Japan is taking a bolder approach to public diplomacy. After returning to the premiership in December 2012, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe promptly set the tone for Tokyo’s new assertiveness. In a February 2013 speech at a U.S. think tank, Abe laid out his vision for a resurgent Japan that would overcome its “lost decades” of economic stagnation, and assume a greater role in global leadership.
Abe has not been shy about likening his own story of recovery with Japan’s reemergence. Abe’s first term as prime minister in 2006-07 was brief, and illness threatened to sentence his political career to the sidelines. Armed with the three arrows of Abenomics, he would buck the trend of “Japan passing” and become the driving force for Japan’s comeback on the world stage.
Through frequent overseas tours to engage with foreign leaders and publics, landmark visits to Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima to strengthen U.S.-Japan relations, and appearing as Super Mario to promote the Tokyo 2020 Olympic games, Abe has unabashedly placed himself at the center of Japan’s global PR campaign, warts and all.
However, to improve Japan’s storytelling, experts have long called for a voice beyond Abe, citing concerns over short-termism and nationalist tendencies, as well as the need for the diversification of actors in nation branding.
To be sure, the Japanese government is laying the groundwork to institutionalize a more proactive and coordinated approach to public diplomacy. Undoubtedly, this has been helped by a rare return to stable leadership. Particularly, since 2015, Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) has spearheaded this effort, receiving a $500 million increase to its budget for strategic communications.
The timing of this new injection of funding was no coincidence. The year 2015 marked the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Wary of China and South Korea controlling the narrative over historical and territorial disputes, the Japanese government was eager to get on the front foot in managing its international image. Policymakers in Tokyo are convinced that Beijing and Seoul are engaged in an “information war” that runs counter to Japan’s national interests.
Indeed, according to Kent Calder’s publication exploring how Asian nations are increasingly seeking to leverage their presence in Washington – the world’s primary “agenda setting center” – Japan is losing out. Calder writes that compared to its assertive regional neighbors, Japan is relatively passive, and for the most part limits lobbying to traditional channels. Yet, the goalposts for influence have moved to the informal “penumbra of power” that lies outside the official tracks of diplomacy. Planners in Tokyo have received the 2014 book, which was simultaneously published in Japanese, as a wake-up call. Japan progressively perceives nation branding in terms of a geopolitical struggle in the Asia Pacific and fears being left behind.
In an essay on soft power, Seiichi Kondo, a retired diplomat, argues that Japan has hitherto employed a tacit form of message transmission, what he terms “presentation,” which neatly aligns with Japanese cultural sensibilities. Although quiet and slow-brewing, he believes it effective in creating a positive global image for Japan. This is contrasted with America’s more direct approach, namely “projection,” which is unambiguous in its evangelical spread of “universal” ideals.
With Japan now seeking to go on the offensive in this new public diplomacy game, “projection” has become the Abe administration’s modus operandi. In a recent study exploring Japan’s global role in the 21st century, Yoichi Funabashi highlights the significance of Tomohiko Taniguchi’s appointment as the prime minister’s foreign policy speechwriter, the first position of its kind in the post war era. The move was a sign that Japan intends to plainly articulate its vision and values to sway global opinion.
Behind this major shift in approach is a consensus that Japan sits on an untapped wealth of soft power reserves. Spurred on by English language publications such as Douglas McGray’s article for the Foreign Policy on Japan’s Gross National Cool (2002), and Roland Kelts’ Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S. (2006), Tokyo bureaucrats have devised numerous initiatives over the past decade to promote “Cool Japan.” However, there is a strong sense that Japan has been unable to take advantage of this potential — that it is all “soft” and no “power.”
Leveraging dormant soft power resources is the goal of Japan House (JH), a new MOFA-directed strategic communications initiative. The project, originally budgeted at $35 million, has been in the pipeline since 2014 and will establish “hubs” in London, Los Angeles, and São Paolo to foster a deeper understanding of Japan. The São Paolo JH opened its doors in April, with the remaining centers set to open by the end of the year. The hubs are to serve as “one stop shops” for visitors to engage with diverse aspects of Japanese culture, regions, lifestyles, values, and industry.
Ironically, the JH’s main competition will likely be the Japan Foundation (JF), Japan’s international cultural exchange organization with offices in 23 countries, including the cities set to welcome the JH. Often compared to the British Council or the Institut Français, established in 1972, the JF prizes two-way exchange over dissemination and sits at arm’s-length from the government.
The JH, however, is positioned uncomfortably under the watch of Japan’s foreign ministry, and risks becoming what critics call a “propaganda house.” Although it’s no secret, the official JH website in English and Portuguese gives no mention of its governmental ties. For the Japanese-speaking audience, however, MOFA’s role is introduced at the head of the first paragraph.
In particular, the Diplomatic Bluebook’s reference to “communicating a correct understanding of Japan” has raised concerns that the true purpose of JH is to influence global opinion on regional historical and territorial issues – all while enjoying a cup of Japanese sake.
To be sure, the aim of sharing a “true Japan” is nothing new. The defining feature of Tokyo’s postwar cultural diplomacy has unswervingly been to “correct” misunderstandings of Japanese foreign and industrial policies. Japan of the 1950s and ‘60s sought to create a new image of a peace-loving country to counter its militaristic past. Into the ‘70s and ‘80s, Japan had to balance projecting an image of achieving a miracle economic advancement alongside dispelling views that its exports would spell trouble for western economies. During the ‘90s Japan looked to show itself a responsible international actor, in order to overcome criticisms of “free riding” and “checkbook diplomacy.”
Fast forward to the present and Japan is no longer the unique economic and cultural champion of Asia. Facing the prospect of an awkward decline, Japan has a triple challenge of reassurance, rediscovery and rebranding. Considering the aims of the JH within this broader context of Japan’s postwar cultural diplomacy helps to disabuse our own misconceptions about Tokyo’s underlying intentions.
The JH is better understood as Japan’s foray into network-based public diplomacy. The network communication approach is premised on the fundamental assumption that globalization, the digital revolution, and the rise of new global powers and non-state actors have significantly altered the nature of public diplomacy. The static unidirectional model of fixed target audiences receiving sponsor-produced messages is replaced with a dynamic web of interconnected stakeholders that are collaborators in creating a shared narrative.
Published statements reveal that the JH will be a cross-sector, cross-platform, and multi-stakeholder “hub” that facilitates the interactions and activities of producers. It will reject a rigid approach of information distribution and emphasize a participatory process of story creation.
With the JH serving as a forum for dialogue on global challenges, Tokyo is anticipating the role of agenda setter – think Davos rather than the Heritage Foundation, a platform for rules to be discussed and made.
Anne-Marie Slaughter argued in her influential Foreign Affairs piece, “America’s Edge: Power in the Networked Century,” that we are shifting from a vertical world of hierarchies to a horizontal one of connections. While the 20th century was a competition for the top, the 21st century winners will be those who can master network dynamics from the center.
For Japan, the allure of a network approach to cultural diplomacy is clear. With restricted hard power options the JH provides an opening for Japan to jump from second fiddle to orchestra conductor in global order building. But to successfully leverage network power, Japan must prioritize the process of relationship building.
Tokyo should address the JH’s lack of structural relational ties. Unlike China’s Confucius Institutes (CI), which are embedded within “host” educational institutions and establish partner links between the host and a Chinese university – all overseen by the Hanban headquarters in Beijing – the JH will start life as a unidirectional standalone hub. The CI model encourages already invested members to take ownership in expanding the activities of the institute; multi-directional in its interactions, it weaves together a hard-to-unravel relational fabric. Without a structure that binds members to the JH, it risks threading a tenuous network of short-term collaborators.
The JH must also avoid censoring opinions that are critical of Japan. As a platform dedicated to stimulating debate and enabling external partners, it is inevitable that some on the outside won’t always agree on tough issues. Japan may be presented in a bad light. But the JH should embrace any negative views. If however, the JH becomes preoccupied with controlling the product, rather than developing its relations with producers regardless of their position, then the JH will lose its network power potential. Japan should strive for the strongest network, not the largest voice.
Warren A. Stanislaus is a doctoral candidate in Oriental Studies at the University of Oxford and is a visiting researcher at the Center for Rule-Making Strategies, Tama University.