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Saturday, Jan. 7, 2012

What's really cool about Japan

Special to The Japan Times

Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba's recent visit to Beijing included a stop at the Japan Animation Festival, part of the government's ongoing series of public events designed to showcase Japan's popular culture. Since 2007, the Foreign Ministry has established an International Manga Award and named an Anime Ambassador, among other initiatives designed to capitalize on foreign interest in Japan's vibrant cultural scene. There is certainly nothing wrong with Doraemon, Super Mario, and other "Made in Japan" pop icons.

The use of cultural exchange to improve Sino-Japanese relations, in particular, should be welcomed by everyone in the region. And increasing the exposure of Japanese products is definitely good for their corporate parents' bottom line. A heavy official emphasis on "Cool Japan", however, risks diluting the potency of the "Japan Brand" hip factor — while at the same time distracting attention from the real source of Japan's attraction.

You can't capture "cool" in a bottle. When governments try to identify themselves with trends prevalent among youth, they may inadvertently undermine the counter-culture ethos that so often sparks creativity.

In addition, "Japanese" cultural products sometimes have only a tenuous link to Japan. After World War II, many cultural exports were purged of explicit reference to their Japanese origins, a tendency still apparent today. More fundamentally, a taste for manga or anime does not necessarily translate into an affinity for Japan or its policies.

At the height of the Iraq war, "Pirates of the Caribbean" and "Spider Man 2" garnered an enthusiastic reception in countries where most people strongly opposed U.S. policy. Similarly, encouraging a taste for "Naruto" or other anime series is unlikely to help mitigate a thorny bilateral territorial dispute.

So why bother with promoting pop culture at all? Whatever its inherent entertainment value, Japan's cultural products can play a role in helping to stimulate interest in the place where they were created. The heart of Japanese "soft power" cannot be found in tangible fads or fashion, but rather in the society that acts as a catalyst for such remarkable creative ferment. From the 1950s through the 1980s, Japan's global image was dominated by the extraordinary success of its development model. A cooling of the once-superheated economy, however, has prompted a search to showcase other Japanese strengths. Especially in a region with sometimes painful memories of Japan's historic role, pop culture may be a helpful bridge for highlighting Japan's democratic transformation.

Nevertheless, Japan's signature postwar achievement is not an entertaining youth culture. And it's not even economic development, as impressive as Japan's record remains despite two decades of relatively slow growth.

Instead, Japan's signature accomplishment is the forging of an enduring democracy complemented by an increasingly vibrant civil society. Japan's democratic stability has become such a part of the global landscape that it's tempting to take it for granted.

Japan was one of East Asia's democratic pioneers. First, Japan's experience proved that democracy was compatible with rapid economic growth. Now, after enabling the country to achieve developed status, Japan's democracy is adapting to help address the demands of a fragile environment, a rapidly aging society, and evolving gender and family roles — all challenges also faced by many of Japan's neighbors.

This vast reservoir of democratic "soft power" is best tapped by direct contact with Japan and the Japanese themselves. Recently, there has been much hand-wringing about the declining number of Japanese going to study abroad amid accusations that Japanese youth are growing insular. Less attention has been paid, however, to an arguably more pressing problem: giving the rest of the world more firsthand exposure to Japan.

In many instances, Japan is an outlier among OECD countries in embracing the openness that embodies globalization — and that magnifies the resonance of a country's achievements. Japan ranks only 29th globally in inbound tourism, for example, far behind smaller countries with less-developed infrastructure.

Japan hosted about 130,000 foreign students in 2009, lower than the comparable figures for Australia, Canada, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the U.S. While English's status as the de facto global language helps account for the popularity of study in Anglophone countries, it also points out another handicap for Japan: The country continues to lag in English ability, with Japanese speakers earning among the lowest scores in East Asia on the 2010 Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) Internet-based test. At 1.7 percent in 2007, Japan's level of foreign-born population places it among the lowest in the OECD. And Japan is at the bottom of the OECD table for foreign direct investment as a share of GDP, at 3.9 percent, far below the OECD average.

These disparate indicators all point in the same direction: Japan can do more to build its international "constituency." By giving more foreigners a stake in Japan, whether through travel, study, work or investment, Japan can also enhance the impact of its society and culture. An export-based model only gets you so far, whether for products or in the global marketplace of ideas and influence. "Indirect" communication can often be the most credible. Who is more believable touting the merits of Japan — an official government spokesperson, or a friend from your own country who just enjoyed a week in Osaka?

Fortunately, Japan is already taking some important steps in the right direction. Government efforts to increase tourism and the number of foreign students have borne fruit over the past decade, although efforts to attract FDI have lagged. Since the 1980s, over 50,000 young people from dozens of countries have lived in Japan through the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) program. Smaller programs, such as the Ship for Southeast Asian Youth (SSEAYP) and the Japan-East Asia Network of Exchange for Students and Youths (JENESYS), are also useful.

Some Japanese universities are expanding English-language course offerings. English instruction is a perennial target for reform. Such initiatives are aspects of a long-term, evolving process. Japan may not be interested in opening its doors to significant foreign immigration. But by including more foreigners in the ongoing narrative of Japanese success, Japan can enhance the global impact of its model.

AKB48 may be cool this month. Democracy and development, however, never fall out of fashion. Japan has an extraordinary amount of allure — and it's not just comics and Hello Kitty.

Hanscom Smith is a Foreign Service Officer at the U.S. Department of State, and wrote this op-ed during a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellowship in Japan, sponsored by Hitachi Ltd. at the Japan Institute of International Affairs. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Department of State or the U.S. government.

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