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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 ...

In an online essay, Tokyo writer and musician David W. Marx observes that trends such as the otaku (geek) and gyaru (“gal”) cultures have become powerful forces, attracting an upwelling of niche fashion and literature. But unlike, say, Mario or Hello Kitty, neither has the kind of mainstream appeal that might make them globally significant.

“Japanese companies now face a true crisis,” Mr. Marx writes. “Appealing to the most powerful consumers in Japan will lead them away from tastes and values that can be easily exported overseas.”

Matt Alt, the Doraemon translator, is an unapologetic believer in Japan’s ability to reverse course, noting that it was only a few decades after the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that Japanese electronics were lusted after by the world.

“There’s so much vitality here in this city,” he says. “And Japan is absolutely a comeback king.”

But some of Cool Japan’s early returns aren’t promising.

Nancy Snow, who is writing a book on Japan’s post-Fukushima brand image, attended the agency’s launch party and shook her head in disbelief at who was in the crowd: older men in suits “who really aren’t tapped into the trends in Japan, and what the youth are interested in.”

Also, argues the professor of communications at California State University, the campaign’s priorities – food, manga, anime, fashion – are hardly cutting-edge. “They’re conservative and they’re uncreative.” Or worse.

Ms. Snow points to the appointment of pop-culture follower Danny Choo last year to a high-profile committee on “creative industries internationalization” that advises the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.

Out of touch, out of luck?

British-born and now based in Tokyo, Mr. Choo is the creator of Mirai Suenaga, a doe-eyed and enormously busty robotic doll. She has realistic nipples and, as Ms. Snow says, offers “a cute reaction when she is given a pat.”

Mirai Suenaga serves as the mascot for Culture Japan, Mr. Choo’s weekly TV show, and is so popular that her image has appeared on aircraft. But to Ms. Snow, the character illustrates just how out of step Japan is with the rest of the world.

“They’re porn-style dolls,” she says, adding that, upon first seeing Mirai, she thought: “Are they really that out of touch that they can’t see how offensive these images are?”

Rather than spending hundreds of millions in a desperate, possibly misguided attempt to make itself cool again, she concludes, “what Japan has to do is really open itself up more.”

If Doraemon is such a cool cat, maybe he has a gadget that does just that.

Nathan VanderKlippe is The Globe and Mail’s Asia correspondent based in Beijing.

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