It’s been over 7 years since Douglas McGray introduced the term “Gross National Cool” via Foreign Policy magazine to describe Japan’s shift from economic superpower to a cultural one–better known for exporting Harajuku fashion trends and anime than mp3 players and flatscreen TVs. If Japan’s post-bubble period of economic stagnation was good for anything, it’s the fact that global fears of an international takeover by an army of cash-rich Japanese salarymen were allayed, and people started paying more attention to the other stuff they were good at, like drawing manga, creating video games, putting together crazy outfits, and coming up with ideas for brilliantly pointless entertainment.
While I’m not the biggest fan of mainstream media’s one-dimensional representation of Japan as the land of all things wacko, I do feel strongly that Japan has not done enough to capitalize on the global perception that they produce a lot of cool (and yes, oftentimes weird) stuff. It’s one thing to get cultural recognition, but actively exporting it to make money from it is a whole other issue. Sure there have been notable examples of great success over the years, like Takashi Murakami’s superflat empire and more recently, the splashy stateside arrival of Uniqlo, a brand that turned its ‘Japaneseness’ into a compelling marketing platform rather than trying to assimilate. But these examples are too few and far between given that global consumer interest in Japanese pop culture and brands has been growing for over a decade now.
So it goes without saying that I was excited (and nervous) to hear about this summer’s opening of New People, a three-story, $15 million complex in the heart of San Francisco’s Japantown that is intended to showcase all things J-Pop. The project was conceived by VIZ Media, SF-based translators and importers of manga and anime. The structure houses a cinema that screens only contemporary Japanese movies, a cafe space serving local Blue Bottle Coffee and food from Japanese deli brand Delica rf-1, a retail floor selling Gothic Lolita fashions by Baby The Stars Shine Bright and other Harajuku-inspired clothing and accessories, and an art gallery that is currently exhibiting the work of Yoshitaka Amano, known for creating the original Final Fantasy characters.
I’m reluctant to say anything concrete about New People as I’ve yet to have an opportunity to actually visit, but I do find it interesting that the revitalization of San Francisco’s Japantown is being spearheadead not by an already established brand, but by a niche media company trafficking largely in printed matter in the age of ‘The Media is Dying’. If manga publishers are able to pull together the resources to make something like this happen, imagine what would be possible if Japanese brands with more mainstream appeal decided to think big and make a collective push to actively market outside of their comfort zones. With all the interest over the past several years in everything from Japanese denim to wagyu beef, it kind of blows my mind how few Japanese brands have been able to effectively capitalize on the organic buzz. Too often they are slow to seize an opportunity and allow demand to lay fallow. There is a sort of paralyzing modesty about everything that exacerbates the overall lack of aggression. One indication of this is the well-known fact within Japanese creative media circles that their content is routinely ripped off without licensing or acknowledgment (a result of deep naïveté in litigious matters).
In any case, this is one of those posts that I keep scrapping and then coming back to because the issue of how non-major (i.e. not Toyota) Japanese brands market themselves here in the US is one that I’ve been deeply concerned with for some time now and have extremely mixed feelings about. Even without having visited, I have to give VIZ props for at least having the balls to go ahead and build New People. How things play out in the execution remains to be seen, but I admire the fact that they identified a unique market and just went after it. Sure, not everyone will be interested in what they have to offer but at least they are trying something new other than just maintaining the status quo. I just hope that other Japanese brands that are just sitting on potentially lucrative products eventually recognize that the product-quality-will-sell-itself mentality no longer applies. Proper branding and marketing strategy (as well as execution) are absolutely essential to compete and grow volume outside of Japan in a new world to new people.