Diverse Dimensions of Japan’s Soft Power

Abstract: In recent decades, the rise of Asian nations has been felt globally. East Asian nations namely South Korea, Singapore, Japan and China have been on the rise ever since they pitched in soft power assets. Soft power can be described as a power of attraction that breaches territories and permeates through individuals of varied cultures and traditions. Therefore; the soft power strategy involves using charm and attraction instead of coercion to achieve desired results. Soft power predominantly underlines foreign policy, cultural tempt and political utility and conventions. A significant reason behind the rise of Asian nations, is partly due to their investment in soft power. While western nations have invested longer in soft power initiatives, Asian countries have followed the path only recently. The write-up will explore the various aspects of Japan’s soft power initiatives.


The way for culture to thrive is through a prosperous economy. A poor nation must focus on developing itself first since it cannot afford the luxury to enjoy a thriving culture. Nations like South Korea and Japan are not military but rather economic powers. Korea and Japan were both destroyed by strenuous wars. Japan which was once a powerhouse of military might had been turned to ruins by the end of the second world war. Henceforth it developed its economy, invested in exports and in just a few decades it ascended to the realm of first world with high standards of living. In the wake of the 1990s (referring to the Lost Decades and the asset price bubble collapse – source included below) Japan has reportedly been facing stagnation and yet Japan has been steadily initializing its economy and is a force to reckon with today primarily due to its technological advancements. On the contrary, it is also principally in touch with its traditional culture i.e. while being a traditional nation it embraces modernity with open hands. This exceptional coalescence is the root to Japan’s peculiarity. Japan has taken strenuous efforts to create a synergy between its long-established routes and modern pop culture. The Japanese government has actively promoted overseas cultural attractions and has encouraged the spread of soft power assets globally, the popularity of which has perfused into the young folks.


Pop culture and beyond


Japan has exported, marketed, and consumed a lot of popular culture items over the past 20 years across East and Southeast Asia. Major cities in the East Asian region offer a particularly extensive range of these products, making them obvious and easily accessible. For instance, many Hong Kong fashion magazines are Japanese, either in the original language or Cantonese. Most comic books sold in East Asia are Japanese comics, which are regularly translated into the regional dialect of South Korea, Thailand, Indonesia, and Taiwan. Licensed and unlicensed toys and stationery goods in the markets of any average Asian metropolis have images of the Japanese animated characters Hello Kitty, Ampan Man, and Pokémon. The most well-known in its genre is Japanese animation, which is typically dubbed or subbed. Urban consumers’ perceptions of Japan are highly influenced by Japanese popular culture industries.

Japanese pop culture can take many different forms, including anime, manga, cosplay, J-pop idol bands, and video games. Douglas McGray first used the phrase “Gross National Cool” in reference to Japan in 2002 after concluding that the country has re-emerged as a cultural rather than economic power. The idea of “Cool Japan” is a representation of Japan’s position as a superpower in terms of culture. To make sure that Japan’s cultural attraction transcends national boundaries, the Cool Japan Fund was established as a public-private organisation. The Fund recently received official recognition from the Japanese government in 2013.public-private organisation.


There has been a deluge of scholarly work as a result of the popularity of Japanese popular culture in East and Southeast Asia over the previous two decades. Although the subject is still largely unexplored in political science and literature on international relations, it is a mainstay of anthropology, ethnography, and cultural studies. Most works have emphasised specific instances, highlighting how audiences respond to cultural exposure in relation to the global-local discourse (Alison 2000, Martinez 1998, Treat 1996, Craig 2000, Ishii 2001, Mori 2004, Iwabuchi 2004, Otake and Hosokawa 1998). The potential of the recently established Japanese cultural marketplaces in East and Southeast Asia has not yet been thoroughly empirically supported by a single study, and these issues have not been explored within a regional paradigm.


The global popularity of manga comics and anime series like Naruto, One Piece, Captain Tsubasa, Doraemon, Dragon Ball Z, Astro Boy, and Full Metal Alchemist has skyrocketed throughout East and South East Asia and even in South Asian nations like India and in the west. Even the Indonesian branch of the most well-known Japanese pop idol group, JKT48, takes its name from Jakarta. In actuality, the rise of video games like Resident Evil, Final Fantasy, Pac-Man, and Mario has been referred to as the “golden age of video gaming.”


Although pop culture serves as the primary face of Japan’s soft power assets, one of the most important instruments of Japan’s soft power, outside of cultural diplomacy, is the provision of Official Development Assistance (ODA). No other nation provides more ODA to developing nations than the United States. One of the guiding concepts of Japan’s aid strategy, according to Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro, is “to promote developing countries’ self-help efforts.”


Culture and Cuisine


Regarding the Culture sub-index, Japan leapt eight spots to reach 6th place according to Soft Power 30 comparisons. (Year?) As evidence of Japan’s knowledge of how to leverage its wide-ranging cultural assets, high-profile international events proved to be a blessing. Japan’s soft power reserves were strengthened and built up during the 2019 Rugby World Cup and G20 Summit. Japan’s efforts to maintain a sustainable and eco-friendly atmosphere for the 2020 Summer Olympics and Paralympic Games have already received favourable attention. Having proven to be an extraordinarily useful tool for diplomacy, Japan has utilized sports diplomacy to its advantage to showcase contemporary Japanese culture around the world.


Japan holds great pride in its traditional culture and these traditions have led to the institutionalization of training schools in traditional cultural practices such as yaido, sumo wrestling, theatres, shakuhachi, geisha and maiko culture, rakugo etc. The popularity of these practices has been discussed greatly by Japanese culture enthusiasts. Additionally, Japan invests a lot of resources in establishing soft power institutions like its Japan Houses. Featuring the best of Japanese culture, these new cultural centres have opened up to provide exposure to the Japanese culture. As one of its three houses, London is being chosen as the host while the other two are in LA and Sao Paulo. Cultural links between Japan and other nations can be greatly strengthened through Japan Houses. This is a great initiative for educating people about things they may not be familiar with about Japan. For cooperation, growth, and security, the most long-term impact will be created by people-to-people programs such as JET.


At the root of cuisine, lies a cultural imagination and it includes practices and preferences that are widely shared by members of society when preparing and eating food. Henceforth, there exists a loose agreement on a culinary template that can be described as something definable and distinguishable, something that is more-or-less known in terms of its qualities and boundaries. Japan’s food culture lays a lot of emphasis on seasons, even amidst a globalized food system.


In contrast to the various foods that the Japanese generally consume which are not essentially regarded as “Japanese,” the culinary vision of a unified and consistent Japanese cuisine does not exist in a vacuum. Of course, a large portion of the nation’s traditional food shares essential similarities with other environmentally similar regions of Asia that were once a part of the Chinese civilization’s extended zone. Many of the staple ingredients in Japanese cuisine—such as rice, soybeans, tea, and sesame oil—as well as the cultivation and preparation methods—such as irrigating rice fields, fermenting soybeans to make soy sauce, making tofu or noodles—as well as the styles of utensils, cooking methods, and flavourings—come from the Asian continent and bear striking similarities to the diverse national cuisines of East and Southeast Asia.


In recent years Japanese cuisine has escalated beyond and across the entirety of Asia. Earlier people would trace Japanese cuisine primarily to sushi. However, exposure to Japanese cuisine has helped spread a variety of Japanese dishes across Asia ranging from flavours (umami) to ingredients (miso, natto etc), styles and culinary expertise. The 21st century has seen the rise of fusion cuisines i.e., the fusion of flavours and styles of different cuisines and Japanese food enthusiasts have been developing different fusion cuisine outlets around Asia. India has been potentially influenced by China in terms of cuisine; nonetheless, in 2020 the Japanese embassy in New Delhi hosted an event, “Evening with Japanese Food” to highlight Japanese cuisine and the potential for investment in this sector to take advantage of prospects in India. Henceforth such initiatives have piqued an interest in Japanese culture and food in India. Additionally, this has been fuelled by efforts on the side of Japanese companies to develop a more comprehensive grasp of the Indian market as well as exposure of Indian tourists to Japan. As a result, Indians are moving away from purchasing quality Japanese products and toward consuming Japanese culture.


Language and Education


The ability to communicate through language makes speakers of the same language potentially connected to one another, among other things. Any shared language can foster a sense of belonging among its speakers. When a new sense of community s needed to be conjured, the ability of a language to create a relationship amongst its users has frequently been used on purpose.


Around 126 million people in 18 different countries speak Japanese. About 99% of people who speak Japanese as a first language are natives of Japan. Much of the remaining people reside in Brazil (mainly in the states of So Paulo and Paraná) and the United States (particularly in California and Hawaii). Japanese embassies all around the world have taken significant efforts in holding seminars and events to spread the Japanese language. Soft power diplomacy was encouraged in initiated in Vietnam by the National Language Project 2020 initiated by the Vietnamese Government in association with the Japan Foundation. The Japan Foundation in India recently held the online Swagatam programme to invite schools all over India to experience the Japanese language and culture. Japanese language schools and degree programmes have been established in major cities to spread the language vehemently across the expanse of East and South Asia. The Japanese Language and Proficiency Test (JLPT) is held every year around July and December in the host country and overseas to determine the Japanese language proficiency of individuals who wish to learn the language.


Several publications such as the Murakami series, Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji, Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s Rashomon, Francesc Miralles and Hector Garcia’s Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life, Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale, Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country, and other such reads belonging to a plethora of genres have been successful in grabbing readers on the first page.

The Japanese government is currently enhancing its international standing in a significant way. Japanese Exchange and Teaching Programme (JET) provides international graduates with the opportunity to teach in Japan as one of the major soft power initiatives Japan has invested billions in. Recent research suggests that Japan’s soft power has increased tremendously as a result of the Programme. Due to Japan’s significant investment, thousands of people have become fans of the country as a result of the program. A program such as JET fosters people-to-people contact, which is crucial.


One of the most influential agencies in recent years has been serving as a prime soft power asset source since the 1930s. An association of reformist Japanese educators who were drawn to Nichiren Buddhism founded the Soka Gakkai. Tsunesaburo Makiguchi (1871–1944), the organization’s founder and first president, was passionate about enabling people to live happy, fulfilling lives. He was imprisoned by the militarist Japanese government during World War II together with his protege Josei Toda (1900–58) for criticising its policies. After inheriting Toda’s vision, Daisaku Ikeda (1928-) transformed the group into a global movement for culture, education, and peace. The Soka Gakkai preserves a spiritual lineage that began with Shakyamuni about 2,500 years ago and was perpetuated by Buddhist teachers in India, China, and Japan before finding its most comprehensive representation in the teachings of Nichiren (1222–82).


The SGI engages in initiatives to address global challenges by raising public awareness and submitting suggestions and ideas to the UN, working with the UN, NGOs, and other stakeholders. Some of the organization’s main areas of work include peace and disarmament, gender equality and women’s empowerment, education for climate and sustainable development action, humanitarian relief and crisis risk reduction, and human rights education. Currently there are Soka Gakkai members in 192 nations and territories, and there are 90 registered constituent groups. Each neighbourhood group engages in activities while adhering to a shared daily practice of Buddhism in an effort to appreciate cultural variety. Soka Gakkai thus promotes a culture of peace and its long-lasting legacy is moderately making inroads globally.


Soft power is a deliberate, focused, and highly prioritized effort by the Japanese government to take advantage of its popularity among youth who are interested in Japanese trends, modern or traditional, worldwide in order to mould a more sympathetic image in the host country for Japan. Soft power assets continue to provide Japan with considerable global influence despite its decline in certain aspects. Japan took overriding steps to host several international summits in 2019 and 2020. In its closing communique, the G20 leaders reaffirmed their commitment to open markets and free trade, resulting in Japan hosting its first G20 summit earlier in 2019. It might sound banal, but reaching an agreement on such matters is no mean feat in the current political climate.


Oishe Ghosh