Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The World Disney-fied, Japanese Style

I just returned from my first visit to DisneySea, one of the two Disney theme parks in Japan, and the experience was a very interesting one. Unlike many American kids, I didn't grow up with Disney - my childhood coincided with the decade-long creative fallow period that marked the 80's for the company's animation studio, so its movies were never a fixture in our home library, and I've only once visited one of its U.S. theme parks, Disney World in Florida, and that as a high school student. So I didn't come into the experience with a lot of sentimental baggage or preconceived notions. What struck me about the experience was just how good Disney is at what it does as a company - creating a safer, more sanitary, and more colorful and entertaining version of the world on a miniature scale, and temporarily transporting its customers to it - even in a totally different cultural context. A lot of western companies have failed to penetrate the Japanese market, but in my opinion the primary reason for this is not that the Japanese are excessively nationalistic or protectionist in their economic attitudes, as was often claimed during the "Japan Takes Over The World" hysteria of the 1980's. Rather, it's that they didn't know how to give Japanese consumers the products they want. Disney, which has succeeded spectacularly well in Japan, was one of the exceptions, and to this day it'd be a good case study for anyone interested in doing business in the country.

While there is quite a bit of water in the park layout, despite its name DisneySea is not a marine park, with performing aquatic animals and the like. Rather, it's a straight theme-park built around venues combining shopping, dining, and entertainment and a few flagship amusement park-type rides and attractions, like the neighboring DisneyLand. Its main connection to the sea is a thematic one - it is divided into several different areas, most of which aim to recreate famous waterfront areas from around the world, and several of the rides and other attractions are water-themed. Enter the park and you're in a convincingly recreated portion of Venice, complete with gondolas, weather-beaten Mediterranean-style buildings, and a replica of the Rialto Bridge. Turn left and you're in the New York Port District, circa 1900. Go past there and you're in a re-created Cape Cod fishing town featuring a minitarure New England-style lighthouse and a restaurant selling American food. And so on.

The genius in the park's design lies in the way each of these areas is designed to appeal to the escapist fantasies of Japanese consumers. As a crowded, frequently climactically unpleasant country with a ferocious national work ethic that dictates long hours at school or at the office, Japan can be a psychologically exhausting place to live. As such, foreign environments and lifestyles which are perceived as free of the stressors of typical Japanese daily life hold a great deal of appeal to many of the people here. The American freedom to sprawl out and take up as much space as you like anywhere you want and the leisurely cafe culture of the Mediterranean may only be partially real, as anyone who has spent a significant amount of time in the U.S. or Europe could tell you, but that doesn't diminish the attractiveness of the fantasy for the Japanese, or their willingness to pay to indulge in it. DisneySea hits this market sweet spot exactly.

The real Venice? Beautiful, yes, but also overcrowded, overpriced, and surprisingly decrepit, with pickpockets, rip-off artists, and the fetid smell of stagnant water rising from the canals all everpresent annoyances which diminish its romance. Also, it's far away. New York? Exciting, cosmopolitan, full of neon lights and cultural star-power, but also dirty, dangerous, and frightfully expensive. Cape Cod? Remote, very unlikely to have any sort of tourist infrastructure or staffing catering to Japanese clientele, and thus presenting an intimidating language barrier. Also, you try getting decent sushi there. The Arabian Coast? Are you kidding? A Japanese tourist would make a fine target for a terrorist kidnapping there. For the price of a twenty minute train ride from downtown Tokyo and a one-day entry pass, DisneySea offers to transport visitors to all of these places, at least in their imaginations. And they don't have to deal with foreign money, confront the frightening prospect of interacting with shopkeepers, customs officials, hotel clerks, taxi drivers, and the like in a foreign language, or place themselves too far from the comforts of home to go there. When it's over, you can get back on the train and go right home to your own bed. It's exotic foreign travel, scrubbed of all the dangers, annoyances, and expense that make real exotic foreign travel something of a mixed experience even to those, like me, who live for it. Mix in a couple of well-designed thrill rides and other attractions, and you have all the ingredients for a very enjoyable daytrip for your typical overworked Tokyo office drone. The Disney experience in Japan really is a brilliantly conceived and marketed product, and if you could sell laundry detergent or vacuum cleaners or what-have-you with a strategy that similarly managed to appeal to the worldly curiosity of Japanese consumers without pushing them too far outside their linguistic and cultural comfort zones, I suspect you could make money doing so.

Looking back on my previous visit to DisneyWorld, I'm struck by the thought that it offers a similar appeal to American visitors, although one calibrated somewhat differently so as to appeal to the cultural ideals and fantasies of Americans. We are often cited by foreigners (both positively and negatively) as an idealistic people, with a child-like enthusiasm and energy, and a similarly child-like love for straightforward (or simplistic, depending on your point of view) moral reasoning. DisneyWorld prevents a sort of idealized snow globe version of the world as we Americans like to imagine it - full of clear-cut heroes and villains, with the former triumphing in the end, bright, clean, egalitarian, and safe. I'd like to visit EuroDisney someday to see how the company tailors its brand of entertainment for Europeans.

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