Toward a New Era in Cultural Diplomacy

Anxious to restore the luster of the Japanese "brand" in the wake of the disasters triggered by the Great East Japan Earthquake, the government has launched a cultural diplomacy offensive that builds on the current popularity of Japanese pop culture. Greater effort will be needed, however, to transmit the deeper, more enduring values of Japanese culture.

Anxious to restore the luster of the Japanese “brand” in the wake of the disasters triggered by the Great East Japan Earthquake, the government has launched a cultural diplomacy offensive that builds on the current popularity of Japanese pop culture. Greater effort will be needed, however, to transmit the deeper, more enduring values of Japanese culture.

The Japanese government is encouraging inter-agency cooperation and partnerships with the private sector in a public-diplomacy campaign designed to counteract some of the damage sustained by the Japanese "brand" since the Great East Japan Earthquake that struck on March 11. Under the "Cool Japan" action plan, released by the Intellectual Property Strategy Headquarters on March 17 and revised on May 27, the government, spearheaded by its agencies and ministries, intends to promote Japanese culture at public events overseas, including anniversaries (Ministry of Foreign Affairs) and athletic events like the London Olympics (Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology), sponsor an international creative-content festival in Japan (Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry) and a Japan-China film and TV week and animation festival (MOFA and METI), and beef up Japan's international broadcasting efforts (Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications). The plan also calls for supplementary post-quake measures, including action to publicize Japan's recovery efforts (various agencies), international conferences on earthquake preparedness and response (MEXT), and measures to enhance the Japanese brand at international trade fairs and expos (Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries and METI). METI's Cool Japan Advisory Council, made up of private and public sector members, has also recommended strategies for disseminating information about the post-quake recovery and building the brand image of products from eastern Japan, in line with the theme: "Creating a New Japan."

From Japonisme to Cool Japan

The government's "Cool Japan" initiative has gradually begun to take shape in terms of its basic concept and focus. For each targeted region of the world, the government intends to compile a list of cultural priorities among such categories as fashion, food, creative content, design, and manufacturing. This is a smart policy, and as someone who has been urging such an initiative for a long time, I welcome the new approach spearheaded by the Cabinet Office.

In the late 19th century, a craze for Japanese arts and crafts—from ukiyoe and fine ceramics to everyday household items—seized hold of Europe, particularly France. The rise of Japonisme, as this phenomenon came to be known, certainly owed something to the fine craftsmanship and aesthetic qualities of Japanese art, but it was also powered by a prevailing fascination with the exotic. And while a superficial taste for things Japanese persisted into the early twentieth century, a genuine knowledge of Japanese culture never penetrated beyond a narrow elite of artists and intellectuals.

The Japan boom of recent years is different in many ways. To begin with, it is predicated on a worldwide recognition of post–World War II Japan as a successful industrial nation that became the world's second-largest economy and realized a stable modern society, placing the country on par with the developed nations of the West. With this status now a given, Japan is attempting to show the world a new face as a country with a long and venerable cultural tradition, as well as sophisticated technological know-how that it uses to foster and export a highly diverse pop culture. Unlike Japonisme, this emphasis on "Cool Japan" is supported by a wide base of people with at least a basic understanding of Japanese culture, and the universality of this culture has been steadily gaining worldwide recognition. Today, culture is the vehicle for Japan to build a "brand" associated around the globe with such qualities as modesty, peace, stability, consideration for others, and subtlety.

Japanese culture is multifaceted, spanning a great variety of traditional and popular forms. Many international programs and events highlight Japanese culture these days, running the gamut from tea ceremony, ikebana, and ukiyoe to anime, video games, and J-pop (Japanese popular music). To be sure, some cultural ambassadors remain wedded to the traditional arts and reluctant to focus on contemporary, popular genres, but the debate over the value of Japanese pop culture is really academic today, now that its global reach is an undeniable fact.

One need only visit any of the Japan-focused overseas expos, conventions, and other international events to be struck by the enthusiasm and energy that Japanese pop culture has been generating globally. There are at least 40 such major international events, attracting 10,000 fans or more, including the Japanese festival in Indonesia (Bandung), Anime Festival Asia in Singapore, Mainichi's Japan Festa in Bangkok, the China International Cartoon & Animation Festival in Hangzhou, Armageddon Expo in New Zealand, Lucca Comics & Games in Italy, Salón del Manga in Barcelona, and Japan Expo in Paris. And if one also includes smaller events related to Japan, the number is more on the order of 400. Most of these are cross-genre festival-style fairs and expos that cater primarily to young people via anime, DVDs, video games, and J-pop, while concurrently introducing people to traditional genres such as martial arts, tea ceremony, and calligraphy. Manga and anime have become the gateway to Japanese language and traditional culture for growing numbers of young people worldwide.

Beyond the Boom

Japan’s new cultural diplomacy is not divided into two separate tracks, with one focused on educational programs introducing the traditional arts, and the other promoting creative-content industries. Rather, it is a single, multifaceted diplomatic undertaking that mobilizes every sector of Japan. At France's Japan Expo, the largest Japanese pop-culture festival in Europe, METI and the Japan Tourism Agency have each had booths of their own for several years now. At last year’s expo the two organizations launched a collaborative program that also involved the Embassy of Japan and the Agency for Cultural Affairs, featuring performances of traditional Japanese music, Japanese language lessons using anime, presentations focusing on specific regions of Japan, and more.

All of this is to be applauded. But for a culture to be truly universal, rather than just a passing fad, it must have beauty, depth, and lasting impact. Ultimately, the true beauty, depth, and impact of Japanese culture lies in its celebration of a simple, austere, and subtle aesthetic typified by the concepts wabi and sabi—and this is something difficult to appreciate without study and cultivation. This means that effectively transmitting the real substance and depth of Japanese culture, as opposed to the fleeting attractions of manga and pop music, will require a more thoughtful and creative approach.

The key question is what we can do to turn the current fascination with Japan into something more lasting and meaningful than the Japonisme of the nineteenth century. If the government is serious about cultural diplomacy, it must be prepared to tackle this challenge and I sincerely hope that they will do so. (Written on September 15, 2011.)

In This Series

Japan’s Future Place in the International Community
Toward a New Era in Cultural Diplomacy (September 15)
Doing Our Part for Global Security (May 9)
A Shift in National Consciousness (April 22)

Watanabe HirotakaWatanabe Hirotaka

Graduated from Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, where he majored in French. Received his doctorate from Keiō University and a diploma in advanced studies from the Sorbonne in Paris. Handled public relations and cultural affairs as minister at the Japanese embassy in Paris from 2008 to 2010. Has taught at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies since 1995. Publications include Mitteran jidai no Furansu (France in the Mitterrand Years) and Bei-Ō dōmei no kyōchō to tairitsu (Cooperation and Conflict in the Euro-American Alliance).