Japanese Government Support for Cultural Exports

Nissim Otmazgin

From the end of World War Π until the mid 1980s, the Japanese government did very little to promote the export of Japanese cultural industries and products to the world – especially to East and Southeast Asia. In sharp contrast to its large investment in promoting the export of industrial developments, such as cars and electronics, the government did not treat “culture” as an object of profitable export. In Asia, this was especially due to fear of resurrecting anti-Japanese sentiment and repressed colonial memories and of being seen as engaged in “cultural imperialism.”

Japan’s colonial and wartime activities in East and Southeast Asia had included the use of culture as strategic tool by the government. Efforts in the field of education featured the introduction, dissemination, and imposition of Japanese culture, while local and western cultures were repressed. Japan’s humiliating defeat in the war and its repositioning in the post-war Asia Pacific order changed all that. New priorities and constraints, as well as bitter memories among East and Southeast Asians, dictated postwar passivity toward overseas cultural policy. In fact, government interest in promoting Japanese culture in Asia was effectively neutralized for most of the post-World War П period.

By the 1970s and 1980s, however, improved relations with East and Southeast Asian nations were creating a new and favorable climate for cultural exports. The trend intensified with the success in the 1990s of Japanese popular culture products such as anime, TV dramas, and music, and it was exemplified by the growing presence of Japanese media companies in the region. Pony Canyon and Avex Trax, for example, two of the six big Japanese music companies, gradually broadened and deepened their entry into regional media markets by moving from licensing agreements with local companies to the opening of branches. Amuse, Rojam, Fuji TV, and JET TV became engaged in television broadcasting and production in East and Southeast Asia during the 1990s through ties with local companies.

Exports of music and television programs produced in Japan have also increased remarkably in the last 15 years. The value of music exports to nine markets in East and Southeast Asia rose from ¥5.5 billion in 1988 to at least ¥14.6 billion in 2002, totaling more than 200 billion yen over the whole period. (These figures, obtained from the Customs and Tariff Bureau of Japan’s Ministry of Finance, represent very conservative estimates of music product exports to South Korea, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. They do not include manufacturing and distribution by Japanese media companies through their extensions outside Japan, the wide and illegal pirate market that produces and distributes Japanese music products in the region, or the profits of Japanese singers’ concerts and promotional events overseas.)

The total export value of Japanese television programs was ¥21.1 billion from 1991 to 1995, with almost half going to Asia. (Complete figures for the period after 1995 are not available, but would seem to be higher.) In 1994, Japan’s broadcasting law was changed to allow TV and radio stations to air programs overseas. International broadcasting soon followed, first by NHK and later by private companies, which have seen a steady increase in broadcasting hours to destinations in the Asia Pacific region.

These developments coincided with the government’s realization that multimedia and culture-related industries were coming to occupy a growing segment of the economy. In 1992, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) estimated that of the 55.3 trillion yen that multimedia industries were expected to generate in 2015, approximately 62 percent would come from sales of software, motion pictures, artistic images and sound, video games, and broadcasting. The growing awareness that cultural exports could be economically profitable while boosting Japan’s image overseas created a supportive attitude within the government toward promoting cultural export again.

The first concrete initiative was taken in 1988 by the Takeshita government, which explored the possibility of exporting TV programs to Asian countries. In 1991, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), together with the Ministry of Post and Telecommunication, established the Japan Media Communication Center (JAMCO) to subsidize the export of television programs to developing countries. From its establishment through March 1998, JAMCO translated 586 programs into English and exported them to 35, mostly Asian, countries. Two other recent initiatives symbolize the growing commercial importance the Japanese government attributes to the development and export of culture-related industries. The first was in 1997, when the Ministry of Post and Telecommunication established a committee to report on the promotion of commercial export of Japanese television programs. And in May 2001, METI’s Media and Contents Industry Division established a think-tank to examine the challenges and prospects for media and content industrial policy, also with the aim of promoting the overseas export of Japanese content.

Government encouragement of cultural export has been accompanied by a growing concern over the huge losses faced by Japanese companies and the economy as a whole from illegal manufacturing, mostly in Asia. According to a survey done by the Japanese Patent office, 33 percent of pirated Japanese products in 2000 were produced in China, 18.1 percent in the Republic of Korea, and 17.6 percent in Taiwan, with China’s proportion on the rise. A 2002 white paper released by the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) recommended that the Japanese government take immediate action to tackle this problem, in part by assisting Asian governments to regulate their pirated markets.

The growing importance attributed to competitive multi-media and culture-related industries, and simultaneous concern over the damage caused by pirating, brought the Japanese government to launch the Strategic Council on Intellectual Property in 2002 within the prime minister’s office. The aim of the Council is to promote the growth of the nation’s intellectual property, including patented technologies, designs, movies, and video game software, as a means of revitalizing the economy. In its eight meetings (headed by the prime minister) and two reports, the Council has outlined the technical aspects of intellectual property and the need to promote creative research in universities and collaboration between companies and research institutions. (See the webpage of the Prime Minister of Japan at http://www.kantei.go.jp.)

Government initiatives in the 1990s have therefore reexamined previous attitudes and gradually formulated a new policy favoring the development and export of Japanese culture-related industries. The understanding that formed this policy was the potential profit to be found in adding culture to the list of Japanese products already exported. Even if outstanding profits are not realized, Japanese cultural exports are once again seen as image-boosting cultural-propaganda agents. But because there is now strong demand in East and Southeast Asia for Japanese culture, this time it may play a diplomatic role in healing the wounds of Japan’s imperialistic past.

Nissim Otmazgin
The author is a graduate student in Kyoto University’s Graduate School of Asian and African Area Studies, researching Japan’s media industries in East and Southeast Asia.

Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia. Issue 4 (October 2003). Regional Economic Integration