Japan's Pop Culture Diplomacy

©Justin Elavathil

What makes people so interested in a country that they make it the focus of their future careers? Why did I become so interested in Japan? Needless to say, the reasons why Western scholars become involved in the field of Japanese studies vary greatly. But in my case, I can roughly trace my initial interest to a heightened exposure to Japanese popular culture in my youth.

In fact, for many people, their preliminary attraction to Japan and its culture stems from an exposure to Japanese pop culture, especially manga (マンガ) and anime(アニメ). This is something that makes most Japanese people cringe, but in reality is something that the Japanese government wants to foster and has fostered in the past. For example, in 2009, Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (外務省) inaugurated three fashion models as “ambassadors of cute” (かわいい大使) to promote Japanese fashion through “diplomatic missions” around the world. The three models Misako Aoki (青木美沙子), Yuu Kimura (木村優), and Shizuka Fujioka (藤岡静香) represented different genres of Japanese fashion: “lolita/gothic” style, “harajuku” style, and “school-uniform” style, respectively. To some, this may have seemed like a superficial gesture, since these individuals do not possess any credentials to act as representatives of the nation. However, many of these critics missed the subtlety of these symbolic appointments. The government recognized the role of pop culture in cultivating Japan’s “soft power” resources.

If power can be loosely defined as the ability to get the outcomes you want, soft power, a term coined by Joseph S. Nye Jr., is the ability to get others to want these same outcomes. Soft power uses factors of attraction and persuasion to achieve this goal indirectly. In contrast, “hard power” uses coercion and inducements (both militarily and economically). According to Nye, a country’s soft power lies in three resources: its culture, its political values, and its foreign policy. Soft power is relevant in the modern world because current foreign affairs are not all determined by realpolitik. The ability of a country to co-opt others is becoming a much more useful asset in international relations, especially for a country like Japan. Given the nature of Japan’s history in the Asia Pacific region, soft power is a way to express influence in the region with less focus on its colonial past.

But soft power is not without its limitations. As Nye describes, the resources that produce soft power act more slowly and are more diffuse and cumbersome than hard-power resources. Thus, achieving goals through soft power requires patience. Furthermore, pop culture resources are often in the control of non-state actors, which reduces the political authority’s ability to wield them effectively.

Does this mean that it is pointless to invest institutional capacity in pop culture diplomacy in order to cultivate soft power? Not entirely. Obviously, Dragonballz will not make people in Korea forget about comfort women. On the other hand, pop culture does act as a platform that leads to deeper appropriation of soft power resources. Those who become interested in Japanese pop culture may learn Japanese language, and then decide to visit, study, or work in Japan. Each progression brings a greater understanding of Japan and, in effect, extends Japan’s soft power influence. Even though it is difficult to assess how pop culture diplomacy will build Japan’s soft power, it is clear that there is value in policies supporting the facilitation of pop culture as a tool of international diplomacy. I am just one person out of many who developed a positive impression of Japan, in part, due to pop culture. Who knew Final Fantasy games would have such a profound impact on my life?

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.

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