At the recent Venice Film Festival, the announcement of the retirement of Hayao Miyazaki, the master of Japanese animation, was very big news. Miyazaki created some of Japan’s most popular animated features, including My Neighbor Totoro and Princess Mononoke. His Academy Award-winning Spirited Away even out-earned James Cameron’s blockbuster Titanic at the Japanese box office in 2002.
I can personally vouch for Miyazaki’s popularity: my five all sons adore his work. Quite a few of the overseas MBA students at GLOBIS first got interested in Japan because of manga and animation like Dragon Ball and Pokémon.
Nostalgic reflections about Miyazaki got me thinking about the Japanese government’s “Cool Japan” strategy, an initiative that aims to place creative industries like manga and animation at the center of Japan’s economy.
Worldwide demand for Japanese content is large and growing, but there’s a hitch: some of that content is made by small firms that lack the scale to penetrate overseas markets. That’s where the government can lend a hand, stepping in to organize promotional events, find local partners, and build industry consortia. Cool Japan was announced in July 2012, followed by a $500-million Cool Japan Fund this June. The goal is to supercharge the export performance of six sectors—not just creative content, but apparel, craft, food, tourism, and housing.
The Cool Japan concept actually dates back to a 2002 article entitled “Japan’s Gross National Cool,” in which journalist Douglas McGray argued that Japan had evolved from a 20th-century economic superpower to a 21st-century cultural superpower.
In fact, I played a role in turning Cool Japan from a talking point into national policy and a half-billion dollar fund. It was a panel discussion at the 2010 G1 Global Conference that first proposed developing a comprehensive national strategy to promote Japan’s creative industries.
I continue to explore the possibilities of Cool Japan. One of the guest speakers at this year’s G1 Global was Nao Kodaka, a co-founder of Tokyo Otaku Mode, a web-based company that delivers otaku content to the world. (In case you don’t know, otaku are geeks who are crazy about Japanese animation, manga, games, cosplay, etc.)
Kodaka’s sales pitch for his site is simple: Tokyo is to otaku what Milan or Paris are to the fashion industry. Thanks to a network of local Japanese journalists and translators, Tokyo Otaku Mode can deliver the most up-to-date otaku news in English every day.
Tokyo Otaku Mode launched on Facebook in March 2011. Their Facebook page currently has over 13 million fans, ranking it fifth overall on Facebook. Over 99% of those fans are based outside Japan—a testimony to the global popularity of Japanese culture.
Like Kodaka, I’m a believer in the business potential of Japan’s otaku culture—and creative output in general. Japanese creators keep coming up with great new content. The numbers are extraordinary: A recent hit, the post apocalyptic sci-fi manga Attack on Titan, has sold over 23 million copies in Japan since 2009. One Piece, a pirate comedy series, has sold over 290 million in Japan since 1997, making it the most popular manga ever. That’s almost three copies for every Japanese person. Amazing!
Once a manga series proves to be a hit on paper, it’s quickly expanded into a whole ecosystem: an anime series, live-action films, video games, trading cards, and action figures. That means big money.
Cool Japan also brings in tourists and students. The number of visitors to Japan has hit a record high despite a deteriorating relationship with Korea and China.
Thanks to public-sector backing and private-sector efforts from creators and entrepreneurs, Cool Japan has grown to be big business. In the years ahead, the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics should help make Cool Japan even hotter.