This is the title of an article written by Douglas McGray for the May/June 2002 issue of Foreign Policy. I enjoyed it when it first came out, but didn't really expect it to reappear in discourse. Lately, though, several of my friends in Japanese classes have told me that it's popped up on their reading lists, and I've been catching a couple of references to it in the New York Times and other publications. So that must mean that it's pertinent. Cool.

Read it at (I think you're supposed to have to pay for it, but Google was my workaround). This is my favorite passage:

Critics often reduce the globalization of culture to either the McDonald's phenomenon or the "world music" phenomenon. For the McDonald's camp, globalization is the process of large American multinationals overwhelming foreign markets and getting local consumers addicted to special sauce. In this case, culture flows from American power, and American supply creates demand. For the world music camp, globalization means that fresh, marginal culture reaches consumers in the United States through increased contact with the rest of the world. Here, too, culture flows from American power, with demand from rich Americans expanding distribution for Latin pop or Irish folk songs. But Japanese culture has transcended U.S. demand or approval.
The basic thesis to the article is that Japan is becoming a superpower again, but it's not becoming a military superpower (being kept out of the Security Council) or an economic superpower (having the same credit rating as Botswana). Instead, it's becoming a superpower of mass culture, an arena where the United States has reigned supreme for the past few decades. McGray goes through a million examples, which shouldn't surprise most noders: Hayao Miyazaki, Takeshi Kitano, Namie Amuro, Pokemon, Hello Kitty, and the like.

Hello Kitty is where another argument starts to develop. In an interview with Kitty designer Yuko Yamaguchi, we learn that Kitty-chan is actually a WASP. Her name is Kitty White, and she speaks English. Japanese people are buying up Kitty because she's Western, and Western people are buying up Kitty because she's Japanese. McGray isolates this phenomenon again in sumo, a Japanese sport where a quarter of the upper-division wrestlers, including champions like Akebono Taro and Takamiyama, are not Japanese.

In a way, McGray goes on, the economic downturn in Japan has driven its rise to coolness. With the downfall of big business, the employment void has been filled with indie music, underground zines, nightclubs, and a wide array of small enterprises that add up to a whole lot of "gross national cool." Where Japanese people used to spend lots of money on expensive designer goods, they now save up their money for the same expensive designer goods. There are fewer and fewer young people in Japan, and many only children, so kids have ever-increasing incomes that eventually find their way to NTT Docomo and Louis Vuitton and HMV.

Says McGray:

...In cultural terms at least, Japan has become one of a handful of perfect globalization nations (along with the United States). It has succeeded not only in balancing a flexible, absorptive, crowd-pleasing, shared culture with a more private, domestic one but also in taking advantage of that balance to build an increasingly powerful global commercial force. In other words, Japan's growing cultural presence has created a mighty engine of national cool.
A few paragraphs later, he continues:

However, while Japan sits on that formidable reserve of soft power, it has few means to tap it. National cool ought to help Japan infuse its universities, research labs, companies, and arts with foreign talent. But in a vast public opinion study conducted throughout Asia in the late 1990s, respondents who admired Japanese culture and Japanese consumer products thought little of the idea of studying or working in Japan, even less of moving there for good. And as open as Japanese culture is to foreign influences, there is neither political nor public support in Japan for immigration, or for immigrants.
sekicho's take

The four main points are:

  1. The world wants to be more Japanese.
  2. Japan wants to be more like the rest of the world.
  3. The collapse of big companies has made the Japanese economy more conducive to cool enterprise.
  4. Japan's cultural imperialism has not led to the same level of internationalization that exists in the United States.
McGray doesn't explore that last idea too much, but I can think of two fairly simple explanations. First, Japan is still a nation state: it's basically France with easier import restrictions, as opposed to an American-style nationless state that will take just about anyone. Second, the cultural expansion of Japan has only really occurred in the past decade, and although I wasn't alive at the time, accounts of America in the 1960's and 1970's make it sound quite monocultural and seriously lacking in the visible foreigner population department. So I say give Japan ten or twenty more years, and you'll see all sorts of people from all over the world chilling together in Harajuku.

There are a couple of questionable points here, though. One that I really hate is the idea that Japan's "...cultural sway is not quite like that of American culture abroad, which, even in its basest forms, tends to reflect certain common values-at the very least, American-style capitalism and individualism. Contemporary Japanese culture outside Japan can seem shallow by comparison." At several other points, McGray hints at Japanese culture being meaningless, all form and no message. But he misses the fact that Japan isn't being bound by ideology, like the United States is. Instead, it's being bound by spirituality, social structure, and lots of trains, and if you don't see that stuff all over Japanese film and anime and J-pop, you're blind, deaf, and stupid.

He also misses the entire globalist-isolationist dialogue that has persisted in Japan since at least the Meiji Restoration. While he mentions the contrast between Hello Kitty, a Japanese phenomenon gone global, and sumo, a global phenomenon stuck in Japan, he never brings these things into their broader context: postwar nationalism faced with a laissez-faire desire to market outward. Given that this article appeared in Foreign Policy, I'm very surprised that it didn't attempt to extend this dichotomy to Japanese statecraft and planning.

Despite this, I loved McGray's effort in writing this article, and urge all of you to read it if and when you get a chance.