Tokyo Report

9 Ways Japan Can Better Tell Its Story to the World

Recent Features

Tokyo Report

9 Ways Japan Can Better Tell Its Story to the World

A media relations expert offers advice on how Japan could improve its public diplomacy storytelling.

9 Ways Japan Can Better Tell Its Story to the World
Credit: Tokyo via

Japan is poised to project a global reality that the world has come to expect: leading-edge high tech, from the world’s fastest and safest trains to robotics, electronics and (my personal hope) free WiFi everywhere. Combine this with 21st century high touch – omotenashi (hospitality) safety, polite society, humility, modesty, and a green, sustainable economy – and you will really get the world enraptured by your stories.

On September 15, 2014, I participated in the fourth annual G1 Global Conference, a Tokyo-based gathering of global leaders whose theme was “Japan in 2020: Boosting Innovation and Dynamism.” The first G1 Global Conference in November 2011 was called “The Rebirth of Japan after 3/11,” an obviously different thematic mood in the aftermath of a triple disaster just eight months earlier. This conference is the brainchild of Harvard MBA graduate Yoshito Hori, founder of GLOBIS University and Chair of the G1 Summit Institute.

The G1 Global Conference is becoming the annual English-language conference in Tokyo, a “Who’s Who” of leading movers and shakers in industry, education and government, along with their global media observers, who come together in a spirit of debate and dialogue to tackle Japan’s reemergence as a player on the global stage. As a nation branding and public diplomacy consultant who is in the middle of writing a book about post-3/11 Japan, I was invited to be a panelist about promoting the Japanese culture to the world. The G1 Global presentation style is a metaphor for how Japan should practice its public diplomacy storytelling: be exciting, creative, personality-driven, and more risk-inviting.

Whatever you think about Japan’s second-coming prime minister, Shinzo Abe, you have to give him props for getting the world to take notice of Japan again. “It is not twilight, but a new dawn that is breaking over Japan,” said Abe in his January 2014 keynote speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Except for the global media attention that resulted on 3/11 and its recovery, for many years a world headline with Japan in the title would guarantee a sluggish number of hits online. Editors were hesitant about putting the names of Japanese prime ministers in their headlines because they were constantly changing. Today, a headline with just Abe in the title generates interest and chatter. Not all of it good, of course, but at least the whole world is talking again about a nation that a few years ago was written off. (In the Wall Street Journal, Abe has a 5:1 citation advantage over his predecessor, Yoshihiko Noda.)

Even I have benefitted from Abe fever. In 2012, the same month that Shinzo Abe returned to office for the second time as prime minister of Japan, I was notified of my Abe Fellowship award. My business cards (meishi) carry an Abe logo in English/Kanji and many Japanese have been eager to hear more about my work with the prime minister. My Abe is actually a partnership of the Social Science Research Council in New York and the Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership in Tokyo, and its founding in 1991 was the result of efforts by Shinzo’s father, former foreign minister Shintaro Abe, to expand collaboration and dialogue between the U.S. and Japan.

The following is a proposal for improving Japan’s storytelling in the world:

(1) Go “Beyond Abe” in telling Japan’s story. The danger of attaching one’s star to a politician is the obvious: the politician will leave office at some point and before that will introduce policies that are designed to divide both home-grown and global populations. Abe is a charismatic face for Japan but he’s also a divisive one, policy-wise, with many critics arguing that he is taking the country in a far-right ultranationalist direction. It’s far more effective to tell a multitude of stories about Japan from the grassroots and the streets up to the suites.

(2) Utilize foreign tarento (talent). I often compare my experience teaching at Tsinghua in China right before the Beijing Olympics to teaching in Japan. In China I was tapped from day one for my expertise in media relations to give lectures to state government officials. I was off campus as much as I was on campus. This was a strategic investment on the part of the Chinese government, which well knows how to tap its third party public intellectuals. Japan does not do that well or enough.

(3) Develop spokespeople and speakers’ bureaus: A related challenge in Japan is finding its own bilingual and charismatic spokespeople at the top. One who was mentioned by Tamzin Booth, bureau chief for The Economist in Tokyo, as a model commentator and source to foreign media, is Tomohiko Taniguchi. A former journalist turned speechwriter and professor at Keio University, Taniguchi is very prompt at responding to media requests and is very knowledgeable about Japan’s role and function in the world. I would add to this shortlist Noriyuki Shikata, who began tweeting furiously in English and Japanese during his stint as media spokesman for the Japanese government right after 3/11. Japan needs to develop more public relations speaking, but this is practically non-existent now in a country that has no formal programs in global public relations and public diplomacy.

(4) Formalize outreach with Tokyo-based embassies. I’ve long advocated for more dialogue and discussion with diplomats. No matter what country it is, we tend to view diplomats as people coming and going who hole up in their embassy compounds. The ones I’ve met are very interested in making their temporary homes collaborative learning labs, but they often aren’t asked to meet in less formal settings. Japan has a lot of applied learning opportunities on its doorsteps through international observers and informants.

This brings me to a personally relevant point.

(5) Make Japanese universities more globally relevant. I’m an educator with nearly a quarter of century of university-level teaching. I have guest lectured at nearly a dozen universities in Japan from the regional to the nationally ranked like Waseda and Keio. Simply put, Japan does not lead in global higher education. I’m proud to be associated with Keio as a visiting professor but when I travel or return home to the United States, very few, if any, have ever heard about Keio University or its esteemed founder, Yukichi Fukuzawa, whose face graces the 10,000-yen note. Japan needs an influx of more foreign faculty with international reputations – it is less than five percent now – and it needs more Japanese faculty who are engaged in scholarship and research collaboration with the world’s best universities.

(6) Embrace Global English and study abroad. Okay, to be fair, one does not have to just study in an English-language country. The reality is that Global English (and I do not just call it English) is the language of business, diplomacy, travel, the Internet, scholarship. It is readily used or is official in 65 countries, but is not the official language of my home country, the United States of America. I taught to a one-third native Spanish speaking community of students at California State University, Fullerton. My German study in high school and college resulted in a yearlong Fulbright grant to the Federal Republic of Germany.

Japanese high school and university students, please leave this archipelago and see the world. You will not only have a competitive edge in your lifelong employment, but your life will change for the better. You’ll become more interested in global matters, and, in turn, become more interesting to a larger pool of people. Getting outside one’s comfort pockets in food, language and family is a maturation process that has no substitute.

(7) Don’t think 2020. Think 2015. The year 2015 is the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII and the 50th anniversary of Japan-Republic of Korea normalization of relations. Of course, regional relations need new and improved normalization today. Japan needs public diplomacy and global communications skills stat. As I noted in the Japan Times, a country is only as good as the people involved in its presentation. Japan, a consensus-oriented country, tends to move much slower in its decision-making processes. This deliberative focus works well in some sectors, but not in capitalizing on its current Abe-generated phenomenon: the whole world is watching.

(8) Go Green: Preserve the planet, preserve Japan. The bottom line is that Japan’s problems are the canary in the coalmine for the world: Japan’s story is enhanced through sustainability and green economy high-tech, high-touch ventures. This isn’t going to be a nuclear-free zone, but the brainpower here can surely come up with some renewable energy sources that could benefit the world. In that spirit, let’s make nature-loving, season-loving Japan beautiful again and preserve more of its history.

(9) Unleash women to be social change and business innovation leaders. Women should not just mirror their overtired, overworked male counterparts. Let’s encourage women to start their own businesses in social entrepreneurship ventures, where women particularly shine. Japan is not a start-up but more of a top-down nation that shrinks from leaving predictable work environments for fear of failure and social shunning. Thomas Edison, whom most Americans would call a success, tried out 10,000 experiments before he successfully created the incandescent light bulb. Steve Jobs, a global icon of success, was fired from the company he started.

None of the above is any kind of panacea but let’s roll up our sleeves and help Japan tell its collective stories to the world.

Nancy Snow is an Abe Fellow and Visiting Professor at Keio University completing a book on Japan’s global image and reputation since 3/11. Dr. Snow is the author or editor of nine books, including Propaganda and American Democracy, Information War, Propaganda, Inc, and the Routledge Handbook of Public Diplomacy. She is co-editor of the forthcoming Routledge Handbook of Critical Public Relations.  Snow is a two-time recipient of a Fulbright (Germany, Japan) and has served as a U.S. Speaker and Specialist in Public Diplomacy for the U.S. Department of State and U.S. Embassy in Tokyo.  (Twitter @drpersuasion)