Japan's Shrinking ASEAN 'Soft Power'
Image Credit: Wikicommons

Japan's Shrinking ASEAN 'Soft Power'


A recent Yahoo! Japan search for “sofuto pawa,” the Japanese translation for soft power, yielded nearly two and a half million entries. While this number indicates the term’s popularity in Japan, it tells us little about how successful Tokyo has been in employing soft power throughout the Western Pacific.

As I discuss in my new book, Japan and China as Charm Rivals: Soft Power in Regional Diplomacy, while Japan’s soft power in China and South Korea remains low it has been far more successful in boosting its image in Southeast Asia. Nonetheless, Japan’s soft power in the region has been limited to economic issues, and as Japan’s economy has remained stagnate, so too has its soft power. Although China’s recent assertiveness presents an opportunity for Japan to revamp its image among ASEAN members, it’s unlikely that Tokyo will successfully seize this opportunity.

In the initial decades after WWII, Japan’s engagement with Southeast Asia was limited, as Tokyo looked to South Asia for economic opportunities. It was only when those opportunities dried up that Japan found deeper engagement with Southeast Asia unavoidable. While Japanese-ASEAN trade grew rapidly, local populations grew increasingly resentful of Tokyo’s growing economic presence. Indeed, Southeast Asians nicknamed Japan the “economic animal.”

The extent of the region’s grievances became evident in 1974 when then-Prime Minster Tanaka Kakuei was greeted by numerous protesters during his visits to Bangkok and Jakarta. Although Tanaka himself dismissed the protesters as people trying to scapegoat Tokyo for their local problems, his intra-party rival Fukuda Takeo disagreed. Upon becoming Prime Minister, Fukuda decided to change course, starting with a landmark speech to the Filipino parliament in 1977.

Even today, this speech is seen as the beginning of Japan’s charm offensive towards the region, and the principles outlined in the speech are known as the Fukuda Doctrine.

Japanese leaders rarely give emotional speeches but Fukuda’s speech was an exception. Admitting suspicions and hostilities on the ground, Fukuda passionately pledged that Japan would try and build a “heart-to-heart” relationship with Southeast Asia. To that end, Fukuda pledged that Japan would mobilize all diplomatic resources – political, social, cultural, as well as economic.

Even before the speech, however, Fukuda had begun courting the region. As foreign minister in 1972, for instance, Fukuda recognized Japan’s policy toward Southeast Asia was skewed toward economic issues. He therefore became a leading proponent of the Japan Foundation, a semi-governmental organization in charge of fostering cultural, social, and academic exchanges, and Southeast Asia became a major target for the Foundation’s work.

Fukuda’s 1977 trip also led to the founding of the ASEAN Cultural Fund, a Japanese organization that offered 5 billion yen (US$63.6 million) to foster cultural exchanges within ASEAN as well as between ASEAN and others. The ASEAN Cultural Fund signaled a new mode of Japanese diplomacy that may be termed as “embedded initiative” –Tokyo embeds its initiatives within a multilateral framework and presents them as collective wisdom. In the case of the Cultural Fund, for instance, ASEAN members even have full jurisdiction over the operation of the fund.

Fukuda’s successors would follow his example with remarkable success. According to Japanese foreign ministry’s surveys conducted in five ASEAN member-states (Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, and the Philippines), the percentage of those who felt Japan’s war atrocities should never be forgotten fell from over 30 percent in 1978 to 20 percent in 2008. During the same period those who felt that the past should be put to rest rose from 37 percent to 68 percent.

In addition, the vast majority of respondents felt their countries’ relations with Japan are “good” or “generally good.” Roughly the same percentage of respondents agreed that Japan could be “trusted” or “generally trusted.” Japan’s charm offensive was solid enough to embolden Japanese Prime Minister Takeshita Noboru to openly call the region Japan’s “power base” in the late 1980’s.


[...] Japan has long been one of ASEAN’s oldest and most important dialogue partners. Relations began warming as early as 1977, when Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda decided upon his election to improve Tokyo’s [...]

[...] 資料來源: Japan’s Shrinking ASEAN ‘Soft Power’, written by Jing Sun. [...]

[...] Japan has long been one of ASEAN’s oldest and most important dialogue partners. Relations began warming as early as 1977, when Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda decided upon his election to improve Tokyo’s [...]

January 11, 2013 at 19:57

Sarah that's a great point.  Taiwan is a fantastic place and the quality of the people is superb, at least in my experience.  Plus Ang Lee's films have made an enormous impact worldwide.
In a similar vein, it's interesting to see how positive Japan is viewed in Taiwan.  The article doesn't mention this, but that is one country where Japanese influence far exceeds PRC influence.

January 11, 2013 at 19:54

":I think that the disparity between the rich and poor in both communist China and North Korea is a little more than those of most democratic capitalist nations. "
I can't speak for NK, but China's Gini index (0.61) is VASTLY higher than any nation in the West, and about double Japan's rate.  So unfortunately, Chinese disparity is much greater than a "communist" system would lead anyone to believe.  Sort of the worst of both worlds, at this stage.

January 11, 2013 at 19:45

Samurais, video games, anime/manga…these are all very strong Japanese soft power elements

January 6, 2013 at 20:46

Sadly no seems to be paying much attention to the power house that South Korea has become, especially in regards to soft power. Any observations on the push and pull relationship that are occurring between South Korea, Japan, and China, in terms of cultural export.
P.S. Where is Taiwan in all this talk, considering that the majority of '中国' soft power emanates from there.

October 24, 2012 at 17:05

@Pathetic Beway…Japan has more than sushi in terms of soft power to offer…..music, movies, clothes, modernity, technology, culture, political values (unlike China or other states in the region) but also its UN forces deployed overseas. The problem lies in disputed islands and a reluctance regarding apologing for WW2. Its economcy is falling but its society remains attractive.

silent oberver
August 22, 2012 at 18:23

oh yeah china has discovered everything tht is why japan has 19 nobel laureates out of which 16 have got it for their contribution in the field of science on the contrary china has just 10 so it shows the level of R&D infrastructure in china japanese have well known brands like toyota, JVC, sony, suzuki, honda, toshiba, nintendo, kawasaki, casio, canon to name a few how many chinese car brands sell in USA or europe many of them can't even pass through the preliminary stage of security checks so common its good to be talk positively about your country but not acknowledging others contribution is worst thing….. so go get some life Mr chan and for your Info I am not a japanese not even an asian…

filipino defender
August 21, 2012 at 12:27

if you are chinese its your country that has a problem with all of your neighbors

filipino defender
August 19, 2012 at 13:32

Again evidence?

August 14, 2012 at 00:35

@John Chan,
Well said. I am 100% with you especially on Point 3.

August 13, 2012 at 09:59

If you are Chinese, I believe you are too optimistic.

August 13, 2012 at 07:57

@JC You are the one who is a racist and keeps on spouting mendacious nonsense.

You cannot even handle that China doesn't have Suzerainty in the Philippines and we do dare to invite the United States our treaty ally and accept help from the Japanese.

You cannot seem to accept that such a weak and decrepit Armed Forces of the Philippines would actually dare to go against your powerful PLA. 

You cannot seem to accept to argue rationally against the merits of the Philippine Claims on these island but would go on and on spouting Chinese Communist Propaganda.

JC as Jesus Christ once said "Let the one without sin cast the first stone". I would suggest you review all your past comments and look who is the most racist close minded bigot on these forums. I would pray that you mind would be opened to the realities of the world.

PS China is not successful what is successful is a country who was once a COLONY and young at that to be able to become a Global Hegemon and is the champion of DEMOCRACY.

August 12, 2012 at 15:49


Mao’s “Great leap forward” Worst man mad disaster in History, 45 million in four years, not so much from evil as sheer stupidity. Yet he’s the CCP’s poster boy, and you are saying that this is the superior model, setting an example to the world. Please…

August 12, 2012 at 15:38

Actually john one might argue that the world has progressivly better in the last 300 years. Particularly in the last 60 the world has become more stable, and in fact we are in the most peaceful times ever, fact!. This has very little to do with China, infact China is the one that has benefitted greatly from alot of this progression. John I ask you this simple quesition, without adopting capitalism and opening up allowing the U.S to set up shop, do you think that China would be the industrial powerhouse that is today?

Also John looking forward it seems that as China progesses it does so through adopting more and more western approaches to business and innovation. I also would ask as CCP’s elites start to question the cracks in their “superier” systems, what sorts of polictical reforms a likley to shape China? I would say that it is going to become more like a western democracy and further away from Mao’s ideals and values. It is fact that Mao has killed more Chinese than any western imperialist, yet the CCP’s whitewashed version of history paints him as some sort of national hero, responsible for the prosperity that you enjoy today. The prosperous China that exists today was through the natural progression of democracy and capitalists systems that although not perfect are better than any alternative and so have been adopted buy all progressive and modernized societies including China.

John Chan
August 12, 2012 at 01:36

Here are some fallacies in your comment:
1. In Japan, the Japanese said 部落民 were dirty because they do dirty work that the 大和民族 won’t do, such as slaughtering, so they outcast 部落民 to ghetto. The Japanese also said Koreans were smelly because their liking of garlic, so Japanese outcast Koreans to ghetto too. Noisy, dirty, smelly, etc. are the rationales for the Japanese to justify they racial discrimination behaviour, or they like to called it unique Japanese tradition like commercial whaling in the name of science research.
2. China has surpassed Japan in very aspect of measurements, economy, space exploration, and R&D. Perhaps the reason of Japan’s failing and falling is Japanese only knows hard working but does not know working smartly. Japanese working habit definitely is a negative model for everyone not to follow.
3. Japanese is the last people in the world that entitles to bad mouth China in terms of violating IP rights. Nearly everything in Japan you can see is copied, counterfeited, stolen and cheated from China one way or another without paying royalty.

John Chan
August 11, 2012 at 20:53

I would ask the North Koreans how communism is working for them. Really John your bagging capitalism!!! lol the only reason China has closed the gap is through adopting capitalism. I think that the disparity between the rich and poor in both communist China and North Korea is a little more than those of most democratic capaitalist nations. 
You may have heard the saying "So bad its good" however i don't think that this applies to areas of political argument. 

John Chan
August 11, 2012 at 12:23

My comments may be pot calling the kettle black, but the anti-China clique is not allowing the pot calling the kettle black, they insist their ugly, dirty and black kettle is clean.
It seems you are totally ignoring the point of contest here; the point of contest is lack of objectivity on this site. For example your criticism is one sided, you focus on me alone, yet you ignore the bad behaviour of the anti-China bloggers; when I protest unfair treatment of China, right away you label my comments “are the most sour, contested, nationalistic and unashamably bias towards China.”
Your comment just demonstrates westerner’s way to seduce people into submission, when people do not subscribe the West’s point of view or value, the westerners will label you “you are not listening,” “you do not have an open minded,” or “you are narrow minded.”
Dan, after 300 years of screwing up the world, do you think it is the time for the West to listen to the other party who is successful and has longer history than the West? Particular the history has proven the West’s model and value is a failure.

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