Diplomacy Is Not Just for Diplomats


When it comes to diplomatic achievements, often common citizens can be even more effective than foreign relations specialists. In all likelihood this is because, at the grassroots level, interaction on the basis of pure friendship is possible; whereas in relations between professional politicians, words and actions tend to be determined by national interests.

A Small Child Makes a Big Difference

On this topic of diplomacy, it is worth remembering the example of how China’s own image in the world was enhanced by the actions of a pure-hearted young child—an example that testifies to how the hearts of adults can be swayed by the deeds of children.

On the afternoon of May 12, 2008, a great earthquake struck China, centered on the northern part of Sichuan Province, leaving some 90,000 people either dead or missing. At the break of dawn the next morning, a three-year-old boy was found in the rubble of a collapsed kindergarten near the quake’s epicentre.  The boy must have been in great pain, as his arms and other bones had been broken, but he gathered enough strength to as say “Thank you” to the rescue team members who discovered him. He kept repeating his words of thanks as he was taken away on a stretcher made from the wooden wreckage of the collapsed building—even raising his right arm over his head to express his gratitude more formally. Photos of this courteous boy were published in China and made an impact, as the image of his dignity touched the hearts of many people around the world.

China has a history of exchanges in the spheres of culture and sports to add sparkle to its diplomacy, such as the exchange of table-tennis players back in the early 1970s (referred to as “ping-pong diplomacy”) that helped restore its diplomatic relations with the United States.  This might be viewed as an early example of what is referred to in English as “public diplomacy.” In the Chinese language that term has been translated in a number of different ways, whether directly using the characters for “public” or more indirectly in terms of diplomacy involving “ordinary people” or “private citizens.” In any case, the Chinese have had this diplomatic concept that underscores the importance of non-governmental actors.

Learning from Japan’s Public Diplomacy

The Chinese think there is much to be learned from Japan in the public diplomacy field. The world saw numerous examples of how the Japanese were orderly and helped each other in the aftermath of the unprecedented earthquake and tsunami that struck northeast Japan on March 11, 2011. People living in countries that had often experienced social upheaval during natural disasters were struck by the maturity of the Japanese response to the crisis, reflecting a culture that emphasizes human bonds and a spirit of mutual aid.  This also accounts for how Japan has continued to express its gratitude for the assistance it has received from countries around the world, including developing nations.  

One noteworthy example of Japan’s public diplomacy was the post-3/11 efforts of the internationally acclaimed actor and Hollywood star, Watanabe Ken. In January 2012, he took time out of his busy schedule to attend the gathering of business and political leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland to express in English his appreciation for the support given to Japan.

Many Chinese are taking pride in the fact that China’s economic power—as expressed in its gross domestic product—surpassed that of Japan in 2010, to occupy the number-two spot in the world. But the question of whether this achievement has been matched by a growing maturity of China’s public diplomacy is debatable. It seems to me that it is only once each member of society is able to enjoy the fruits of prosperity that true affluence emerges in a nation, allowing it to be nourished by a spirit of social compassion and mutual consideration. It seems that it is worth pondering the fact that both Japan and China have the common expression: “Only those with a full stomach and clothes on their back can afford manners.”

(Originally written in Japanese on June 10, 2012.)

Great East Japan Earthquake diplomacy Japan China GDP public diplomacy Great Sichuan Earthquake World Economic Forum Davos gross domestic product Wang Min ping-pong diplomacy Watanabe Ken