Branding Japan: Cool is not enough

Christopher Graves
Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide

Capturing the essence of a nation is the challenge for governments aiming to market their countries' strengths. Christopher Graves argues that Japan's effort to brand itself as 'cool' is shallow and faddy and misses the deeper and more spiritual aspect of Japanese culture summed up as 'devotion to mastery'.

In 1856, Felix Bracquemond, a Parisian engraver, print maker and ceramicist, received a package of ceramics from Japan. Bracquemond was immediately stirred, legend has it, by the flat, bold style of the images on the paper used to protect the ceramics. He showed these woodblock prints to his artist friends, including Manet, Degas and Whistler, who swiftly began incorporating Japanese motifs in their work. The Western love affair with Japan had begun.

A century and a half later, young Americans are flocking to Japanese-sounding conventions like Ohayocon in Columbus, Ohio and Sogencon in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. They hand-craft costumes of the characters they adore from Japanese anime (animated cartoon films). This dressing-up and role-playing is called 'cosplay', short for 'costume play', and has launched a global subculture. There are countless Facebook groups and websites. There is a Cosplay in America coffee table book. There are pilgrimages to famous anime sites. It all feels a bit like a mania.