Grading Japan’s Global Publicity Efforts

Japan’s Taciturnity Trap: Our Need for More Communication


Japan may present a positive image to the world, but unless it improves its ability to go out and sell that image in its own words, it could lead to misunderstandings as foreign observers develop their own takes on the nation. A look at Japan’s shortcomings in the foreign-language PR department.

A Globally Important Law, Untranslated into the Global Language

The first step Japan must take to increase its external information-sharing capabilities is one that should not need mentioning: to translate the information it puts out in Japanese into English as soon as possible. Sadly, though, efforts in this area still come up short for both the nation’s government and its corporations.

In September 2015, legislation proposed by the administration of Prime Minister Abe Shinzō passed the Diet, allowing Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to automatically defend, in almost all situations, US military vessels and aircraft when required. The key change allowing this action was the addition of a second clause to Article 95 of the Self-Defense Forces Act that would effectively force the attacking power to view the SDF and US forces as one and the same.

The heading attached to Article 95, Clause 2, makes the content clear: “Use of weapons for the protection of weaponry, etc., of US military and other forces.” Various restrictions remain in place on the actual exercise of this clause, but it represents a fundamental break from Japan’s previously permissible actions. The Abe government’s goal of synergistically combining Japan’s deterrent capabilities with those of its ally is evident in the wording of this addition to the law.

A legal revision with this much significance is something that the United States—and indeed, many other nations—will want to confirm for themselves. But the Self-Defense Forces Act is not available in English. Nor, therefore, is Article 95, Clause 2. The lack of a globally readable version of this law—the basis for Japan’s SDF, and something that could sway the fate of the nation—is an extremely unfortunate situation.

Foreign Investors Left in the Dark?

In the autumn of 2019, a revision to Japan’s Foreign Exchange and Foreign Trade Act touched off nervous reactions among the world’s investment community. At the core of this revision was a new requirement that overseas investors give advance notice and undergo vetting whenever they obtained more than 1% of the shares of a Japanese company. This came across as a dramatic tightening of the rules, which had previously allowed investors from outside the country to freely purchase and own up to 10% of a firm’s shares. Institutional investors demanded explanations of how they were to go about pursuing their business in the Japanese market, but no guidance appeared for some time, and their frustration grew.

On October 8, the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry published a document in Japanese explaining the deliberations that had informed the legal revision; the English translation of this report also appeared online. It presented a clear explanation of METI’s concerns and the reasoning behind the prompt regulation of the investment market, to prevent strategically important companies from falling under unwanted foreign control. Similar regulations have long been in place in Western economies, and Japan was just playing catch-up with this new regulatory move.

The contents of this law fall under the joint aegis of METI and the Ministry of Finance. The institutional investors impacted by its application, though, are most strongly connected to a third governmental organ, the Financial Services Agency. Ordinarily, the Japanese authorities would have considered the issue from the perspective of foreign investors, anticipating their concerns and sharing information with key finance markets at around the time the revised bill was passing through Cabinet discussions. But it was unclear which of these organs should take the initiative in such efforts, and they were put off until the revised law had already hit the books.

What caused this lapse? Was there nobody to recognize the need to share this information in advance, or was there a lack of personnel or funding to get it done even if the need was clear? In this case, unfortunately, it was probably a mix of both factors.

The Trap of Trying to Be All Things to All People

In an environment where they are able to do their thinking and act on those thoughts entirely via the Japanese language, Japan’s people can often avoid the hard exercise of translating necessary information into English as well. In addition to this first problem, though, there are two additional issues I would point out. One is that the Japanese tend to seek to be liked by all people at all times. The second is that they can withdraw timidly into their shells as soon as they are criticized on historical grounds.

Of course it is better to be liked than to be ostracized. As I noted in the previous part of this essay, Japan can count it as a real diplomatic asset that more than 80% of the world’s population view it positively as a good country. The key question, though, is how well Japan is making use of this asset to enhance its national interests. It is all too easy to fall into the trap of seeing high popularity rankings themselves as the final goal.

In the pursuit of its own national interests, Japan frequently must decide which of two nations, both of which are friendly to the Japanese, to prioritize. At times like these, many of us try to find ways to please both of these counterparts. But what if one of these nations is a firmly established democracy, while the other is not? If Japan treats them both exactly the same in order not to lose favor with either of them, it ends up being a self-harming act that can only detract from Japan’s own standing.

Of course, on the actual diplomatic playing field, it is the height of foolishness to make such a blatant choice for one option over another. Nations must show some clever planning in their interactions with one another. All this said, though, they must also avoid treating the yardsticks of their core values as adaptable, elastic things; to do so is to lose sight of what is and is not truly important.

A Recognition to Be Earned

During the more than seven years Prime Minister Abe Shinzō has spent in that office, he has won an image for himself—a rare one, nowadays—as a standard bearer of the open, liberal global order built on the rule of law. The speech he gave in September 2019 at the EU headquarters in Brussels, “Japan and the EU: The Strong and Steady Pillars Supporting Many Bridges,” is a fine example of this. In this speech, available online in both the original Japanese and in English translation, the prime minister talks about the economic and strategic partnership agreements inked by Japan and the EU in July 2018, describing them as signs of Japanese and European commitment to democracy, human rights, free trade, and other key values and principles.

The trust that Prime Minister Abe enjoys when he speaks in global forums like this is underpinned by the trust that Japan, and the Japanese people, have won over time. The nation’s position as a liberal, democratic frontrunner represents a reputation that it has earned over long years. Upon reflection, this international recognition is something that the Japanese have earnestly desired for a century and a half, since they opened up to the world with the Meiji Restoration of 1868. But having earned this recognition, Japan must take appropriate steps in line with it, or the country will soon find itself losing its global image.

Taking Steps to Avoid Fractures with Asia

For my last point, I turn to the question of what Japan has done when confronted with criticism tied to historical issues. The fact of the matter is that many Japanese—diplomats in particular—have become timid when faced with this type of debate.

In truth, the rhetoric brought to bear against Japan pays scant heed to the maturation of Japanese society over the three-quarters of a century since the end of World War II—nor to the steady improvements seen in the quality and transparency of its governance systems over that period. There is no statute of limitations when it comes to the judgment handed down at the war crimes tribunals in the immediate postwar era finding Japan to be a mercilessly cruel invader. This is the image that critics of the nation today continue to apply to it.

On the topic of the comfort women, for example, we have the story of adorable young girls on the Korean Peninsula forcibly taken away by the Japanese authorities. Japan’s diplomats are tasked with countering this take on the historical reality, but their own historical understanding often falls short, and they face a disheartening struggle without any clearly set goal at its end. As one outcome, Japan has chosen to deal with the bronze figures of comfort women installed in front of its diplomatic outposts by treating them as sleeping dogs to let lie. But what should Japan do about them going forward?

These statues are a wedge aimed at fracturing the community of Japanese company representatives sent to work in the countries where they stand, along with their families. More broadly, they seek to divide communities of Asian descent in the United States. If Japan stands by and does nothing while more and more of these statues, rooted in often fictitious historical accounts, are erected, it can only bruise the self-respect of the Japanese people. Our nation’s diplomatic corps must continue to make appropriate efforts to prevent this from happening.

At a higher level, though, we can note the importance of preventing China and Korea—the two actors most likely to unleash attacks against Japan in the realm of words—from forging a common front against the Japanese. A particularly notable trend in the last two to three years has been China’s relative reticence when it comes to criticism of Japan. This has held true even though Japan has not shown any special compromises in its approach to the Chinese: Tokyo has not backed down from its positions on the issues in the East China and South China Seas and has been willing to directly present its concerns to the Beijing leadership on issues like the treatment of China’s Uighur citizens and the situation in Hong Kong.

During this same period, Prime Minister Abe proposed revisions to the Japanese Constitution confirming the legal status of the Self-Defense Forces. His administration has presented a clear trend line in the area of defense, moving to equip Maritime SDF vessels with combat functionality and to include standoff missiles in Japan’s armory. But none of this has prompted China to break its silence—or, perhaps, these steps have instead prompted China to remain silent, refraining from criticizing Japan. I can do no more than speculate, but it may even be that China’s quiet attitude has also influenced Korea in recent years.

No Need for Pessimism

Japan is a land that has little to say to the world in English. As a result, it is often misunderstood. We should celebrate the presence of so many countries friendly to ours all around the world, but as I have noted above, we should also recognize the clear identity that Japan stands to lose in a rush to be liked by all people at all times.

As things stand today, it is primarily China and Korea that seek to undermine the global trust Japan enjoys for historical reasons. When their criticisms of our country are founded on fabrications, though, Japan cannot leave them unaddressed, lest it create new problems for itself domestically. In the United States, today the main stage for repeated history-fueled attacks against Japan, our diplomats will need to endure this opposition as they go back to basics and continue their slow but steady efforts to neutralize it.

I also noted that when China reduces its criticism of our country, Korea tends to follow suit, to an extent. Building on this, I would say in conclusion, Japan needs to continue dealing with China without abandoning its principles and focus on cultivating its own strengths in order to present no gaps in its defenses that others could take advantage of.

Japan has no shortage of areas where it needs to improve its abilities and techniques, a few specific examples of which I have explored above. Recent public relations flops in the governmental and private sectors include many more that I could point to here. This is no reason to sink into pessimism, though; all we need to do is keep plugging away to improve those areas where we need work.

(Originally published in Japanese on January 8, 2020. Banner photo: Prime Minister Abe Shinzō and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker raise hands together at the September 27, 2019, launch of the Europa Connectivity Forum in Brussels, Belgium. © Reuters/Aflo.)

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