Japan's Cultural Diplomacy, with Warren A. Stanislaus

Aug 28, 2018

According to Warren Stanislaus Japan's more proactive approach to public diplomacy in recent years is fueled by real concern that if it doesn't take the initiative in managing its image, "it leaves an inviting gap for Beijing or Seoul to step in and create a narrative of Japan—one that focuses on carrying historical baggage into the present or counter territorial claims—and thus hindering Tokyo's ability to maneuver on the diplomatic stage."

This interview with Warren Stanislaus was conducted by email. An expert on Japan's cultural diplomacy, Stanislaus is currently a PhD Candidate at Oxford University and a visiting researcher in the Soft Power Program at Tama University's Center for Rule-Making Strategies in Tokyo. He splits his time between Japan and the UK.

DEVIN STEWART: What is Japan's goal with its public diplomacy strategy?

WARREN STANISLAUS: I think the best way to describe Japan's public diplomacy (PD) strategy of recent years is a "proactive approach." The shift from what has been considered as a more tacit form of message transmission to what the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) in its latest Diplomatic Bluebook describes as "strongly communicating Japan's views," can almost be neatly aligned with the return of Shinzō Abe for his second stint as prime minister in 2012.

Yes, some of Abe's personal views can be seen as a driver of this trend, but beyond the individual, there is a broader conviction among officials and policymakers in Tokyo that Japan needs to regain the front foot in determining its nation brand and the way it is perceived by foreign audiences. Feeding this sense of urgency is a real concern that if Japan doesn't take the initiative in managing its image, then it leaves an inviting gap for Beijing or Seoul to step in and create a narrative of Japan—one that focuses on carrying historical baggage into the present or counter territorial claims—and thus hindering Tokyo's ability to maneuver on the diplomatic stage.

Beyond the political arena there are certainly economic drivers. Tokyo believes that its soft power contents and the "Japan brand" can be better translated into economic gains and thus leveraged as part of the Abe administration's grand revitalization strategy.

In 2015, the same year as the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, MOFA received a massive $500 million budget increase to amplify Japan's voice in global discussions, especially those of national interest. Specifically, the three core aims are to communicate a correct understanding of Japan, share the richness of Japan's diversity, and cultivate an understanding and support for Japan. That budget boost has been maintained in succeeding years. We should consider this as Tokyo making a long-term commitment to increasing the country's global agenda-setting capabilities, and less as an opportunistic 2020 Olympics public relations (PR) campaign.

DEVIN STEWART: How does Japan want to shape global public opinion?

WARREN STANISLAUS: Well I see two key trends within Japan's public diplomacy push. The first is targeting informal networks of power. In order to increase Japan's presence and take a lead in influencing global opinion, Tokyo has identified that it must do more to go beyond formal track-one approaches to diplomacy and better leverage multi-track engagements. This means greater investment into expanding relationships with international media outlets, think tanks, and other agenda-setters to get Japan's message in the public eye faster and more frequently.

The second trend is characterized by a significant shift in Tokyo's approach to cultural leadership. Japan displaying confidence in its cultural exports is certainly nothing new. Over the past decade Tokyo's nation branding strategy has centered on "Cool Japan"—a campaign to capitalize on the global spread of pop and subculture contents such as anime, manga music, and movies. The initiatives have been criticized both domestically and internationally for their lack of effectiveness and the meddling of bureaucrats. Cool Japan has very much underscored the limits of soft power.

The focus on J-pop and subculture has also inadvertently led to Japan often being presented in a one-dimensional manner—as the land of cute animated characters and themed cafes. This helps us to better contextualize and give a fuller interpretation to what the Japanese government means when it states that it intends to share a "correct understanding of Japan."

So what is Tokyo's answer? Well, the Japan House (JH) initiative has emerged as the new centerpiece of Tokyo's PD strategy. In the past year, three cultural centers have been established in London, Los Angeles, and São Paulo to showcase Japan's creativity and innovation. Initial concerns that the Japan House would become a "propaganda house" to push Japan's stance on regional disputes have all but been quashed by the initiative's cultural turn. The JH represents a shift in direction from the Cool Japan era image of pop culture paradise, while at the same time seeks to go beyond stereotypical images of traditional Japanese culture.

The JH has drafted in some of Japan's most influential creatives to design a space and curate content that presents Japan as a leader of quality and refinement. Japan's tastes and values can set the global standard for art, architecture, gastronomy, design, lifestyle trends, and technologies that impact and define everyday life. I would argue that this is perhaps the most salient shift. Previous efforts such as Cool Japan were reactive and determined by the apparent popularity of certain aspects of Japanese culture.

We could sum it up as creating an environment to give Japan fans more of what they love. Japan's new approach under the Abe administration is radically different. The JH and other contemporaneous initiatives under the auspices of MOFA (such as the Japan Brand Program, which over the past few years has sent "ambassadors" who are leading experts at the cutting edge of their respective fields to share their work overseas) are premised on the assumption that Japanese culture is not only intriguing and "unique," but that Japan can serve as a standard-bearer for the 21st century for others to follow.

DEVIN STEWART: How effective are Japan's cultural diplomacy efforts?

WARREN STANISLAUS: I believe that, at least in the short term, Japan's cultural diplomacy efforts will benefit the nation in terms of the potential economic gains that have been set out as part of the strategic goals. If we take promoting inbound tourism as an example, now one of MOFA's public diplomacy and strategic communication goals, in the past few years Japan has been experiencing an unprecedented rise in the number of foreign visitors. In 2017 over 28.7 million overseas visitors were recorded, double the figure from 2014. Tourist spending also climbed to a record $40 billion. Japan has set ambitious numerical targets—2020 at 40 million visitors and 2030 at 60 million. Tokyo has identified tourism as a way to fuel economic growth and also provide a much-needed contribution to regional revitalization efforts.

Investment in expanding cultural centers, events, media exposure, and expert visits, examples of which I touched on earlier, is certainly timely with the upcoming 2019 Rugby World Cup and 2020 Tokyo Olympic & Paralympic games. In fact if you look at the example of London 2012, the British government successfully focused on achieving a "post-games dividend" of an increase in tourists across the nation by promoting the cities and countryside outside of the host city London in the lead-up to the games.

Highlighting the diverse appeal of Japan's regional areas is exactly one of the core aims of MOFA's Japan House and therefore I would expect a similar increase in tourists both before and after Tokyo 2020.

Another big plus for Japan's current efforts at reaching foreign audiences is its "All Japan" approach, or coordination across ministries and sectors working towards the same goal. In terms of leveraging global interest in Japanese food, fashion, and other cultural exports for economic gain, this certainly addresses one of the big weaknesses of the uncoordinated Cool Japan years. Now for example in London you have the government-funded Japan House as a cultural hub to experience Japan, the Ichiba Japanese food center financed in part by a public-private fund to taste Japan, and JETRO's JFOODO (Japan External Trade Organization's Japan Food Product Overseas Promotion Center) project to further promote a culture of sake consumption beyond Japanese restaurants, as well as ensuring that Japanese local products are competitive exports to the UK. Japan is approaching from all angles to increase its presence in your mind and on your plate.

In terms of swaying public opinion overseas to support Japan's foreign policy goals, it remains to be seen how effective the JH will be at seamlessly gliding between lectures on the art of bonsai and programs that justify the government's heavy investment and MOFA's role as overseer of the project. Another challenge will be the longevity of the JH project. So far the centers have been very successful at attracting visitors. In just a year the São Paulo JH attracted over 750,000 visitors, five times the original target, and the London JH welcomed over 3,800 on its opening day.

JH is doing well to ride on a wave of interest in Japanese cultural exports and the extra attention that Japan is receiving in the lead-up to the 2020 Olympic games. But the initial four-year budget for the JH ends in 2019, and with the JH in London for example opening just this past June, later than expected, it is a rush against the clock to ensure that this is a financially viable and sustainable initiative. The JH will have to balance the dual demands of maintaining relevance to the host communities and achieving Japan's PD goals. Placing deep roots will perhaps be easier in São Paulo where there is already a large Japanese Brazilian community.

DEVIN STEWART: How does Japan's strategy compare with China's?

WARREN STANISLAUS: I would like to speak on the specific situation in the UK, which I think also gives us a broader insight into one of the key differences in PD strategy between the countries.

In accordance with the aim to position Japan as a cultural standard setter, the JH London is located in the upmarket location of Kensington High Street just minutes from the Design Museum and close to the Natural History Museum, Victoria & Albert Museum, and Harrods. The exhibitions, events, shop, and fine-dining restaurant all fit within this image of a highbrow and refined Japan. The JH London is targeted more towards a small section of "cultural influencers" such as art and design enthusiasts, city professionals with an eye for the latest trends, business executives looking to entertain their clients, and millennial foodies that are willing to spend more for a unique experience.

If the Cool Japan era was characterized by pop culture for the masses, the JH represents a pivot to "high-end public diplomacy." This is inseparable from the conviction among opinion leaders in Tokyo that a new pricing strategy should go hand-in-hand with Japan's cultural diplomacy. For example, in London, JETRO is attempting to create a culture around sake so that it can be paired like wine with different foods, and priced like a fine wine.

In contrast to Tokyo's high-end public diplomacy, Beijing is targeting the grassroots. China's Confucius Institute is leading the charge with significant investments in expanding Mandarin learning in British schools. For example, the Confucius Institute partnership with University College London's Institute of Education is both training Mandarin teachers and building connections with local schools across the UK to dispatch their teachers. The partnership's latest collaborative initiative with the British Council, the "Mandarin Excellence Programme," seeks to provide intensive Mandarin instruction in schools to get 5,000 young Brits on track to fluency by 2020. Financial support is being made available to state-funded secondary schools to join the program and participating schools are able to share knowledge and best practice across the network.

Providing such funding allows Mandarin and Chinese culture to reach communities that otherwise would not have the opportunity to learn about China and simultaneously addresses one of the UK's key domestic challenges of access in education. With the UK government highlighting its relationship with China as vital to Britain's future prosperity, Beijing is working alongside institutions in the UK to provide the funds and resources to empower future generations of Britons across the socio-economic spectrum.

Perhaps in the near future we will see Mandarin as a main staple of the language curriculum in British schools. Beijing is meeting the needs of the UK and tying the futures of the two countries together at the grassroots level through a long-term commitment. However, in the UK, as is the case in other countries where the Confucius Institutes are expanding university partnerships, there are some concerns around Beijing's influence and academic freedom. Earlier this year the Conservative Party's Human Rights Commission conducted an inquiry into the Confucius Institutes to probe the risks of deeper engagement.

It is highly unlikely that Japan's activities will face anything like the same scrutiny. But in comparing the strategies, Tokyo would do well to go beyond activities that focus on communicating a favorable image of Japan as a cultural leader and consider how it could use the Japan Houses and other PD initiatives to contribute to the needs of the host societies.

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