Manga wars

As Japan's economic dominance of south-east Asia wanes, so could its manga-centric cultural pull.

"Once one starts listing the examples of Japanese culture infiltrating the United States, it's pretty hard to stop," wrote Entrepreneur.com's Laura Tiffany in 2008. "The import market for Japanese pop culture is still in its infancy," she continued, citing the growing market for manga comics, which had become readily available at mainstream outlets such as Walmart and Borders. Of the ten bestselling graphic novels in US bookstores in November that year, six were Japanese: the likes of Masashi Kishimoto's Naruto and Natsuki Takaya's Fruits Basket jostled among domestic fare by established western figures such as Alan Moore, whose 1986 hit Watchmen occupied the top spot (buoyed, perhaps, by the pre-release excitement surrounding its 2009 film adaptation).

Two decades earlier, Japan's image in the eyes of the English-speaking world was largely restricted to that of an economic juggernaut; Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982) captures the wariness reserved by the west for the country's seemingly unstoppable growth. That film presents a dystopian vision of an America usurped by the east, with kimono-clad women smiling from towering billboard screens and the streets filled with non-specifically Asian food vendors. But Scott's predictions proved only partly prophetic. The Japanese economic bubble burst spectacularly in the years that followed, suffering the hangover of over-investment in the 1980s and then caught in the domino effect of Thailand's bankruptcy in 1997. Though Japan is still the world's second-largest economy, China is expected to overtake it this year. John McTiernan's 1988 film Die Hard was set in the Nakatomi Plaza -- a Japanese-owned skyscraper in Los Angeles. If it were made today, perhaps Hans Gruber would have been relieving a Chinese corporation of its bonds and money.

This tide-change from Japan to China is palpable and seems to be accelerating on all fronts. In June, the Asahi newspaper reported the results of a Gallup poll, which revealed that -- for the first time in 25 years -- more US opinion leaders considered China their most important partner in Asia than those who chose Japan.

In the arts, even Japan's dominance of manga and animated films is being challenged. The Japan Expo in Paris, held between 1-4 July, is a fixture for manga fans across Europe; it attracts 150,000 punters a year. For the first time in its 11-year history, it invited Korean manhwa comic stalls to exhibit work, a development that, according to Asahi, was due to the efforts of the government-sponsored Korea Creative Content Agency (KCCA). "There may come the day when this event is overwhelmed by manhwa," said the Japanese ministry of economy rep Tetsuya Watanabe. The KCCA receives $152.1 million in government subsidies, and is buoyed by the conviction of its president, Lee Jae-woong, that "the cultural industry" will soon "lead all industries". China, too, is investing heavily in the sector: it hailed "cultural soft power" as a major national policy at the 2007 Communist party convention and has gone on to establish about 20 "industrial bases" for anime and manga production.

Japan's ministry of economy, trade and industry responded by establishing a "Cool Japan" department in June. But without the aggressive state push (nor the same scale of hard funding) to match its south-east Asian counterparts, it remains to be seen whether it can manage to keep western eyes on what is traditionally a culturally insular nation.

Yo Zushi is a sub-editor of the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

OLIVER BURSTON
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How science and statistics are taking over sport

An ongoing challenge for analysts is to disentangle genuine skill from chance events. Some measurements are more useful than others.

In the mid-1990s, statistics undergraduates at Lancaster University were asked to analyse goal-scoring in a hypothetical football match. When Mark Dixon, a researcher in the department, heard about the task, he grew curious. The analysis employed was a bit simplistic, but with a few tweaks it could become a powerful tool. Along with his fellow statistician Stuart Coles, he expanded the methods, and in doing so transformed how researchers – and gamblers – think about football.

The UK has always lagged behind the US when it comes to the mathematical analysis of sport. This is partly because of a lack of publicly available match data, and partly because of the structure of popular sports. A game such as baseball, with its one-on-one contests between pitcher and batter, can be separated into distinct events. Football is far messier, with a jumble of clashes affecting the outcome. It is also relatively low-scoring, in contrast to baseball or basketball – further reducing the number of notable events. Before Dixon and Coles came along, analysts such as Charles Reep had even concluded that “chance dominates the game”, making predictions all but impossible.

Successful prediction is about locating the right degree of abstraction. Strip away too much detail and the analysis becomes unrealistic. Include too many processes and it becomes hard to pin them down without vast amounts of data. The trick is to distil reality into key components: “As simple as possible, but no simpler,” as Einstein put it.

Dixon and Coles did this by focusing on three factors – attacking and defensive ability for each team, plus the fabled “home advantage”. With ever more datasets now available, betting syndicates and sports analytics firms are developing these ideas further, even including individual players in the analysis. This requires access to a great deal of computing power. Betting teams are hiring increasing numbers of science graduates, with statisticians putting together predictive models and computer scientists developing high-speed software.

But it’s not just betters who are turning to statistics. Many of the techniques are also making their way into sports management. Baseball led the way, with quantitative Moneyball tactics taking the Oakland Athletics to the play-offs in 2002 and 2003, but other sports are adopting scientific methods, too. Premier League football teams have gradually built up analytics departments in recent years, and all now employ statisticians. After winning the 2016 Masters, the golfer Danny Willett thanked the new analytics firm 15th Club, an offshoot of the football consultancy 21st Club.

Bringing statistics into sport has many advantages. First, we can test out common folklore. How big, say, is the “home advantage”? According to Ray Stefani, a sports researcher, it depends: rugby union teams, on average, are 25 per cent more likely to win than to lose at home. In NHL ice hockey, this advantage is only 10 per cent. Then there is the notion of “momentum”, often cited by pundits. Can a few good performances give a weaker team the boost it needs to keep winning? From baseball to football, numerous studies suggest it’s unlikely.

Statistical models can also help measure player quality. Teams typically examine past results before buying players, though it is future performances that count. What if a prospective signing had just enjoyed a few lucky games, or been propped up by talented team-mates? An ongoing challenge for analysts is to disentangle genuine skill from chance events. Some measurements are more useful than others. In many sports, scoring goals is subject to a greater degree of randomness than creating shots. When the ice hockey analyst Brian King used this information to identify the players in his local NHL squad who had profited most from sheer luck, he found that these were also the players being awarded new contracts.

Sometimes it’s not clear how a specific skill should be measured. Successful defenders – whether in British or American football – don’t always make a lot of tackles. Instead, they divert attacks by being in the right position. It is difficult to quantify this. When evaluating individual performances, it can be useful to estimate how well a team would have done without a particular player, which can produce surprising results.

The season before Gareth Bale moved from Tottenham Hotspur to Real Madrid for a record £85m in 2013, the sports consultancy Onside Analysis looked at which players were more important to the team: whose absence would cause most disruption? Although Bale was the clear star, it was actually the midfielder Moussa Dembélé who had the greatest impact on results.

As more data is made available, our ability to measure players and their overall performance will improve. Statistical models cannot capture everything. Not only would complete understanding of sport be dull – it would be impossible. Analytics groups know this and often employ experts to keep their models grounded in reality.

There will never be a magic formula that covers all aspects of human behaviour and psychology. However, for the analysts helping teams punch above their weight and the scientific betting syndicates taking on the bookmakers, this is not the aim. Rather, analytics is one more way to get an edge. In sport, as in betting, the best teams don’t get it right every time. But they know how to win more often than their opponents. 

Adam Kucharski is author of The Perfect Bet: How Science and Maths are Taking the Luck Out of Gambling (Profile Books)

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism