Sushi Diplomacy: Japan in the World

The following is a prepared text of my May 30th speech to the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.  I was asked to discuss Japanese Public Diplomacy as part of a panel on Public Diplomacy in Northeast Asia.


In 1923, the Japanese Diet created a Special Account from Japan’s share of the Boxer indemnities to fund cultural activities to China.  That same year a China Cultural Affairs Bureau was established within MOFA.  This cultural bridge between China and Japan was severed with Japan’s invasion and occupation of Manchuria in 1931 and the Marco Polo Bridge incident that led to the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945).  Japan’s defeat in World War II led to almost thirty years of focus on economic reconstruction and recovery.  By the 1970s when Japan had become an economic superpower, it began to channel more of its resources into cultural diplomacy.  The Japan Foundation was established in 1972 for this sole purpose.

In the last 40 years, Tokyo’s cultural diplomacy has been focused mostly on the United States and its ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) neighbors.  The US –Japan Alliance is Japan’s foreign policy cornerstone and ASEAN involves expanding markets and energy security issues.  The Fukuda Doctrine pledged “heart to heart relations” between Japan and Southeast Asia after anti-Japanese protests occurred in Bangkok and Jakarta.  Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda’s 1977 speech in Manila, Philippines reasserted that Japan was a peaceful nation that would never become a military power and would show mutual respect, fairness and equality to its ASEAN members.  Japan asserts a peaceful approach because it cannot exercise hard power according to the no-war clause of Article 9 in its constitution.  Hence, Japan’s soft approach in the post-Meiji and post-WWII era is two-fold: cultural diplomacy (CD) and developmental assistance, official and nongovernmental through Japanese NGOs.  Institutions involved include the Japan Foundation, Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program, Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteer (JOCV) Program, founded in 1965 and modeled on the US Peace Corps, Global 30, and the Office of Global Communications, Prime Minister’s Office.

Cool Culture

Japan is playing catch-up with other nations in the region in making public diplomacy an integral part of its foreign relations.  It has always had a “soft power” agenda in the aftermath of WWII when Japan’s new constitution (Article 9) forbade any military aims.  Japan’s core strength is in cultural diplomacy, Cool Japan (manga, anime, J-Pop, J-Fashion) as well as traditional Japanese culture (rock garden, Zen architecture, tea ceremony, Kimono culture).   The global appeal of manga and anime has everything to do with globalization and global consumer tastes and nothing to do with the Japanese state.  So the challenge remains: how does the state expand and exploit its new “hip and cool” soft power image and reconcile that positive image with Japan’s East Asian mixed reputation.

Before 3.11, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) was working with the Japan Foundation to expand cultural exchange programs.  In April 2006, Foreign Minister Aso Taro linked manga and anime with a hearts and minds campaign to China’s youth in a speech to the University of Digital Content located in the Akihabara district (electronics Mecca) of Tokyo.  He wondered what pictures emerge in the heads of foreigners when they hear the name, Japan.  The more positive, the easier it is for Japan to get across its long-term views.  That same year, the head of Toyota Motor Corporation, Cho Fujio, who was also head of the MOFA-advisory Council on the Movement of People Across Borders, recommended a “Japan Manga Grand Prize.”  Its purpose was two-fold: (1) target foreign artists of manga and anime; and (2) appoint Japanese artists as cultural ambassadors to help promote J-Pop overseas.

In January 2007, Aso Taro gave a policy speech to the Diet that officially called for J-pop to be used as a public diplomacy tool.  “What is important is to be able to induce other countries to listen to Japan.  If the use of pop culture or various subcultures can be useful in this process, we certainly should make the most of them.”  A natural offspring of this vision is the AKB48 girl group (Akihabara 48), not only in Japan but also through spin-off versions throughout the region.  The popular song and dance act is now being enlisted in the sale of “reconstruction bonds.”  Japan has held cultural appeal for quite some time.  Before Hello Kitty, Doraemon (the earless robot cat), or Pokemon, there was Astro Boy and Godzilla.  The difference between then and now is that the J-state is finally taking notice that J-pop has J-policy links.

Cool Japan has its problems.  What it means to be cool is ephemeral.  Today’s Cool Japan is tomorrow’s (or today’s) Cool Korea or Cool India.  The Japanese government and institutions like the Japan Foundation recognize that being a cultural superpower isn’t enough, especially against the backdrop of the lost decades.  Nevertheless, the emphasis on culture continues in a region where China, Korea and Taiwan assert their own cultural features, China with its global Confucian Institutes in particular.  The question remains: Is culture power in the East Asian region just politics by other means?

Whither JPD after 3.11

Everything has changed with 3.11.  It is no longer exclusively Cool Japan but rather Gratitude Relations (Yamato spirit) that is driving Japan’s soft power.  Disaster pictures spoke 1,000 words, with long lines of people politely lined up and waiting for hours for water and food.  What started out as neighbors helping neighbors in Japan after the quake and tsunami was quickly appreciated globally and donations poured in.  Pray for Japan, the Lady Gaga effect in 2011, became Japan thanks you in 2012.

Japan’s image today is on the rise with its recovery.  But there is another side to this coin that is a major concern.  JPD holds opportunity for person-to-person diplomacy but public suspicion persists related to the Fukushima nuclear fallout and the Japanese government’s lack of transparency.  There is a huge loss of trust in government and corporate institutions.  Will this be a nuclear Japan, a post-nuclear Japan or something in between?  Mass anti-nuclear sentiments challenge the government’s efforts to link nuclear power with the Japan nation branding campaign of the Future City.  Former PM Naoto Kan told the Diet on Monday, May 28 that Japan should give up nuclear power, while Noda will decide soon whether or not to start the Oi nuclear plant in Fukui Prefecture.  (Coincidentally I’m meeting the mayor of Fukui city June 7th as part of a sister-city goodwill exchange.  Fukui is the sister city to my university employer home city, Fullerton.)

Another concern involves the persistent lack of internationalization in Japanese higher education.  Internationalization has always been linked more with economic and business issues.  To address this concern, the Japanese government formed the Global 30 project, which was originally slated to involve 30 universities but stands at 13.  These 13 Japanese institutions of higher learning are using government funds to internationalize their curriculum, increase foreign student percentages and offer more English-language instruction.  The program’s goal is to attract 300,000 international students by 2020. (The 13 member institutions had 21,429 international students in 2011.) Most coursework is offered in English so that the Japanese language requirement is not an impediment, but the hurdles are high for other universities to participate because of strict Ministry of Education standards.

Foreign student numbers in Japan were just over 138,000 in 2011, with nearly 90,000 coming from China and the rest from Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam and Malaysia.  USA student numbers were 1,400.  Global interest in the Japanese language is on a significant rise, in part because of great love and affection for manga and anime more than for economic reasons, but Japan has no equivalent to the Confucian Institutes outside the Japan Foundation.  Less than 4 percent of Japan’s university students are from overseas (133,000) compared to China’s 223,000 and the US with over 672,000.  Five percent of faculty is foreign and most are hired to teach in English or as ESL instructors.  Today fewer Japanese students are going abroad to the US and Europe.  South Korea, half the size of Japan, sends twice the number of its students to America.  All of this is causing angst about Japan’s ability to compete globally, but with the worse public debt among industrialized nations, change will be slow.

It is also plainly obvious that Japan’s public diplomacy suffers from the lack of a CNN International or BBC-like global media presence.  The Prime Minister’s Office recently opened an Office of Global Communications to strengthen its presence with international media and to reestablish the credibility of the Japan brand. But a closed society image persists.  Japan’s government policies favor ethnic homogeneity to maintain social order over a more open immigrant policy.  If you add in the fact that Japanese is not a global language either in business or diplomacy, then you have a recipe for a more sluggish soft power nation.

Japan’s future public diplomacy agenda will likely expand its Gratitude Relations through ODA and ORC (Open Reconstruction Collaboration).  A recent boost is that Japan has 18 months to convince the IOC that it would be a better host for the summer Olympics in 2020 than either Istanbul or Madrid.  The publicity surrounding this Olympic bid is driven by the rhetoric of thanks and acknowledgment to the world for helping Japan after 3/11.   The Japan Foundation is celebrating its 40th anniversary.  Some, but not all of its staff, prefer a more human touch and less statist touch approach to cultural diplomacy, what might be called “The Personal (Kizuna) is Public Diplomacy.”  JF’s Hideki Hara cites the Israeli Association for Japanese Studies ( launched at Hebrew, Haifa and Tel Aviv universities this year to commemorate the 60th anniversary of ties between the two countries or the sponsorship of Japanese-Brazilian artist Hamilton Yokota (Titi Freak) colorful fish murals on temporary houses in Ishinomaki.  Hara says,

The worst thing that can happen to scholars or people like me is to have set prejudices about my country versus other country’s uniqueness.  The cultural diplomacy based on uniqueness, superiority or inferiority for that matter is over.  Now it’s all about compassion.  It’s all about getting nods from other countries.

The US-Japan Tomodachi Initiative to support more interpersonal artist and student ties into the Japan recovery.  (The Lady Gaga Teacup from which she drank during a news conference in June 2011 was auctioned off in early May for $75,000 to support Tomodachi efforts.)  In the Kizuna and Tomodachi spirit, Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko attended the 60th anniversary of the Japan-US Educational Commission (Fulbright) at the Imperial Palace Hotel on May 25, 2012.  What was striking was to see so few young people at the reception.  Attendees were mostly the Japanese Fulbright students from the 1950s and 1960s.  Who will replace them?

2012 marks the 100th anniversary of the gift of 3,000 cherry blossom tree saplings by then mayor Ozaki of Tokyo City to Washington, DC.  A recent Gallup rating showed a slight majority of Americans considers Japan “the most important partner of the US in Asia.” The challenge for Japan is this: Does clicking “like” on the Sushi page of Facebook translate into state and foreign policy goals?        


13 thoughts on “Sushi Diplomacy: Japan in the World

  1. Megumi, this is so well written. You state a concern that I share. I have observed throughout my stay as a Fulbright professor at Sophia that Japan is just not as globalized as the rest of the world, much less the region. Maybe that is comfortable for many Japanese, but it will not bode well for Japan in the long run. Japan is still the world’s third largest economy. It is the most important strategic partner to the United States in the Northeast Asian region. Our two countries need each other politically and economically. This is why I will continue to promote international exchange between our two countries.

  2. Soft power is important for Japan’s foreign policy, but another important concern is mentioned in this article– the lack of internationalization in Japanese higher education. I feel the situation is quite serious that the number of foreign students in Japan or the number of Japanese students who experienced studying abroad is very few. How do Japanese people present their culture to overseas if they cannot communicate in the global language? Also, few foreign students in Japan means that there are fewer chances of promoting Japanese culture to overseas, because it is a big opportunity when the students return to their home country and talk about Japanese culture. There is another concern too. I fear that young Japanese people are losing their sense of rivalry in the globalized world because of the lack of an internationalized and competitive environment. They are not very eager to go abroad or present their unique culture overseas. What is important for them is their own standard in their own communities, not the global standard. I think it is urgent to renovate education in order to make it more international.

  3. Rebecca, I know the JET Program very well, not as a participant but by reputation. I agree with you 100% that it’s a superior brand for Japan’s soft power. As a Fulbright scholar, I know the strength of international educational and cultural exchange. You are very aware of your role as a cultural mediator. Keep up your spirit of citizen ambassadorship.

  4. After 3.11, Japan has definitely caught more attention from other countries all over the world, but its new culture has not been acknowledged yet in many countries. Although traditional Japanese culture seems to be widely acknowledged, many new pop cultures are still only popular within the country. AKB48 is one of them, and is steadily getting support from Japanese citizens. Many TV stations and other media are focusing on them, and it is like the whole country is into it. But I feel that they are different from other figures like Lady Gaga, who can attract attention from all over the world. Japan needs other figures with charisma to attract international attention. If Japan wishes to push on the pop culture to promote Japan, they might need other candidates. I believe this can also be said with Prime Ministers. Back in 2002, when Junichiro Koizumi was assigned as Prime Minister, the entire country seemed to support the government, because he was so popular. Either in promoting pop culture or getting support of the government, Japan needs to find a charismatic figure.

  5. Having spent seven and a half years of my life in Singapore, I understand how Japan’s “soft power” is pervasive, especially in Asian countries. Most of my friends love Japanese culture, copy the Japanese way, and study Japanese. One of them knows more about Japan pop culture than I do.

    This atmosphere has resulted in two-thirds of foreign students who study at universities in Japan composed of Chinese, Koreans, Vietnamese, Taiwanese, and Malaysians, as the article said. While many Asian countries’ students go abroad and study, Japanese students tend not to study abroad nowadays. Even though government encourages students to study abroad, it does not work well. This is mainly because Japanese students face the coming ice age for employment, which means, it is difficult for students to get jobs. To resolve the problem, government should guarantee students priority who go to foreign university when they start job hunting. Moreover, hiring more of these students also can be a factor to let more students go abroad.

  6. I believe that Japan has a really great culture and I am proud of it. It is good that many people around the world know it. However, it seems to me that Japan is waiting to be seen by the world, as this article says that the number of Japanese students going abroad is decreasing. I think we should go out more actively to export our ‘cool’ culture by ourselves.

  7. I think that the idea of “globalization” or “internationalization” is already a part of westernization. Since I am a returnee and now studying at the English department of Sophia University, there is no choice that I could live without using it. However, it does not mean that all students must learn to speak English to have a higher education. It might be a problem that upper politicians are unable to speak it in places where they have to prepare for a speech at a conference in foreign counties, but other than that, we Japanese do not have a necessity for learning it.

    We can see that besides being an international society and without competing with other countries, we were able to receive relief from all over the world after 3.11. This straightly explains Japanese nationality. It is not a certain way to compete with others and make our nation like other advanced nations in Western or Asian countries.

  8. It was a surprise to know Sophia University is one of the ‘Global 13’ members. The intent itself is great and hopeful, but who will know and have interests? Even the students do not know. The Japanese government needs to show off its strategies much clearer.

    The same thing can be said about the Olympics bid. As a resident of Tokyo, I feel no enthusiasm toward holding Olympics in Tokyo from people. And this is what was pointed out for the last race. Japan has enough capacity to have Olympic games, but it failed to attract public support. Not knowing what the government is trying to do is, however, so usual here that we do not pay much attention to it.

    If the government opened its unlocked door, we would get to know what we should pay attention to and that would lead to enforcement of Japanese soft power.

  9. As it is mentioned in the article, other Asian cultures are getting more and more popular in the world and even Japanese people are attracted to them. Especially, Korean dramas, pop musics, musicians or actors/actresses have been very popular recently. Those who are attracted by “Cool Japan” seem to be only foreigners and we Japanese are more interested in “Cool Korea” “Cool India” or “Cool China”. However, in order to survive in this situation making most use of the Japanese culture as “soft power,” I think Japanese people have to know more about our own culture. Japanese pop culture is well-known and popular among Japanese people but I wonder if we know much about traditional ones such as tea ceremony, Japanese flower arrangement, kimono, ukiyoe, kabuki, etc. When I wrote a paper about “Japanese studies” last year, I found that traditional Japanese culture is still popular in foreign countries as well as pop culture. That means traditional Japanese culture is also useful as “soft power.” We can export traditional culture, too. But before that, we have to learn more about it, because if Japanese would not know much about it, it would be disappointing, even if it could attract many people.

  10. After the devastating incident of 3.11, the way of broadening Japanese culture to the world changed dramatically. Until the incident, diplomats had been focusing on popular Japanese culture such as advancing technology, games, animes, kimonos, most of which are the materials that can be easily assimilated by other countries. However, after terrible 3.11 happened, the photograph in the newspaper of people lining up in the station reminded Japanese of their respectful behavior and endurance which came out even in that difficult situation. Moreover, it also made people outside the country very surprised and made them notice the kindness in the bottom of their heart. As the passage suggests, I feel the attitude appeared at that time shows the most impressive Japanese culture that we have, and also something that was passed down for generations as a tradition. Although 3.11 was a very destructive occurrence which made a lot of people depressed and without hope, it was a time when people noticed the kindness and gratitude toward each other by their help.

  11. Thanks Nancy for this insightful post. I am also interested in the concepts of public diplomacy and soft power. I happened to be a participant in what I believe is one of Japan’s most successful public diplomacy programs, the JET Program. It has been 15 years since I spent time in Japan but it literally shapes my understanding of cross- cultural issues, student and exchange issues and the critical value in building this level of understanding. I came across a plaque that was given to me by the Governor of the Prefecture where I resided – thanking me for my 2 years of service and inviting me to be a Goodwill Ambassador for the prefecture. This is the tangible value of the investment that Japan makes in the JET Program and I am a living example of how it can grow soft power between nations.

  12. I certainly admit the influential power that Japanese culture has over the world. From my experience of staying abroad for a long period of time, I had many occasions where people would ask me to translate an anime phrase in English, or I would see a vast amount of Japanese cars driving around and I remember how I was taken aback by the influence of Cool Japan and the people’s fascinations towards trying to gain more knowledge about it.

    This somewhat powerful tool has its limits, and it can’t prove to be useful to only a certain level to the people. For example, it may gain the attention of the people to a satisfactory degree but it can’t change the people’s point of view, which now only results in a certain attentive attitude when they regard the things that Japan can provide to the world. The so-called ‘soft’ power in this sense doesn’t affect the political standing point of Japan. We would have to change our country’s stance in a way that could make the world understand that the Japanese also have a concrete standing on their part, showing that Japan’s “Cool Japan” stance is only one of its fundamental appeals towards the world. This will create more well-being for the stability of Japan and make a positive sort of phenomenon that the people will feel proud about, and feel some sort of dignity within Japan’s stance and culture at the same time. With these ideas in mind, I will press the need for some change in Japan’s foreign diplomacy, to really change Japan on the long term.

  13. It is true that Japanese anime and manga are popular around the world. When I went to summer school in Boston during my high school year and introduced myself to an Italian boy, the first thing he said was “Oh, you are from Tokyo? You are Japanese, do you know ONE PIECE?” I was utterly shocked with the popularity of Japanese pop culture.

    So understanding the concept of the soft power was not so difficult for me. However, I would have to say the soft power would not necessarily be powerful in terms of direct top-to-top diplomacy. Obviously, prime ministers and presidents do not talk about Naruto or Pokemon during the world summit; they talk about the politics. The importance of the soft power ought to be emphasized in the individual diplomacy–the power to influence the individual ideas and images towards that country. Recently, the Korean dramas and Korean musics had become a growing trend, and that intrigued people’s interests towards the country itself. More people visit Shin-Okubo to eat Korean food, and more people travel to Korea. The soft power does not have the power to change the politics itself, but it is powerful enough in creating positive/negative images in the minds of the people. People are the fundamental part of the politics, and Japanese politicians should understand more about the increasing importance the soft power has nowadays.

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