From the archive: this was originally published in the Auguest/September issue of African Business.
As I write this, a sectarian battle is raging somewhere in Johannesburg. “Spoilers are taken very seriously on this group,” writes a vexed commentator on one of South Africa’s online forums dedicated to manga (Japanese comic books), anime (animation) and gaming. “Especially when said things pertain to brand-new manga chapters of popular series.”
Japanese culture is a very serious matter when it comes to this passionate group of South Africans, and although the idea of manga fanboys and fangirls in Africa may seem a little incongruous at first, it shouldn’t be a surprise at all.
Japanese pop culture has always surfed the waves of globalisation, from Godzilla, to Pokémon, to the current global subculture dedicated to the hologram pop star Hatsune Miku. J-fans are already a fixture in many cities in the global South, as they are in London, Los Angeles and Toronto.
But despite the presence of manga geeks in Africa, few people think of the continent as a major media market, or in fact as any media market at all. And despite huge potential, this is also true of the Japanese government.
Tokyo’s dominant perception of Africa can arguably be summed up in the words of Makoto Ito, Japan’s ambassador to the Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD), Japan’s central forum for aid to Africa: “Africa faces challenges such as income disparity, overreliance on natural resource trading, infectious diseases, political instability and recurrent conflicts,” he said. “International support is essential to tackle these issues.”
In this way of thinking, Africa is less a market than a collection of problems, and the tool for solving them is aid.
This stance regarding Africa can be seen in Japan’s relations with the continent. Japan-Africa trade is currently a miniscule 2-3% of its trade with Asia, and aid has historically outstripped trade, with Japan becoming a major donor to the continent as its economic stature grew. In 2013, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) had projects worth almost $1bn in 20 African countries, with TICAD pledging another $32bn in new aid.
Given the nature of this relationship, it follows that media doesn’t feature as a major tool for Tokyo to engage African publics. However, a few factors make a compelling counterargument.
To begin with, media has traditionally played a central role in Japan’s interaction with the outside world. The Japanese government was an early adopter of media tools, becoming one of the first governments to use opinion polling to target their publicity campaigns during the 1960s.
Additionally, the strength of Japan’s domestic media has contributed to shaping global perceptions of the country. Japan is a media superpower. It produces more than 60% of the world’s television animation and has consistently spawned new genres of media that baffled the rest of the world before being widely adopted. Emoji – which had been standard on Japanese mobile phones for more than a decade before gaining a global following – is only one example of the power of Japanese domestic media.
But this manic creativity hasn’t always sat well with the Japanese government. Throughout most of the 20th century, the Japanese government viewed its pop culture industry as trivial and embarrassing at best. It was only after the end of the bubble economy in the early 1990s that the government grasped its global popularity. Diplomats then had to catch up with foreign fans that knew much more about Japanese works than they did.
What followed was an uneasy alliance between Japan’s creative industries and its government, with the latter trying to use global fandom as a gateway to public diplomacy. This collaboration came to be known as the Cool Japan campaign, and led to the government sponsoring pop culture fan events all over the world. Initially these events were focused in the Global North. However, soon they were also held in emerging markets such as Mexico, Brazil, China and Russia.
But much less so in Africa. The absence of Africa from this list reveals Tokyo’s calcified and simplistic perceptions about the continent. And this view misses that Africa is one of the fastest-growing media markets in the world. Mobile phone penetration increased from 10% in 2001 to more than 80% in key markets today; 4G mobile networks and fibre-optic data networks are being constructed all over the continent; and while only a fraction of Africans currently have access to high-speed internet, that number is growing daily.
Of the foreign companies setting up these networks, the Chinese tech giants Huawei and ZTE are particularly prominent. Over the last decade, they have established a presence in almost every country on the continent. By 2012, Huawei had set up six African training centres. Their relatively easy access to Chinese Eximbank financing, made Huawei and ZTE successful bidders for African projects. Chinese companies are also investing aggressively in various African media fields, including satellite TV and newspaper publishing.
The presence of China in Africa is nothing if not controversial, but both its supporters and critics agree that China is in Africa to do business. Whether that business is ultimately to Africa’s benefit is hotly contested. But the fact remains that China’s presence has contributed to Africa jumping an enormous psychological hurdle – it has become possible to dream of a post-aid Africa.
A part of this psychological leap has been increasing access to the world media. And however helpful Japanese aid might be to African development, it also needs to consider the psychological cost of being a perpetual aid recipient. Greater engagement between Japanese media producers and African audiences could help to widen this relationship beyond aid.
That said, there have been some limited attempts to use media in engaging with African publics. JICA launched a road safety awareness campaign in East Africa by promoting a song penned by a JICA volunteer, which was recorded in Swahili, with a video produced by a Japanese video crew. Meanwhile, some pop culture fan events have been held in Johannesburg. But as yet, these are few and far between, mostly because of limited public diplomacy budgets available to Japanese embassies in Africa.
There are indications that Japan is slowly taking a more business-minded approach to Africa. But so far, this focus has been limited to strategic commodities rather than media. It remains to be seen whether the Japanese government and media industry will see a bunch of bickering manga fans in Johannesburg as an anomaly or as the future, but the potential is undeniable.
Written by Cobus van Staden