Japan is hoping to cash in on its rich culture by recreating fashionable districts of Tokyo in foreign cities, determined that enclaves of vibrant shops, cafes and restaurants can find new markets abroad.
For decades, exports have been the driving force behind the world’s third largest economy with brands like Toyota and Sony becoming household names around the globe.
But a key plank in the government’s “Cool Japan” strategy, which launched last year, is to transplant Tokyo’s trendy districts overseas, taking the shops to the customers instead of bringing the customers to the shops.
It could see quirky areas like shopping district Harajuku pop up in cities around the world, boosting Japan’s brand overseas and helping to reverse the nation’s flagging fortunes.
Harajuku is known for a subculture in which young women dress up in a style known as Lolita fashion, looking not unlike Little Bo Peep. The area and its fashion has inspired pop diva Lady Gaga.
In October, more than a dozen Japanese apparel companies opened a mini-commercial hub called Harajuku Street Style in Singapore, the kind of venture that Cool Japan advocates are hoping to replicate many times over.
Japan’s cultural exports are already valued at 4.6 trillion yen a year, according to government figures.
Pop acts like hugely popular girl group AKB48 make up a sizeable chunk of this figure, while manga and anime do their share with a significant, but falling, contribution.
The cutesy Hello Kitty, a moon-faced cartoon cat, is present in more than 100 countries around the world, its maker says.
But the government wants to more-than-double the amount Japanese pop culture makes for the country’s economy, and is eying 11 trillion yen by 2020.
The idea is to pair up property developers who are keen to buy real estate abroad with several small businesses eager to expand overseas, creating Japanese enclaves where the country’s trendy design and sometimes quirky culture work as selling points.
“It’s hard for small businesses to go into overseas markets on their own, but they have enormous potential to sell in foreign markets,” a trade ministry official said.
Last month, the government held a business matchmaking fair, where dark-suited salarymen from the nation’s major real-estate developers mingled alongside the owners of a nail-art shop and red-lanterned “izakaya”—Japanese-style bars offering grilled meat and beer.
“I think this event is very meaningful,” said 28-year-old Maiko Fukushima, who runs a bar featuring young women singing popular anime songs in Tokyo’s Akihabara district.
“We have many fans abroad who monitor our activities via the Internet, but small businesses don’t have the capital to go overseas by ourselves.”
Yuichiro Suzuki, 37, president of “maid cafe” operator Neo Delight said he planned to start selling the concept in a major Asian city such as Hong Kong or Bangkok later this year.
But although image-themed restaurants and other establishments are hugely popular in Japan, their allure abroad remains to be seen.
Nobutoshi Yamanouchi, a lawyer specializing in mergers and acquisitions with legal firm Jones Day said the strategy hinged on being able to export “Japaneseness.”
But, he cautioned, projects needed to be handled by a manager with vision.
“It won’t be so simple to sell an image of an entire town. Such a project will need someone to orchestrate and design the image of a town, for example Harajuku,” he said.
The “Cool Japan” campaign comes at a time other nations are also trying to cash in on aspects of their culture or history to boost investment or trade.
The GREAT Britain campaign is particularly visible with advertising campaigns in a number of world cities that coincide with London’s hosting of the Olympic Games and Queen Elizabeth’s diamond jubilee.
For Japan, it is less about grand themes than cultural particularities.
Akiko Shinoda, director of Japan Fashion Week, said Japanese attention to quality and detail, especially on the fashion front, is a key selling point.
“(Japanese are) raised in an environment where everything is high-quality—manga, anime, games and other toys. The Japanese in general are known for craftsmanship,” she said.
“Because people in trendy fashion streets such as Harajuku, Shibuya, Ginza and Daikanyama are highly sensitive to fashion, Japanese designers inspired by them turn out excellent products.”
Izakaya manager Koichi Fukami said he was hoping that the country’s cuisine would help spread the uniquely Japanese pubs around the world.
“Japanese cuisine’s power is great,” he said at the fair. “Chinatowns are everywhere in the world. Let’s make Japantowns.”