Anime heroes recruited to help boost economy through 'Cool Japan' fund
Comic characters recruited to help firms promote their cultural products abroad
The critters, warriors and doe-eyed women of Japanese animation and manga comics have fans around the world. Now the Japanese government wants to mobilise them for a sterner task: boosting the economy.
Enter the "Cool Japan" fund, a US$500 million investment of public money aimed at helping Japanese firms promote their cultural wares abroad. It is an echo of South Korea's investment in soft power that has lifted its K-pop music industry and rapper Psy to global fame.
In the works for several years, the idea has been seized upon by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe - whose party yesterday won an upper house of parliament election - as a way to restore a halo of cool that surrounded Japan Inc and its cutting-edge technological marvels of the time, such as the Walkman.
At stake as well is a share in the dynamic world cultural industry, set to surge more than 40 per cent by 2020 to more than US$9 trillion, economists say.
"There are a lot of good things and convenient things in Japan, and we'd like to offer these up to the world," said Yoshiaki Akamatsu, of the Creative Industries Division at Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.
"It seems a real shame to have them stuck in Japan and unknown. If they knew about them, I think there's lots of things that consumers of the world would like ... and as a result, we hope that Japan itself would grow."
Abe, whose party has campaigned under the slogan "Take Back Japan", vowed this year, as part of his overall economic strategy, to triple overseas sales of "Cool Japan" content, such as anime, within five years.
Akamatsu said the plan, set to kick off later this year, harked back to overseas promotions such as "Cool Britannia", a 1990s surge of renewal following the success of British pop culture spearheaded by bands such as the Spice Girls.
While popular anime and manga characters will be harnessed, "Cool Japan" aims to include Japanese food, fashion and services, such as the sumptuous hospitality of the country's inns. What the plan will not do is actually choose what is cool.
"The government's role is to provide high-risk funds, which cannot be offered by the private sector alone," Akamatsu said. "It's not up to the government to decide if particular content is popular or not, the market has to do that."
But it may be an uphill battle. In 2011, Japan was a net importer of content, including books, films and magazines, to the tune of 70 billion yen (US$698 million), compared with exports of 16.2 billion yen, said Mitsubishi UFJ Research and Consulting.
The exception was video games, with exports of 293 billion yen and imports of only 2.1 billion yen.
In addition, sceptics wonder about specifics, such as who will manage the fund and whether any government can be the arbiter of cool.