Manga and Anime as the Japan Brand

Naruto’s Limits: What Soft Power Can Actually Achieve

Politics Culture

“Soft power” receives much attention in Japan as a means to project national influence on the global stage. But does soft power truly impact other nations in the way that leaders expect it to? Political scientist David Leheny argues that only diffuse forms of soft power at the popular level count in the end.

Pop Culture as Path to Fascination

Like many scholars teaching Japanese studies in the United States, I view the popularity of anime and manga as a bit of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, I often wish that my students were drawn to this fantastically interesting country because of its remarkable history, its distinctive musical traditions, its extraordinary scientific and technological achievements, and the like, rather than by its animated films and television programs. On the other, particularly at a time when area studies are challenged more broadly, and when many students gravitate toward other languages and regions, I am grateful that the lure of popular anime or manga draws many into courses in Japanese and on Japan itself. And I aim, as do my colleagues, to encourage their interests, to make them as invested in Japan, and to the broad opportunities it offers for the development of knowledge more generally, as I am.

Then again, popular culture challenges us because it is a constantly moving target. If I appear to be up-to-date on current anime in one semester, I can be relatively sure that my references will seem tragically outdated the next. I usually resolve this by ensuring that my references to anime are so thoroughly ancient (to a 1970s show like Kagaku Ninjatai Gatchaman [adapted in English as Battle of the Planets], for example), so hopelessly unhip, that students laugh both out of mercy for their aging, decrepit professor and out of nostalgia for the shows they may have watched in their childhood.

While I think that this popularity raises a number of interesting points regarding global culture, we should be highly skeptical of any claim that this matters for Japan’s diplomacy and global political status. I have found, however, that this skepticism has been profoundly unwelcome in Tokyo since 2002, when American journalist Douglas McGray published his influential but woolly article “Japan’s Gross National Cool” in Foreign Policy. Almost overnight, and assisted ably in early 2003 by the awarding of the Oscar for Best Animated Feature to Miyazaki Hayao’s masterpiece Spirited Away, Japanese officials and pundits alike started to argue that the international popularity of anime and manga might enable Japan to earn “soft power,” a term coined in the late 1980s by the Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye to refer to the ability to persuade rather than coerce. Indeed, any quick perusal of the relevant main Japanese magazines, policy white papers, and so forth will reveal how popular the idea became after 2002. And it is in the discussion of soft power—when global popularity of cultural forms is supposedly translated into diplomatic advantage—that the current analyses of anime and manga are culturally fascinating but intellectually problematic.

Masking Hard Power

Despite Professor Nye’s important contributions to political science, “soft power” is a term that few political scientists take seriously, and that none has managed to measure or evaluate in any serious sense. It is simply taken as an article of faith among soft power’s proponents—usually journalists, think-tank members, and diplomats—that American (or, later, Japanese, or Chinese, or Korean, or whichever country’s) values might be sufficiently persuasive to foreign audiences that their governments can achieve things that they would not have otherwise.

But where is the evidence? Despite the extraordinary reach of American popular culture around the world—from cinema to hip-hop to denim jeans—as well as the number of international students at American universities, President George W. Bush found it difficult to persuade most publics of the need for the Iraq War. Most countries’ participation in the war instead seemed motivated by “hard power”: by the fear of the consequences of noncompliance with clear American wishes. It remains similarly interesting that for all the vaunted influence of Japan’s popular culture in the United States, there has been no movement whatsoever among the American public or American politicians to warm to efforts by conservative politicians and writers in Japan to persuade them to question widely acknowledged accounts of wartime atrocities, whether the Nanjing Massacre or the “comfort women” system.

Presidents and prime ministers might hope that the global visibility of Frozen or Pokémon will encourage foreign audiences to give their more controversial goals—the ones for which they really need the persuasive pull of soft power—the benefit of the doubt. But there is precisely no evidence that politics works this way, which is one of the reasons why most political scientists have been so reticent on the issue.

The Need for Legitimacy

And yet the popularity of soft power as a concept among pundits should attract scholars’ attention. After all, why would people—including government officials and seasoned politicians—be so consumed by the promise of soft power, or attracted themselves to the very idea of national attractiveness? The examples here of the United States and Japan should be instructive. These are, obviously, two very powerful countries, both adept at wielding hard power, whether because of American military capabilities or Japanese and American economic clout; most countries aim to avoid angering either of them. Why then would these two countries worry about soft power, about whether others actually like them or not? After all, Machiavelli himself noted it was more valuable to be feared than loved, and one wonders why governments would seek the latter when they already command the former.
The conceptual popularity of soft power therefore suggests that the international system is one in which legitimacy matters, as much for more powerful as for less powerful nations. And it is a system in which it is important to those who wield power to believe that they do so legitimately, because other countries are persuaded by their belief in democracy, their essential humanism, their jazz music, or their anime. In this sense, soft power appears to be the funhouse mirror image of hard power.

It is also instructive that Nye coined the term “soft power” at exactly the time when many American pundits and officials worried about the relative decline of American power against the continuing growth of economic rivals like West Germany and Japan, and that it took hold in Japan particularly as counterparts there became especially alarmed at Japan’s ostensible decline in the face of China’s rise. In both cases, soft power seemed to be nearly the equivalent of an infant’s favorite stuffed toy: emotional support for insecure observers in both countries, reminding them that they still had some global legitimacy that their erstwhile rivals supposedly lacked. And in both countries, there has been an assumption that their popular cultures somehow represent cohesive national values in a transparent and understandable way to foreign audiences. Virtually every element of that assumption—particularly that national values are indeed cohesive and that foreign audiences will understand and appreciate a cultural product the way that officials in the country of origin expect them to—is demonstrably false.

The Complexity of Cultural Power

I do not mean, of course, that popular culture is politically unimportant. Its consequences are, however, more diffuse than the gross diplomatic benefits that the “soft power” thesis tends to project. For this, I would turn to the great 2000 film In the Mood For Love, by the Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai.(*1) Set in a Hong Kong apartment building in the 1960s, the film includes an evocative scene in which a resident introduces to her neighbors a fabulous new invention her husband has just brought back from his business trip to Japan: a rice cooker. The building is immediately consumed by excitement about it, by an instantaneous desire among its residents to purchase their own models.

The residents are well aware that the rice cooker comes from Japan, a fact they note without any particular envy, enthusiasm, or rivalry. Their views of their own lives, however, are instantly transformed by this Japanese invention, so much so that their visions of their own middle-class futures are shaped in large part by the machine’s existence. Wong implies that a particular vision of middle class life—one then current in Tokyo, Osaka, and other Japanese cities—became the model of what Hong Kong residents themselves could hope to achieve. This is, of course, exceptional in its cultural power—but it is not a kind of power that can be wielded in any meaningful sense by the Japanese or any other government, or that will persuade these new consumers to do what the Japanese or any other government wants them to do.

It is in this more diffuse way that I hope that anime and manga can affect my students. It would, I think, be meritless to assume that their excitement about the newest Japanese anime series will translate to support for Japanese government initiatives, just as it would be foolish to assume that a love for K-pop will translate into support for Seoul’s diplomacy or that being a fan of the NBA will make one a proponent of American drone strikes in Yemen. But these cultural forms can expose them to alternative imaginary worlds, ones that allow them to conceive of their own lives differently, and that can offer opportunities to ask innovative questions about the environments in which they were produced.

(Originally written in English on January 5, 2015. Banner photo: Manga are popular among young readers all around the world, but does this translate into Japanese influence? © Reuters/Aflo.)

(*1) ^ I thank Professor Nakano Yoshiko for reminding me of the relevance of this scene to my research on soft power.

diplomacy Japan anime manga China politics America soft power hard power influence