Gabey Goh
May 26, 2016

Expanding Japan’s soft power, one stomach at a time

SINGAPORE - When it comes to exporting “Japan” as a concept, destination and product, the most potent weapon could very well be an edible one. Campaign Asia-Pacific talks to Cool Japan Fund and Japan Food Town Development about their plans for world domination, one dish at a time.

From L: Nobuyuki Ota, Makoto Yoshikawa, and Joji Koda
From L: Nobuyuki Ota, Makoto Yoshikawa, and Joji Koda

Come 16 July, Singapore will play host to the first Japan Food Town, billed as a “multi-sensorial expression of the country’s culture and culinary gems brought together under one roof.”

It is the product of a joint venture established by Cool Japan Fund, a public-private fund, in collaboration with Japan Association of Overseas Promotion for Food & Restaurants (JAOF) and its corporate supporters.

With an investment of approximately US$6.16 million, Japan Food Town is the collaboration’s first project to be launched outside of Japan.

The food hall, which covers over 20,075 square feet of space on the fourth level of Isetan Singapore, will feature 16 casual dining outlets offering a broad range of Japanese cuisine at affordable prices.

Makoto Yoshikawa, managing director of Japan Food Town Development, told Campaign Asia-Pacific that Singapore, with its status as “the hub of Asia”, is in the best position to showcase the concept.

“Japan Food town is a very unique facility in the sense that it provides real authentic Japanese cuisine made from the freshest ingredients delivered daily straight from Japan, and cooked by Japanese chefs at a reasonable price,” he said.

The establishment is intended to be a capsule collection of curated stories representing Japanese cuisine; every restaurant has a story, such as the bowl of Inaniwa Udon by Sato Yosuke, enriched with more than a century of history.

Each restaurant has been handpicked based on its strong reputation and rich heritage dating back centuries.

Yoshikawa said that Japan Food Town’s marketing and public relations efforts will centred on communicating the brand story, through highlighting the people, ingredients and craftsmanship behind the food.

“We will position Japan Food Town as a place with real Japanese food served at a reasonable price for everyone to partake and enjoy,” he added.

Asked which agencies the company is working with for this effort, Yoshikawa said the company works closely with Tokyo-based agency Park Inc. and Singapore-based agency Every Matter. Its public relations work is handled by Cohn & Wolfe for Singapore.

Asked about the kind of return on investment expected from the venture, Yoshikawa said that in addition to financial returns, the company expects the project to be a platform for offering the best of Japanese flavour and hospitality.

In addition, the mission includes helping early-stage companies and SMEs, in particular businesses that have a strong business presence in Japan but have found it difficult to expand overseas on their own.

Asked what opportunities exist for Japanese brands from other industry sectors with this venture, Yoshikawa said that various sectors related to the food and restaurant industries have also been involved, such as electric-appliance makers and beverage makers, as well as property-management companies.

He added that the hope is for more Japan Food Towns to crop up in other countries, but there are currently no specific plans for expansion.

“For a start, we keep our focus on this first step in Singapore,” said Yoshikawa.


A promotional rendering of the food hall

Exporting Japan’s “cool”

As a destination for travellers around the world, Japan is enjoying growing popularity, thanks largely to a boom in number of Chinese visitors, due to relaxed visa rules.

In 2015, foreign arrivals soared to 19.7 million, up some 30 percent from the previous year and an astounding quadrupling of the 5.2 million in 2003, in part thanks to the government’s ambitious “Visit Japan” campaign launched that year.

At the same time, the visitors spent a record ¥3.5 trillion (US$31 billion) in 2015 or more than 70 percent than the year before.

The Japanese government is now working to double the current number of foreign visitors to 40 million by 2020.

The promotion of cultural products and cultivation of soft power by nations has always worked in tandem with hard marketing efforts.

“Cool Japan” was a concept coined in 2002 as an expression of Japan's emergent status as a cultural superpower, which hit its tipping point in 2011.

The "Cool Japan" campaign was originally set up to promote Japanese anime and manga, and has since morphed into a much larger venture, to now include music, fashion and food.

In 2012, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe blessed the effort with an official seal and appointed a "Cool Japan" minister in charge of strategy—an effort aimed at ramping up foreign interest as the country prepares for the 2020 Olympic Games.

However, the effort has had mixed reactions domestically, with commentators noting that the government may not be the best party to determine what is "cool" about the country, while opposition politicians have alleged the effort has only helped big businesses.

The campaign’s investment arm, the Cool Japan Fund (CJF) was reported to have a ¥40.6 billion (US$370.2 million) war chest to fund its ambitious goals.

Nobuyuki Ota, CEO of CJF, told Campaign Asia-Pacific that the region is one of the most important target areas for the fund, in the sense that it has enormous opportunities for Japanese companies to export “Japan attractiveness” to growth market.

He said that quality and tradition are very important to the Japanese, and are also aspects the campaign seeks to showcase to the rest of the world.

“For instance, Dassai is one of the highest quality sake brands acknowledged outside of Japan, while sushi and Inaniwa udon represent examples of Japanese tradition,” he added.

Asked how the fund decides what’s cool about Japan and how it decides what to export or market, Ota said the “Cool Japan” concept is not strictly defined.

“Japan cannot arbitrarily decide what is cool,” he added.

Ota said the goal of the CJF’s investments is to discover the best parts of Japanese culture from the perspective of foreigners, promote these aspects overseas, and succeed as a business in addition to cultural development for all countries involved.”

“Aside from Japan Food Town, for instance, we invested in ‘Japan Channel’ that broadcasts various Japanese content including anime, drama, sports, music and film to mainly Asian countries’ viewers in their own languages,” he said.

Other projects the CJF is involved in include:

  • Tokyo Otaku Mode, which operates an ecommerce website and provides information on Japanese pop culture through Facebook.
  • Working with transport company Kawasaki Kisen to build refrigeration and freezer warehouses in Vietnam to store Japanese farm produce and other ingredients.
  • Investment in the renewal of an Isetan department store in Malaysia, turning it into a showcase store for the Cool Japan campaign.
  • Opening a large shopping mall in the centre of the urban development project in Ningbo, China.
  • Investing in a house-sharing marketplace service by Hyakusen Renma Co. for foreign tourists visiting Japan.

 

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