“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.