Japan’s Gross National Cool

Last year Davos was held in New York as a gesture of solidarity. Despite the sentiment, it didn’t work. Transported from a sprawling mountain village to a locked-down hotel in Midtown Manhattan, the conference was a logistical nightmare, with attendees fleeing to private meetings elsewhere in the city to escape epic lines and overcrowding. But there was one evening that thrilled me nonetheless: the Japan Dinner, an annual event hosted by some of the country’s most powerful industrialists.

Joi Ito, institutional Japan's worst nightmare
Joi Ito, institutional Japan’s worst nightmare

It started as a pretty formal-looking affair with a soporific agenda of greater understanding and friendship. But by night’s end the event had turned into an anarchic generation war. A gang of Americanized upstarts, led by Joi Ito, a 30ish technology entrepreneur and power-blogger, dominated the discussion, blaming their risk-adverse establishment elders for Japan’s slow-motion train wreck of an economy.

“The problem with ‘destroy and rebuild’ [the rhetoric then coming from the more radical reformers in the country] is that everyone immediately focuses on the rebuild part,” Ito said. “What we need to do is just destroy.” It was as if the Sex Pistols had crashed the party. Perhaps there was hope for Japan yet.

So, I was looking forward to this year’s dinner and curious to see how it would compare. Surprise: Ito was now the official MC, with full license to shake things up after dinner. Either last year’s intemperate outburst had been slightly less spontaneous than it had seemed, or the old guard had listened. Fireworks were on the menu.

But first the meal. Through some fortunate timing, I found myself seated next to Nobuyuki Idei, the legendary chairman of Sony and the Japan delegation’s ruling rock star. Even by Davos standards, this counts as the jackpot.

There was, however, a hitch. Rather awkwardly, the current cover of Wired features the big red headline “Civil War Inside Sony,” part of a package on the fall of the music industry. In the piece, we argue that Sony, which is the only company that both makes gadgets that play MP3 music files and is a music label, risks being crippled by internal conflict over music piracy. (The gadgets side could be the big winner from the file-sharing world Napster created were it not for the label’s insistence that the products use heavy-duty copy-protection technology, which makes them hard to use.)

Mr. Idei was remarkably gracious. He had read the piece, said it was very interesting, and kindly called us cool. We chatted about the things Sony was doing to ensure that it doesn’t go down with the music ship, then moved on to other subjects. All around us beaming Davos regulars were catching up with each other after a tough year, glad to be back in Switzerland amongst their own.

Finally it was time for the Ito Show. Out came the acid candor, no less shocking coming in this ultra-establishment setting than it had been last year. He had been warned, he said: “Don’t talk about complicated issues, the foreigners won’t understand.” Nevertheless, he railed. Reform plans read like “Zen riddles,” and nothing ever comes of them. The bureaucracy is defined by its resistance to change; a system that “rewards people for their obedience” and leaves critics fearing retaliation. (“In fact,” he half-joked, “fear of retaliation is what I’m feeling right now.”) Japan had, if anything, fallen further since last year; Ito called again for revolution.

And so it went through the rest of the youth movement in the Japanese delegation; each speaker adding to the chant of national self-criticism. Japan needs a proper shock, not the slow leak of the past decade. Nothing else seems capable of toppling the entrenched establishment, the bureaucracy elite. It was grim message, made all the more so by the thought of what it must have taken for them to violate Japanese norms of public politeness.

The Kids Are Alright
So, is there anything good at all to say about Japan these days? It took the ultimate establishment gray-hair, Yotaro Kobayashi, head of the Japan association of corporate executives, to find it. And even then it was in the most unlikely place: youth culture. He stood up to praise an article published last year by Douglas McGray in Foreign Policy magazine, titled “Japan’s Gross National Cool.” Even as industrial Japan crumbles, McGray argues in the piece, its street culture, from fashion to art to music, has become ever more vibrant and is having an unprecedented influence on the rest of the world.

There is manga and anime (comics and cartoons), innovative product design, and the emergent “thumb culture” of the i-mode generation, who see the world through a cell phone screen. Pokémon, Digimon, and the other gotta-have-them-all menageries designed to colonize kids’ brains; PlayStation, GameCube, and the lion’s share of the titles driving the booming video-game business. And then the H-bomb of Japanese culture hacking, Hello Kitty, who sells in Japan because she is Western and sells in the West because she is Japanese. “A regular Davos cat,” quips McGray.

As Japan’s recession gets worse, the country’s youth culture only gets more vibrant. Since this is the World Economic Forum, a mechanistic explanation must be found. For starters, the breakdown in Japan’s lifetime employment system and rigid social hierarchy has put a lot of young people on the street (or, more often, in dead-end part-time jobs); their energy is now finding other outlets, from cultural obsessions to entrepreneurship. It’s also easier to take risks when you’re small; the last decade has seen a wave of creative little businesses, from one-man music labels to clubs and micro-niche magazines, that are rising in the rubble of the collapsing conglomerates. Big companies don’t work that way, and increasingly in Japan they don’t work at all.

Japan: cool but collapsing. As its cultural influence grows, its economic influence shrinks. Even as the country rises as a style superpower, its failing finances limits its ability to exploit that energy. Maybe there’s a Zen riddle in that, too, but nobody in the country’s establishment seems to have found the answer. No wonder Idei-san and his industrialist friends let a bomb like Joi Ito off in their staid salon. He’s the best hope they’ve got.