Freelance journalist Douglas McGray’s 2002 article for Foreign Policy “Japan’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”.