Making the Most of Cultural Diplomacy


In December 2011 I was invited to be a panelist at a Paris symposium on cultural diplomacy hosted by the Institut français, a new organization that is expected to play a central role in France’s cultural diplomacy. The Institut français came into being early in 2011 following the merger of CultureFrance, an organ of the Ministry of Culture and Communication, with the external relations and cultural affairs section of the Foreign Ministry. One of the distinctive things about the new organization is its status as a public agency known as an EPIC (établissement public à caractère industriel et commercial). In addition to the support they receive from the national budget, these bodies can also accept funding from the private sector. Speakers at the symposium included people working on the front lines of France’s cultural education and foreign affairs policy, as well as leading political figures including Frédéric Mitterrand, minister of culture and communication, and Alain Juppé, minister of foreign affairs. France is gearing up to reenergize its cultural diplomacy as a major cultural power.

Cultural Diplomacy Short of Both People and Money

In Japan, by contrast, there is little recognition of the importance of cultural diplomacy. This is clear from recent public discussions on the subject. Why is it that so many Japanese seem unable to grasp the value of using cultural power in foreign policy? Recently there has been a debate on reforming Japan’s independent administrative organizations. One idea, apparently, is to merge the four institutions engaged in international activities: JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency), the Japan Foundation, JETRO (Japan External Trade Organization), and JNTO (Japan National Tourism Organization). The potential advantages of an integrated, strategic approach to public diplomacy are not hard to understand, even if they do not go as far as France’s recent reforms. If the plan is to merge the separate institutions into a single entity in order to create a more efficient, mutually reinforcing setup and a clearer division of roles among its components, the idea may have its merits. But if aim is simply to cut costs, I am against it.

Before embarking on cost-cutting, the question that needs to be asked is whether the system in place is adequate to performing the tasks required of it. I remember my own experiences as minister in charge of public relations and cultural affairs at the Japanese embassy in France. Never mind any question of slashing the budget—we suffered from a constant shortage of both people and money for carrying out cultural activities. Before embarking on a debate about merging the existing institutions into a new framework, therefore, strategic consideration must be given to what kind of departments the new organization will need and what kind of projects it should be involved in. Until these questions have been answered, there should be no talk of restructuring. It is true that problems exist with the vertically organized structure as it exists. But a bigger problem at the moment is that all of the individual fields are too weak to link together effectively.

Any discussion of the current state of Japan’s public diplomacy should start by acknowledging the requirement for a fuller complement of specialized public officials and the need to organize a reliable parent body to act as a platform for the various ministries and agencies involved.

The Benefits of Staging Regular Cultural Events

I have argued for some time that one way to make a breakthrough in public diplomacy would be to put more effort into anniversary events and similar celebrations overseas. Because of pressure to reduce its budget, Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has not responded to this proposal with much enthusiasm. But events of this kind do not necessarily need to cost a lot of money. The 150th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Japan and France was celebrated in 2008. Huge numbers of cultural events were staged over the course of the year—at least 758, counting only those registered at the Japanese embassy in Paris. Most of these events relied on private funding; only a relatively small number received direct financial support from the Japanese government.

If events of this kind were held on a regular basis, Japan’s ministries and agencies would improve their ability to work together through a process of trial-and-error. Since such events would be part of Japan’s foreign policy, they need to be discussed from the perspective of their likely impact on the diplomatic front. I would like to see the government working to develop a regular schedule of international cultural events, including not just anniversary celebrations but recurring events such as biennales and triennales.

But if the government decides instead to make cutting costs its number-one priority, I am afraid that Japan’s cultural diplomacy will become even weaker than it already is. This budget-driven approach strikes me as being based on feeble arguments driven by short-sighted considerations. This way of thinking ill befits Japan’s status as the world’s third largest economic power. Conveying a more positive image to the international community can help to enhance Japan’s standing in the world. In order to become a global leader whose norms, values, and culture are respected and admired around the world, we need to project an image of peace and security and emphasize ideals like unpretentiousness and compassion as typifying the Japanese lifestyle and philosophy of life. It should go without saying that improving the prosperity and status of Japan’s cultural industries would make a major contribution to transmitting this image to the world. (December 25, 2011)

(Originally written in Japanese.)

Japan foreign policy France Japan Foundation culture Paris public diplomacy cultural diplomacy national budget JICA JETRO JNTO Embassy of Japan in France Biennale Triennale Watanabe Hirotaka