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Visitors to a 2012 exhibit in Hong Kong inspect 100 figures, each showing Doraemon – Japan’s first anime cultural ambassador – in a different pose. After 45 years, the Japanese icon’s tales have been translated into English. (BOBBY YIP/REUTERS)
Visitors to a 2012 exhibit in Hong Kong inspect 100 figures, each showing Doraemon – Japan’s first anime cultural ambassador – in a different pose. After 45 years, the Japanese icon’s tales have been translated into English. (BOBBY YIP/REUTERS)

Can Japan recapture its cool? A country’s government-backed multimillion-dollar bet Add to ...

Doraemon is a blue robot cat whose front pocket is stuffed with a seemingly endless supply of neat gadgets that he uses to help out a Tokyo fourth-grader named Noby.

Forty-five years after he first appeared in a manga, or Japanese comic book, hardly anyone in this country doesn’t know that Doraemon was sent back in time from the 22nd century by Noby’s great-grandchildren, hoping that his good deeds would make their lives better as well.

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Now, the guardians of Japan’s economic future are banking on much the same thing.

They hope that the beloved, magical cat can reach into his bag of tricks and pull out a ticket to the global spotlight, both for himself and for the nation that created him.

Although appointed Japan’s “anime ambassador” in 2008, Doraemon didn’t speak English until a few months ago.

Then, as part of a sweeping effort to rekindle Japanese domination of international pop culture, his new ebook series made its U.S. debut on amazon.com.

The government has created the $405-million “Cool Japan Fund,” a blatant attempt to reclaim the country’s lost status as a global trendsetter, just as “Cool Britannia” rose from the ashes of the Swinging Sixties three decades later.

Officials want exports of cultural products such as Doraemon to reach $100-billion by 2020, which is when the Summer Olympics come to Tokyo.

It won’t be an easy feat. Five years ago, such exports were worth barely half that much.

And, besides, is cool even something that a country can manufacture?

In 2010, Japan lost its place as the world’s second-largest economy to China. A year later, its global image was tarnished by the Fukushima nuclear disaster. But Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in many ways the country’s optimist-in-chief, has launched a campaign to tell the world that “Japan is back.”

This week the outspoken and often controversial populist marked National Foundation Day by saying he is determined to see the country “go forward as a Japan that has pride.” He also reminded the public it has an obligation to hand down both “peace and prosperity” to the next generation.

With the 2020 Games on the horizon, his government is certainly trying to turn things around. Since returning to power just over a year ago, Mr. Abe has committed at least 10 trillion yen ($107-billion) to stimulate growth in an economy that has suffered from deflation since 1998, the last time the Olympics came to Japan, at Nagano .

Pouring all that fuel on the economy has had a dramatic effect. After years of declining salaries and prospects, the stock market has been roaring, unemployment is at a six-year low and optimism is staging a comeback.

Brand Japan, however, is not. Not only did Fukushima strike at the very heart of the nation’s reputation for technological sophistication and savvy, international sales of manga are plummeting (down 35 per cent in the United States alone), and J-pop has given way to K-pop and such Korean mega hits as Gangnam Style.

It has been little more than a decade since an article in Foreign Policy magazine entitled “Japan’s Gross National Cool” noted Japan’s sudden prominence on the global stage. Sony PlayStation and Nintendo gaming consoles, along with other high-tech wonders, were spreading into the world’s living rooms. International manga sales were on a rocket ride, anime techniques being mimicked in Hollywood, and The New York Times had declared Tokyo “the real international capital of fashion.”

All of which prompted Foreign Policy to conclude that “Japan’s growing cultural presence has created a mighty engine of national cool.”

The world saw Japanese styles and literature, and went crazy. But the designers and writers who were responsible were not, by and large, seeking such adulation – some were even uncomfortable with the notion of being “cool.” It just sort of happened.

Rebels versus the mainstream

Just as suddenly it fell apart. Last month, Nintendo, which once had a per-employee profit higher than that of Wall Street money-spinner Goldman Sachs, forecast an annual loss of $270-million.

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