Experiment in investigating Cool Japan


I recently returned from a trip to Tokyo in which I took ten students from my University in Tasmania for a week long field trip to some of the places which have become associated with, or actively constructing the story of ‘Cool Japan’. That is the 21st Century manga, anime, and related pop culture induced image of Japan as fun, creative, progressive and unique. The image above includes some of the students and myself next to one of the icons of Japanese anime – Gundam. It was taken at the Suginami Animation Museum in Tokyo about mid-way through the trip.

The idea of Cool Japan draws upon Joseph S. Nye Jr 1990 concept of Soft Power where governments are searching for ways to use culture rather than ‘hard’ means (war, etc)  “to influence what others want, are prepared to do and what they want to copy from you” (p 155). This idea, combined with one of my favourite quotes from Arjun Appadurai and his concept of mediascapes (also writing in 1990):

“What is most important about these mediascapes is that they provide (especially in their television, film and cassette forms) large and complex repertoires of images, narratives and ‘ethnoscapes’ to viewers throughout the world, in which the world of commodities and the world of ‘news’ and politics are profoundly mixed.”
The lines between the ‘realistic’ and the fictional landscapes they see are blurred, so that the further away these audiences are from the direct experiences of metropolitan life, the more likely they are to construct ‘imagined’ worlds’…”

So, with these two influences I endeavoured to expose my students to a complete sensory overload through visiting some of the larger locations of pop culture consumption and practice in Tokyo: The otome street in Ikebukuro catering to female fans with bishonen and yaoi dojinshi, cosplay and merchandise shops, the otaku locations of Akihabara and Nakano, and a walking tour of architecture in Shibuya, as well as other locations. It’s easy to say we live in a media saturated world, and in many ways this has become the mantra of media studies and the modern condition. However, the scale of this saturation in Tokyo is of another order entirely.

Below is a photo of a Singaporean based TV crew interviewing the students at the Evangelion store in Harajuku. Directed by the well-known and highly productive Danny Choo this series was investigating contemporary Japan and happened to stumble upon my group at the store. The students were interviewed around their interests in Japanese pop culture and its popularity outside of Japan.


This interview by a Singaporean based TV crew in the Evangelion store was the perfect example of the type of convergence of people with different agendas but similar focus around the bubbling melting pot of Cool Japan. Given it involved no Japanese it also reveals the international community which sustains interest and inquiry into the Cool Japan idea.


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