Three Ways to Boost Japan’s Diplomatic PR Power—For (Almost) Nothing!


“Japanese diplomacy lacks clout. We’re failing to make ourselves heard in the international community.” How many times have I heard these and similar complaints in the course of 2012? A look at our neighbors only underlines the feebleness of Japan’s efforts. Last year China’s Xinhua news agency bought advertising space in New York’s Times Square, while a lecture hall in the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton was recently renamed in honor of Syngman Rhee, the first president of South Korea. These PR coups show the financial resources and diplomatic nous available to our regional neighbors. Compare these successes to the situation in Japan, where there is no money and not much drive either, and it’s no wonder so many people have begun to despair.

But moping about matters won’t help to turn things around. So let me put forward three ideas for giving Japan’s PR power a boost. All three are steps we could implement quite easily if we only make up our minds to do so. And so, in the spirit of the Japanese fondness for drawing up a mental list of aspirations for the coming year, here are my proposals for 2013. These ideas are not part of any systematic plan. But they do have one important thing in common: None would cost much money.

Letting the Prime Minister off the Leash

For companies and countries alike, the most powerful PR officer is the person at the top of the system. The CEO, prime minister, or president is the biggest advertising asset any company or country has at its disposal. Japan, however, has hampered itself. While other leaders whizz about the world like busy sales executives, the Japanese prime minister remains rooted to the spot. He might as well be an advertising sign nailed to the side of the road. The reason is straightforward enough: The Japanese prime minister is tied to debates in the Diet to an extent that would be unimaginable in other countries, including those that use a similar parliamentary cabinet system. The only time the prime minister can travel is on weekends and public holidays. And this applies not just for foreign trips, but for when he wants to travel outside Tokyo to other parts of Japan!

This is what causes Japan’s politicians to descend on the United States en masse during the “Golden Week” holidays each spring. Although this may be a boon for Washington’s translators and interpreters, it is nothing but bad news for Japanese diplomacy. Imagine two companies. In one, the CEO and senior executives are shadowy figures who don’t show their faces from one year to the next. The other company’s CEO and chairman, meanwhile, are regular visitors—and the other board members stop by as well at least once a year. Which one would you rather do business with? The question answers itself. That’s more or less the difference between the Japanese and Chinese diplomatic positions today.

The last Japanese prime minister to visit Brazil, for example, was Koizumi Jun’ichirō, in 2004. With the prime minister kept on such a tight leash in the Diet, his opportunities for foreign travel are limited indeed. Once he’s attended his share of multilateral conferences (which come round with increasing frequency in recent years), and dealt with the regular scheduled bilateral talks with important neighbors and allies (recently widened to include India), the prime minister’s schedule for the year is more or less full. The recent tendency for prime ministers to last just a year or so in office before resigning doesn’t help. Most of them barely have time to complete one loop of this circuit before their time is up. In order to visit all the major countries, a prime minister would need to stay in office for five years or more. Among recent prime ministers, only Koizumi has managed to pull that off.

We need to do as much as we can to relax the restrictions placed on the prime minister and foreign minister by their Diet commitments and allow them to travel overseas more regularly. To stay with the marketing metaphor for a moment: Putting your advertising where your customers can see it makes clear marketing sense for the company as a whole.

Show the World What’s Really Going on in the Senkaku Islands

The second proposal deals with a narrower subject, but one that is just as urgent. Japan needs to do more to take advantage of the PR potential of online video—particularly in its propaganda war with China over the Senkaku Islands. We need to collect video footage to show what is really happening there and upload it to the Internet as quickly as possible. Chinese law-enforcement agencies are trying to make China’s jurisdictional rights over the area a fait accompli. To this end, they are shooting video that purports to show Chinese ships policing the area and Japanese ships apparently subject to Chinese authority. These images are broadcast around the world over China Central Television (CCTV).

Japan is doing nothing to counteract this. The main reason is a lack of clarity over who is in charge, which means that no one wants to take risks. Without a more flexible response, we are in serious danger being left behind. We need to film our encounters with Chinese shipping, and make a blow-by-blow record available for anyone to see online.

In fact, one Japanese group has already adopted this strategy of recording evidence and making it available for people around the world to see. I’m referring to the scientific whaling fleet in the Antarctic, which has uploaded to the Internet video footage of their encounters and clashes with the notorious Sea Shepherd group. As far as I can tell, however, they have not won themselves many friends as a result.

An Indefinite Moratorium on Antarctic Whaling

And that leads me to my third and final proposal. If, in the future, Japanese whalers are given permission to hunt minke whales in the seas close to Japan, we should promptly call an indefinite moratorium on the scientific whaling program. The whaling industry is tiny—both in terms of sales volume and in the size of its workforce. The financial cost of providing for workers who lost their jobs would not be a serious problem, even if they were given generous allowances and retraining for other kinds of work.

At the moment, no issue is doing more to make enemies of the world’s celebrities (most of them animal lovers) than Japan’s whaling program. It is turning countries like Australia, Britain, Canada, and New Zealand against us—countries that ought to be not just friendly to Japan, but our allies. And it ends up swelling the coffers of anti-whaling groups like Sea Shepherd. If people are really desperate to eat whale meat, they should focus their efforts on changing the regulations so that Japan is allowed to hunt limited numbers in our own waters.

At the moment, Japan faces a legal challenge brought by Australia in the International Court of Justice. Of course, Japan is quite within its rights to argue its case. But even if Japan wins, it would be foolish to act as though this gives us carte blanche to hunt whales in Australia’s backyard. A much smarter approach for Japan would be to use this vindication as an opportunity to give up its Antarctic whaling program voluntarily.

So, to sum up: more foreign travel for the PM and foreign minister, better use of online video, and an end to scientific whaling. I’m convinced that these three simple steps would go some way to restoring Japan’s ability to get its message across internationally. At the very least, they could hardly fail to make things better than they are now.

(Originally written in Japanese on December 4, 2012.)

diplomacy China politics Diet foreign policy Korea Koizumi Jun’ichirō prime minister territorial disputes soft power PR foreign minister Brazil Senkaku Island maritime enforcement whaling