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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 ...

At the same time, Japan increasingly has no choice but to look abroad for consumers – its own are dying off. Last year, the world’s oldest population (almost one-quarter of the 127 million citizens are over 65) shrank by 244,000, or 0.2 per cent, the largest decline on record. At this rate, the population will be one-third smaller in 50 years.

New buyers are essential, even if they have to be bought.

Coolness, however, is an elusive commodity. U.S. marketing expert Caleb Miller, who wrote his 2010 doctoral thesis on the subject, says that it originates outside the mainstream.

In fact, he writes, “my studies suggest that people and brands can become cool by displaying ‘bounded autonomy’ – which is typically inferred from displays of rebellion and uniqueness.”

Not exactly how Japan is trying to recapture the magic.

The comeback bid has its headquarters high in an office tower in Tokyo’s swank Roppongi Hills development. Visitors are greeted by jangling music, five screens showing a slow-moving panorama of the highlands near Nagano and a stainless-steel floor that vibrates with the bass tones.

It’s all meant to envelop the senses, to surround the visitor with a new vision of the nation. Everything about Cool Japan, from the ultra-modern furniture (made in Japan, of course), to its overseers (executives drawn from television, fashion and gaming), to its giant money pot (supplied by corporations as well as government) is part of an ambitious attempt to reshape how a famously insular culture works. The fund’s first request for proposals sparked a deluge: nearly 100 proposals, seeking nearly 10 times the money that’s available.

“One of our models is Hollywood, the other is Disney,” says co-chief operating officer Masaki Koito. “They produce content with the global market in mind, and they have distribution channels all over the world.

“We believe that, for Japanese content, we need a more scientific business method.”

Think a new push to sell the world everything from ramen and rice to fruit and convenience-store pouches of curry, as well as win back audiences for manga and anime. Then think of the deeper efforts required to do all that: hiring translators to give the world access to a large body of existing literature; paying lawyers to negotiate content rights and buy up TV time around the world; finding logistics experts to build new “cold chains” to deliver that fruit unspoiled.

With additional government money on the way (the $405-million is expected to more than double), Cool Japan has mulled investing overseas in Japan-centric shopping malls and food courts, while closer to home, it tries to breathe new life into old hits.

Enter Doraemon. Until recently, not one of the 12,500 pages occupied by the blue cat’s story had been published in English. But over the past year, a small group of translators has prepared the entire Doraemon catalogue for a new audience.

The first issue was published as a digital Kindle book in November, in part thanks to the efforts of Matt Alt, a Tokyo translator with a broad knowledge of manga culture. For Japan, he says, products like Doraemon are a bit like an untapped oil and gas reservoir – immensely valuable, and just waiting to be exploited.

But taking the plunge isn’t always easy, according to Yoshiaki Koga, a senior deputy director of publishing giant Kodansha. “Readership will shrink in Japan, so we have to look overseas … We all know this is the reality. But we still find it tough to make the huge investment.”

He speaks from experience. From 1968 to 1971, Japanese television audiences sat enthralled by another comic-book story, this one about a young baseball pitcher whose dreams of greatness come true partly because he has pitches with magical properties. Star of the Giants played out over 182 episodes so popular that some were shown in theatres; four decades later, middle-aged Japanese men can still describe its plot and characters vividly.

Low-rent remakes

2010, Mr. Koga had an idea: Why not remake Star of the Giants for India and adapt the story line to cricket? After all, he says, “baseball’s origins are in cricket.”

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