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Made in Cool Japan

Read Monday, 31 Aug 2015

Who decides what’s cool? Governments are probably not best placed, though the Japanese Government has been marketing the notion of ‘Cool Japan’ since the early 2000s. In this piece, first published in Griffith Review 49: New Asia NowSally McLaren explores the co-opting of Japanese popular culture and describes the myths, realities and denials of post-Fukushima Japan.

Image by Jon Tjhia, based on a photograph by 'stormstill' (Flickr, Creative Commons)
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It’s irradiated to an unknown degree, increasingly chauvinistic and, slowly but surely, re-militarising.

I hand my passport and boarding pass to the officer at Brisbane International Airport and she notices I’m heading to Japan.

‘What do you do there?’ she asks.

‘Work at a university,’ I say.

‘Teaching English?’

‘No, Japanese popular culture.’

‘Oh! My son loves manga and is studying Japanese,’ she chirps. I’ve had this conversation hundreds of times. But the look on my face must be puzzling her.

‘What a fascinating culture,’ she continues, angling for an affirmative response. ‘I’d love to visit.’

‘Yes, it’s…’ but I can’t finish the sentence and head off to my flight. There’s so much I want to say and it matters too much to fake an exuberant spin on it.

From the outside, Japan seems so exotic, so ordered and so fun. That’s how people I meet outside Japan seem to see it. What I see, on the inside, is that the delights of Japan, which are attracting ever-increasing numbers of foreign tourists, are now tarnished by disaster and denial. Japan, four years after the triple disasters of 11 March 2011 (‘3.11’), is sliding backwards into a nationalistic cocoon and preparing to switch the nuclear power stations back on. It’s irradiated to an unknown degree, increasingly chauvinistic and, slowly but surely, re-militarising.

As the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II approaches, there are some uncomfortable and disturbing echoes from the past – media censorship, talk of military conscription and serious economic problems. The disabled reactors of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant are still spewing radiation and leaking contaminated water. Accidents, mishaps and cover-ups continue to plague the clean-up operation. But Prime Minister Shinzō Abe told the International Olympics Committee in 2013, before Japan won its bid for the 2020 Olympics, that there was no need for concern about the Fukushima situation because it was ‘under control’.

There are still more than 240,000 people displaced by the triple disasters of 2011 and around 90,000 people are still in temporary housing. Meanwhile, a ¥169 billion ($1.9 billion) Olympic stadium is being built in central Tokyo.

Japanese popular culture delights and dazzles both domestic and international audiences with its technical artistry, imaginative storylines and aesthetic pleasures. At the heart of this multi-billion-yen industry are manga (comics or graphic novels) and anime (animation). Manga and anime are a ubiquitous part of modern daily life in Japan.

It’s difficult to compare manga to Western comics because the medium has its own visual language – essentially black-and-white frames that are read from right to left, but which include visual cues such as extreme close-ups of characters or details. The plethora of manga genres and subgenres is overwhelming – there are manga aimed at children, teenagers and adults. These are also categorised according to gender. However, these divisions are fluid and there is crossover between ages and genders. The subject matter is diverse, everything from science fiction and romance to magical fantasy and history. There are manga for religion, cooking, sport and travel, and even pachinko (a kind of pinball gambling). But there are also some very problematic manga – pornographic and sexually violent stories, often depicting young girls. This unsavoury aspect of manga puts an unfortunate dent in what is otherwise a sophisticated fusion of art and media.

Manga and anime have a close relationship. A vast amount of anime originates from manga and nearly every aspect of Japanese pop culture is rooted in a manga or anime story. Together they inspire film, video games, pop music and ‘character goods’ – such as figurines and hand towels. Contemporary Japanese media and advertising is saturated with aidoru (idols, or manufactured celebrities) and the culture of kawaii (cute) – most of which emanate from manga and anime, either in style or substance. These cross-media platforms in Japan are cleverly intertwined and marketed, and a crucial part of the globalisation of Japanese pop culture.

The government is intent on branding the nation as ‘cool’, and pop culture is part of the propaganda.

I work on the intercultural frontlines of Japanese popular culture at a local university, teaching a course to dozens of foreign students who have spent their childhoods idealising and dreaming about Japan through its pop culture. This generation have been immersed in the products of Japanese visual culture from a young age – Sailor Moon, Pokémon, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Hayao Miyazaki anime films, to name just a few. Eventually, they ride the transnational flow of Japanese pop culture to a Japanese university and are now in situ to indulge further. Expectations are high, and the Japanese pop culture tastes of these students are intense and immediate. The Japanese students in my class seem both bewildered and delighted by the obscure interests and passion shown by the international students. They try not to stare too much at the Canadian student who arrives in full Lolita-style cosplay every week, looking like a Victorian doll, and they seem both impressed and disturbed by the articulate self-proclaimed otaku (nerds) from the US, Germany and Singapore who have intricate knowledge of particular anime or manga subgenres.

Japanese universities are now struggling to compete for the ever-decreasing numbers of local students (Japan has one of the lowest birthrates among industrially developed nations) and the steady influx of international pop culture devotees is helping to keep universities afloat. But it’s not just financial. The presence of international students also validates the success of the government’s ‘soft power’ strategy – ‘Cool Japan’.

‘Cool Japan’ is the label given to the products of Japan’s popular-culture industries. The concept emerged in the early 2000s, after Japan had already started to lose its economic might. The economic downturn had an unexpected side effect – many artists and designers, the original creators of ‘cool’ stories and styles that have fuelled pop culture trends for the past two decades, thrived in this challenging environment and produced inspiring and inventive work.

Thanks to an article in Foreign Policy by journalist Douglas McGray trumpeting Japan’s ‘Gross National Cool’ (by way of Harvard Professor Joseph Nye’s ‘soft power’ ideology), the global success of Japanese popular culture, including fashion, art and design, was identified as a national resource. Cool Japan caught the attention of the government and since 2002 has been the focus of several policy initiatives. Billions of yen have now been spent promoting Japanese companies both at home and abroad, at the same time as the dysfunction of successive governments (eight prime ministers in the last ten years) has destabilised many aspects of Japanese life. The government is intent on branding the nation as ‘cool’, and pop culture is part of the propaganda.

I saw recruitment posters featuring an androgynous looking manga character in military fatigues and helmet on the platforms of the Kyoto city subway line.

But, as many journalists and scholars point out, once something ‘cool’ has been identified and co-opted by the government, it loses any kind of ‘cool’ credibility. A perhaps even bigger faux pas is that calling yourself ‘cool’ defies the conventions of Japanese ‘modesty’. There’s also a dark side to this political misappropriation of Japanese popular culture. Some scholars note that Cool Japan initiatives have been used as a way to foster pro-Japanese sentiment – and erase history – in the many Asian countries that were the victims of Japanese imperialism in the twentieth century.

In 2006, before his first-term prime ministership, Shinzō Abe wrote a book called Utsukushii kuni e (‘Towards a beautiful country’), which outlined his motivations and vision for Japan. He argued that Japan should become a more assertive nation that values its traditions and culture, and is respected by the world. The book was a bestseller, with more than 1.3 million copies sold. Abe then became prime minister for a year before resigning due to several political failures and health issues – namely irritable bowel syndrome. In 2012, he returned to power with improved IBS medication and a renewed vigour for making Japan a ‘beautiful country’.

After calling a snap election in late 2014, which had the lowest voter turnout on record, Abe’s victory gave him the political mandate to reinterpret parts of Japan’s war-renouncing constitution in order for the Jieitai – the Japanese Self Defense Forces – to transform into a more active military force internationally. As the foundations of Japanese democracy are being shaken to the core, tensions with China and South Korea over land sovereignty in territorial waters, together with historical revisionism in Japanese textbooks concerning war atrocities, have heightened to a worrying degree over the last two years.

During Abe’s time in office, Japanese high-school students who are about to graduate on to employment or further education have been receiving unsolicited postcards in the mail from the JSDF. The message is: ‘We see you will soon graduate from high school. Why not consider a career in the Jieitai?’

Outraged friends whose children have received these postcards say they are worried that compulsory military service, which exists in neighbouring South Korea and Taiwan, will become a reality in Japan if Abe’s government successfully changes the constitution and the education system, and successfully stifles media freedom through the State Secrets Bill. The last time Japanese youth received mail from the military was during World War II when akagami (red letters) were sent by the Imperial Army to conscript young men.

However, erasing history and making the military ‘cool’ is off to a successful start. The JSDF have utilised pop culture aesthetics to attract the attention of Japanese youth. In 2013, I saw recruitment posters featuring an androgynous looking manga character in military fatigues and helmet on the platforms of the Kyoto city subway line with the slogan written in English letters ‘JJJ – jieitai joyful job’, and in Japanese, ‘Yatte minai? (Won’t you give it a try?) That year, JSDF recruitment was reported to have increased by a fifth.

Japanese band AKB48 – co-opted into military recruitment
Japanese girl band AKB48 at Japan Expo in Paris, 2009; the phenomenally successful all-girl group has been co-opted into recruiting for the Japan Self-Defense Forces. Image: [Okki] ( (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The phenomenally successful all-girl idol group AKB48 has been co-opted into recruiting for the JSDF. In 2014, twenty-year-old member Haruka Shimazaki was appointed as a JSDF brand ambassador and appeared in an ad where she spoke directly to the camera amid images of JSDF men and women active on land, air and sea. With a background soundtrack of innocuous upbeat music, her main message was: ‘Koko de shika dekinai shigoto ga arimasu’ (‘This is work that can only be done here’). On the screen in English she points to the phrase ‘You and Peace’, while a pink heart-shaped petal spins around her.

Complementing the insidious nature of these campaigns which link ‘joyful’ and ‘peace’ to a cute, more female-friendly image of the military is the anime series Garuzu ando Pantsa (‘Girls and Panzer’). First broadcast in 2012, it’s the story of a competition between high schools for girls where tank warfare (sensha-do – ‘the way of the tank’) is a sport. The characters are typical bishojo (beautiful young girls) in school uniforms with very short skirts. Their mouths are permanently open and they appear in child-like poses. No one is maimed or dies in the Garuzu ando Pantsa battles, the main action revolves around driving stunts – it’s all just cute, harmless fun. According to media reports, the animators were granted access to the JSDF’s tank school in order to get the details of the tanks right. So far, Garuzu ando Pantsa has spawned five manga series, a light novel and a video game. A full-length animated film is due to be released later this year.

The Chinese characters for Fukushima – 福島 – translate simply as ‘lucky island’. But there’s not much good fortune to be found in the irradiated and abandoned areas of Fukushima Prefecture and the other disaster affected parts of northern Japan, known as Tohoku.

As much as Japanese and international media emphasise ‘recovery’, and well-meaning foreign volunteers publish fundraising cookbooks with titles such as Smiles for Tohoku, there’s no getting away from the fact that Japan’s encounters with nuclear technology since 1945 have had tragic consequences for Japanese people. The former mayor of Futaba, the now abandoned town that hosted part of the Daiichi nuclear reactor, says in the documentary Nuclear Nation by Japanese filmmaker Atsushi Funahashi, ‘people in Tokyo prospered while we were swimming in radiation’.

There is debate over safe and acceptable levels of exposure, but it’s not something you hear a lot about through the media … Mention it too much and you will be accused of ‘hating Japan’.

By now, all of Japan is to some extent ‘swimming in radiation’. Through the movement of transportation in and out of the contaminated zones and the burning of the irradiated tsunami debris at select spots all over the country, everyone has been exposed and will suffer together. There is debate over safe and acceptable levels of exposure, but it’s not something you hear a lot about through the media or daily conversation. Mention it too much and you will be accused of ‘hating Japan’, or shunned by friends and colleagues. It’s not easily discussed even within the university. After a showing of Nuclear Nation to my film studies class, there was shock and disbelief as well as anger. Both local and international students seemed unaware of some of the basic facts and consequences of the 3.11 disasters and were disturbed by the personal stories of the nuclear refugees shown in the documentary. For comparative purposes I showed another documentary on the disaster by a foreign filmmaker, The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom, which had a more upbeat take on trauma and recovery. At the end of my course, the feedback I got from one Japanese student was: ‘You showed us too many disaster documentaries.’

After more than three years of safety checks, the Sendai nuclear power plant on the southern island of Kyushu is scheduled to come back online during 2015. Two more nuclear power plants in Fukui Prefecture, close to Kyoto, are also being prepped for a restart this year, pending a court case. The anti-nuclear movement struggles along, barely getting its voice into the mainstream media. After gaining momentum throughout 2011 and 2012, with hundreds of thousands protesting in Tokyo, the movement has fizzled out. Dedicated activists continue on, almost in isolation from mainstream Japanese society. Although the majority of Japanese people are reported to be against nuclear power, in person many will shrug and say it’s a necessary evil. Whatever happened to Japanese technical innovation and the business philosophy of kaizen (continuous improvement)?

Through the movement of transportation in and out of the contaminated zones and the burning of the irradiated tsunami debris at select spots all over the country, everyone has been exposed and will suffer together.

There’s another Japan that doesn’t agree with the nuclear restart, the economic and social policies, and the direction that the country is heading. This Japan is mostly populated with artists, activists and some of the most brilliant, interesting and creative people in the country. But at the moment it feels like not only is this Japan increasingly depressed, it’s barely visible. The government wants to project an image of the country as safe, hospitable and, of course, ‘cool’.

In 2014, the bestselling and much-loved manga series Oishinbo (the title loosely means ‘foodie’), about the epicurean adventures of a food writer, tried to start a conversation about the radiation effects of the Fukushima accident. A chapter in the series entitled ‘The Truth About Fukushima’ included a storyline where a group of journalists experienced nosebleeds after visiting the Daiichi nuclear power plant. There were also scenes questioning the health and safety of people living with radiation in Fukushima. The government and media furore was so great that the manga’s publisher stopped publication and put Oishinbo on an apparently ‘scheduled’ hiatus.

Japan’s foreign tourism has increased beyond 2011 pre-disaster levels, thanks to a weaker yen. In 2014, Japan had a record 13.41 million foreign visitors. The government has announced a target of 20 million tourists a year by the 2020 Olympics. Apart from the initial aftermath of 3.11, the nuclear accident has not deterred visitors, or even caused many to question the levels of radiation or the situation of people in Tohoku. Information, just like Prime Minister Abe’s assurance on the situation in Fukushima, is ‘under control’. In December 2014, the Diet passed the State Secrets Bill without clearly defining what a ‘state secret’ is. The bill essentially deters whistleblowers, investigative journalists, lawyers, artists, academics and anyone wanting to speak truth to power against the state. It’s especially useful for preventing long-term scrutiny of the Fukushima situation and any other aspect of the government’s determination to proceed with nuclear power. Not only does the State Secrets Bill strengthen Abe’s political power, it also cynically exploits cultural values in Japan.

According to a 2012 report of an independent investigation committee for the Diet on the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, the disaster was ‘man-made’ and caused by the ‘ingrained conventions of Japanese culture’. Kiyoshi Kurokawa, a medical doctor and the committee chairman, explicitly identified these conventions as ‘our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to “sticking with the programme”; our groupism; and our insularity’. The more than 600-page report, based on 900 hours of hearings and more than 1000 interviews, was published in Japanese and English. However, it is only the English version that emphasises the culpability of Japanese culture in the disaster. Readers of the Japanese report have been deprived of a crucial and increasingly urgent discussion.

In the cracks of Cool Japan, things can go spectacularly wrong. In what sounds like a cruel April Fool’s Day joke, in 2012 an entrepreneur in Kashiwa, Chiba (just outside Tokyo), tried to put together an all-girl idol group called the HotSpots. The name was a direct reference to the high levels of radiation in the area, which received some of the fallout from the Fukushima disaster. The group’s mission, according to an online announcement for auditions, was ‘to improve the way people think about radioactive hotspots through song and dance’. The first song they planned to release was entitled ‘1 Millisievert Fever’. Outraged locals forced local government officials to shut the project down.

Nothing will sell radiation. Not even ‘Cool Japan’. 


This piece was first published in Griffith Review 49: New Asia Nowout now.

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