One of the most memorable moments of the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics occurred during the closing ceremony, when the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appeared in a red Super Mario hat holding a large red ball. A preceding video depicted an agitated Abe in Tokyo morphing into an animated Mario to avoid being late for the Games. The pixilated Abe-Mario promptly leapt into a large green pipe provided by the popular Japanese television character Doraemon that took him directly underground from Tokyo to Rio, emerging miraculously transformed back into the premier. In spite of the tired-looking Abe’s air of discomfort, the surprising segment was clearly successful; both in calling the world’s attention to the upcoming 2020 Tokyo Olympics and presenting Japan as a vibrant nation at ease with its own identity. Japan―and even Abe for a brief moment―appeared ‘cool’.

The international audience may not be aware that this sudden and surprising display reflects an important change of thinking within Japan itself. In fact, this sassy, self-aware self-presentation was influenced by ‘Cool Japan’: a group of government initiatives seeking to promote Japanese cultural products and soft power abroad. The label ‘Cool Japan’ is a nod to ‘Cool Britannia’, a phrase used by the British for a period of increased national optimism in the late-1990s that coincided with the first landslide victory in 1997 of Tony Blair’s 'New Labour government and the increased confidence of British artists, designers and pop musicians' (think of Damien Hirst, Blur, Oasis, the Spice Girls and Alexander McQueen). The Japanese concept also derives from a much-discussed 2001 Foreign Policy article entitled ‘Japan’s Gross National Cool’ in which the journalist Douglas McGray hailed the worldwide cachet of Japanese culture-from Miyake to (Haruki and Takashi) Murakami; Pokémon to Princess Mononoke; Sailor Moon to sashimi. McGray suggested that, after ten years of economic recession, the country should focus on supporting its creative industries as a means of boosting both its exports and its soft power. Subsequently, Japanese politicians persuaded by translations of McGray’s piece have sought to develop the country’s culture industries, founding a new Creative Industries Promotion Office and even developing with the national broadcaster NHK a television programme called ‘Cool Japan’.

Yet, in spite of the evident success of Abe’s skit, ‘Cool Japan’ has encountered considerable criticism. Author Roland Kelts has accused ‘Cool Japan’ of an ‘antiquated, inward-looking and provincial approach to brand marketing’ [1], citing amateurish English-language websites and ill-judged schemes such as the ‘kawaii’ (cute) ambassadors: three young female modules dressed in maid costumes and sent across the world to promote Japanese fashion. A new edited collection of essays entitled The End of Cool Japan has recently been published, in which a number of international experts have criticized this idea [2]. Prominent Japanese creatives have added their voices to this criticism. Japanese singer-songwriter Gackt claimed the government allocated funding incompetently, exclaiming that ‘It’s no exaggeration to say it has fallen into a downward spiral of wasted tax money flowing into little-known companies’ [3]. And Japanese artist Takashi Murakami dismissed ‘Cool Japan’ as ‘stupid, super stupid’, claiming that ‘a huge amount of money was spent just on advertising, nothing really happened’ [4].

As well as complaints about poorly judged schemes, ‘Cool Japan’ may be encountering increasing resistance due to a general feeling that some of Japan’s former cool may have been appropriated by its neighbors. Most obviously, South Korea’s cultural capital has risen exponentially: not only did the video of K-Pop star Psy’s ‘Gangnam Style’ become in December 2012 the first Youtube clip to reach one billion views; but dishes such as Kimchi and Bibimbap have encountered greater favor in Western countries; and Korean television dramas have become extremely popular across South-East Asia. Recently in this region Taiwanese television shows and pop songs sung in Mandarin have also achieved more prominence. When McGray first established the idea of ‘Cool Japan’, he celebrated Japanese cultural influence as an alternative to American cultural domination―an influence demonstrated by turn-of-the-century Japanese-influenced U.S. movies such as The Matrix (1999) and the two Kill Bill films (2003 and 2004). Nowadays, in comparison with the sometimes savvier and more aggressive Asian Tigers, Japan can appear at times stuffy and outmoded.

I must admit to having more than a passing interest in this issue, since in December 2015 I had the experience of appearing briefly in the New Year edition of the television show ‘Cool Japan’. During the programme, a group of non-Japanese participants are shown a series of short films about different aspects of Japanese life, based on themes such as ‘Uniforms’, ‘Seafood’ and ‘Senior Citizens’ and asked whether they think they are cool or not. The show answers to a general curiosity about which aspects of Japanese life non-Japanese people find intriguing and why. If you have grown up and spent your whole life in a land of bullet trains and nattō (a breakfast dish of fermented soybeans) it can be amusing and surprising to discover that the former evokes wonder in foreigners and the latter disgust. Yet, if I were to be critical, I might also add that the programme creates a one-sided conversation with other countries: the audience is asked to admire Japan’s culture of resourcefulness, diligence and security, but is not permitted to engage in a more mature dialogue about differing cultural values, or voice genuine criticism. Most of all, I was left with the feeling that the items we were asked to examine―elaborate and exquisitely clean public toilets, for instance―were very convenient and congenial, but not necessarily ‘cool’.

A central problem, surely, with ‘Cool Japan’ strategy is its use of the word ‘cool’. ‘Cool’ is a very vague concept, embodying contradictory qualities: general approval and fashionable edginess, composed self-control and bold individualism. Japanese culture could said to be very cool in the high premium it places on maintaining self-possession under pressure and against open displays of anger―behaviors affirmed in older Japanese aesthetic concepts like iki (a quality of sophisticated straightforwardness). Yet however the audacity and rebelliousness that ‘coolness’ also connotes can run against the grain of Japan’s communal ethos and the bureaucratic nature of government-run projects. Importantly also coolness is about being the best version of yourself: if Japan is so cool we might ask why it needed to deploy a concept that was in part an imitation of the United Kingdom’s 1990s strategy and in part a development of an American author’s ideas? Moreover, isn’t coolness inherently changeable―one day Pokémon Go is cool, the next passé―and so an impossible long-term aspiration? Indeed, doesn’t spending billions of yen to show the world how cool you are demonstrate insecurity, rather than coolness?

With these considerations in mind, it is easier to empathise with Abe’s air of uneasiness and muted frustration in Rio. Imagine if the former British Prime Minster David Cameron was compelled to imitate as Mr. Bean at London 2012 or if Hilary Clinton were forced dress up as Lady Gaga for a future event. For all of the admitted success of the Mario sequence, the levity Abe was obliged to affect reflects the same silliness that hampers the ‘Cool Japan’ strategy. In fact, Japan has many cultural treasures that the world could do with knowing more about: great artists like Hakuin Ekaku, Itō Jakuchū and Utagawa Kunisada, writers such as Kōbō Abe, or sites like the stunning one thousand life-size statues in Sanjusangendo hall in Kyoto or the marvellous waterbound Itsukashime Shrine in Hiroshima. In addition, contemporary Japanese writers, artists and filmmakers fit less easily―or who actively contest― Western preconceptions of the country are frequently overlooked internationally (for instance, Suka Atsuko, Akio Miyazawa, Aida Makoto or Shion Sono). Perhaps, then, the Japanese government could employ a leading concept for its creative industries policies that betrays less insecurity and immaturity than ‘Cool Japan’. Why be cool when you can be amazing?

[1] Roland Kelts, Japanamerica: Why ‘Cool Japan’ is over, 3:AM Magazine, Monday May 17 2010.
[2] Master Blaster, Gackt lashes out at Cool Japan: “Almost no results of Japanese culture exported overseas RocketNews24, July 3 2015.
[3] Mark McLelland (ed.) The End of Cool Japan: Ethical, Legal and Cultural Challenges to Japanese Popular Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 2016).
[4] John L. Tran, ‘Takashi Murakami collects more than just his thoughts’, Japan Times, February 16 2016.