So how does this design fare? I can imagine the neat, zooming Hinomaru circle branding many a "Cool Japan" product or event. Yet, while I don't want to rain on any Japan-promotion's parade, there seem to me to be problems.
One is not exactly of Sato's making, and perhaps is the least problem, and that is the very current association of the Hinomaru circle with the earthquake. Sato says in the press release that he designed the logo with the image in mind of a Japan that is overcoming the March 11 earthquake and tsunami disaster (the press release doesn't mention the nuclear aspect) and is reborn, so he was clearly associating the logo and the earthquake. But we've just had several months of designs – many prominent world-wide – of the red circle expressing the damage done as well as the hope of a rising sun. Is the "Sputnik" re-birth element in this new design forward-looking enough, or is the recent publicity for Japan just enough to, at a glance, make a "disaster" association the first association?
(Imagine another scenario, which this rebirth design could fit. Imagine the words said THE NEXT TEPCO. Is the logo an expression of a scientific future or a future fireball? Its positivity would be the former before any disaster, but could be the second when post-disaster – and we are in a post-disaster Japan.)
And that leaves the words. JAPAN NEXT. Hitachi puts "next" in its phrase "Inspire the next" to good use: "next" suggests future; "inspire" is, well, inspirational; the combination suggests the work of people NOW inspiring the next generation, passing down great ideas that are nevertheless coming from right now. But with JAPAN NEXT there is no verb or instruction and next becomes merely something in the future. JAPAN NEXT implies there's something first. Imagine it as a travel slogan: Japan next (but first I'll go to France). It wants to suggest a future – where Japan is going – but it really only suggest a plan or a second-place: Japan next (after it's sorted out its current problems). Even THE NEXT JAPAN would be an improvement.
This is additionally strange, because there is a trend in Japan to use the English "now" as a "borrowed word" within Japanese and transliterated as なう ("nau"). It's especially used for tweets when saying what you're doing or where you are ("izakaya nau", "drinking nau" etc etc). Surely that trend and the simple immediacy of JAPAN NOW would be a straightforward improvement. This isn't a plan, a second stage, this is a priority and is happening at this minute. Japan is recovering, Japan is cool – it's not a plan for the future.
I'm not a fan of negativity or of pretending that I can criticise from my backwater a very talented designer like Sato who does superb, unquestionably first-class (and "cool") branding work. But there just seem to be those three crucial problems with this.
On the plus side, it is simple, visually catchy and recognisable – and maybe that is plenty.