What is “Cool Japan”?

This phrase is something I’ve seen more and more in recent years, and I have to admit I’ve given it a lot of thought, because of my own interests in this culture. Since my childhood in the 3rd grade, when we learned about Japan in our social-studies section, to our field-trip to the local Japanese import store at age 9, to movies as a teenager,1 to Japanese-language self-study books I borrowed from neighbors at sixteen, all the way to my lame efforts now to learn the language, there is something ineffable about Japanese culture that has always fascinated me. But I could never really articulate it until I heard the phrase above.

The first time I heard this was of all places in a hotel in Paris, where my wife, daughter and I crashed after a long day’s walk in muggy June weather. We flipped on NHK, which was available at the hotel, and they had an english-language show called “Cool Japan“. The topics included things like anime, fashion and so on. Generally, topics I didn’t like anyways, but the phrase still stood out for me. Then I started hearing the phrase elsewhere,

It occurred to me lately though that there are plenty of japanophiles, francophiles, anglophiles, sinophiles and so on, so being interested in another culture is nothing new, but I also take comfort in knowing it’s not just me. I was recently reminded of something Lafcadio Hearn wrote in his book Kokoro in 1890 while attending an exhibition:

Among Western nations, France offers an example. Her wealth is not due to her ability to underbid her neighbors. Her goods are the dearest in the world: she deals in things of luxury and beauty. But they sell in all civilized countries because they are the best of their kind. Why should not Japan become the France of the further East? (pg. 54-55)

After reading Donald Keene’s book on the life of Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa, I believe I begin to see what Hearn is talking about. There’s no lack of impressive cultures in East Asia (China alone can fill volumes and volumes), but in the minds of many, one can draw some parallels between the two countries in terms of luxury, refinement and so on.

Granted, day to day life in Japan is probably no different than any other country (e.g. work sucks, never enough money, you grow old, etc, etc.), but it’s the romanticized image that sticks in people’s minds. I have no idea how or why this is so, but it just seems that way.

Having known my wife now for 12 years, I don’t have quite the same romanticized view as I previously did. On the other hand, through her I learned a lot of good habits, and viewpoints and an appreciation for the Asian approach to viewing the world, which I like to share here. So “cool japan” for me is a little different now than when I was a silly teenager, but I appreciate the cultural exposure I’ve had through my wife, her friends and family. :)

1 Which also led me to Buddhism.


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6 Comments on “What is “Cool Japan”?”

  1. Adam says:

    What’s interesting is that the concept of “Cool Japan” has been embraced by Japan itself and made a selling point for tourism. It used to be that people came to Japan for the old culture, the art, the lacquer ware, etc. Now a large segment of people come for the new cool: anime, robots, J-pop stars.

    I agree with you that it’s a romanticized thing. Even modern-day items, like wacky commercials on YouTube, are part of the appeal. Now that I’ve become used to Japan I’m less thrilled by these “crazy Japan” kinds of things. The way I see it, it’s just part of the Japanese media landscape, a way to cut through the distracting noise of messages and be heard.

    Anyway, good post, as always.

  2. Doug says:

    Amen to that. The “crazy Japan” stuff doesn’t interest me much at all and feels like media hype. I did notice that Japan is playing it up in recent months (even Asahi Shinbun has a section on it now), which is what prompted me to ponder the subject and write the post. :p

  3. Adam says:

    What’s interesting is no one talks about “crazy England” with shows like Monty Python or the Mighty Boosh, but if Japan’s media is even remotely absurd it’s suddenly “crazy Japan.” There’s also the language barrier. For most people, they just see the images separated from the message and thus assume it’s all wacky.

    That being said, Japan is a particularly entertaining place to live. ^_^

  4. Doug says:

    That’s a good point. Japan is more exotic to Western eyes, and therefore more “wacky” or “weird”. Language and cultural barrier are definitely the culprit, because once you get past that, it’s just another country, culture, etc. That’s been my experience, and I take it your’s too. :)

    Some people like profiting off the perceived differences though, and that’s probably the media hype we see. Runs both ways though, I’m sure.

  5. JonJ says:

    Of course, these images can change almost overnight, and are not the same for everyone. It wasn’t long ago that the main image of Japan in the U.S. was of a fearsome economic giant that was going to swallow poor little Uncle Sam whole (mucho images of ゴジラ). But that was presumably in the minds of the adults, then, not their kids.

    Now the Asian monster swallowing us up, of course, is China (which really is a giant in sheer size, anyway). But one could argue that it is just as “cool” as its little brother to the West, and there was a day when Westerners appreciated its coolness, too.

  6. Doug says:

    Hi Jonj,

    Excellent points. I remember in college studying the anti-Japanese war propaganda (and even once watching a Bugs Bunny propaganda cartoon which was pretty racist by today’s standards). Funny how things change. I agree with you about China too. I have worked with enough co-workers from the PRC that I’ve really appreciated how similar people are in person, even if their respective governments are…silly.


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