In late October, Wong Shion Yee, a 23-year-old student at the University of Tokyo from Singapore, and six other students from member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations toured the TIFFCOM international trade fair in Minato Ward, Tokyo. These students are familiar with Japanese pop culture, and they recognised a stuffed Doraemon even without a guide's explanation. They were thrilled to see it and began taking commemorative photos with the doll.
Their excitement grew at a reproduction of a bar featured in the popular TV drama "Hero."
"In Vietnam, 'Hero' and Kimutaku [the nickname of Takuya Kimura, who stars in the drama] are immensely popular," said Do Ha Thu, 20, one of the students. She organises an event promoting exchanges between Japan and Vietnam at a university in her home country.
These students are "grassroots ambassadors," young people who publicize Japanese anime, manga and other content mainly at university festivals overseas. Some also post images depicting Japanese lifestyles in urban and rural areas on the Internet and promote the country through works of art and photos. The more ambassadors there are, the better Japanese culture will be publicized worldwide.
Many people have applied each year since fiscal 2012 to become an ambassador through the headquarters of CoFesta (Japan International Contents Festival), a project sponsored by the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry that combines 18 programs to provide Japanese content such as games, anime and visual art overseas.
The ambassadors are students who are learning in Japan or belong to Japan-themed clubs at universities abroad. Currently, about 150 people from 35 countries and territories are commissioned as ambassadors.
Their work includes attending programs to report their opinions to the headquarters from a consumer's viewpoint and featuring Japanese content in their blogs and other media. They also conduct surveys on the latest trends in their countries for Japanese companies that want to expand their businesses overseas.
Ambassadors are further involved in choosing performers at an annual live event intended to promote Japanese artists overseas.
"[These ambassadors are] well-versed in Japanese pop music, so I'm grateful for their enthusiastic, clear opinions," said Makoto Kuwahara, a senior director of the Foundation for Promotion of Music Industry and Culture, an organisation that cohosts such live concerts.
Endorsed by the ambassadors, WagakkiBand and nine others among about the 25 groups that performed in last year's live event have already entered foreign markets.
I met with the seven ambassadors at the trade fair. Marga Apsari, 21, from Indonesia stopped to see Chicchai Ossan (Small middle-aged man). It is a yurukyara for Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture, one of the cute mascot characters designed to publicize prefectures, cities and other entities.
"[Chicchai Ossan] is very impressive and interesting," she said with a broad smile. "In my country, yurukyara are not yet well known."
Marga is the chairman of the organising committee for a Japanese culture festival at her university.
Hearing her, I hoped yurukyara would start a boom in her country.