And then at the end of 1991, inflated to its limit by a frenzy of speculation that drove market and real-estate prices to stratospheric highs, the bubble burst, ushering in a so-called lost decade of economic stagnation. Even so, the country’s culture industries kept humming. The 1990s, in fact, were a particularly fertile period. In fashion, Tokyo’s Harajuku scene flourished along with the clothing companies that emerged from it, such as A Bathing Ape and Undercover. In art, Murakami began gaining international attention. The anime classic Neon Genesis Evangelion first aired in Japan in 1995. Pokémon launched in 1996.

Marx, the chronicler of Japanese menswear, points out in an interview that after the bubble popped consumer spending still climbed for a couple years longer. “Japanese culture exploded in the ’90s because it was rich and all sorts of money was going into consumer culture,” he says.

Even in 2002, when Rebecca Mead wrote about fashion in Harajuku and the phenomenon of kawaii, or cute, for the New Yorker, she remarked that “you wouldn’t know that the country is in recession from the way young people spend money.”

Though sluggish growth has persisted, Japan remains a wealthy society. Kapur says the volume of products it has produced over the years has been so high that it was bound to have a number of successes. It produces a lot of bad pop culture too, he says.

Tyler, right, and his friend George, both six of Scituate, Mass., hold up their favorite Pokemon trading cards, in Scituate, Thursday, Sept. 9, 1999.
Two Massachusetts boys show off their Pokémon cards in 1999.
Image: AP Photo/Charles Krupa

Japanese animation, or anime, is now one of Japan’s most powerful cultural exports and a leading force in shaping Japan’s image outside its borders. Series such as Dragon Ball Z and Sailor Moon helped it catch hold in the 1990s, and today it’s popular enough to be on the frontlines of the battle between streaming services. Once hard-to-find shows such as Neon Genesis Evangelion are now available to Netflix viewers.

Manga has a broad audience outside Japan. In 2019, about 6.8 million copies of different manga titles sold in the US, a 26% rise over the previous year, according to research firm NPD Group. Titles such as My Hero Academia made it one of the fastest-growing forms of comic book and graphic fiction in the country.

Japan has had notable successes in other cultural arenas. The fashion industry recognized it as a creative leader as early as 1981, after Yohji Yamamoto and Comme des Garçons staged their first shows in Paris. In 2002, Amy Spindler, then style editor of the New York Times, declared Tokyo—not Paris, Milan, or New York—the international capital of fashion. By the time Spirited Away appeared in the US, Americans had already come to think of Japan as producer of the wacky, cutesy, and cool, and to regard Tokyo as a global cultural hotspot.

Curiously, though, everyone I spoke to agreed Japanese companies, with the exception of Nintendo, are typically not very good at exporting their products. There are a few instances of Japanese companies actively trying to attract Western audiences and tailoring their products to make them more appealing. Godzilla was recut with a white character. Anime series in the 1960s and 1970s were redubbed in English and their stories changed.

But most of the time, when audiences outside Japan have become fans of a particular manga, anime, clothing line, or whatever else, it’s because they’ve stumbled on it or heard about it through word-of-mouth. There are efforts underway to change that paradigm.

Spreading the gospel of cool Japan

In 2002, Douglas McCray, a contributing writer at the magazine Foreign Policy, wrote an article titled “Japan’s Gross National Cool.” It took stock of Japan’s outsized cultural sway around the world. “Instead of collapsing beneath its political and economic misfortunes, Japan’s global cultural influence has only grown,” he wrote. “In fact, from pop music to consumer electronics, architecture to fashion, and food to art, Japan has far greater cultural influence now than it did in the 1980s, when it was an economic superpower.”

Pop or otherwise, culture is integral to Japan’s soft power, as McCray pointed out. Different measures, such as a recent one by Brand Finance, a brand-valuation consultancy, rank Japan among the top countries in the world in soft power.

Prompted at least in part by McCray’s article, the government took a new interest in promoting Japanese culture, and not just the traditional forms such as Noh drama, tea ceremony, and ikebana (flower arranging), but new stuff too. The effort to sell culture abroad is called “Cool Japan.” In 2013, it launched a fund to assist the spread of Japanese culture abroad.

Despite the efforts, and money, it hasn’t gone well. The projects have racked up losses with little to show in return. “The Japanese government, in the last 10 years or so, has finally been waking up and saying, ‘Oh wow we are this global pop culture powerhouse,'” Kapur says. “But even then, the Japanese government, aside from empty talking points, doesn’t really know what they should be doing to spread Japanese pop culture even more. They haven’t, for instance, changed certain licensing laws that would make it easier to spread things overseas.”

Even so, the spread of Japanese culture doesn’t seem to be slowing, thanks at least in part to companies that still see opportunities, and facilitators such as Japan’s Tetsu Fujimura. Fujimura is an executive producer whose company, Filosophia, has helped bring Japanese titles such as Ghost in the Shell and Cowboy Bebop to American audiences. He refers to them simply as IP, or intellectual property. “My function is like a bridge between Japanese IP holders and American producers for movies and TV,” he explains.

When he founded Filosophia 12 years ago, he says it was rare for him to receive inquiries from US studios. But in recent years, they’ve grown steadily. Not only are American viewers getting more interested in Japanese stories—a phenomenon being accelerated by services such as Netflix streaming anime—but American studios have also watched the rise of box-office sales in Asia, where manga and anime have been popular a long time. One believer in Japanese IP, according to Fujimura, is Avi Arad, the producer who helped hook Hollywood on the Marvel universe and worked with Fujimura on Ghost in the Shell.

As we talk, Fujimura rattles off a non-exhaustive list of previously released or forthcoming movies or TV series based on Japanese manga, anime, or games including:

His company had no involvement in many of the projects. “This is the beginning of a new era,” Fujimura says. “Japanese IP could be the next Marvel.”

To Fujimura’s point, if you look at the US market for comics and graphic novels, manga titles hold a greater share of the market than superhero stories. There are some potential reasons, such as how manga are packaged compared to superhero narratives, which can require knowing an extensive backstory to understand the latest title. But the fact stands that superheroes have competition.

There is a notable parallel between Marvel titles and the sprawling creative universe Fujimura lays out: Both are trading on ideas from the past. In Marvel’s case many of its characters are from the 1960s, while many of the biggest Japanese successes are from the 1990s.

“One of the things you see over the last 20 years is [Japan is] living off the glory days of the ’90s,” Marx says. It’s not that the country hasn’t produced anything new, he explains. It’s just that the 1990s were a peak moment.

While much of Japan’s soft power may derive from this period, the country isn’t in much danger of losing its cultural influence. Yes, Korea is on its heels, given the mega-watt success of BTS and K-pop, and the global triumph of Bong Joon Ho’s movie Parasite. But Marx points to Italy as an example of a country that remains a global cultural force, despite its most loved and recognized exports in this area, such as its cuisine, being far from new.

Japan’s cultural strength will similarly persist, whether it’s cranking out novel cultural hits or not. It has an advantage in its reputation for making things—even reproductions of items from other countries—with exacting dedication to authenticity. That attentiveness is why imports of Japanese whiskey to the US are surging, and why American guys love Japanese interpretations of American sportswear.

Japan has lost its status as the world leader in producing electronics, supplanted by other Asian nations such as China and Korea. Fujimura acknowledges the Japanese people recognize their country’s decline in that realm.

“But Japanese pop culture—anime, manga, even characters like Hello Kitty, in fashion kawaii—those things are unique,” he says. Not long ago, he adds, Japanese parents still admonished their kids for spending too much time on games or manga. Now Japan takes pride in those forms, and in the love they receive beyond its borders.

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