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Japan plays it cool

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Last month, Tokyo dashed the Olympic hopes of Istanbul and Madrid by winning the right to host the 2020 Games. The victory was a significant confidence booster for Japan, recently troubled by economic problems and the aftermath of Fukushima. Even before Tokyo was announced as the winner, Japan had already been rebuilding its national brand. ‘Cool Japan’, the term coined by journalist Douglas McGray back in 2002, is making a resurgence.

The goal was to learn more about the new Japanese brand campaign from the people who understand it best. Placesbrands spoke to Noriyuki Shikata, Political Minister at Embassy of Japan in the UK and former Director of Global Communications at the Japanese Prime Minister’s office in London. Mr Shikata started his career on assignment in Washington D.C. as a press officer for the Japanese government, often accompanying the Japanese Prime Minister on overseas visits. Mr Shikata is greatly interested in Japan’s decision to engage in a new nation branding campaign. He kindly agreed to share his views with Placesbrands.

Placesbrands: Mr Shikata, it’s been over ten years since the original ‘Cool Japan’ theme came into being. Why has Japan waited until now to launch a new soft power strategy?

Noriyuki Shikata: In the last few years there has been renewed appreciation for the potential of Japan to brand itself as a nation. There is increasing worldwide appreciation for Japanese culture, especially Japanese food. The focus has not necessarily been solely on traditional goods such as cars and electronics, but on exporting Japan’s cultural assets. The Cool Japan campaign hopes to increase levels of both tourism and of foreign direct investment, and aims to combine tradition with modernity as the central brand themes.

Additionally, the concept of the ‘smart city’ will be another key focus point for Japan over coming years, and will be presented via Tokyo 2020 and beyond. Of course, the economic difficulties suffered in recent years have been one driving factor in the decision to reinvigorate the Cool Japan brand. Hard economic conditions make one think harder about what society can offer, beyond just products and services.

Who are the campaign’s key target audiences?
When implementing the campaign Japan does not wish to limit the target audiences, but instead seeks to export its culture on a global scale. For example, Japan views London as a great centre/hotspot for Japanese nation branding, where Japanese restaurants are spreading and developing offerings that go beyond the stereotypical sushi.

Has Japan identified any new markets for ‘Cool Japan’ soft power?
In Latin America there is an increasing appreciation of Japanese culture, for example Brazil’s Sao Paulo has the largest overseas Japanese community in the world – 1 million. Peru and Mexico also have strong Japanese influences, as do various Eastern European countries including Russia. Many of these countries have a growing emerging middle class, who are watching Japanese anime, playing Nintendo and so on.

How does Japan handle the dilemma of blending tradition with modernity?
Firstly, Japan is always committed to retaining its traditional aspects. For example Kyoto (my hometown) is renowned for its historic buildings, temples, and shrines. But nevertheless Japan also wants to introduce modern elements to draw tourists in, with the aim for them to discover Japan’s history/culture/language once they arrive in country. As well as this, the concept of “hyper-Japan” is very popular, such as Japanese costumes, dressing up, Harajuku. The V&A museum in London has exhibits of some Japanese costumes, which once again points to strong cultural fusion between the UK and Japan.

Back in the 1970s, David Bowie introduced Japanese fashion to the UK with his collaboration with designer Yamamoto Kansai. There are lots of other examples. Some of the Impressionist painters, such as Renoir, were influenced by Japanese traditional art. Anime tradition, often viewed by the West as a modern art form, actually stems from ancient Shogun times.

Once again the UK is a key participant here, with lots of anime displayed in the Japan Gallery in Paddington. “Netsuke”, traditional objects from the Shogun era, came from the late 19th century when Japan finally opened up to the outside world. British explorers brought Netsuke back home with them, where they ended up in the British Museum. (The book “the Hare with the Amber Eyes” is all about Netsuke).

All these examples display the core themes of Japan’s national brand: fusion between tradition + modernity. The former informs and creates the latter.

Tokyo won the right to host the 2020 Olympics. How will this affect the ‘Cool Japan’ campaign?
Decision-makers in Japan and Tokyo are very excited about learning from London’s Olympic experiences. These will be a key informing factor for the Cool Japan campaign. The plan is to combine the Cool Japan campaign with Tokyo 2020 and welcome even more visitors to Japan. In 1964 Tokyo won the Olympics when Japan was a developing country still feeling the effects of WW2. Japan borrowed from the World Bank to host the Olympics. It is said that ‘New Japan’ started developing from that point on.

For the 2020 edition, there will be great modernisation and massive reforms of Tokyo in the run-up to 2020, paying strong attention to the environmental factors and the goal of Tokyo becoming a ‘smart city’. Good public transport has always been key for Japan, in fact, Japan got its first train link 150 years ago. This will be improved further during the run-up to the Games.

How did the Fukushima disaster affect Japan’s overall nation brand?
To be honest, the problems are still not completely solved. But Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is confident this will not affect Tokyo’s successful hosting of the 2020 Olympics, and Japan will be fully capable of ensuring full public safety.

What role will social media play in the Cool Japan campaign?
The Japanese public is already using social media at the highest level, with very high social media penetration throughout the country. Twitter is especially popular, with Japan holding record breaking numbers for Twitter traffic. So naturally social media is already important for Tokyo 2020 and the Cool Japan campaign will involve wide international engagement on social media.

Already, the official government account disseminates important messages. Shinzo Abe is a regular Tweeter. Japan aims to take a multilayered approach to social media, so working with bloggers will be another important tool in the Japanese campaign. In the past, especially just after the tsunami disaster, the Foreign Ministry invited prominent bloggers to visit Japan and see for themselves what Japan was doing to fix the situation. Some of the bloggers were first-time visitors to Japan. The government wanted to communicate the disaster and the true situation on the ground to the outside world using various means, not all of them official. This of course helps to present a less biased more transparent overview.

What is the biggest challenge for Japan in nation branding?
In Japan’s case, the country is rather unusual because it has not been part of Western society and does not have English as its main language. So there are many cultural differences/misinterpretations to be overcome. This is one of the major challenges for Japan’s nation branding efforts, and we will need to address it thoroughly in the run-up to 2020. We plan to invite Western professors and advisors to Japan to help with the cultural understanding elements of branding Japan for the outside world.

The legacy of Fukushima is another major challenge for us. The disaster may have undermined people’s faith in Japan’s approach to safety, so we need to work hard to combat this perception. The Prime Minister is fully behind this and will make sure that Japan will be safe in time for 2020.

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