Japanese Popular Culture and Soft Power

Another semester, another academic paper on one of my all time favorite topics, Japanese popular culture. This time, it deals with the relationship between Japanese popular culture and Soft Power, the ability for one country to control another country’s wants and values through non-traditional means.

By now, it really shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that my interest of Anime and Japanese popular culture extends beyond the boundaries of a mere hobby. Right now, it’s also a big, big part of my academic life. As the old adage goes: “Do what you love, love what you do, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life”.

Well, technically speaking, that’s complete bull because, believe me, writing this paper was not an easy task to accomplish. Hours of research, sleepless nights and sweat went into this paper and I’m ecstatic to say that all that effort was not in vain as I got quite a good grade for it.

As with all the other papers on my blog, the rest of this post will be sans pictures.

With that, I present to you the final draft of my work, untouched, for your reading pleasure. It can get rather technical at times, but I do hope you enjoy reading it. (^.^)



Japanese popular culture has gained significant popularity in the international market in recent years, especially in the Asian market. Such popular culture products range from pop music, television dramas, anime and manga to all the derivative merchandise that these media products spawn. The demand for and consumption of anime and other Japanese popular culture products is at an all-time high. In Singapore, for instance, the anime industry has been projected to grow 5% annually (CNN, 2010). There is also an increased awareness of Japanese popular culture thanks to the proliferation in the number of internet users in recent years. Not to mention, the opportunities for fans of Japanese popular culture to meet and purchase various merchandise has increased as well. This can be seen from the multitude of conventions and cosplay events celebrating Japanese popular culture around the world.

With this increased consumption and sales of Japanese popular culture and cultural products all over the world, the Japanese government is hoping to utilize the soft power that is brought about thorough Japanese popular culture to improve its own image and to influence the opinions of other countries such as China to gain diplomatic power. This can be seen from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ numerous initiatives to look into the connection between popular culture and diplomacy (Otmazgin 2008). However, despite the Japanese government’s faith in soft power, does Japanese popular culture actually give Japan more diplomatic and political power?

As mentioned briefly in the introduction, Joseph Nye originally invented the term ‘soft power’ in his 1991 book Bound to Lead. This term was used to explain the increasing spread and influence of American popular culture overseas. The term is most commonly defined as a non-traditional way in which a country can influence another country’s wants or its public’s values (McGray 2002) and in so doing, gaining political and diplomatic power – the traditional way being ‘hard power’ or power through military and political strength.

Many scholars have conducted research into the issue of soft power and Japanese popular culture. While not denying the popularity of Japanese popular culture overseas, David Leheny (2006) believes that the effect of Japanese popular culture on consumers is minimal and that liking Japanese popular culture does not equate to liking any other aspect of Japanese culture. This is a view that is shared by Douglas McGray (2002) as he notes that consumers “thought little of studying or working in Japan…”. Nissim Kaadosh Otmazgin (2008), however, proposes that Japanese popular culture is effective in improving the image of Japan in the eyes of popular culture consumers, but not its political influence and hold on other countries. Similarly, Peng Er Lam (2007) feels that it would not be easy for the Government to utilize soft power, given its limitations and how hard it is to connect support for Japanese cultural products and support for the state.

First hand research has also been done on the influence of Japanese popular culture on the Singaporean students by Hao Xiaoming and Teh Leng Leng (2004). However, the scope of the project was restricted to only the changing perceptions of the Japanese people and products and the demographic was limited to Singaporean students. The research did not cover fandom or perceptions of other aspects of Japanese culture, society and state.

It is agreed upon by the above mentioned scholars that Japanese popular culture does create a more favorable image of Japan or a ‘Cool Japan’, but popular culture has very little soft power when it comes to other aspects of Japanese culture, politics and diplomatic power. Some of the reasons that were cited include the lack of unique Japanese values, ideals and “Japaneseness” present within Japanese popular culture and the lack of control that the state has over these cultural products and their consumption.

The Japanese government, however, believes that there is potential in soft power. In 2007, then Minister of Foreign Affairs Aso Taro adopted Japanese popular culture as a diplomatic tool and mentioned that, “We have a grasp on the hearts of the young people in many countries…” (Lam 2007).

This paper aims to take an in-depth look at Japanese popular culture itself, its consumption and its effects to see if it actually gives Japan any soft power. Some further areas that are investigated in this paper include: What the Japanese government hopes to achieve with soft power and Japanese popular culture, the “Japaneseness”, or lack thereof, in Japanese popular culture, challenges that Japanese popular culture and soft power faces and possible benefits that Japan can yield from popular culture other than soft power.

The paper consists of a literature review focusing on materials relevant to the study of soft power. This will include academic writing on Japanese popular culture and soft power and information on the Japanese government’s interest in soft power. One of the limitations of this paper is that it is based solely on secondary sources as there is a lack of resources and time. Thus, I will not be able to conduct any primary research.

Some limitations that I faced during the research for this paper is that there was an insufficient amount of conclusive first-hand research done dealing with the link between soft power and Japanese popular culture products. There was also a lack of a clear way of defining, quantifying and measuring soft power.

1. The Traditional Definition of Soft Power

The concept of soft power itself has been subject to criticism as a concrete definition has remained somewhat elusive. Aside from the definition of soft power as described in his 1991 book Bound to Lead, in a future article, Nye defines soft power in numerous other ways as “the ability to shape the preferences of others” (p.5), “the ability to attract, and attraction often leads to acquiescence” (p.6), “A country may obtain the outcomes it wants in world politics because other countries – admiring values, emulating its example, aspiring to its level of prosperity and openness – want to follow it” (p.5) and “a key element of leadership. The power to attract – to get others to want what you want, to frame the issues, to set the agenda” (Nye 2004).

In this paper, I will be taking the definition of being able to shape a country’s wants and public values to gain political and diplomatic power as the traditional definition as it is the most commonly recognized and accepted definition by scholars.

So, in terms of this traditional definition of soft power, does Japanese popular culture in today’s world actually give the Japanese government more diplomatic power? In other words, is it able to affect “another county’s wants or its public’s values” and in so doing, translating to more diplomatic and political power for the Japanese government? The Japanese government certainly seems to think so.

1.1 The Japanese Government’s Hopes for Soft Power

Japanese popular culture: “fashion, telecommunication, entertainment and in particular the multimedia culture of anime, manga and computer and video games, including all related merchandising, collectibles and toys – became the fastest growing components and among the most successful export industries of Japan’s recession-stricken economy” (Machiyama 2004, p.15).

The government did not pay much attention to popular culture, which was already an extremely lucrative domestic industry, until the 1990s. The reasons for increased interest would be because of the realization of the economic value and increasing popularity of popular culture products. However, an even more important reason would be the strong positive reception that overseas markets had to these Japanese popular culture products (Daliot-bul 2009).

The appeals of soft power for the Japanese government are numerous. One of the main hopes for ‘Cool Japan’ is to improve Japan’s image from a country that is associated with many ‘Uncool’ images such as “lifetime employment, examination hell, rigid gender differentiation, and obsessive deference to authority” (Leheny 2006, p.222). Soft power also represents “a way for nonmilitary Japan to have an effect on global politics” by making Japan seem more “trustworthy” and, in so doing, “increasing international friendship and trust”.(Leheny 2006, p.223).

The Japanese government has already made a number of efforts and set up initiatives to capitalize on Japanese popular culture and any potential soft power that can be gained. For example, they hope to harness Japanese popular culture in order to improve its international image when threatened with a rising China power. In April 2006, Foreign Minister Aso Taro proposed that manga and anime could be the way to China’s heart and that they have a grasp on the hearts of young people in many countries, commenting on the multitude of anime shops in China. (Lam 2007) Aso also said in his policy speech to the Diet in January 2007 that he had adopted Japanese popular culture as a diplomatic tool, using anime and manga as novel instruments of global outreach and appeal.

In terms of initiatives, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) and the Ministry of Post and Telecommunication established the Japan Media Communication Center (JAMCO) which subsidizes the export of television programs to developing countries. Initiatives like the featuring of an article entitled ‘Japan Brand: How to Convey the Qualities the Nation has to Offer’ in an issue of Gaiko Foramu which discussed the role that Japanese popular culture could play in Japan’s diplomacy indicates MOFA’s increasing interest in the potential soft power that Japanese popular culture products had to offer\ (Otmazgin 2008). To increase its international competitiveness, the Japanese government introduced a new national policy in 2002 that “focuses on intangible intellectual property in the form of innovative and creative products, spearheaded by Japanese media content such as anime, manga and game software” (Daliot-bul 2009, p.248). In April of 2003, Japan Foundation’s ‘International Exchange Research Committee’ published its annual report on the prospects for Japan’s diplomacy. This report placed a heavy emphasis on the “potential of Japanese culture to draw a sympathetic ‘national image’ of Japan and assist its overseas diplomatic aims, extensively emphasizing the rising importance of new powers in today’s diplomacy, characterizing them as ‘soft power’ and ‘Gross National Cool’” (Otmazgin 2008, p.81).

The initiatives mentioned above are but some of the many moves that Japan has made and are making to explore this relatively new area of commercial export in the hopes of channeling the popularity of Japanese popular culture into diplomatic and political power. Unfortunately, it would seem that the Japanese government is also abusing the terms ‘Cool Japan’ by using them for the proposals and marketing slogans of other “unrelated government-led policies and projects” (Daliot-bul 2009). Dailot-bul also goes on to say that such an act will only result in the trivialization and exhaustion of the term.

1.2 Lack of “Japaneseness” in Japanese Popular Culture

In the past, Japanese popular culture products, such as anime, J-Pop and video games, however, are said to lack any distinct Japanese traits. This practice of culturally neutering products that were meant to be exported overseas originated after the Second World War. Producers felt that it was necessary to mask their identity to avoid the stigma that the products will ultimately have due to their legacy of war time brutality (Allison 2002). She sites the example of Sony who, during the post war period, designed their export products to be global “sekai no” as opposed to Japanese “nihonrashii” (Allison 2000). This was, according to Iwabuchi (2002), a mukokuseki quality, “products whose attractiveness for the consumer has little to do with images associated with the country of origin”, that most Japanese popular culture products carry. He also says that these popular culture products do not “market the Japanese way of life” (Iwabuchi 2002, p.55).

While not directly influenced by the Japanese producers, the mukokuseki quality and international appeal of Japanese popular culture was certainly evident in the popular 1990s American remake Power Rangers, which was originally based on a Japanese tokusatsu or special effects television show. American networks felt that changes to the show to remove its “Japaneseness”, also known as the process of Americanization, were necessary for an American audience to accept it (Allison 2006). The Japanese cultural elements were removed and scenes were re-shot with American actors. Some people in the children’s entertainment business felt that that the original was ‘too foreign’ and needed to be ‘translated’ to suit American tastes. The popular opinion at the time was that “no show with Japanese actors could achieve wide popularity in the US” (Allison 2000, p.76). Despite this removal of the “Japaneseness”, Power Rangers was a smash hit in America, outranking all other children’s television programs in the United States and becoming an international success. The “Japaneseness” is also blamed by Bandai of Japan for Sailormoon’s failure in the US as they felt that the show, which contained Japanese writings, places and food was just ‘too different’. (Allison 2000) Allison herself, however, believes that its (mis)marketing was to blame for the failure.

As these Japanese popular culture products do not depend exclusively on their “Japaneseness” for their popularity and lack unique Japanese traits and values, they have little soft power as they are not able to attract consumers of Japanese popular culture to Japan itself.

There are scholars such as Aoki Tamotsu (2001) who lend credence to this claim and deny any link between Japanese popular culture and interest in Japan, citing the example of a shrinking Japanese studies center in Europe, despite the fact that children there are watching Pokemon, a highly popular Japanese media-mix franchise consisting of games, toys and more.

One explanation for the consumers’ lack of interest in Japan would be that the consumers of such products do not even know that the items that they consume are derived from Japan.

Anne Allison (2003), however, begs to disagree. While it was indeed true that most American youths she interviewed in the 1990s did not know that Power Rangers was originally from Japan (2006), a survey that she conducted with a group of American children regarding Pokemon almost two decades later revealed that all of the children knew that Pokemon came from Japan. As Anne Allison’s survey was conducted in the later 2000s, one cannot be certain if the proliferation of internet usage has led to the greater awareness of the origin of Pokemon. In another article however, Allison (2002) also acknowledged the fact that knowing that Pokemon was from Japan was not a main reason in explaining its popularity. The main attracting factor for children and fans of Pokemon “comes down to a consumer good: a much-loved, interactive, cute play-thing” (Allison 2002, p.9) and the attractiveness of this imaginary world that Pokemon is able to create for children.

Still, I believe that there has been a change in the reasons for consumption and consumption habits of the older and newer generation of youths. Possibly due to the increase in computer and internet literacy, youths today are more active and knowledgeable about Japanese popular culture. Anne Allison (mill) notes this change in the way that Japanese programming is handled now on television in the United States. A stark contrast to the previous practice of censoring and whitewashing Japanese cultural flavor from anime, anime that is broadcasted today in America has their “Japaneseness” not only retained, but emphasized and presented as the very thing that attracts audiences. Many fans who desire the authentic unadulterated Japanese product go to the extent of studying the Japanese language in their high schools and universities. It is also worthy to note that unlike the mukokuseki popular culture of the past, the recent Japanese popular culture products such as anime are now “positioned in a detailed way within the specific Japanese cultural context” (Yoshitaka 2011, p.11) that do indeed have Japanese cultural elements such as traditions and customs within them. Then again, anime today might be becoming too Japanese. As Yoshitaka Mori continues, recent anime like The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, Lucky Star, K-On! and Puella Magi Madoka Magica do indeed contain a lot of “Japaneseness”, but they may be “too sophisticated” (Yoshitaka 2011, p.11). She argues that, while they are indeed extremely popular, these anime are only popular within a niche group of foreign anime fans or otaku. For Japanese popular culture to allow the Japanese government to wield any significant soft power, anime and Japanese popular culture must be able to appeal to a large audience.

Not only that, Allison is careful to emphasize that this increase in the interest in Japanese popular culture for its “Japaneseness” and the increased “Japaneseness” in popular culture products does not translate to an increase in soft power for Japan. She goes on to further explain this by citing the results of the reviews that she conducted with some of the anime watching audience. The most common sentiment of fans as to why they like Japanese popular culture is because ‘Japanese Cool’ is essentially different from American popular culture products and entertainment. While the youths do consume anime and other popular culture products for their “Japaneseness”, they do not do so because they find Japan itself as a “compelling culture, power, or place that gets signified” (Allison 2006, p.18). They do so simply because of its difference from American popular culture and view Japan as more of a “cool” brand that signifies this difference, nothing more.

Not to mention, this interest in Japan does not fit with the traditional definition of soft power, in the sense that it does not alter the public values nor does it give the Japanese government any diplomatic or political power.

Interestingly enough, Iwabuchi (2002) explains in his paper that cultural proximity is a big reason as to why Japanese dramas have taken hold in Taiwan, the complete opposite of Allison’s explanation of the popularity of Japanese popular culture in America. He explains that in Taiwan, American popular culture such as Hollywood movies and television shows are seen as being very foreign and Japanese dramas being relatable. As a watcher of Japanese dramas in Taiwan put it “The distance we feel between us and Japan is comfortable. Americans are complete strangers” (Iwabuchi 2002, p.67). Again, while the Taiwanese viewers can relate to Japan better, Iwabuchi does warn us that that does not make the values that they can relate to uniquely Japanese as qualities like ‘romance’ and ‘trendiness’ are culturally odorless.

Yet, in interviews conducted by Nissim Kadosh Otmazgin with Japanese popular culture fans, only two of the sixty-five interviewees (from Hong Kong, Bangkok and Seoul) suggested that the success of Japanese popular culture hinges on the products’ embodiment of an ‘Asian cultural substance’, which the local audiences can relate to. (Otmazgin 2007) Instead, some of the main claims as to why they liked Japanese popular culture products was because they felt that Japanese popular culture products were “‘creative’, ‘interesting’, ‘funny’ and of ‘high quality’ (in comparison to the other American, Korean or local made products)” (Otmazgin 2007, p.94). This finding is consistent with Lisa Leung Yuk Ming’s (2002) finding as her interviewees, from Hong Kong, found Japanese dramas to be “generally better produced, with better developed story lines” and their “high quality compared to similar Hong Kong productions” (Leung 2002).

Another possible reason raised by Iwabuchi for the positive reception of Japanese dramas in Taiwan is because they see Japan, or more specifically, Japan as portrayed in popular culture, as mirror or reflection of their own country and lifestyle in the future. To the viewers of Japanese dramas in Taiwan, “things ‘American’ are dreams to be yearned for and conceptual forms to be pursued, but things ‘Japanese are examples to be emulated and commodities to be acquired” (Iwabuchi 2002, p.72).

The above point is supported by Nakano Yoshiko and Wu Yongmei (2003) in their research that was conducted in five different cities in China. Like the Taiwanese, many Chinese also see the Japan that is portrayed in Japanese dramas and popular culture as a “mirror and crystal ball” (Leheny 2006, p.230).

So, in a sense, because these people see Japan as a country to emulate, a possible future and symbol of modernity that they can strive to achieve, this theory does prove to a small extent that Japanese popular culture does have soft power in the sense that the Japanese dramas were able to “shape the preferences” (Nye 2004) of the watchers in Taiwan and China. Still, this does not give Japan any increase in diplomatic or political power.

1.3 Other Challenges and Limitations Facing Japanese Popular Culture and Soft Power

As argued by Bruce Russett (1985), America’s popular culture products in the 1980s such as blue jeans and rock and roll gave America soft power as the people from other countries who were consuming these popular culture items wanted to emulate America. But it was not only the style and fashion of America that they wanted to follow. They also wanted to emulate the values that these American popular culture products embodied – values such as freedom, liberalism, openness and tolerance of other cultures. These values and cultural synonymous that create an American identity, according to David Leheny (2006), are what truly gave American popular culture products its soft power.

Peng Er Lam (2007) claims that Japan itself does not have any universal values and ideals as opposed to the US in which its values are desired and globally accepted – values such as the ones mentioned above. Peng Er Lam cites Japan’s “poor treatment of its ethnic minorities (Japan-born Koreans and the Burakumins) and memories of wartime atrocities among the Chinese and Koreans” as an example.

The above point is also shared by Joseph Nye as he states that a country that is likely to gain soft power in the information age must be one “whose dominant culture and ideas are closer to prevailing global norms (which now emphasize liberalism, pluralism, and autonomy)” (Nye 2002, p.6). Otmazgin, however goes one step further and says that the “idea of culture as carrying and disseminating subliminal values and ideals is strikingly missing in the Japanese discourse” and that “there is no obvious intention to disseminate subliminal Japanese values or ideals through popular culture” (Otmazgin 2007 p.82).

To add on to that, Otmazgin (2007) says that one weakness of Japanese soft power is that it is up to the consumer to decide how and if they want to be affected by Japanese popular culture. Otmazgin, in his research, concludes that admiration of Japanese society and culture is “not the result of conscientious coercion on the part of the state, but is rather cultivated through consumerist choice” (Otmazgin 2007, p.97) He goes on to say that any effect that Japanese popular culture has on its audience is not within the control of the Japanese government and that it does not create any new ‘spheres of influence’ for the state, hence, getting soft power from Japanese popular culture products is not practical. Asahi also stated that “only other countries can decide what soft attributes will make Japan attractive as an ally” (Lam 2007, p.355), coinciding with Otmazgin’s view.

Other limitations of Japanese soft power brought up by Peng Er Lam (2007) include how easy it is to undermine any soft power that the Japanese government has managed to amass with clumsy and insensitive behaviors and statements made by nationalistic leaders. He cites the example of Prime Minister Abe Shinzo who denied that Tokyo’s wartime government’s usage of Asian women as sex slaves. This could result in the loss of any of its ‘attractiveness’ that Japan has built up. In another case, anti-Japanese sentiments erupted in China, South Korea and Singapore over the acceptance of a school textbook in Japan that ignores its wartime atrocities (Otmazgin 2008).

Dal Yong Jin (2003) believes that Japanese popular culture does not have any significant cultural power as, at the time of his research, there have only been a small number of super-popular cultural products in foreign countries, namely Sailor Moon and Pokemon. He then brings up three significant challenges that Japanese popular culture faces.

Firstly, due to Japan’s past of wartime brutality, colonialism and military occupation, Japanese popular culture products have found it difficult to gain acceptance in counties like “Taiwan (population 22.1 million) and Korea (47.3 million), (which) were former Japanese colonies where, until the 1990s, policies against Japanese cultural products were in place.” (Nakano 2002, p.234).

Not only do the policies affect the ability of Japanese popular culture products to penetrate these countries, some people find it difficult to separate Japanese popular culture products from Japan’s past actions. In an interview conducted by Hiroshi Aoyagi with a Filipino female, she stated that Japan needs to reflect on their past actions during the Second World War so as not to make the same mistake with the Cool Japan initiative (Aoyagi 2010). Indeed, there have also been similar fears of cultural imperialism expressed by South East Asians, “especially those who are not willing to forget history” (Aoyagi 2010, p.10) .

As mentioned in the previous sections, the Japanese government is hoping to use Japanese popular culture as a means of improving its image in East Asia and to rid itself of the sigma of its wartime actions. However, this can easily backfire if ‘Cool Japan’ were to become too political as Japan would then have to deal with an “uproar sooner or later against (a) not so small portion of approximately 30 million overseas Chinese” (Aoyagi 2010, p.10).

However, in interviews with youths from Hong Kong and Bangkok, Otmazgin found out that Japan’s occupation period played a very small and insignificant role in the way that they viewed Japanese popular culture and Japan. In Seoul, youths “chose to describe Japan in both positive and negative terms, differentiating between their criticism of the Japan state and their admiration of contemporary aspiring aspects of Japanese society and culture” (Otmazgin 2007, p.95).
This difference in opinions expressed here could be related to the difference between the ages of Aoyagi and Otmazgin’s interviewees. Of course, this could also be a result of a geographical difference or a difference in personal opinions. All in all, while Japan’s atrocities have not been forgotten nor overlooked, there seems to be a consensus that the youths of today do not associate Japanese popular culture with Japanese politics and the Japanese state. While this might be a good thing for the spread and acceptance of Japanese popular culture it is precisely because the youths view politics and popular culture as separate that Japan does not get any political or diplomatic power from popular culture.

The second point brought up by Dal Yong Jin is that the Japanese language has lost “its grip as the lingua franca of the region” (Jin 2003, p.341). He notes that language popularity and fluency is tied together with the exportability of cultural products and says that the younger generation prefers to study Chinese and English due to the fact that such languages have more economic viability (Jin 2003). Douglas McGray (2002) concurs by saying that “most foreigners will never penetrate the barriers of language…”. (McGray 2002, p.9) Allison (2006) is quick to point out that this might be changing in recent times as the more dedicated fans of Japanese popular culture are actually going out of their way to learn the language in order to enjoy the unadulterated product straight from Japan.

Finally, the last major challenge that Japanese popular culture faces, according to Dal Yong Jin (2003), is the dominance of America’s popular culture products in East Asia. This might definitely have been the case during the time of his research. However, as evidenced from the research done by Iwabuchi and Lisa Leung Yuk Ming, the cultural power is slowly starting to shift away from America as more and more Asians start to watch more Japanese Dramas and anime.

While the situation has improved significantly from the time of his research, it is undeniable that the above challenges do hinder Japanese popular culture from being even more popular and widely accepted than it already is.

2. Soft Power? The Positive Effects of Popular Culture

As discussed in the previous sections, when defined in the traditional sense, the link between Japanese popular culture and soft power is tenuous at best and is still up for debate – the lack of hard evidence, conclusive research and a multitude of varying opinions being partly to blame. But that is not to say that Japanese popular culture has absolutely no positive effects for Japan.

One of the most immediate positive effects of the increased popularity and consumption of Japanese popular culture is its economic benefits. It is a known fact that Japan is the world’s second biggest producer of content in culture (Otmazgin 2007). As quoted from the Marubeni Economic Research Institute, Japan’s global cultural export value, including “the media, copyrights, publishing, fashion, and other related entertainments and fine art has tripled in the last 11 years” (Otmazgin 2007, 79), totaling as much as 10.5 trillion Japanese yen. This is no mean feat as Japan’s manufacturing sector’s exports only increased by 20 percent during the same period. This is especially crucial in helping Japan’s “recession-stricken economy” (Machiyama 2004 p.15).

Next, as we have already discussed, the Japanese government wants to create a favorable image of Japan, or ‘Cool Japan’, through Japanese popular culture. While definite effects of Japanese popular culture on Japan’s diplomatic and political power are unclear, it is undoubtedly creating a more favorable image of Japan itself. Regardless of whether “Japaneseness” exists in Japanese popular culture and whether or not audiences are consuming Japanese popular culture for its “Japaneseness”, it is an undeniable fact that audiences are now more aware than ever that the entertainment they consume originates from Japan. To many youth audiences, the simple fact that Japan is the producer of the content that they enjoy makes Japan ‘cool’ in their eyes. As one of Allison’s interviewees, a ten year old boy, told her, “Japan is cool because it is the producer of cool things for American kids: Nintendo games, Sony Walkman and Pokemon”. (Allison 2002) She notes that even though the idea of Japan is disconnected from the games and products that they consume, many of these children are showing a greater interest in Japan. Some of them even saying that “they now want to visit Japan or learn the language or study more about it in school” (Allison 2000).

This finding is supported by Otmazgin’s interviewees as they have also stated that their exposure and consumption of Japanese popular culture products have interested some interviewees in other areas of Japan such as food, customs, sports and fashion. Many also said that they would like to visit Japan. Fabian Jintae Froese and Yasuyuki Kishi (2011) conducted first hand research to find out if media exposure affected the attractiveness of prospective employers. A survey was done on a group of 2400 university students from six Asian countries, South Korea, China, Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, and Philippines. The results they obtained indicated that media exposure had a significant impact on applicant attraction. For instance, those who had “more Japanese exposure were more attracted to Japanese prospective employees” (Froese and Kishi 2011, p. 16).

While this is definitely not indicative of an increase in political and diplomatic power, this improved image of Japan has the potential to increase the number of tourists and foreign workers going to Japan, which will be of significant aid to the struggling Japanese economy.

Still, the Japanese government hopes that Japanese popular culture can increase its diplomatic power. Whilst we have seen that Japanese popular culture itself does not inherently contain nor produce soft power, the Japan Foundation stresses that such cultural and educational exchange programs are important for Japan’s diplomacy and that the improving of its “national image” can strengthen its global hand (Leheny 2006). However, as Otmazgin put it, “This (distribution of new images of Japan) is effective in attributing Japan with a new, friendlier appearance in the region, but its tangible use to wield political influence is doubtful” (Otmazgin 2007, p.97).

3. Conclusion

Even though Japanese popular culture is exceedingly popular overseas, by comparing and contrasting various secondary sources and first-hand researches conducted by scholars on the topic, I have shown that Japanese popular culture has very little soft power in the traditional sense of the definition – meaning that popular culture translates to very little diplomatic and political power for Japan.

This could be attributed to the fact that the consumers of Japanese popular culture do not think of Japan as they consume said products, whether it is due to the lack of “Japaneseness” in Japanese popular culture or a disconnect between Japanese popular culture products and Japan itself.

This lack of soft power in Japanese popular culture products can also be explained by the challenges and limitations that said products and soft power face when being exported to other countries. These limitations include the absence of any uniquely Japanese values within Japanese popular culture products and the resistance that is met by Japanese popular culture products in countries whose people have a feeling of animosity towards Japan due to Japan’s past atrocities.

Yet, despite all of this, the youth of today are paying more and more attention to Japan and consuming more and more Japanese popular culture products. This could possibly be the result of a change in the consumption habits of youths – consuming Japanese popular culture because they find it culturally different or similar, depending on the country.

In conclusion, I can say that while there is little diplomatic and political power that can be gained from popular culture, its massive popularity is certainly beneficial for Japan. Not only does the increased consumption lead to an increase in export revenue, the improved image of Japan as a ‘cool’ creator of entertainment products has been attracting tourists and foreign workers which can help to bolster its struggling economy.

(Word Count: 5,638)



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7 Responses to Japanese Popular Culture and Soft Power

  1. alexeon says:

    This was an incredibly well written paper on the political effects of anime and games. Very nice. It seems soft power is an early attempt at memetic control. Maybe this will be looked back on in the future as an early example of such.

    What exactly are you studying that requires you (and allows you to) write a paper on this topic, though?

    It’s great to see this blog still alive. Good to see you back, Actar!

  2. Actar says:

    @ alexeon: Thanks so much for the compliments! (^.^) While it was a b**** to write, I’ll admit that I had fun and I learned quite a lot from the research process.

    I don’t reveal too much info about myself because I try not to mix my real-life with my online one. But, I can say that, right now, I’m majoring in Japanese Studies in my University. (^.^)

  3. Lizette says:

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  4. Shannon says:

    Undeniably believe that which you said. Your favorite justification appeared to be on the internet the easiest thing to be aware of.
    I say to you, I certainly get irked while people consider worries that
    they just do not know about. You managed to hit the nail upon the top
    as well as defined out the whole thing without having side-effects , people could take a signal.
    Will probably be back to get more. Thanks

  5. Marco Pellitteri says:

    I have appreciated your paper very much.
    If you have time, please take a look at this book: http://www.iupress.indiana.edu/product_info.php?products_id=806483
    It might be interesting for your research: in it I also talk of soft mukokuseki, from a European standpoint. I also propose counter-arguments about the very notion that Japanese pop culture (in particular manga and anime) are mukokuseki, as other scholar maintain.

  6. Hiroshi says:

    This is Hiroshi Aoyagi, and I enjoyed your paper very much! Significant issues and perspectives that concern JPC is so thoughtfully compared and brilliantly summarized here! Thanks for a good read!

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