TOKYO (AFP) — Japan's grey-suited bureaucrats have teamed up with a blue cartoon cat and Tokyo fashionistas sporting 'Gothic Lolita' urban chic in an official drive to promote hip Japan around the world.
Long famed for its cars and high-tech goods, the world's number two economy has stepped up an official campaign to promote its cultural offerings, from Tokyo city wear to video games and award-winning animation films.
Prime Minister Taro Aso -- an avowed fan of Japan's manga comics -- has thrown his enthusiastic support behind the drive to earn hearts, minds and hard cash by promoting the soft power of "cool Japan" overseas.
His conservative government has earmarked 11.7 billion yen (118 million dollars) for a museum on Japanese cartoon art and pop culture to be built in Tokyo that one English-language daily has dubbed the "anime shrine".
"It will be a centre that allows visitors to see and collect information on Japan's manga, anime, video games and media art," said Akira Shimizu, who heads the arts division at the government's cultural affairs agency.
The museum, to be built in coming years, pending parliamentary approval, is part of Aso's plan to grow Japan's cultural exports into an industry worth 20 to 30 trillion yen (200 to 300 billion dollars) by 2020.
"The word 'manga' has entered the global lexicon," Aso said as he outlined the plan last month. "Japan has materials that attract consumers around the world such as animation, games, fashion -- so-called 'Japan Cool'."
Much of Japanese pop culture has already won fans across Asia and around the world in recent years -- from classic manga characters like Astroboy and video game figures such as the Mario Brothers and Pokemon to Oscar-winning animation movies like Hayao Miyazaki's 2004 film "Howl's Moving Castle."
Manga comics -- an industry worth 4.6 billion dollars in Japan last year, according to the private Research Institute for Publications -- have long ago gone global and have won a cult following in the West.
Not all of Japan's cultural exports have won praise. Some manga comics are notorious for featuring extreme violence and sexual themes, and a video game in which players stalk and rape women has sparked outrage this year.
The government has picked the far more family friendly cartoon characters to promote Japan, and last year appointed robotic hero cat 'Doraemon' as the nation's first "Anime Ambassador".
The foreign ministry has also supported a world summit of cosplay -- short for "costume play", a subculture with a global cult following where hobbyists dress as 'Gothic Lolitas' and other often manga-inspired characters.
This year, the ministry chose three women to represent the "Lolita", "Harajuku" and "School Uniform" styles of Tokyo fashion and sent them off into the world as so-called New Trend Communicators of Japanese Pop Culture.
Takehiko Yamamoto, a professor of international politics at Waseda University, supported Japan's manga diplomacy.
"Japan has been too quiet... and hardly made itself felt" on the world stage, he said, adding that anime and manga are "one of the few ways in which Japan can exert influence on other countries".