By Viktor Hellblom
“THE PENGUINS are so lazy so the zoo makes them walk in a parade in the autumn and winter time”. I was listening to our guide giving us a tour of the penguins at a zoo near the Japanese coastal city of Otaru, while showing panorama views over the coast, all happening through the lens of Zoom. We had just started the day by being presented with local Hokkaido food by three turtle like mascots (Japan loves their mascots) and were now discovering the shopping streets of Otaru, learning why the town was known as the city of glass. It was the last day of a two week long virtual tour of Japan’s different regions, a part of a cultural exchange program called Mirai, hosted annually by the Public Diplomacy Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Japan (MOFA). The program aims to bolster exchange between Japan and participating countries, spanning all of Europe and parts of Central Asia, with an emphasis on spreading knowledge about Japanese society, politics, economy and culture.
A cultural program across Japanese regions
Despite the limitations of a Zoom screen, the hosts of Mirai were able to give us tours in real time, alternating between lectures, reporter style interactions on the ground and drone panorama views. The Q&A sessions and engagement of the hosts provided an opportunity to interact directly with and hear stories from Japanese people with diverse backgrounds, whether students or professionals. One day, I was listening to the grandson of an A-bomb survivor talking about his grandfather’s experience of the bombing and asking him about his perspective on the stigmatisation of the Fukushima people in the aftermath of the nuclear disaster. Another day, I was hearing artists describe how they were trying to mobilise older generations to promote their home regions.
Apart from being impressed with what can be achieved with Zoom, I was also struck by the diverse topics I was introduced to during the tour, travelling from Japan’s most southern tip of tropical Okinawa to the snowy north of Hokkaido. Topics included conservation efforts on the island of Iriomote (Okinawa) and their wild cats and tropical coast, matcha and wild wasabi in Shizuoka, a 400 years old sword workshop in Tokyo, Ainu (indigenous people of Japan) culture in Hokkaido and efforts to revive areas left behind by urbanisation by the means of art projects. Whether it was repurposing temples in Nara, maintaining the unique style and experience of a Ryokan (family home) compared to hotels, or handing over knowledge of historical patterns and colours of swords through the generations, the journey furthered a strong emphasis on attempts to maintain and refine old traditions and culture.
Cultural diplomacy in practice
The program was not only a chance to gain more insights into Japanese culture and Japan’s different regions, but it also made me reflect on cultural diplomacy and soft power. According to the political theorist Joseph Nye, countries that achieve cultural influence have more opportunities to get a message across and affect values and preferences in other countries. With Japan being displaced by China as the second biggest world economy in 2010 and losing its third place to Germany in 2023, as well as the symbolic turn of China surpassing Japan as the world biggest car exporter in the same year, one would assume that Japan has a waning influence on the world stage.
At the same time, Japan continues to be referred to as a soft power powerhouse, topping year after year in the rankings of Global Soft Power Index (Brand Finance). In spite of its economic woes, Japan clearly continues to hold a strong positive image abroad, something that according to Nye would also translate into cultural influence. This is clear too in Sweden where, according to a survey by the Swedish Institute of Foreign Affairs (The Asia Barometer), the Swedish public opinion is shown to be much more positive towards Japan than economic powerhouses like India and China. The survey concluded that the respondents had an overall positive view of Japan, with over half saying they want to visit the country and an overwhelming majority arguing that Sweden can learn from Japan. A follow up report “Japan in the eyes of the Swedish public: a friendly and trusted partner” highlighted that Japan was producing these results despite a declining and limited Swedish media coverage, and regardless of the fact that many Swedes have not visited Japan.
While it is hard to draw firm conclusions about a country’s image, especially on a global scale, the results in the survey are still an interesting reference point for which to discuss the effectiveness of Japan’s cultural diplomacy. Journalist Douglas McGray already coined in 2002 the term “Gross National Cool” to describe Japan’s success in the export of manga, anime and other cultural elements to the West. The idea of Japan tapping into Japan’s “coolness” factor abroad has since continued with the announcement of “Cool Japan” in 2010, a campaign to promote Japanese culture abroad by the Japan Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.
“It is clear that Japanese culture has reached a much more mainstream status, with Netflix anime, Japanese food shows, and Japanese authors seemingly popping up everywhere in bookstores.”
Similarly, MOFA runs Brand Japan, an initiative to try to market the uniqueness of Japanese culture through lectures, seminars, workshops and cultural exchanges. Japan also has several Japan Foundations offices around the world and a Japan House in London, Los Angeles and São Paulo, all with the goal of encouraging more engagement with Japan. The strong desire to host the Olympics amidst Covid fears was also a clear reminder of Japan’s investment in its image abroad. Nowhere is this as apparent as with Japan’s former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who by many commentators was seen as leading efforts to position Japan on the world stage, with his mantra “Japan is back”.
Although Japan is maybe not quite the “Pokemon hegemon” that The New York Times wrote about back in 2002, it is clear that Japanese culture since then has reached a much more mainstream status, with Netflix anime, Japanese food shows, and Japanese authors seemingly popping up everywhere in bookstores, just to name a few examples. In the case of Sweden, even though Japan receives limited media coverage, and that this coverage often focuses on negative sides of Japan such as gender inequality, an ageing population and economic challenges, Japan is still often known for and associated with its cultural exports. Nye said, while cultural influence is to some extent limited by cultural trends that come and go, it is still a powerful tool. No matter how you choose to value Japan’s 4th place on the Global Soft Power Index in 2023, I think Nye’s words and the Swedish public opinion tell us that we should study Japanese cultural diplomacy more in depth.
By: Viktor Hellblom
Cover: Bagus Pangestu