Text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
The recent commentary by (ageing for showbiz but otherwise still influential) singer and actor GACKT has been all over the Japanese media: in his blog, the 42 year-old Okinawan lashed out at the “Cool Japan” project wondering with an unusual frankness “Is there anyone living in Japan who can explain what ‘Cool Japan’ is? I can’t –how many can? It’s a pathetic subject.” For those who haven’t even heard of the term, it is an idea first introduced by American writer Douglas McGrey back in 2002 which the Japanese media first and the Japanese government later, in 2010 rushed (in a manner of speaking) to adopt –in its simplest form it involves the utilization of various elements of contemporary Japanese culture such as anime, J-Pop, street fashion, soul cuisine etc. to elevate Japan to a cultural superpower thus balancing out the losses its industry has been amassing especially after the introduction in the international stage of China and Korea.
As he himself says, GACKT isn’t alone in wondering what “Cool Japan” is: excluding the use of the phrase in miscellaneous, often lacking in seriousness blindly “pro-Japan” websites, in the 5 years since the name was officially embraced nothing organized has happened in the direction of the promotion of Japanese culture abroad or of its support in the country. Those who are active in the market (as GACKT obviously is) could certainly single out more details about the campaign’s budget and posit questions about its recipients but even if we accept that everything was done in the most transparent way, the essence of the matter remains: the most irrefutable proof that someone or something is not cool is being self-proclaimed as such. And of course there’s also that pesky old saying about a camel being a horse designed by committee. (For those who haven’t caught up yet, committees and groups of any kind are very important in Japan –and not only as pertains to the state, big or smaller.)
What I personally find most sad in the “Cool Japan” argument, is that it exposes for one more time the inability of the Japanese to communicate with the non-Japanese. When you have at your disposal such a wide range of cultural products (Japan boasts an unfailing production of culture for 12 centuries, starting from the Nara period in the early 8th century and going on until now) it is ill-advised at best to decide that only a tiny subset of this range is worth exporting. And it is of doubtful effectiveness (or, to be more accurate, of “certain ineffectiveness”) to attempt such an export on the terms of an alleged “pressure” by a culture on which you are and have been for 150 years on a permanent relationship of mutual misinterpretation. Japan is like Rolls Royce: it doesn’t need to be “cool” because the quality of its culture, the one in the museums and the one on the streets, goes far beyond any such designation.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes on the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.