Lately, the idea floating around Tokyo bureaus of major Western publications is, hey Japan’s economy has totally bottomed-out, but they can start exporting “cool”! One shouldn’t expect too much cutting-edge thought from foreign journalism on Japan (or maybe, from domestic journalism either), but for some reason, people who should know better are starting to seriously discuss the “gross national cool” (GNC) idea. The folks over at JETRO just penned this praise of the idea this February.
Yes, manga and anime are doing amazingly well in the West. When I was in high-school a decade ago, my local Blockbuster had maybe three anime videos. Now, Fox’s Saturday morning lineup is basically all Japanese cartoons — even those so culturally Japanese that they are totally incomprehensible to kids in Iowa. I think one has some kind of talking tofu. One may hesitate to use the word “cool” when discussing anime, but clearly, Japan deserves some points for making their animation a world-class product.
The essential idea of the GNC argument is correct: Japan is no longer an imitator, but an authentic source of global popular culture. However, the proponents of the theory have evidently not spent time on the streets of Tokyo lately, because the creativity they believe can be used to reverse the trade balance is evaporating.
For a country to be a “exporter” of culture, the structure must be ready to constantly export high-level products out to the world. So, yes, A Bathing Ape and Goodenough and Hysteric Glamour were great, innovative brands in the late ’90s. But who’s the next set? No one. There is an embarrassing amount of stagnation in the youth fashion market right now, and it’s only getting worse. There are less and less young people overall, and they care less and less about fashion and music. Meanwhile, there are probably hundreds of new brands launched every year, but tastes are collecting more and more with the foreign superbrands like Louis Vuitton and Gucci. If any brands have been big in the street market, it’s Silas and Supreme, which aren’t even Japanese. Balance Wear Design seems to be the only new, non-Fujiwara affiliated brand with any kind of popularity.
JETRO thinks that economic insecurity breeds creativity, but in Japan’s case, those artists with Western acclaim all came to age in the super-rich Bubble economy. Also, the “freeter” of the recession era have not been able to surpass their big brothers at all. Everyone who is selling now was crowned during a time of relative prosperity.
From the GNC argument perspective, everyone in the hip hop, reggae, and punk subcultures is immediately disqualified from consideration because these are un-exportable, domesticated rehashes of originally mediocre culture. No one in the U.S. will ever listen to Orange Range or 175R. As these genres dominate more and more of the market, you can scratch music from our GNC list.
So maybe Undercover will become the next Comme des Garcons. Great. It doesn’t matter: The sales of all cultural exports will not make up for Japan’s shrinking industrial sectors, waning skill at incremental innovation, or lack of Net-fluency. If anything, Japan’s horribly protectionist industries have set back the population to an irreversible degree. Phone companies worked hard to get customers to use the “internet” on their cellphones, which is set up to be full of hidden charges. They are now out of touch with the rest of the net-connected world, and the high phone bills are crushing the music and fashion industries — which relied primarily on young people’s pocket money. In response to lagging sales, the music industry has decided to go on the safe side and only sign the most talentless hacks, none of whom are selling particularly well. Except for orange range, who again, you can’t sell overseas.
I personally got into japan in the mid-’90s because it was “cool,” and a GNC argument would have been perfectly valid in 1998 or so. But it’s nearly rubbish now in 2004, since Japan is getting less and less cool. The world is currently entranced by Japan in almost a five-year lag, and this interest will only become permanent if Japanese firms actually make a real effort to support interesting artists right now. So, before i am convinced that the GNC is a real, valid theory and not just a catchy, but ultimately anachronistic piece of copy, I need to see examples of innovators in the current 2004 market.
(For reference, here is a link to the original “Gross National Cool” article by Douglas McGray)