2015 Japan Expo in Paris: Japan Slow to Cash In on Being “Cool”

Economy Culture

The 2015 Japan Expo will be held in Paris from July 2 to 5. The annual event has become a gathering spot for cosplayers and other young fans of Japanese pop culture from around Europe. Despite this intense interest among Europeans, Japan still lacks a proper structure for reaping the financial benefits of the Cool Japan boom.

Every July, young fans of Japanese pop culture from around Europe gather in Paris for Japan Expo. Debuting in 1999, this year marks the sixteenth time the event has been held. The 2015 Japan Expo, which is organized by Sefa Event (JTS Group), is expected to attract around 250,000 visitors. I attended the event in 2012 and 2014 to take a first-hand look; here I discuss some of the recent trends and changes for Japan Expo.

European Youth Embrace Manga and Anime

The popularity that Japanese pop culture now enjoys among Europeans stems from the strong interest in anime and manga, particularly in France, where, according to data compiled by the website AnimeFrance.fr, 51% of people 18 and under watch on average at least an hour of Japanese anime daily. At the Japan Expo there were indeed a lot of exhibits related to Japanese anime and manga, such as a 30-year retrospective on the work of manga artist Hōjō Tsukasa, known for the series City Hunter, and an exhibit featuring Urasawa Naoki, the creator of such popular series as Yawara! and Monster.

In recent years, works like Naruto by Kishimoto Masashi and Pokemon have been so popular that young European fans have attended the Japan Expo dressed up as their favorite characters. The event has become a mecca for European cosplayers, providing aficionados the opportunity to express their affection for characters, show off their costuming and make-up prowess, and  check out other cosplayers’ costumes.

This interest in anime and manga has even inspired quite a few Japan Expo attendees to major in Japanese at university, reflecting how an interest in Japan has been spreading among young people in Europe thanks to cultural influences.

Cable Channel for Cool Japan Fans

The 24-hour French cable channel Nolife seems to be another factor behind the popularity of the Japan Expo event in France. The channel broadcasts Japanese music videos, anime, and images from video games and manga. Its “Japan in Motion” program, in particular, has been a huge hit. Nearly every young French person interested in Japanese culture is familiar with the program.

Popularity of the program has grown and it is now broadcast six days a week. It fills a niche by offering viewers glimpses of Japan overlooked by tourist guidebooks, covering everything from great places to visit and the latest J-Pop hits to Japanese festivals and information on underground culture. “Japan in Motion” has stayed ahead of the curve in reporting on the latest trends, such as showcasing the fashion model and singer Kyary Pamyu Pamyu before she became a Japanese household name. The young Europeans who attend Japan Expo include those who stay up to date by watching such programs.

The concept for Japan Expo was conceived by a trio of young Japanese pop culture aficionados, including Thomas Sirdey, CEO of the JTS Group. Sirdey  received the Commissioner of Cultural Affairs Award for the Promotion of Japanese Culture in 2013 from Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs in recognition of his work in developing the expo.

Rooting Out Pirated Goods

Today young people from France and around Europe gather every year at Japan Expo to experience Japanese pop culture. But early on in 2000, only around 2,000 people attended the event. Compare that to the upcoming 2015 event, which is expected to draw around 250,000 visitors.

At the 2014 event, which was attended by around 240,000 people, one noticeable trend was a major drop in the amount of pirated merchandise bearing the label “Cool Japan.”

At the first Expo I attended, in 2012, there was such an abundance of knock-off Japanese merchandise on hand that people poked fun at it, calling it “Korean Cool Japan” or “Asian Cool Japan.” The organizers of the event took a firm view of this situation, returning the event to its roots in 2014 by adopting the stance of only showcasing to the world genuine Japanese culture. This change in stance involved revising the way the event was run to eliminate pirated merchandise. In this way, Japan Expo was able to get back to basics as a festival celebrating culture and entertainment emanating from Japan.

Another characteristic of the 2014 event was an increase of themes. Areas covered expanded beyond the bounds of anime, manga, and games, and included a noticeable trend toward showcasing traditional technologies and food culture.

A particularly popular offering at Japan Expo has been the Wabi-Sabi booth organized by the promotional company Biken International Co. Ltd. since 2011. In creating the booth, the company has drawn on its experience in organizing Japanese art and culture events overseas. At the 2014 Japan Expo, more than 100 artists were invited to take part in performances held at the booth along with demonstrations of traditional industrial arts. Visitors flocked to the booth to check out these offerings. The success of the expo that year was a testament to the wisdom of returning to fundamentals and meeting the demand among visitors for authentic Japanese offerings.

Another key player at the 2014 Japan Expo was Tohan Corporation. The Japanese company was involved in handling the planning, transportation, interpretation, and sales support for the Saiko! Japan area. The company also organized other booths in the area, including one for performances by young Japanese comedians and another featuring illustrators who have gained a following outside Japan. Visitors were willing to wait in long lines for the chance to check out these booths, reflecting the breadth of Cool Japan’s popularity.

High Hurdles Facing Japanese Businesses

While events like Japan Expo evidence Japanese pop culture’s popularity in Europe, there are many challenges ahead with regard to whether this popularity can be sustained, or whether it can be shaped into a substantial business sector that contributes meaningfully to Japan’s overall economy.

One challenge concerns product sales networks. At present, the world’s biggest duty-free retailer is DFS, a subsidiary of the French conglomerate LVMH Moet Hennessy Luis Vuitton S.A. With over 150 outlets in 15 Asian-Pacific countries, including shops in such Japanese airports as Tokyo’s Narita and Naha in Okinawa Prefecture, DFS has benefited greatly from the spending of Japanese tourists.

Likewise, foreign visitors who buy duty-free products in Japan have been bolstering the company’s bottom line. Other foreign firms are also trying to benefit from duty-free sales. In 2014, the Lotte group in South Korea opened a large duty-free shop at the Kansai International Airport and has plans to open another major shop in the Ginza district of Tokyo in 2015. The company is poised to benefit from the shopping sprees of Chinese tourists in Japan. Even though the Japanese government has loudly trumpeted its plans for Japan to be a leading tourist destination, it has been lacking when it comes to efforts in this area.

In 2013, the Japanese government set up the Cool Japan Fund as an initiative to provide financial backing to Japanese firms seeking to expand overseas. But despite this effort, Japan has fallen short when it comes to setting up a structure that would help the country benefit from global consumer spending related to the Cool Japan boom.

No legal framework is in place to protect companies attempting to sell products related to Japanese food or culture overseas. One would imagine that the global popularity of Japanese culture these days would make it easy for Japanese overseas to sell their products, but this is not always the case.

Take the example of Paris, which is awash in products made in Japan. Most of the firms involved in providing these goods, however, are French companies. This illustrates the continued lack of a structure allowing Japan to reap some of the benefits of goods sold.

Factors Blocking Expansion in Europe

In talking to an operator of a Paris showroom catering to  small- and medium-sized Japanese firms I found out more about the various challenges these firms face in trying to do business in the city. One issue is related to the fonds de commerce system for rights related to running a business. In opening a store, for example, it is necessary for a company to not only enter a contract to rent a property but also to purchase those rights, which are quite expensive. Intangible assets in the case of a restaurant or store might include such aspects as the level of social trust that the establishment enjoys, its customer base, brand value, and the status of its location. Also included are those tangible assets from which income can be derived, such as a brand name, trademark, or liquor license.

Smaller companies also face issues related to local distribution. In Japan, many firms rely on custom brokers, which make it neither cost effective nor convenient to do business in Europe.

These examples demonstrate the importance of not only providing financing for Japanese firms to expand overseas, but also putting in place a structure so that Japan does not lose out on the financial benefits of Cool Japan. It is essential to identify the needs that exist overseas for Japanese goods and services, and then, on that basis, build a structure and support network that will facilitate overseas expansion for businesses capable of meeting those needs. Broadly speaking, the companies best positioned to meet these needs tend to be small- and medium-sized operations. It must be said that Japanese companies have lagged behind their European rivals when it comes to establishing an overseas presence and in coming up with ways for money from overseas sales to flow back to Japan.

Cashing In on Cool Japan

So what can be done to allow promising businesses to tap in to the sort of passionate interest in Japanese culture that has been on display at Japan Expo? We have seen that despite the interest in the various cultural offerings—whether popular contents, the works of artists, fashion trends, and so on—there has yet to emerge a structure for establishing a solid Japanese brand as a profit-generating industry.

At the same time, though, the Cool Japan boom has shown ample recognition of Japan’s soft power around the globe today. And nowhere is that power felt more strongly than at Japan Expo, an event, which at 16 years old, is just getting started.

The 2015 Japan Expo is just about to get underway. It will be interesting to see how this celebration of the craftsmanship and quality of Japanese creations will showcase Japan to the world, and whether Japan will be able to capitalize on the popularity of its cultural offerings.

We have entered a period where basking in the widespread interest of Japan at such events is pointless. What is needed at the current stage is to come up with ways to further expand the scope of Japanese business active overseas. This is the challenge that will test the acumen of leaders in the public and private sector.

(Original Japanese article published on June 25, 2015; banner photograph by Abe Hiroyuki.)

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