JAPAN: THE GUNDAM GLOBAL CHALLENGE HEATS UP POP CULTURE AND ‘COUNTRY COOL’

MALCOLM KAM WRITES ­– Standing at 18 meters tall, Japan’s 1:1 scale animatronic Gundam is now fully assembled. The animatronic is modeled after the Gundam RX-78-2, a giant bipedal mech that made its debut in the 1979 anime Mobile Suit Gundam. Since then, Gundam has remained wildly popular, both in Japan and internationally.

The Gundam is part of Japan’s Gundam Global Challenge, a project originally intended to coincide with the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. In addition to this movable full-scale Gundam located in Yokohama, “an international port city bristling with enterprising spirit,” the project aims to create “a system that lets youths from around the world participate in robot development.” This globalism is perhaps the most significant aspect of the Challenge.

The Global Gundam Challenge could be Japan’s next major step in further commercializing  “Cool Japan,”  a policy focused on “captur[ing] overseas markets” by “developing Japanese businesses that draw on the unique added value embedded in Japanese culture and lifestyle.” Popular culture has long been at the forefront of this movement. Yokohama Gundam is expected to attract locals and tourists alike.

In addition to the Gundam and Gundam-Dock, which was built to house and maintain it, the project will feature an entertainment complex called the Gundam-Lab. This “lab” will include an educational exhibition explaining the engineering behind the project, a shop for Gundam-related merchandise and a café. Ultimately, Gundam-Lab’s goal is to encourage research and development as well as product marketing. In an interview, Sunrise President Makoto Asanuma stated that sales of plastic model kits known as Gunpla would play a major role in enhancing the franchise’s popularity.

Will the Yokohama Gundam and the Gundam-Lab significantly further the “Cool Japan” initiative? Unfortunately, we’ll have to wait a little longer to find out. The spread of COVID-19 has delayed the project’s previously scheduled October opening. Still, its developers are optimistic that the world will witness the Yokohama Gundam’s next big step during the opening on December 19th– 41 years since Gundam’s 1979 debut.

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