September 13, 2007

Japan's manga minister

It's not often that a political shakeup directly affects the arts. But Shinzo Abe's sudden resignation as Japan's Prime Minister has been taken as a favorable sign by purveyors of popular art. Not because of anything Abe did or didn't do, but because one of the strongest contenders for the job is former Foreign Minister Taro Aso, an enthusiast "evangelist" of popular Japanese culture abroad, especially manga and anime.

"Cultural exchanges" usually suggest the kind of high-minded activities that show up in PBS specials. Taro Aso, though, has long maintained that pop culture is more important in cultivating cultural ties with other countries. With this in mind, he created the "International Manga Awards" for non-Japanese artists working in the manga style, and invented the post of "Anime Ambassador" to promote anime films overseas.

Notes Aso, "We didn't develop manga, karaoke and conveyor-belt sushi because we wanted to be valued overseas. We just liked it, and while becoming nerds and immersing ourselves in it, it became popular."

The spread of Japanese pop culture has correlated to a 30-fold increase in the number of students studying Japanese around the world in the past decade. In contrast, the Japanese corporate culture that dominated the business world during the 1980s did comparatively little to promote the retail consumption of Japanese culture and push students into the classrooms. And in the most unexpected of locales, as this story makes clear:

Bahrain is not a country where it is common to encounter Japanese people, but even here interest in Japanese anime has been encouraging young people to learn more about Japan, as well as to study the language.

Even in Japan, in the wake of Abe's announcement, market indexes fell while the stocks of manga publishers soared, with the head of the cash equities department at Bear Stearns in Tokyo terming them the "Aso-related shares." I, for one, hope that the moment for Japan's first "manga minister" to take the stage has arrived, even if Aso will have plenty of motivation to mix art and politics with political motives in mind.

Labels: , , ,

# posted by Anonymous Anonymous
9/19/2007 2:14 PM   
Taro Aso the next Prime Minister of Japan (1)

Taro Aso the next Prime Minister of Japan (2)