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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 ...

It was a bold move. Kodansha had never animated for a foreign audience, but eventually agreed to 26 episodes. A company in Hyderabad was recruited for the animation, and the main character given a new backstory that included growing up in the slums of Mumbai.

It was done on the cheap, eschewing 3D. “We don’t need anything fancy like Pixar for Indian people,” Mr. Koga says.

But no channel in India’s vast television universe wanted to bet on Suraj – The Rising Star, as the story was called, so Kodansha had to buy air time instead. Worse, merchandise sales, the real source of potential profit, haven’t taken off.

“We still haven’t recovered all of our investment,” Mr. Koga acknowledges (even in Japan, that can take three years). “India, even though they have a huge population, it’s not like you can get overnight success.”

Still, Kodansha is considering a followup, and Mr. Koga, eager to try again, wants to move to India to shepherd operations himself. “We have to try something new,” he says. “We have to challenge ourselves.”

Japan is hardly the first country to attempt what the marketers call “national branding.” In fact, the reigning champion isn’t too far away.

In the mid-1990s, Chinese state television helped to unleash the “Korean Wave” when it began to air television dramas from South Korea, which by 2011 was exporting about $155-million (U.S.) worth of programming to Iran, Iraq and Japan as well as China.

The wave now goes far beyond TV (even Japan has developed an appetite for kimchi, and Gangnam Style has the world begging for K-pop), and thrives on mountains of public money. Created in 2001, the government-run Korean Culture and Content Agency spent $330-million last year alone on promoting pop culture overseas. In many ways, Seoul is now Asia’s capital of cool.

But the government didn’t create that cool; it seized on a trend already in progress, just as Britain had a decade earlier. Whitehall set out to rebrand the country long after reading about “Cool Britannia” in Newsweek – and discovered the peril in entrusting such things to bureaucrats.

“Nothing is sadder than trying too hard to be cool,” The Economist observed of the British attempt, whose tactics included putting Union Jack mini-skirts on The Spice Girls.

And, of course, cool isn’t forever. Thirteen years after his 1996 Newsweek cover story declared London “the coolest city on the planet,” writer Stryker McGuire returned with an obituary: “The Blair era is long gone, and so too is the national spirit, the hope and the optimism, that reigned in those days.”

“The government forgot it was trying to promote Britain,” lamented policy adviser Simon Anholt, who has made a career of reviving images, “and started promoting the campaign to promote Britain.”

Seoul’s investment paid off

Korea, however, offers Japan some hope. The return on its investment in cultural promotion has been staggering. In 2002, Korean Wave exports were about $500-million (U.S.). A decade later: $10-billion, which Seoul says could hit $57-billion by 2020.

Still, Noel O’Dea, head of the St. John’s marketing firm responsible for Newfoundland and Labrador’s award-winning tourism ads, isn’t so sure. “Most places try to be like Disneyland,” he says. “They try to follow what other countries, places, products, services have been doing that seems successful.”

It doesn’t work. Branding can be powerful, but there has to be a story to tell. “There are truths,” Mr. O’Dea says, “and the truths should start with the DNA of the country.”

Which raises a difficult question: Is Japan, in fact, still cool?

To some, the answer is a qualified yes. Ian Condry, a cultural anthropologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has organized the MIT/Harvard Cool Japan Research Project – a series of seminars and arts events – since 2006. “The Japanese pop-culture boom may seem less visible now,” he explains, and yet North American audiences “at things like anime conventions are roughly double what they were a decade ago.”

Others worry that Japan has become so culturally fragmented that its allure to the outside world is much diminished. Manga is increasingly inwardly-focused and self-referential, rendering it opaque to all but those with a lifetime obsession.

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