Sharing Japan with the World

Politics Economy Culture

Japan’s pop culture has opened the door to worldwide appreciation of all of its rich culture. As culture becomes a driving force in both the country’s international image and its economy, the concept of cultural diplomacy and the creation of a system for its expression are more vital than ever.

I was in Paris last November, when the G-20 Summit was taking place in Cannes. In the midst of the Greek collapse and the global financial crisis, the media was in a frenzy over whether the leading EU states, France and Germany, would work in tandem to right the ship, or whether French President Nicolas Sarkozy would act alone to rescue the dream of European economic unity.

In the end, European hopes were dashed as the summit failed to produce a solution, and the global community began to look in China, which had enacted support policies in the previous year in response to the crisis. While China’s presence was clearly growing in Europe, though, Japan was nowhere to be seen. This is something that must change. It is only by expressing its vision and taking action as a global player that Japan can realize the true purpose of its diplomacy on the international stage.

There is reason for optimism, though, in the fact that Japan is an extremely popular presence at cultural events held throughout the world. At the same time that Japan develops and disseminates its perspectives on global issues, the nation must also work to create a platform for that message to be accepted. Public relations and cultural diplomacy are the foundation for global understanding of Japanese policy, and Japan is in a perfect position to begin building that foundation.

From J-Pop to Traditional Arts

Pop culture is now in the vanguard of the spread of Japanese culture.

At the end of October 2011, Lucca Comics and Games—a yearly expo celebrating comics, video content, and video games—took place in the Tuscany region of Italy. One of the more remote buildings in the castle town was dubbed the Japan Palace for the event; there exhibitors furnished booths with manga, anime, merchandise, toys, and youth fashion items. The addition of the Japanese game of kingyo-sukui, or goldfish scooping, and a yakisoba noodle stand gave the whole event the feel of a Japanese summer festival.

Fully 60,000 people attended the XVII Manga Fair held in Barcelona from the end of October through early November 2011. Japan’s presence here was even larger than at Lucca Comics and Games. There were a phenomenal number of Japanese manga and anime booths, featuring popular works like Naruto and One Piece, as well as throngs of young cosplayers—fans dressed in the costume of their favorite manga or anime character. Packs of middle schoolers in full costume slurping cup ramen here and there in the venue really made it feel like Japan.

A booth selling Japanese candies at Japan Expo.

Japan Expo, held every summer in the Parisian suburb of Villepinte, is the largest Japanese pop cultural event in Europe. Attracting 190,000 in its twelfth year last year, Japan Expo features manga and anime, of course, but also cosplay shows, live J-pop performances, and demonstrations of traditional and martial arts. Even the Musée Guimet, which boasts one of the finest Asian arts collections in all of Europe, hosted a booth.

One of the biggest reasons Japan Expo dwarfs similar events in Europe is of course the huge popularity of manga and anime in France, but a clear vision and proper planning and operations are also key. The event is positioned as a festival of Japanese culture and entertainment with four distinct themes: manga culture, modern culture, pop culture, and traditional culture. The event operators also have a growing awareness of the role of the expo as a place for business research and networking.

A major exhibition entitled “Kyoto–Tokyo: From Samurai to Manga” was held to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Grimaldi Forum, an immense event site in Monaco. Events held in the luxury enclave tend to attract throngs of affluent guests from around the world, and the Japanese exhibition was no exception. Buddhist statues, folding screens, pottery, kimonos, woodblock prints, and samurai helmets were gathered from national museums in Tokyo and Kyoto. When juxtaposed with original panels from famous manga artist Shigeru Mizuki, modern architecture, anime, manga, and robots, they successfully presented a coherent overview of Japanese culture from past through present.

Similar exhibitions at expos throughout France have emerged as a commonplace means of introducing Japanese culture. Whether pop or traditional culture acts as the starting point, the events become a conduit for the understanding of the diversity of Japanese culture.

“Cool Japan”

“Cool Japan” was a well-known cultural diplomacy strategy launched under the administration of Koizumi Jun’ichirō that made use of Japanese pop culture.

The original phrase, “Japan’s Gross National Cool,” was the name of a paper published by Douglas McGray in 2002 that discussed the potential influence of Japanese culture. With the Japanese economy fading into the shadows following the collapse of the bubble economy, its pop culture had begun to emerge as a new source of global strength, McGray argued. In evaluating the Japanese cultural diaspora, he identified manga, anime, and video games as the leading examples of Cool Japan.

But there are some concerns over pop culture being the central force driving the global spread of Japanese culture.

Some criticize pop culture as lacking the artistic merit or contemplative depth of traditional arts—in short, viewing it as something other than “real” Japanese culture. Others point out that fans of Japanese pop culture are not necessarily interested in the country’s overall culture, history, or society. And still others believe the movement is more about the pursuit of profit by the industries supporting it, and less about actual cultural exchange. This is the argument forwarded by those who posit that culture should not be for sale.

A look at history, though, shows any number of art forms that arose in opposition to authority, drawing criticism at first as epigonic creations of questionable artistic and cultural merit. We must also note that in practice, it is extraordinarily difficult to separate cultural value from the pursuit of commerce.

While opinion may be split, I do not believe it is a bad thing for pop cultural forms like manga and anime to promote a fuller understanding of Japan overseas. All the events I describe above exhibit a broad range of Japanese culture, not anime or traditional art alone. It is clear that the diversity and historic profundity of Japanese culture have earned it a place in global society.

Cultural Diplomacy as Economic Strategy

It is clear to me that cultural diplomacy can help to underpin Japanese diplomacy. But the reality is that there is no established stance on culture in the context of diplomacy. There is not even an authoritative definition of public and cultural diplomacy. There are different approaches, from the vague notion that culture should simply play an important role in the diplomacy of a country—a blending of the concepts of public diplomacy, cultural diplomacy, and cultural exchange—to the approach that considers specific governmental actions. In Japan’s case, this latter approach is undertaken by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Japan Foundation. There are no clear definitions of these individual concepts, though, nor any consensus on how they should relate to one another.

Despite this, cultural diplomacy is frequently mentioned as a facet of economic strategy. In Japan, it typically takes the form of overseas business development related to the traditional arts and the content industry, as well as the pop culture strategy represented by Cool Japan.

In its 2010 White Paper, the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry named the cultural sector a likely driving force of the Japanese economy and predicted it would become one of the largest sources of soft power in all of Japanese industry. The official expectation is that culture will become as important to Japan’s economy as even cars and electronics. Lifestyle-related businesses and tourism will find themselves at the heart of this shift, holding the possibility for the creation of both new domestic demand and new jobs. Japanese goods already have a reputation for quality throughout Asia, and this same level of trust must be built in the United States and Europe.

The likely nexus of this shift in Europe is France. The aforementioned popularity of manga in France is likely best exemplified by the smash hit Kami no Shizoku (trans. Drops of God), the manga bible of French wine, translated into French as Les Gouttes de Dieu and even read by some French people to learn about wines produced by their own country. Japanese food is gaining immense popularity as part of France’s health food boom; more than 300 Japanese restaurants now operate in Paris alone. Ramen shops located near the opera district now see long lines daily.

Exporting a New Japonisme

Japonisme refers to a European art movement based in France from the latter half of the nineteenth century through the 1920s. There was a strong French interest in life in Japan, triggered by its arts and depicted best by the magazine devoted to it, Le Japon artistique. The movement was led by the intelligentsia of the time and fueled by a fascination with Asia—an extension of the Orientalism of the early nineteenth century.

Japan’s present cultural boom differs greatly from old Japonisme. “Pop” culture is by definition much broader, specifically due to the support it enjoys from the young people who are intimately involved with its creation and consumption. And it is more than just Oriental fetishism among a small group of intellectuals—Japanese culture now enjoys broad popularity the world over. A young fan of Japanese pop culture once told me that his interest had opened the door to a realization of Japan’s traditional history and culture, and that he wanted to learn more about it. In this way, popular culture forges a new path to understanding Japan’s entire cultural tradition.

From 2008 to 2011, METI ran the Japan Design Exhibition series in major cities worldwide as part of its Kansei Value Creation Initiative, a program designed to showcase the softer side of Japan through exhibitions of its art (kansei meaning “emotion” or “feeling”). The installment of the exhibition held at the Louvre was an overwhelming success. It featured lacquerware, white porcelain soy sauce pourers, earthenware teapots, Japanese-style lighting, calligraphy brushes, brooms, knives, handheld folding fans, sitting cushions, toasters, glass, air purifiers, Nishijin-style woven cushion covers, LCD televisions, and humidifiers. All of these everyday items combined functionality with refined aesthetics; viewing them in their totality instantly elucidated the Japanese idea of “beauty in utility” and the overall Japanese sense of beauty.

Naruto on display at Japan Expo

The pieces were grouped by traditional Japanese words relating to emotions, the soul and movement: kagerō (to move from light to shadow), nishiki (Japanese brocade, originally using two color blocks), tatazumai (appearance), kime (texture), mottai (the essential value of an item), karoyaka (lightness), motenashi (hospitality), musubi (knot), oru (to fold), shitsuraeru (to arrange space), shinaru (to bend), and habuku (to eliminate the superfluous). Individual written explanations and the beauty of the products allowed easy visualization of these very specific Japanese cultural concepts. The exhibition communicated ideas of softness, flexibility, harmony with nature, frugality, and serenity.

We see this imagery very much alive in manga also. The popular manga Naruto depicts the typical adolescent experiences of the titular character, a boy ninja, but they are communicated through the lens of quintessentially Japanese takes on friendship and social solidarity. Naruto is thus a wonderful portrayal of the Japanese emotional condition through the medium of pop culture. The above are perfect examples of the type of culture that can play a key role in setting the direction of Japanese cultural diplomacy.

Using Culture in Diplomacy

But cultural esteem does not translate immediately into diplomacy. This is an endeavor that will take some work.

The first task is the effective marriage of art and culture with activities for their promotion. Japan does not yet have sufficient organizations and networks to run cultural programs on an everyday basis. (In a previous column I discuss the shortage of human resources and money for cultural activities and joint initiatives with Japanese quasi-governmental “independent administrative institutions,” which run international events.)

The second is proper emphasis on intellectual exchange and popularization of the Japanese language. The current approach is dominated by sending famous people to lectures and symposiums. While continued intellectual exchange in specialized areas is essential, broader-based promotion of the Japanese language will require a combination of Japan’s support for educational systems and negotiations with local governments to encourage the teaching of Japanese. Both tasks share an urgent need for human resources with specialized knowledge and skills, paired with an understanding of bureaucracy.

Thirdly—and Japan’s largest weak point in this area—is development of our ability to communicate diplomatic strategy and vision abroad. The nation needs to be able to speak both independently and comprehensively. Part of this involves making substantive proposals with a global perspective, as I noted in another contribution to this site last year. The identity Japan has crafted for itself as a prominent, peaceful country with a rich cultural tradition should be more than sufficient to accomplish all of these goals. The tools and methods are there, and it is now a matter of creating the diplomatic vision—a matter calling for the revival of a forum for active diplomatic debate.

Finally, while Japan has dealt with sharp internal criticism over ill-conceived and vaguely purposed art and cultural facilities, strategic priorities and budgeting do need to be revisited. The Japan Cultural Institute in Paris is one of the most prominent symbols of our nation in France. Recently, China and South Korea have been actively promoting their own cultures in Paris as well. Their intention is clear: positive reception in Paris means influence in Europe, the United States, and the world.

(Originally written in Japanese. Photographs by Hino Hato.)

anime pop culture manga Japan Expo economy traditional arts Japan Foundation public diplomacy industry cultural diplomacy Watanabe Hirotaka J-pop costume player Lucca Manga Fair Cool Japan Douglas McGray Foreign Affairs Japonisme Kansei Value Creation Initiative