Gross National Cool: A Japanese Response

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Freelance journalist Douglas McGray’s 2002 article for Foreign PolicyJapan’s Gross National Cool” (GNC) introduced an extremely intriguing idea to Japanese policy makers: Can Japan revive its economic outlook by becoming a content-providing cultural superpower? McGray’s point is certainly on-target: Japan’s cultural exports increased from ¥500 billion in 1992 to ¥1.5 trillion in 2002, while the total amount of exports went up only 21% for the same period. In the past, I’ve claimed that cultural exports could never rival the steel industry or other heavy industries, but check this: The Japanese content industry is a ¥14 billion business, compared with the measly ¥5 billion of steel.

To quote Sly Stone, “There’s only one way out of this mess/Knock the corners off the squares.” Dig, man, Japanese cool is going to save us, say a whole legion of Japanese critics and scholars, and seeing that Puffy Amiyumi have their own TV show in the USA and kids are all reading their comics from right-to-left, there’s certainly something to this idea.

The other day, out of nowhere, someone dropped the Japanese scholar Kawamata Keiko‘s new paper “The Current State of the Japanese Content Industries” on my desk, and to my surprise, Kawamata asks the exact question that has been plaguing me about GNC for the last three years: How can Japan’s cultural industries be expected to save the economy when almost all cultural markets have been declining since the late ’90s? From music to comics to fashion, business has been steadily falling.

Each particular media has its own particular reasons for decline, but the low birth rate is responsible for vastly undermining the creation of new consumers. Traditionally, music, games, and comics have been youth-centered markets, so with less young people total, there are less possible consumers, and with high cellular phone charges and general economic sluggishness, the kids who have managed to be born have less pocket money for culture than those a decade ago. The music industry has responded by releasing cover versions of old songs in order to target consumers in their ’40s and ’50s — not exactly a new source of innovation.

The game industry has been in decline since 1997 (Kawamata 7), although the new consoles will no doubt provide a lift in the near future. Films are doing much better than before due to the convenience of new suburban cinemaplexes (11), but the business is still 1/7th of what it was in the 1950s (12). Anime got a huge boost through DVD sales in 2002, but 2003 sales failed to break the ¥200 billion mark (13). Plus, television anime viewing rates are down, and an overproduction of titles has lead to a decline in quality (14). Magazine sales are way down (19), and seeing that magazines provide the blueprint and instructions for all consumer behavior, this cannot possibly help the consumer markets on the whole.

In her conclusion, Kawamata states that it is difficult to be optimistic about the content industries (23), and the reasons for this decline — less youth, bad economic conditions, and high phone prices — are not just temporary problems, but nearly permanent ones. The market needs to cultivate new producers, she warns, but desperate industries generally do not place their resources into long-run development.

Although I chide Puffy for getting to America eight years after their Japanese success, they were an authentically high-quality pop cultural product — due entirely from Sony giving producer Okuda Tamio the freedom to produce them in a new and innovative way. Today there are no innovative producers like Okuda who have the past-results to win freedom from profit-motivated corporate boardrooms. There’s no money to take risks, and so now in 2005, there are few innovative artists attractive to foreigners in the Japanese music market with high-sales. Today’s hit artists are usually tomorrow’s producers, so nothing innovative now may mean no new producers being primed for interesting work in the future.

The content industry could be ripe for development into a even larger export industry, but the culture created in the industry’s current decline is much less exportable than that made in its peak. Will the Japanese government respond with a long-term plan to boost exportable goods or just let the industry attempt to do it at their own increasingly-limping pace?

The stats used in the piece all come from Kawamata Keiko’s paper, “The Current State of the Japanese Content Industries”.

Marxy wrote a lot of essays back on his old site Néomarxisme. This is one of them.

18 Responses

  1. Momus Says:

    Interesting. I like that you’ve nuanced your analysis a bit this time.

  2. marxy Says:

    I can’t tell if you’re being sarcastic.


    One of the greatest segments from the Simpsons. Ever.

    ALTERNADUDE 1: Oh, here comes that cannonball guy. He’s cool.
    ALTERNADUDE 2: Are you being sarcastic, dude?
    ALTERNADUDE 1: I don’t even know anymore…

  3. Sho Says:

    Even if it’s in decline, it’s probably still the best place to be if you want to make music. I mean, where the hell else is there?

    Sho

  4. Dave Says:

    Hmmmm. I would guess that outside a small circle, very few people in Japan make ‘culture’ for export. (Nothing wrong with that either.)

    If you want to turn GNC into a growing industry it means making plans, targeting markets etc. So it’s really attractive to go after areas that have been past successes because you know what the likely payoffs, risks, timing, and so on might be. (This is why the cookie-cutter sequel is so attractive to a business manger- who in the end is only looking after the shareholders money, even if they personally think the product is crap.)

    So the whole idea is to go into new areas in markets and countries that the Japanese don’t understand.

    i-mode was recently launched in Australia. Sadly, I don’t think that the Japanese culture came along with the ideas, and I wonder if it won’t fail as quickly as WAP did. (No fault to Japan either.)

    Marxy, do you think that there are Japanese people that want to take ‘Gross National Cool’ outside Japan? Or is it going to be outsiders coming in, licensing the cool and making a biggish chunk of money themselves? How keen are Japanese people (young or old) to take their version of global culture to the rest of the world?

  5. marxy Says:

    How keen are Japanese people (young or old) to take their version of global culture to the rest of the world?

    I think the whole idea is that unbeknownst to the Japanese, Japanese “cool” began selling around the world in the 90s, and the original companies did make a lot from the licensing (like Kodansha and the other manga houses.) Now organizations like JETRO are trying to move it into an intentional export strategy. I’ve only really been interested in the concept in terms of exporting, seeing that having a content industry in itself isn’t such a big deal.

    If you want to turn GNC into a growing industry it means making plans, targeting markets etc.

    Yep, but this isn’t a national issue so far, just one for individual firms. And so who gets pushed to America? Utada Hikaru. That didn’t work. Next will be Boa…

    Then Sho said…

    Even if it’s in decline, it’s probably still the best place to be if you want to make music. I mean, where the hell else is there?

    I don’t understand the logic here. Japanese instrument stores are terribly expensive, the noruma at clubs are extremely high, rehearsel space gets pricey, cd dup prices are high, fans are hard to accumulate until you have a hit, jimusho are all controlled by the mafia or act as if they are, everyone has a hand in your pocket from day one, you have to pay to get reviewed in magazines… if you just want to make music, a house with a garage in Nebraska will probably do the trick.

  6. Momobuta Says:

    I wonder why Pokemon’s US explosion wasn’t lesson enough for Japanese businessmen.

  7. Momus Says:

    One of the greatest segments from the Simpsons. Ever.

    Speaking of The Simpsons, I can tell you that the two biggest influences on my nephew and niece, both born in the 90s, are The Simpsons (they can recite whole episodes by heart) and Japanese culture (particularly video games). These are Scottish kids who’ve never been to Japan (but are so jealous when I say “I’ll be there next week!”). They’re also tomorrow’s market for Japanese cultural goods (and Simpsons mugs).

  8. marxy Says:

    I think those who can export – game, anime, and manga makes – do export and make a lot of money. As I wrote in the article, the content export business tripled without anyone being conscious of a Gross National Cool. Now some of the other content industries without previous foreign success – especially the music biz – are saying, why can’t we export too?

    Japan makes good science fiction and children’s products by the standards of the West. Japan makes bad pop music by the standards of the West.

    Japanese companies do not really understand the standards of the West, and what they intentionally send abroad usually doesn’t work. I don’t think they knew Pokemon was going to explode like it did, but Nintendo responded quickly because of 15 years of experience in the American market. It’s also important to remember that Japan’s greatest global successes are still mainly in cultural fields for children.

    So, I’m not sure what you can learn from Pokemon that isn’t already obvious. Hopefully, Japanese companies won’t just extrapolate from the Pikachu boom that all Japanese products could have overseas success if marketed properly (cough, cough, Utada Hikaru, cough).

  9. marxy Says:

    They’re also tomorrow’s market for Japanese cultural goods (and Simpsons mugs).

    This raises a good question: are the Japanese only good at making children’s products, or will children raised on Japanese products now like Japan’s adult products when they grow older?

    I would say from personal experience: Japan is mainly good at making products for kids and teenages, but not for mature adults. One of my greatest subjective flaws in analyzing Japanese culture is that I am “over” the superficial, kid-oriented stuff that I liked a lot seven or eight years ago. There aren’t a lot of mainstream artists here trying to subversively make pop culture into “art” (especially post-90s), and there aren’t Chuck Klosterman types doing stoner intellectual/critical reappraisals of bad pop culture.

    The Simpsons can amazingly appeal to kids and adults, which is very rare in Japanese products. Adults in Japan aren’t supposed to be watching TV or listening to music, so there’s not much targeting them – no Sopranos or even CSI or something as dry as the Office. We often talk about how brainless Japanese culture is but that’s a misreading: it’s childish and not really intended to be for mature adults.

  10. marxy Says:

    Japan also lacks a huge class of “over-educated” liberal arts majors who want to feel rewarded by having difficult references to obscure writers on their television shows. Pynchon’s been on the Simpsons twice. Can you imagine Crayon Shin Chan or Chibi Maruko referencing Nosaka Akiyuki?

  11. farley Says:

    Japanese adult products? Adult entertainment? Weren’t we just talking about that?
    It is interesting that you are talking about how Japanese cultural products are most successful when they target young people. Incidentally, this is what Murakami’s “Little Boy” show is all about. (Have you had a chance to read the essays in the book that goes with the exhibition? – really more interesting than the show itself.)
    I think that one effect of the continuing intrusion of consumerist ways of thinking into our daily lives is that people act and think more like children. Certainly this is visible in america where it is now considered acceptable for adults to play video games and listen to pop music that a generation ago would only have been marketed to teenagers. I have mixed feelings towards this; a childish society is easily be lead around by corrupt leaders, but it may also have the energy and creativity that is needed to reinvent itself.
    Anyway, if this cultural trend continues the Japanese won’t have any trouble selling their products there.
    Also I wonder what kind of impact foreign consumers have on the Japanese Indies music scene. They must make up a good percentage of the market. You can buy a good deal of J-indies music in stores like OtherMusic in NY. I mean, if you look at crossover groups like the Boredoms; they probably would not have been able to do the same things they have done if they relied only on Japanese consumers for income and recognition. I don’t want to discredit them or the Japanese scene- the Osaka scene alone supported them in their critical early years where they recorded some amazing music and drove forklifts through live house walls…
    There are parallels to this in the Japanese art world as well. I don’t want to be harshly critical; it is natural for artists or musicians to take advantage of an existing market, but it does seem that GNC is largely fueled by forces originating outside Japan.

  12. marxy Says:

    Certainly this is visible in america where it is now considered acceptable for adults to play video games and listen to pop music that a generation ago would only have been marketed to teenagers.

    At least for pop music, this happened in the 60s, but the end product was a synthesis between TEENAGE POP + HIGH ART IDEAS = PROGRESSIVE POP. So adults went pop and pop went adult. It’s hard to say that a game like GTA is really “kids’ stuff.” American pop culture is for kids AND adults, not just for adults acting like kids.

    the Boredoms probably would not have been able to do the same things they have done if they relied only on Japanese consumers for income and recognition.

    This is what’s great about the Japanese-Western cultural exchange. They organize and curate our old stuff, and we champion Japanese bands who fall through the cracks of the Japanese market-based value system. Another nice benefit in the past was that Japanese consumers actually bought all the stuff that only the cultural cognoscenti in America adored, so a lot of very good artists ignored at home won commercial support in Japan. The economic downturn is kind of ending this.

    Marxy self-criticism and new revelation: so maybe it’s silly that I’m constantly criticizing Japan when Japan only has value within a larger international system. However, I do fear that Japan is drifting further away from the rest of the world, which is bad for Japan and for the rest of us.

  13. ndkent Says:

    >Although I chide Puffy for getting to America eight years after their Japanese success,

    What’s there to chide them about. It’s a wholly american series clearly spawned because American TV creators recognized their appeal then initially confirmed that appeal by a theme song commission for another animated series. Though I guess that didn’t happen not as as the bloggers who talk of their discovery of then 2 or 3 year old albums back in 1998 and talk about it now would expect.

    Though one has to say that Sony themselves had been trying several years and even with I guess my unwitting help (as evidenced in the link), didn’t get very far
    http://www.artskool.biz/jem/puffy/

    What is significant of course will be that small children will amass years of familiarity with the sounds of Japanese language J-Pop through animation and will likely develop into consumers of more than Puffy.

    As for content, it of course doesn’t exist in a vacuume free of platform and distribution. The synergy of the 3 need to be in place if one is to be a full leader rather than following others. Of course you can get into all sorts of debates over domestic, imported and subcontracted product.

  14. marxy Says:

    Though I guess that didn’t happen not as as the bloggers who talk of their discovery of then 2 or 3 year old albums back in 1998 and talk about it now would expect.

    Hey, watch it. I discovered Puffy real time back in the summer of 1996. I would have loved for them to come to America in the 90s, but they didn’t arrive until way after my fandom expired. Actually, they’re got to the States right when any remaining Japanese fandom had already evaporated. They’re only on TV now because of America… so I guess the strategy worked.

  15. rachael Says:

    there was a whole ‘cool britannia’ thing going on in the 90s, which you probably know already. i thought of it because it sounds similar to the idea you’re proposing here, though perhaps less concrete in plan.

    tony blair even referred to it in a speech, so i guess it was “official”.

    one of the magazines which really pushed this idea, the face, with its damon albarn/gallagher brother covers, of course sadly ceased publication this year, signalling the death of cool britannia for sure.

    http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2004/08/13/1092340473823.html?from=storyrhs&oneclick=true

  16. johnty Says:

    I read a newspaper article not long ago saying the MoForeign Affairs (外務省) and their new scheme to give money to television broadcasting companies in developing countries(途上国), in order for them to be able to buy the rather expensive broadcasting rights to popular Japanese amines (The examples they used were the big international sellers, ##-Monsters, Digimon, DragonBallz). The money they would use to do this apparently would come from the ‘Cultural Property’ fund part of Japan’s ODA (文化無償協力). About 1 billion yen (oku) or so planned.

    The article was short, and had little editorial content, so not sure how clearly the irony of ODA money being given directly to Japanese anime production houses was described.

    Also, for some reason while reading the article the phrase ‘Cultural Imperialism’ floated up from my subconcsious, though it was soon replaced by ‘Aggressive/Predatory Capitalism’. Anyway, it’s apparently not just JETRO getting in on this scene.

    The article 見出し;日本発アニメODAで支援
    In the Asahi Shinbun.

  17. ndkent Says:

    >Hey, watch it. I discovered Puffy real time back in the summer of 1996. I would have loved for them to come to America in the 90s, but they didn’t arrive until way after my fandom expired. Actually, they’re got to the States right when any remaining Japanese fandom had already evaporated. They’re only on TV now because of America… so I guess the strategy worked.

    FWIW – I knew there work in 1996 because Rodney was doing their illustrations (their second single through their Bar None released compilation). Now 9 years later he’s helping me out with some character designs for my project and I expect puffy-like success ;-)

  18. Chris_B Says:

    interesting post. It looks like Kawamata-san nailed it right on the head. BTW anyone interested in how Nintendo built up their US business should read “Game Over”.