The Debate

A Strategy for Japan’s Public Diplomacy in the United States

Recent Features

The Debate

A Strategy for Japan’s Public Diplomacy in the United States

Japan has lost ground to Korea and China in U.S. public perceptions. Here’s what it can do about it.

A Strategy for Japan’s Public Diplomacy in the United States
Credit: Korean Resource Center via

Japan has found itself in a public diplomacy race in the United States, and in many respects it may be losing. China and Korea are its principal competitors in a contest to shape American views about Japan’s behavior in World War II, its current role in the world, and new policies to lessen its limitations on military activities. In a year that commemorates the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, the prize for Japan is recognition of its remorse for the war and acceptance of its role in regional and international security. The loss of this competition, however, risks diminished U.S. support during a time of critical reforms.

Unlike Western Europe, after World War II, Asia remained a competitive, chaotic region with the civil war in China in the late 1940s and war on the Korean Peninsula in the 1950s. While the United States and Japan put to rest their animosities shortly after the war and realized the value of strategic cooperation during the Cold War, Japan, Korea, and China were unable to fully reconcile. To date, China and Korea remain unsatisfied with Japan’s attitude toward its wartime behavior and seek deeper expressions of remorse, but also have not clearly defined what would be an acceptable expression. On the other hand, while Japan has issued apologies for its wartime behavior, as Jennifer Lind noted in Foreign Affairs on March 5, 2015, “Tokyo has sent confusing signals that seem to undermine those apologies.” Thus, the historic competition between Japan, China, and Korea continues in a public relations scramble in the United States. As a result, more Americans are paying attention.

Public scrutiny of Japan’s actions and policies by the general American public is a relatively new phenomenon in the United States. Since the end of the Cold War and collapse of Japan’s bubble economy of the 1980s, Japan has remained largely out of the spotlight. As educational and cultural exchanges with the United States have declined, Japan has not really developed a broad base for American public support, even though American views toward Japan are generally positive. Additionally, Japan does not have a base of recent immigrants in the United States, whose expatriates often maintain close economic ties and kinship, and has historically not recognized Japanese-Americans as “Japanese.”

Overall, its diplomacy can be best described as understated. Japan has relied on close relationships with leaders who recognize the strategic value of the U.S.-Japan security alliance, or with those who promote Japanese high culture. Thus, Japan has only a small constituency in the United States, and the Japanese government is left to explain and lobby its position. The result is that it often looks defensive. This year the Ministry of Foreign Affairs budgeted $70 billion yen ($590 million) for strategic communications, evidence of the growing importance Japan has placed on its public image and messaging. However, it may be too late to catch up in the near term.

Korea and China have easily been able to overtake the debate in the United States with a bottom-up approach, and in many respects, China has let Korea take the lead. Korea’s expatriate community in the United States is relatively young; according to the Migration Policy Institute, the majority of Korean-Americans arrived after 1990. The close connections that these expatriates maintain with Korea have enabled the mobilization of local communities, seen especially during the Congressional consideration of the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement in 2011-2012. Grassroots organizations also have been active on history, sovereignty, and human rights issues. For example, Korean-Americans have launched successful campaigns at multiple levels of government addressing comfort women, textbooks, and the name of the Sea of Japan, or East Sea.

In some cases, the lack of awareness of local U.S. officials about the sensitivity of these subjects in Japan and impact on U.S. diplomacy in Asia meant that proposals, such as establishing comfort women memorials, moved forward without much political consideration. Civic procedures were followed, and officials responded to their local constituents. By now, however, media attention surrounding these efforts has generally educated the public and government officials, and the debate has shifted. Now, actions on these types of proposals are framed as a question of choosing the right side of history.

History Issues

Of course, Japan can address criticisms against its past directly, but it can neither escape its history from World War II nor explain it away. Thus, Japan has awakened to a situation in which it is unable to compete on equal terms with China and Korea in the United States. While it struggles to address history issues, it is also losing ground in explaining its new policies and building public support.

Its best option for addressing this public diplomacy challenge may be a long-term, asymmetric approach that focuses on providing new opportunities for people in the United States, as well as Korea and China, to engage with Japan. This strategy includes developing a vocal constituency, enhancing the quality of exchanges with Americans, and improving relations with China and Korea.

Primarily, Japan could benefit from developing a grassroots constituency in the United States. Given the patterns of Japanese immigration and general views toward Japanese-Americans, it may not be possible to create a Japanese-American “voice” in the same way that Korean-Americans have successfully organized for political activities. But it could benefit Japan to consider how it can reconnect with Japanese-Americans, and incorporate them into a broader notion of Japanese identity.

An alternative to the traditional constituency is the business community. The American Chamber of Commerce in Japan is always active in promoting U.S.-Japan trade, but Japan could go beyond this avenue. Theodore Moran and Lindsey Oldenski of the Peterson Institute for International Economics wrote in February 2015, “Japanese multinationals [are] making significant contributions to the U.S. domestic economy in terms of wages and benefits, sales, value added, R&D, exports and imports.” Yet, most Americans probably do not know Japan contributed one-fifth of all investment into the United States in 2013, dwarfing the amount of investment by Korea and China. According to SelectUSA, Japanese firms employed over 686,600 U.S. workers in 2011, nearly half of them in manufacturing sectors. American jobs matter to U.S. politics, and Japan can work with its multinationals to create a more vocal articulation of these economic contributions and the scope of U.S.-Japan cooperation. Concluding the Trans-Pacific Partnership can also aid this effort. An economic constituency for Japan could be the strongest, most effective voice, and reach across local, state and national levels.

Second, Japan can adopt a strategy of investing in America – not financially, but in people. Japan will likely never be able to compete with the number of exchange students going to China, but it can focus on quality in its exchanges by engaging high-level, publicly renowned scholars to study in Japan and jointly publish in English with Japanese scholars. Moreover, Japan could benefit from hosting programs that sponsor English-only research, removing a barrier for many researchers who may have an interest in studying in Japan but lack the necessary language skills. In the United States, it could utilize its consulates to engage across a diverse spectrum of constituencies, for example, supporting STEM training programs for high schools in underprivileged areas or the families of workers in Japanese-owned auto companies. While Japan may already be funding similar programs, it is important for Japan to market these activities more broadly and directly. It can be as simple as developing sophisticated websites that are easily navigable in English, to more direct marketing efforts such as ads in local newspapers (a public diplomacy strategy often utilized by the Chinese government).

Finally, while this may not be a popular topic within the Japanese government, the most productive long-term investment for Japan could be an investment in improving its relations with Korea and China. Public diplomacy programs that foster cultural exchanges among opinion makers, leading academics, and popular icons could play a large part. Encouraging travel to Japan should also be a priority. In addition, programs that support youth exchanges could help foster ties between these countries with a generation more open to a relationship with Japan. This, in turn, could positively affect Japan’s overall diplomatic relations with Korea and China, as well as have an impact on the views of expatriate communities in the United States.

This year will be a difficult one, especially with the prominent anniversaries of World War II. Addressing wartime history and other symbolic issues are necessary for Japan to broaden its public support in the United States, but it is not enough. The suggestions outlined in this article for a public diplomacy strategy could be effective, but they may not produce an immediate result. Thus, a truly effective strategy will require a long-term commitment by the Japanese government that is both flexible and patient. Without it, however, Japan’s diplomatic relations will continue to be overshadowed by its history, at a critical time when it is seeking to move beyond it.

Marta McLellan Ross is a Council on Foreign Relations (Hitachi Ltd.) International Affairs Fellow in Japan, and is conducting research at the Japan Institute of International Affairs. The views expressed in this article are her own.