How Do You Rebrand a Country?

A look at Japan’s attempt to call itself “cool”

The annual value of Japan's Manga Publishing Industry is $6 billion. Illustration by J.D. King

It was May 2011 and Mizuki Takahashi, an art curator in the Japanese city of Mito, couldn’t believe the irony. A mere two months before, her country had been battered by the “triple disaster” of an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown. And yet here she was, reading a report from Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry promoting a vision for revitalizing the country under the brand “Cool Japan.” There was nothing “cool” about the reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, Takahashi noted.

The idea of “branding” Japan as “cool” preceded the calamities. A public-private group called the Cool Japan Advisory Council had been working on this latest proposal since 2010. And the concept of “Cool Japan” goes back at least to a 2002 article in Foreign Policy observing that, while Japan’s gross national product had dwindled through the ’90s, its “gross national cool” was on the rise, fueled by the international popularity of its cultural products such as manga (comics) and anime (animation).

Over the past decade, other countries have jumped on the brand wagon, adopting slogans such as “Incredible India” and “Drink Finland.” By marketing cultural exports, nations hope to tap a vast global market. And nation-branding can be a form of “soft power,” a way of gaining back-door influence in the international community.

Ian Condry, a cultural anthropologist at MIT, says something as seemingly frivolous as a Pokemon obsession can blossom into “a sympathetic response to Japanese people” as a whole. He is skeptical, though, of official efforts to co-opt Japan’s coolness. “The forefront of Japanese popular culture tends to be edgy and off-color, so there is likely a limit to the kinds of things that Japan’s perennially conservative government is willing to support publicly,” he says.

To be sure, countries have always sought to influence how the rest of the world sees them. But “branding a nation as a product” is a relatively new approach, which is “very different from thinking about a nation as a community of citizens,” says Katja Valaskivi, a Finnish scholar of media studies and Japan’s nation-branding efforts. You begin to ask the wrong questions, she says: “How can we be more attractive?” instead of “How could we be more inclusive, more democratic, more hospitable?” In fact, Simon Anholt, a Britain-based independent policy adviser who publishes an annual assessment of nation brands, has found that, ultimately, countries are judged by their behavior, not their slogans.

Takahashi, the Mito curator, agrees. Her response to what she felt was her nation’s misguided and ill-timed branding effort was to commission an art installation critical of Japanese reliance on nuclear energy. Takahashi says she believes that 2011’s triple disaster still has lessons to teach the Japanese people—how to live in harmony with nature, how to wean the country from nuclear power and how to sustain a peaceful world. “If we practice these,” she says, “any branding will not be necessary.”

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