A New Japan

Cool vs Isolated Japan?

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A New Japan

Cool vs Isolated Japan?

Japan must bring two seemingly contradictory identities together to avoid further damage from ‘Galápagosization.’

Japan is a nation built on contradictions and juxtapositions, a place you'll find modern skyscrapers next to ancient temples, or Shinto couples being wed in Christian-style ceremonies.

And for the record, here's another example: Cool Japan and Isolated Japan.

What's Cool Japan?

We know Japan for its economic success during its post-war years, a period defined by obedient armies of salarymen with lifetime employment, tightly knit keiretsu, and a streamlined economy that functioned at high speed, with low drag. But Japan has been known for something else as well: it’s a Mecca for anime and cute culture exemplified by characters like Hello Kitty and Totoro, high-tech cell phones and giant robots, sushi, J-Pop, and much more. This is 'Cool Japan'.

In more recent times, while the former identity has eroded somewhat in the eyes of the rest of the world, the latter has thrived. In fact, pop culture 'identity' characterized by Japan's eccentric ingenuity has become wildly successful—including overseas—leading to enclaves of Japanese popular culture forming in other countries. Japan's cultural influence has already thoroughly permeated Asia, even down to minutiae like the keitai strap, a decorative accessory for cell phones.

It might even be argued that Japan, through the export of its contemporary mainstream culture, has achieved a pervasive influence in other countries that the militaristic and propaganda-driven Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere could never have.

Of course the export of culture isn't a novel phenomenon, and has been the subject of numerous studies of soft power, which is essentially influence through attraction and co-option. Such influence represents a particularly attractive option for nations like Japan that refuse, or lack the resources, to use coercive means of influence. Even former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi acknowledged the influence of Japanese culture and the power of cultural exports in his opening address to the Japanese Diet in 2003. Cool Japan, therefore, can be perceived as a positive side of a new Japan. 

Isolated Japan, on the other hand, isn't something to be admired, even when it is tied to some of the high-tech wizardry that is associated with Cool Japan. Indeed, it's arguable that this wizardry has actually led to the ‘Galápagosization’ of the country.

Galápagosization is a term largely applied to Japanese technology, which has developed to a significantly advanced level, but in doing so has isolated the nation's industry. 

The story of the Japanese cell phone industry is a quintessential example of Galápagosization and is a useful case study of why it must be avoided. Japanese cellular phones have long been setting trends years ahead of their counterparts in other parts of the world. Japanese cell phones were the first with e-mail capabilities in 1999, integrated cameras in 2000, access to third-generation networks in 2001, music downloads in 2002, and finally electronic payments and digital TV in 2004 and 2005. These phones are still setting trends today—Sharp has been particularly prolific, offering a waterproof, solar-powered phone through au KDDI, as well as glasses-free 3D phones through Softbank and NTT DoCoMo.

But this very ingenuity backfired on the Japanese cellular phone industry several years ago—underscoring how Japanese technological advancement and standards were perhaps too rapid. Yet instead of exercising some flexibility in this regard, the industry went forward with the rejected standards anyway and consequently, Japan's unique cellular phones became confined to Japan. So the industry focused inward and relinquished any direct influence on the global cell phone market.

And now, with the rest of the world having increasingly embraced cellular phones, the demand for feature-packed handsets is rising. Cameras have become a standard equipment for mobiles globally, and features such as e-mail capabilities and music downloads are well on their way to becoming standard as well—if they aren't already.

However, the Japanese remain practically faceless and nonexistent in the worldwide cell phone market. As of April 2011, the top five cell phone manufacturers worldwide (in order) were: 1) Nokia, 2) Samsung, 3) LG Electronics, 4) Apple, and 5) ZTE (a Chinese manufacturer of low-cost phones). Last year, Sony Ericsson was fourth on the list, but has since been knocked out of the top five. If the gravity of this doesn't sink in, remember that this is a market for which Japanese cell phone manufacturers have more than enough know-how to compete in. Japanese cell phone companies could have easily dominated this market, had concessions been made earlier regarding network standards.

Why weren’t such crucial concessions made in the first place? Perhaps it was hubris over the ascendance of Japanese standards in other format wars. Or maybe it was an overestimation of the rigidity of international cell phone markets. Either way, the consequences are clear. Japan is undeniably isolated from the worldwide cell phone market.

Galápagosization is by no means isolated to cell phone manufacturers though. Take, for instance, the rise of social media and social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. These platforms have been proven to have an impressive reach into the disembodied consciousness that is the Internet today. Back in 2007, Facebook was credited with aiding US President Barack Obama's ascent to power. And recently, Facebook and Twitter had pivotal roles in aiding protesters' efforts to break through the communications blockade erected by dictatorial regimes in the Middle East. Aside from politics, users on the Internet eagerly devour outlandish ‘memes’ and quirky viral media, while what’s trending is increasingly becoming important knowledge as a means of generating income for entrepreneurs.

These are critical global thoroughfares that Japan currently doesn’t connect through. Facebook, for example, is used by less than 2 percent of the population in Japan. Various reasons have been cited for this, including the existence of already-popular domestic social networking sites, as well as Japan's very private Internet culture. Certainly these are plausible explanations for the Japanese preferring popular social networking site Mixi over Facebook, but it doesn't explain why Japanese sites haven't instead gone global themselves to capture some of the traffic. In fact, Mixi still limits its membership to those with Japanese cellular e-mail accounts.

Still, some Japanese social networking providers have been paying more attention to international potential—GREE has slowly commenced its expansion into other areas, primary competitor Mobage has also launched its own expansion, and Nico Nico Douga—the hugely popular video sharing site—has also created international versions.

All this means that despite appearing to be contradictory, Cool Japan and Isolated Japan are also intertwined. This is a profound realization, and one that policymakers have yet to truly appreciate—shown by the lack of cohesive government action taken to support Cool Japan. Cool Japan and Isolated Japan are two sides of the same coin. They represent two possible outcomes—one in which Japanese culture is shared with the world, and the other where Japanese culture remains secluded and limited to Japan, eventually withering away.

It’s my worry that if this continues, other Japanese industries may succumb to the same tragic fate as the cellular industry. This is why the launch of international versions of Japanese social media sites is a welcome sign, and a promising step away from Galápagosization.

Still, my optimism remains tempered by data such as this: an unbelievable 67 percent of 400 Japanese white-collar workers surveyed hope to never be sent abroad for work, according to a study by the Sanno Institute of Management. In other words, two out of three working people in Japan resist the idea of being sent overseas as an expatriate. This mentality seems to extend to upcoming generations as well—numbers of students studying overseas has been steadily declining since 2008.

With some luck, a comprehensive response through policy and industry action will be taken to inoculate Japan against further Galápagosization.

Hiroki Ogawa is a Yokohama-based writer.