign kids think Japan is a cool country."

Being cool has not only been good for the national self-esteem, it's been good business.

Anime alone is a $19 billion industry. The total size of the content industry, as it's called here, is about $106 billion, accounting for 2 percent of Japan's GDP. It's twice the size of Japan's steel industry and half the size of its car industry. Growth in exports of cultural products has been explosive, tripling to $12.5 billion from 1992 to 2002 while overall exports grew by only 21 percent, according to the Marubeni Research Institute.

To be sure, cultural products accounted for a tiny 2.9 percent of exports, but exporting culture can achieve something that selling all the cars and cameras in the world can't. It's called "soft power."

The term was first coined by Harvard University's Joseph S. Nye Jr. in 1990 and refers to the non-traditional ways a country can spread influence. The United States is the world's premier soft power, with its values, movies and blue jeans coveted and admired by people across the globe.

Although it still has the world's second-largest economy, Japan is no longer the economic superpower it was in the 1980s. Now more Japanese are talking about becoming a cultural superpower as a way to regain that influence and possibly even as a way out of its decade-long economic stagnation.

"Traditionally, America has taken this role," said Kubo, the creative director of publishing house Shogakukan Inc. "Maybe Japan must attach more importance to becoming a soft power from now on."

Already, Japan is headed down that path. More people are studying the Japanese language, according to the Marubeni Research Institute. More people are visiting Japan. Even Hollywood has jumped on the bandwagon.

In Sofia Coppola's Oscar-winning "Lost in Translation," the city of Tokyo -- its bright lights and go-go nightlife -- is practically a co-star. Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill" and the Tom Cruise vehicle, "The Last Samurai" are also set in Japan, though vastly different versions of it.

What's cool in America still matters here though. In an ironic twist, Japanese products that were ordinary when they were exported have come back, refracted through the American cultural prism, as cool.

"In the past, not many people noticed anime and manga could be that influential because it's been around so long," Kubo said. "They're noticing it now because America has noticed it."

As a result, anime is suddenly no longer just for the otaku, or nerds. Even Japanese men, lagging far behind their female counterparts in attracting foreigners of the opposite sex, have become more attractive, according to media here. The headline of a recent article in Aera, a leading weekly news magazine, read: "Japanese men are attracting foreign women. Made in Japan is popular."

Some credit "The Last Samurai" for giving a boost to Japanese masculinity. Certainly it has helped revive interest in bushido, the samurai code, and set off a small boom in sales of "Bushido: The Soul of Japan," the classic book on the topic.

How foreigners view Japan matters deeply to them.

"Japanese are so hyper-sensitive and cautious about how Westerners see them," said Yuko Kawanishi, a sociologist at Tokyo Gakugei University. "They've been mostly disappointed with the Western portrayal of Japan."

During the bubble years of the 1980s, Japanese were brimming with self-confidence, even arrogance. But the last dozen years of repeated recession and record unemployment, coupled with the rise of China, has weighed heavily on the Japanese psyche.

"The rising sun next door, which is China, has great economic potential," she said. "That awareness makes Japanese people think maybe our time is over."

Now that Japan is cool, "it's very flattering and self-assuring," she said.

Yet at the same time, Japanese are baffled as to why foreigners find their pop culture so "cool." Over at the Japan External Trade Organization, or JETRO, as they're trying to capitalize on the phenomenon, they admit they don't fully understand it.

"Recently, it's a boom. We want to ask foreigners why," said Makoto Kimura, head of JETRO's foreign trade division, which started promoting exports of cultural products only last year.

He says he watched anime as a kid but never thought it was especially cool.

"Maybe foreigners think it's cool because it's exotic," he said, taking a stab. "But more than that, maybe the high-tech is appealing. Maybe orientalism plus digitalism equals coolness."

Whatever the reason, manga is no longer a cult-like fad found only in specialty bookshops; it's available at a Wal-Mart near you. Revenue for TOKYOPOP, which distributes Japanese manga, music and videos, has doubled every year since the company started in 1996, said Brada-Thompson. Total manga sales in the United States were estimated at $100 million last year.

In Kubo's wildest fantasies, manga is the path to world peace.

"Since American kids have that perception (that Japan is a cool country), when they grow up, Japan and the United States can retain good relations," he said.

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