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Japan eyes its potential as a soft-power superpower

Nana Mizuki performs in her concert in Taiwan in November. (The Japan News)
Nana Mizuki performs in her concert in Taiwan in November. (The Japan News)
When One Ok Rock, a four-member Japanese rock band, made their entrance onto an open-air stage in the suburbs of Jakarta, close to 3,000 excited fans cheered so wildly the ground shook.

One 26-year-old office worker, wearing a Muslim head covering, threw both of her hands in the air, saying, “How wonderful to be able to listen to the band live.”

A Malaysian man who flew in on a budget airline using money he had saved working part-time, also said excitedly: “They’re cool in a different way from Western bands.”

Tickets to the concert in November cost 450,000 rupiah (about $37), one-fifth of Jakarta’s minimum monthly wage of 2.2 million rupiah. Put in terms of Japanese prices, they would run about 20,000 yen ($200).

“I’d say it’s still cheap for One Ok Rock concert,” said a 20-year-old female student.

The band sings mostly in English, which allows many people to understand the lyrics. The group set out on their first international tour last year, playing in 11 cities in Europe and Asia between October and December.

“The response has gone way beyond our expectations. They’ll certainly do well in the global market,” said Tatsuro Hatanaka, president of Amuse Inc., the band’s agency.

Just as the American-dream lifestyle portrayed in Hollywood movies enraptured consumers worldwide and helped promote exports of U.S. cars, a country’s soft power, including music and other pop culture, helps strengthen the “national brand power” for the entire country, a potential economic boon. But a country’s soft power is often hard for those living in the country to recognize.

“Welcome to Taiwan!” In November, around 500 people gathered at Taipei airport to welcome popular Japanese voice actor and singer Nana Mizuki. Mizuki was visiting Taiwan to hold her first ever overseas concert.

He Zheng Li, a 22-year-old accountant who had traveled to Taiwan from Hong Kong to see Mizuki, is a dedicated fan. He also made the trek to Osaka to see Mizuki’s show there.

“I began studying Japanese because I like Nana Mizuki,” he said.

Japan’s entertainment world has long focused on the domestic market, unwilling to branch into overseas markets.

With the domestic market gradually shrinking due to the aging population and low birthrate, however, the country’s show business has also begun to pay more attention to the overseas market, especially Asia, in an effort to broaden fan bases.

Japanese food has long since established its popularity overseas, but sushi and tempura are no longer the only globally recognized items on the menu; its fame is rapidly expanding overseas.

“This soup tastes so good. Such a complicated taste, and it’s only $14,” said a 23-year-old fashion model at Hakata Ippudo’s ramen restaurant in New York. He is a real devotee of Ippudo’s tonkotsu ramen, or ramen with pork bone-based soup.

Ippudo now operates two ramen shops in New York. Diners usually have to wait for one to two hours on weekdays to enter the restaurants. On weekends the wait is even longer, often three to four hours.

At their New York branches, Ippudo serves not only ramen, but also wine, sake and grilled fish. People spend about $38 for an average dinner visit, but some spend more than $100 a head, for example by trying to impress a date.

Some services are normal to a Japanese, but look new in the eyes of people overseas. The surprisingly accurate “time designation” service offered by some parcel delivery firms is one such example.

Yuki Lau, operator of an electronics sales firm in Singapore, is one of many who appreciate the service. He said his firm receives fewer complaints from customers since they started using Yamato Transport Co.’s service to ship the firm’s products to clients. “Thanks to quick and accurate deliveries, the number of complaints declined,” said Lau, 33. Yamato currently operates in five countries and territories in Asia.

Yet, even though the country’s music, food and service are highly appreciated on an individual basis overseas, Japan still fails to leverage multiplier effects to raise the country’s brand power as a whole.

South Korea has a lead on Japan in terms of soft power strategy. The country exports TV drama content to other Asian countries, and leading actresses from the programs appear in commercials for cosmetics and various other products, aiding South Korean manufacturers in developing markets.

Shawn Chin, president of a Singapore event company, points out a difference between the two countries.

“In Japan’s case, individual companies and singers work independently, while in South Korea, the public and private sectors join hands to penetrate overseas markets,” Chin said.

According to estimates by Nomura Research Institute, Japan’s combined market scale of “soft power” industries, including music, fashion, food and tourism, is worth about 64 trillion yen, larger even than the market size of Japan’s auto industry.

Yet, exports of these goods and services are estimated to stand at just 1.5 trillion yen, posting trade deficits of 3.5 trillion yen in these same domains.

The market scale of such soft power industries is projected to grow to around 932 trillion yen in 2020, doubling its 2009 scale, according to the major consulting firm A.T. Kearney, Inc.

This is an opportunity for Japan to change its inward-looking attitude to further boost the country’s strength. (The Japan News)