Japan Looks for Ways to Say It’s Cool

Japan Looks for Ways to Say It’s Cool


Nov. 22, 2013 7:14 p.m. ET


Figures of manga character Doraemon, Japan’s first ‘anime ambassador,’ displayed in Tokyo in September. Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

TOKYO—During Japan’s rapid-growth heyday, the country’s powerful trade ministry famously pushed exports of cars and semiconductors. As the country seeks a 21st-century-style postindustrial comeback, bureaucrats Monday are launching a new project aiding global promotion of Japanese culture, from animation to fashion, to the broader notion of “Japanese hospitality.”The “Cool Japan Fund” backs its grand ambitions—”to explode Japanese attractive goods and services on a world-wide scale” to “become a driving force for Japan’s economic growth,” as one government document puts it—with a modest budget. It will start with ¥50 billion (about $500 million) in backing from the Ministry of Economy Trade and Industry by the end of March, combined with ¥10 billion from a broad consortium of companies, from a securities house to an advertising firm to an airline.

The notion: “Hello Kitty” and “Pokémon” are just the leading edge of what could be a culture-industry export juggernaut, but, unlike the Toyotas and Sonys of old, many companies with promising products don’t have the capability to enter global markets. “These types of Japanese companies tend to be small businesses and since they don’t have the money and experience to expand, that has been a big challenge for them,” said Hideaki Ibuki, director of METI’s “creative industries division.”

Mr. Ibuki said the ministry has already received about 90 proposals from companies seeking funds. Among them: Maeda-En, distributor of green tea and ice cream, which claims to have created “authentic” green-tea “matcha” ice cream two decades ago. The company would like to expand its business in Southeast Asia, but “we don’t have a connection with a local bank in the region we’re planning to enter,” CEO Taku Maeda said in an interview. “Getting the government backup would certainly help us,” he added.

Private-sector experts raise questions about the government’s ability to pick winners and losers in any industry, let alone one where success rests on unpredictable tastes and trends. “Government-backed investment funds could distort fair competition,” said Yasushi Ando, the chief executive of private-equity firm New Horizon Capital Co.

And the Cool Japan funding is considerably smaller than other, similar government-backed ventures set up in recent months. A fund to aid farmers and fishermen has been given ¥200 billion, while one to aid struggling manufacturers has ¥300 billion.

Japanese officials say one inspiration for the Cool Japan project came from neighbor and archrival South Korea, which has overshadowed Japan’s pop-culture with a global K-Pop boom, and has for more than a decade spent hundreds of millions of dollars on government initiatives like the “Korean Institute of Design Promotion” and the “Presidential Council on National Branding.”

The notion of “Cool Japan” is often traced back to a 2002 essay in Foreign Policy magazine titled “Japan’s Gross National Cool.” The piece argued that Japan’s global cultural influence from pop music, fashion, animation, and cuisine was rapidly growing, even as its economic and political influence was shrinking.

Japan’s government has made some efforts over the past decade to tap into that idea. In 2008, the Foreign Ministry named Doraemon, a blue robotic cat character from one of Japan’s most popular comics, as the country’s first “anime ambassador” as part of an effort to introduce more Japanese culture to the world.

The launch of the Cool Japan Fund comes at a time when the country appears to be regaining global cachet, with a new stock-market boom and a new spotlight on Japanese business and culture in advance of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

In the past, the government didn’t consider anime, manga and “cosplay”—costume-play performance to represent an animation character—as a business, and looked at it more as a kind of subculture. But the culture has been more accepted internationally in the past several years.

“I feel a new boom [of such culture] has come in the past three or four years, and sales in costumes and accessories are picking up,” said Jeffrey Kashida, chief executive officer of Koto International LLC, which sells painted resin statues and toys based on characters from Japanese comics and movies.

Mr. Kashida has been talking with METI about his Cool Japan investment application, hoping to receive ¥500 million to ¥1 billion. “Our operation dealing with statues is a minor business and we can’t afford sufficient resources,” he said. If his proposal for investment from the government is approved, he said he plans to hire more people and buy warehouses.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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