JIN-470 -- Soft Power

J@pan Inc Newsletter
The 'JIN' J@pan Inc Newsletter
A weekly opinion piece on social, economic and political trends
in Japan.
Issue No. 470 Wednesday June 18, 2008, Tokyo

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Soft Power

In international relations, the term 'soft power' was introduced
by Harvard professor Joseph Nye to describe the capacity for the
propagation of one nation's culture to promote its national
interests. Initially he sought to explain the importance of the
globalization of American culture, from baseball to McDonald's,
in its rise to super-power status. However, Nye himself and
other theorists have developed the concept and analyzed its
relevance to a range of different countries. With its 'hard
power' constitutionally restricted there is a strong case to be
made that for Japan, 'soft power' is something it has done
well to cultivate.

Across the globe, much of Japanese culture is widely recognized:
karate, karaoke, sushi, sumo, tea ceremony, shodo, manga, and
origami are well known to many in Europe, the US and throughout
Asia. However, it is difficult to identify how much of this
dissemination has been actively promoted by Japanese politicians
or business people, and how much is merely an organic result of
Japan's interaction with the world. It is also difficult to
measure the benefits (or costs) that Japan derives from this
dissemination of culture. After all, do people who have seen
James Bond movies really believe that Britain regularly saves us
all from annihilation, or just because people wear reggae
T-shirts does it mean they aren't racist towards black people?

However, a recent paper by Nassim Kadosh Otmazgin (published in
International Relations of the Asia-Pacific, June 2007) offers
up some evidence to suggest that in the Asian region the
Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) has been successful
in actively changing perceptions of Japan through promulgation
of popular culture. For example, government reports on diplomacy
refer repeatedly to terms such as 'soft power' and 'Gross
National Cool.' Some argue that the growing popularity of
characters such as Hello Kitty in China, Taiwan, and South Korea
is acting as a counter balance to anti-Japanese sentiment
originating in those countries' experience of Japanese

But, as Otmazgin observes, the key value is probably economic –
he calculates that 'Japanese global cultural export value,
including the media copyrights, publishing, fashion, and other
related entertainments and fine art, tripled in the 11 years
between 1993 and 2003, totaling as much as JPY10.5 trillion for
the entire period.' Beyond this, it is clear that films such as
Lost in Translation and Kill Bill have pushed up Japan's revenue
from tourism.

[Continued below...]

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[...Article continues]

While cultural and political theorists may concern themselves
with the range of images of Japan that such exports promote or
prevent, the financial benefit is unquestionable. Joseph Nye
himself, writing in The Japan Times a couple of years ago
expressed his own concern at the political benefits of Japan's
'soft power:'

'By mid-century, Japan's population could shrink by 30% unless
it attracts 17 million immigrants - a hard task in a country
historically resistant to immigration. Moreover, the Japanese
language is not widely spoken, and Japan's meager English-
language skills make it difficult to attract international
talent to its universities. Japan's culture remains inward-

This view seems logical in that decreasing numbers of Japanese
people will probably reduce interaction between Japan and the
rest of the world but it perhaps overlooks the impressive, if
incomplete, work that has been done to bring foreigners to Japan
and educate them about Japanese culture. The JET Programme for
example, while bringing foreigners to Japan to assist with
English education, has another benefit of bringing graduates
from around the world to Japan and educating them about Japanese
language and culture – the majority go back to their own countries
with very positive views of Japan. Similarly, regional training
schemes and language exchanges also have a similar effect.
Moreover, according to the Japan Foundation there are 2.98
million people in 133 countries studying Japanese at 13,639
institutions outside of Japan. This surprisingly large number
shows a strong and continuing interest in Japan and suggests
that Japan's 'soft power,' defined in terms of the ability to
draw people towards it and create sympathy with its language and
culture, is not to be underestimated.

Peter Harris


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