American journalist Douglas McGray's 2002 Foreign Policy essay "Gross National Cool" crystallized for many not only evidence that contemporary Japan had become hip and attractive, but also a nifty phrase to go with it. From Boston to Australia, "cool Japan" subsequently appeared in the titles of academic conferences, essays and articles addressing everything from Japan's anime and manga imagery to fashion, style, pop music, and even food. It signified a national brand that packed a lot of soft power--the appeal of a culture's sensibility and products.
But that was eight years ago. And like most bits of journalistic shorthand, the phrase "cool Japan" is as convenient as it is vague. Does it refer to an aspect of the national or ethnic character that is fundamentally cool? Is it Japan's capacity to absorb and then reinvent a range of outside influences that makes it so au courant in our smorgasbord 21st century? And, perhaps most pressing: If Japan is cool now, can it possibly stay that way?
These questions resurface every time I make a round of appearances at anime conventions and university campuses in the United States, as I have during the past few months. Audiences are large, sometimes massive, and very colorful. They are knowledgeable, too, at least about the titles and characters they love--so much so that they are often costumed and made up to look exactly like those characters.
But there remains an unsettling gap between the American fans of cool Japan and the Japanese who actually make what's cool. While the faces of popular anime and manga characters elicit oohs and aahs and sometimes squeals of recognition when they flash on projection screens or parade past in cosplay events, the industry that creates them--producers, publishers, artists and animators--continues to be virtually faceless outside of Japan...[more HERE; and @ 3AMHERE]