Japan: Long List of Japanese Soft Power: But Who Deserves the Credit?


Phar Kim Beng

There is no end to the number of "things" which are regarded as Japanese soft power in Japanese think tanks, academia and even policy circles. In a recent survey (by the author) the list ranges from Japanese business ethics, Hello Kitty, J-Pop, anime, Manga, Sumo, Tea ceremony, flower arrangement to Article 9 in Japanese constitution which renounces the use of force.

Japan, in other words, is very confident about its cultural and other "resources," even as it suffers from the belief that it is strategically 'losing out' to China. In contrast, American scholars, not least the eminent Joseph Nye of Harvard University, who originally coined the concept of 'soft power' in 1989, merely identified three sources of soft power. According to Nye's definition, to which Japanese scholars in the main do respect and observe, soft power is gained when a country is able to attract or co-opt others without the use of force or the need for payment (i.e. corruption). The attraction is derived specifically from the democratic political system of the US, its culture (especially the form peddled by popular cinema and entertainment), and its foreign policy. In light of the fiasco in Iraq, the ostensible soft power of the US has of course suffered badly in recent years, due to its arbitrary invasion of the country, and the subsequent chaos it has caused to the people in Iraq.

Yet, whereas US is able to list 3 sources of soft power, Japanese intellectual community, even the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) have no qualms in producing a long menu of things that are deemed to be effective manifestations or vehicles of soft power. In fact, Creative Japan, is embedded in the website of MOFA. Invariably, the Japanese list of soft power is longer than the US by some 20 to 25 times. That is to say Japanese scholars and people have no qualms with identifying and advertising the things to which they regard as Japanese soft power. The issue plainly is: Why? Indeed, why does a country that is reeling from the burst of Japanese economic bubble, which is concurrently experiencing both the greying effects of its society coupled with a low birth rate, still confident about its ability to project its soft power?

This question is all the more amazing when Japanese diplomats in general are not known to be friendly and effective communicators, or capable of socialising with the local population of their host countries. In other words, there are very few, if any people from the Japanese embassy, to 'engage' the locals of other countries on the ground. Nor does the Japan Foundation, for that matter, the Japan Export Trade Organization (JETRO) able to compensate the weaknesses of the Japanese embassy due to their skeletal staff; who more often than not, do not speak the local languages or able to mingle with the local people. Put differently, actual human contact between Japanese officials and representatives with local population are often very low.

Yet, in spite of these "deficits", Japanese scholars, people and policy makers alike have no problem at all in affirming the pervasiveness, and proliferation, of Japanese "soft power". Nor are they necessarily incorrect. Because, within the context of East Asia, youth of various stripes, background, and class profiles, are indeed gravitating towards "Cool Japan." Professor Tsuboi Yoshiharu at Waseda University believes that Japan's confidence about the myriad forms of its soft power is due to a form of "Japanese romanticism" or "idealism" - especially its assumption that people in East Asia are by and large keen consumers. Buoyed by Western penetration of East Asian economy, society and value structure for more than a few centuries since the advent of colonialism in the 15th century, East Asia has in more ways than one grown accustomed to accepting Western ideas, products, and services. Since East Asia can accept the West, it is capable of accepting similar things from Japan too.

Therefore, names like Todai (i.e. University of Tokyo), Waseda, Keio Universities, for example, rank on par with that of Harvard University, University of Cambridge, and Sorbonne University in the US and Europe in spite of the fact that the latter have a history that are several hundred years longer than Japanese ones. More over, what is interesting about Japanese concepts of soft power is not how many of them can actually be enumerated by the Japanese intelligentsia and intellectuals. Rather, their collective belief and conviction that these things (i.e. Japanese soft power) are apolitical. Thus, all of them believe that regardless of whether it is Hello Kitty, J Pop, Doraemon, Sailor Moon,Naruto, Nintendo, Game Boy, Article 9, Japanese education system, or big Japanese companies, they are also harmless.

To be sure, Japanese scholars and decision makers can have the "luxury" of thinking that their products and services are non-political because Japan has in the people's self perception become what Funabashi Yoichi of Asahi Shimbun refers to as the "civilian" power. At any rate, whether Japan is a civilian power, or a soft power par excellence, it actually has the West to thank for transforming the economic, social and cultural landscape of East Asia first.

It was the West, who having understood the futility of conflict, began to make anything and everything functional, fun, and even frivolous. Had it not for this prior Western soft power, Japanese soft power would not have been able to reach the Asian markets so successfully. More ironically, Japan also has organised crimes to thank for converting some of its entertainment products into pirated goods too which, in turn, bring down the cost of purchase for the average consumers in the region. Without a doubt, East Asian countries also have superb processes of localisation. They can translate and convert Japanese stories, songs and various cultural forms into local products. Thus, while Doraemon (i.e. Robot Cat) may seem to be a character from Hong Kong or Taiwan, it is actually Japanese in original incarnation.

For what it is worth, Japan does have impressive soft power in the technical, scientific, environmental, cultural and other fronts. But increasingly, these soft power have little or nothing to do with the Japanese government, or even think tanks and research foundations close to it. The Japanese ability to produce various forms of soft power, strangely but amazingly, is due to the ability and spirit of the Japanese people to penetrate Asian societies that have otherwise been Westernised or colonised first. It is this second wave of Japanese penetration that makes Japanese soft power so dominant; as fine Japanese techniques do create better Japanese services and products to which Asian population can buy and consume in large quantities and repeatedly. But there is a danger. Just as Western colonialism and market expansion allowed Japan to benefit from the "grand opening of Asia", Japan's current efforts to peddle and sell different things to the mass market in East Asia writ large can also allow Chinese, Korean, and subsequently Indian, manufacturers and producers to follow up with the third, fourth and fifth wave as well. In fact, it is already happening. Hence, it is not abnormal anymore to speak of Chinese, Indian, or Korean soft power in the same mould.

WATCHPOINT: The lesson for Japan? Soft power can be gained, and lost. To ensure Japan can keep its soft power, Japan must be a country that is capable of sustainable reforms in its economic, political, and social sectors - without which Japan will one day find itself unable to compete in the subsequent waves of soft power products and services.


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