It is June 2012 and I’m sitting at the head table with Yoshimitsu Kaji, Director of Global Communications in the Prime Minister’s Office, as he is about to address a group of corporate communications professionals about managing Japan’s image and reputation. His speech is engaging and at the end he asks if he might present a short film called “Lights of Japan” that was shown at the World Economic Forum’s “Japan Night” in February 2012.
The film brought tears to my eyes. We were an audience of Japanophiles and “Lights of Japan,” which wasn’t then available on YouTube, presented an image of Japan, the victim on 3/11, as a nation that would rise above its victimhood in the post-3/11 era. It would be a stronger and brighter nation of common good and purpose, a model for the rest of the world.
That may be a premature assessment.
In spring 2013, just over a year after “Lights of Japan” premiered in Davos, Switzerland, another video emerged that was dark and despicable. It went viral in America and around the world. It was the image of a middle-school age Japanese girl in a Korean ward of Osaka, Ikuno-ku. It has since been removed by YouTube due to hate speech regulations, which is why you get the following picture:
Japan, the world’s third largest economy, is like any other rich nation that is obsessed with its outward image in the world. It is also like no other rich nation obsessed with such an image because this is, after all, Japan, and it doesn’t seem to be working too hard to change its image.
Now consider a regional neighbor, sometimes rival, and Japan’s largest trading partner. China, the world’s second largest economy, is working day and night to promote an image of dogoodedness, despite its poor human rights records, lack of free speech and dissent, and deplorable labor conditions. I lived in Beijing, China in the months before the 2008 Olympics and I was consulted with regularly about how China could better manage its media relations and image with foreign press.
When you visit Japan, you realize that, though modern and convenient, it is not a globalizing nation. It is not diverse. It prides itself on its unique culture—a truly remarkable culture at that—but nevertheless, its public diplomacy (nation branding) seems stagnant.
Japan’s public diplomacy focuses primarily on what the world already knows, not what we have questions about. We know that Japan is polite, hospitable, safe, orderly, and that public crime is very low. Japan has a lot of conbini (convenience stores) and vending machines on practically every street corner. The trains are comfortable and run precisely. There is a fascinating mix of the old and new for the eyes to marvel, such as a 400-year-old temple next to a new apartment building. We marvel at Japan’s technological supremacy from Toto toilet to Shinkansen bullet train. There are kawaii (cute) pop groups here like AKB48, manga and anime galore. What’s not to like? It seems, well, almost perfect here.
But of course, every picture of a place tells different stories. The United States is friendly, outgoing, energetic, diverse, full of its own conveniences such as a Starbucks or McDonald’s on every corner. (We’ll debate the Fast Food Nation another time.) We are also a nation of polarizing divisions in race, politics, and gender. We have high crime. We are not safe walking the streets at night. We are not a nation united. One court decision in Florida can put thousands on the street with cries for justice. But in our chaos, our public diplomacy is more revealing than that of Japan: The U.S. recognizes that it is a “warts and all” nation. Take it or leave it is often our approach to public diplomacy. We know that the global media will tell who we really are to the world anyway and so we often take the initiative to do it first. It’s why Edward R. Murrow at the United States Information Agency would talk about America’s race relations in speeches he gave during the Kennedy years. He knew that the Soviet Union was making hay of our civil rights record and treatment of African Americans and so he addressed the problem in a straightforward manner.
No nation can maintain a strong and positive image in the world if it avoids the obvious. The obvious in Japan is a nation that is struggling with division between the majority Japanese with its minorities. It is an imperfect nation, like all nations. Hate speech is tolerated by the government, though many Japanese find it intolerable. They are just hoping that it goes away and doesn’t get worse. Maybe they are also hoping that the elections will quash the issue. But a big win for Prime Minister Abe’s LDP party won’t diminish the issue. It may in fact embolden the hate groups.
So far there have been hundreds protesting ethnic minorities in Japan, spewing their cries for Chinese and Koreans to die or leave the country immediately. This is in a Greater Tokyo metro area of over 35 million. It may seem like a minor problem that one can just brush away with a few strokes of a broom. But in the age of the Internet, the YouTube effect dominates. A few people marching in Tokyo’s Shin-Okubo (Korean area) amplifies to a cast of thousands when their shouts are rebroadcast for the net. The Net Effect is that one middle age schoolgirl’s vitriol is perceived as a choir of children with like-minded feelings.
Japan, the global public is watching and listening. The pictures that we see online may distort the truth but if you want to explain yourself, then you must address the “warts and all” issues like treatment of minorities. When you explain them, you may find that the world’s people relate more to a less than perfect image of your nation.