If Japan as a country were to be defined by one compelling big idea, ‘quality’ ‘precision’ or ‘well-made’ may have instantly come to mind back in the 80s. These words categorize Japan as a functional, rational and tangible brand; an economic power with robotic qualities—distant and emotionless.
More than 30 years later, the world sees Japan in a very different light. The country is admired more as a cultural entity than an economic power. It’s experienced a renaissance as an ‘it’ brand.
With the 2020 Olympics around the corner, the world is taking notice of a different Japan. A more human, emotional and vibrant Japan. We see this cultural energy in everything from Japanese gastronomy to art, design, fashion, film, music and architecture. To dub this contemporary, modern or ‘cool’ Japan would be overly simplistic. This is Creative Japan: Japanese creativity inspiring creators around the world. An energy. A movement. Difficult to ignore.
You don’t have to look too hard for proof. Japanese fine dining has overtaken French as the most difficult tables to land. At the other end of the spectrum, Japanese comfort staples such as ramen, okonomiyaki, takoyaki, and yakisoba are endlessly Instagrammed and have established cult status among even the most serious foodies.
Yayoi Kusama dominated Louis Vuitton windows all last season, while fashionistas flock to Undercover and chill to the vibes of Maison Kitsuné while sipping hojicha lattes.
One would imagine a deliberate influencer strategy at work behind the scenes of this cultural phenomenon. But Japanese creativity is organically endorsed by influencers, connoisseurs and professionals across myriad fields. Michelin-starred chefs celebrate Japanese techniques, ingredients and artistry. Alexander McQueen was a fan of Rei Kawakubo’s Comme des Garçons world. Venice Beach can’t get enough of Okura’s Japanese raw denim. This interest and endorsement of Japanese creativity from artisans at the top of their game keeps the Japan brand evolving.
You could write it all off as a passing fad. But it would be misleading to define Creative Japan as a trend. It may have only been recently discovered, but it’s definitely not new. Not just about the now. Not limited to youth. The appeal is universal, timeless and borderless.
Japanese creativity resonates with creators around the world because there is purity and beauty in it that is more a ‘way’ than expression for expression’s sake. Japanese creativity can never exist without the backbone of a mastered craft or artistry. It's never a gimmick.
The best definition would be that of a journey—one to the heart and soul of the nation, where old meets new. In harmony and without conflict. Always rooted in heritage and legacy. Inspired by innovation. Unafraid to break from convention. Constantly inventing and re-inventing. Pure, but also expressive and colourful. Able to move backwards or forwards in time. Japanese creativity is a voice and a force.
With all this in mind, it’s perplexing that mainstream Japanese brands and industry leaders themselves have not caught on. Do they not get it? Do they not understand the relevance of this cultural phenomenon and its implications? Or are they too far removed from the realities of their sei-katsu-sha’s lifestyles?
Mainstream brands need to consider how to leverage this cultural landscape to their benefit, so that it’s not misinterpreted as being limited to niche, subculture brands with an edge.
It’s time for mainstream brands to step out of their comfort zone. Gone should be the days where we communicate in USPs, hiding true identities behind numbers, technology and innovation. The world has moved on. It expects more from Japan. It expects more from brands and products that are most representative of Japan. The world is hungry for stories beyond the functional product truths. A voice. A soul. It’s time for Japanese brands to voice their personal point of view. Why and how it was conceived. Its reason for being. Its purpose in the world.
Creative Japan is the ultimate opportunity for mainstream brands to come out and let the world know who they really are.
Ayami Nakao is corporate officer of Hakuhodo and SVP/director of global branding for Hakuhodo International
This article was first published in Japanese on Campaign Japan.