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Column "My Cool Japan"

Tak Umezawa

Diversity is the key to innovating Japanese culture

Japan Chairman and Partner, A.T. KearneyTak Umezawa

In support of the Cool Japan initiative, I have many opportunities to introduce Japanese creative content to foreign guests. Recent examples are two workshops on Japanese pop culture with creative industry professionals and business school students, both of whom gathered in Tokyo for a weekly program from across the globe.

 What most interests those who join these workshops?


 A robot called “KURATAS” is one example (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=29MD29ekoKI).
A person can operate the four-meter tall robot inside the cockpit, and can also drive it on the road. You could purchase it for 120 million yen, but it is a piece of art and has essentially zero functional value. Our foreign guests are really drawn to it.

 Foreigners also enjoy the live concerts of Hatsune Miku and the futuristic opera THE END, in which Miku appears in a Louis Vuitton outfit (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UUxxYVbDxw0). After watching Miku’s performances, one Bollywood producer said, “Japan is just brilliant.”

Even first-time visitors to Japan know all about sushi and ramen, but they also show a strong interest in Japanese-style Western foods such as omu-rice and katsu curry.

Remixing culture

 What is the common element shared by KURATAS, Hatsune Miku, and Japanese-style Western food? They all are innovations through collaborations across boundaries, such as technology and art, east and west, etc.

 KURATAS is a real robot made possible by combining an artistic aesthetic with advanced software and metallurgical technologies. It is a collaboration of art, technology, and craftsmanship. THE END is essentially a collaboration between contemporary music, a Japanese virtual idol, and a European fashion brand. We can find a similar connection with Japanese-style Western food, ramen and other dishes. They are culinary innovations through importing elements of foreign cultures, integrating them with existing Japanese culture and refining them.

 Japan has imported foreign cultures on a grand scale throughout its history – in ancient days from the Korean peninsula and China, later on from Europe, and from the USA since the end of the war – and then sublimated them all into Japanese culture. Like a DJ creating a remix of a song, Japan has continued to create new value by remixing cultures. Continuously introducing foreign cultural elements and maintaining the cultural diversity is vital to this dynamic process.

 If we stick to the idea of “Japanese-ness” too much, we may end up with promoting what is deemed to be “correct Japanese content” while ignoring what people overseas are interested in. Just laying out high-quality Japanese goods in front of the overseas consumers is not enough to succeed in the global market. It requires never-ending innovations of the content and effective curation to communicate its value.

“NeXTOKYO” - Promoting Immigration of Creative Professionals

 TOKYO 2020 is a big chance for us to energize innovation through promoting diversity. To develop a future-city vision for Tokyo, I assembled a cross-disciplinary team of leading practitioners in architecture, property development, sociology, sports, arts, business and management consulting. The team has developed the “NeXTOKYO” vision and made a proposal to the government and industry (series articles on Nikkei Business Online: business.nikkeibp.co.jp/article/opinion/20140929/271844/).

 One of our most important recommendations is promoting immigration of creative industry professionals. This is the perfect time to open Japan up to the world with a focus on two keywords – culture and creativity. The goal is to help Tokyo evolve into the world’s most creative city by attracting talent in fields such as design, cuisine, fashion, beauty, creative content, and others.

 I often meet foreign professionals who express a desire to work in the creative industry in Japan. However, most of them would be required to clear some awfully high hurdles to work in Japan.

 For example, the path to becoming a chef with a Japanese restaurant in Japan is closed off to foreigners. The working visa for chefs is only open to those with ten years of experience in their own countries in “foreign cuisine.” Japanese food service companies should be able to accelerate their global expansion, if they could hire foreign graduates of Japanese culinary schools, train them in Japan for a few years, and send them back to their home countries to open new restaurants. But this strategy is not possible under today’s immigration policies.

 Considering the high potential of the Japanese food industry, Japan should welcome talented chefs from around the world, whether Japanese or foreign cuisine, fine or casual dining.

 The Japanese beauty industry is also closed off to foreign workers. Japan boasts top class techniques in hair, make-up, and nail art, and Japanese-style beauty salons are becoming popular in Asia. Foreign graduates of Japanese beauty schools, however, are unable to receive a skilled worker visa. We should relax working visa requirements for creative industry professionals by using the Special Economic Zone scheme.

 The Cool Japan strategy cannot be carried out by Japanese people only. The country should attract creative talent from across the world, promote them in the global market, or have them lead development of key international markets. This will be a key enabler for Japan to accelerate the globalization of its creative industries, thus achieving the Cool Japan vision.


Tak Umezawa

Japan Chairman and Partner, A.T. Kearney

Umezawa has advised leading Japanese and US corporations on strategy, marketing and organization. He served the firm’s board until 2014.

He serves on “Cool Japan Strategy Committee” of the Cabinet Secretariat and “Tax Commission” of the Cabinet Office.