Friday, March 22, 2013

Not so cool Japan

The Japanese government is trying to export “cool Japan”, according to some recent media reports. The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) is putting a rather handsome amount of money, to let the world know that Japan is officially “cool”.

It is certainly laudable that the government is finally acknowledging that anime and manga are as important to the nation’s image abroad as automobiles and electronics. It also makes practical sense to try to make some money through the “export” of “cool Japan”, drawing tourists to the nation at the same time.

Among those in the know, however, the government policy package that is being announced under the name of “cool Japan” is being given a weary look. “We’ve seen it happen and then fail before”, is the general feeling. In order for the “cool Japan” policy to become really “cool”, it would appear, a lot of rethinking of the scheme is necessary.

Yesterday, it was reported that the government is trying to issue a special coin commemorating cool Japan. The artists that are to be involved include such attractive names as Akira Yamaguchi, Akira Toriyama, and Hiroshi Senju. So far, so good.

However, when it was reported that the government is putting the inscription “We deliver you cool Japan first” on the coin, it naturally raised quite a few eyebrows. It tasted too much like the “bland” government policies that were announced with fanfares and then went silently out of sight in the past.

If you go back to the basics, it is questionable if any government action can ever become (or indeed should become) “cool”, especially in a market economy. The measures planned to be taken by the Japanese government, at least those announced so far, are so distant from being “cool”. Then do we really need government policy to become “cool” in the first place?

Kabuki is certainly cool, but it became cool not because of, but in spite of, the government at that time. The tradition of male players performing female roles (to such glorious and moving effects) came from the ban of any female on stage by the Tokugawa government. The now legendary manga artists (such as Osamu Tezuka and Fujio Akatsuka) who used to reside in the humble apartment house of Tokiwa-so in northern Tokyo did not have a government grant to accomplish their revolutions.

It is certainly true that an economic stimulus package would work even if it is misguided, as illustrated by John Maynard Keynes when he said "the government should pay people to dig holes in the ground and then fill them up."

Thus, a “cool Japan” policy, even when it is not wise, might actually be better than nothing, even when it is actually a manifestation of “not so cool Japan”. That is the only consolation that one can draw so far from the lukewarm reception that this supposedly brave new policy has stirred. 

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The face of spring is different this time.

The Japanese love for cherry blossoms (sakura) is famous. I, a Tokyo resident, am no exception. Every year, I never tire of seeing the tiny flowers in bloom. I actually get such a kick out of it. I dare say it is an essential rhythmic element of my life.

Usually, it happens accompanied by a gradual buildup and culmination of expectations. First you notice that the winter air is loosing up. The temperature is rising. The atmosphere is getting softer. You feel that you want to take your coat off. Then out of the blue the idea comes to you, that maybe the cherry blossoms are ready to bloom sometime soon.

This gradual transition to cherry-readiness is, I think, an essential process in the psychological change of season. The Japanese has been repeating the process for so many years, that it is an integral part of the national character now.

This year it was all different. It happened so quickly. There was a spell of very cold days, and then suddenly the temperature shot up. It felt that it was early summer. Then the cherry blossoms started to bloom without warning. At least that was how it appeared to this writer. Then, without the gradual buildup of expectations, he blossoms were in full bloom.

Cherry blossoms without the preceding buildup of heart is something new. Maybe it is the reality of an era marked by global warming. Perhaps it is just a result of statistical fluctuation.

The face of spring is different this time. The Mother Nature never stops surprising us, even in her calm moods. My heart is a little jittery this year, due to her abrupt dance with the spirits of the cherry fairies.