“Cool Japan” and the Sources, Extent, and Implications of Japanese Soft Power in the United States

Thomas Bell, Staff Writer

From our Print Edition, 2017-2018

  Throughout most of history, international relations have been largely defined by hard power.  Hard power is an element of national strength, centered around the basic functions of the nation-state: military force and economic action.¹ This historical reality is logical, given the limitations on communication and transnational exposure for much of the pre-20th century world, with hard power oftentimes being the only way to interact between states.  In the diplomatic arena before instantaneous communication, it would be difficult to exert national will in any other way, with the target country often seemingly distant and mysterious. Contrarily, soft power  is a relatively modern phenomenon, especially since the end of the Second World War. It also centers around achieving national objectives, but is more concerned with using cultural and societal means to persuade other nations to share their goals.²  This requires a high level of interconnectedness between civilizations to allow for cultures and ideas to be traded and to have an effect. Such a high level of cultural exchange was impossible before the advent of modern technology and global connectedness.

  This is not to say that all countries have been able to maximize this new element of international relations.  The culture of Kyrgyzstan, for example, is relatively unknown in the United States. That country’s morals, goals, and societal structures are difficult to understand for most non-Kyrgyz, and thus, their soft power is largely nonexistent on an international scale.  One of the countries, however, that has best adapted to this new element of the global arena is Japan.

  The reasons for Japanese dominance of soft power are arguably not by choice.  The Japanese have been largely forced down this road, and the reasons why are best exemplified in the current Japanese constitution, adopted after World War II.  Article 9 of that document states that “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation,” as well as “the threat or use of force.” It further decrees that “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.”³ Though Japan maintains a “self-defense force,”⁴  its ability to project itself internationally is virtually nonexistent. This means that even economic hard power is curtailed, as the implicit threat of force is not present. As we have seen since 1945, it can be difficult for a nation to adequately wield hard power when its ability to use force is effectively eliminated.  

  Adapting to this new reality has been a tremendously successful endeavor for the Japanese.  Now unable to conquer nations with its once formidable military, it has had to rely on cultural domination.  The government has emphasized the idea of “Cool Japan,”⁵ in order to improve the economy and national image. Japanese society has seen itself stretch far beyond its borders, a remarkable development for a nation known for its historical isolation.  A new era of international affairs was born, and the Japanese soon found themselves exporting their culture at an absolutely unprecedented rate.

  In the United States, this has manifested itself in a number of important ways.  As an example, Japanese food has become immensely popular; or at the very least, Japanese-inspired food.  Ever since the California roll was invented in Los Angeles in the early 1970s,⁶ Americanized sushi has become a modern staple of the United States, spreading further to other countries.  Japanese food is available in most American supermarkets, and it is estimated that there are approximately 9,000 Japanese restaurants operating in the country today.⁷

  Japanese popular culture is also a critical player in the American psyche.  Media franchises such as Super Mario, Hello Kitty, Godzilla, and Final Fantasy sell a multitude of products in the United States, from video games and movies to lunchboxes and t-shirts.  Japanese manga and anime, though a relatively niche category, have become increasingly popular in the United States, with series such as Dragon Ball, Naruto, and Pokémon achieving high levels of success.  There is a level of acknowledgment of Japanese influence, and it has embedded itself in the fabric of modern American popular culture, especially among younger generations. It is the actualization of “Cool Japan.”⁸

  The impact of Japan transcends even obvious exemplars of culture, as a sampling of the largest Japanese corporations reveals dozens of household names⁹.  Americans drive cars made by Toyota, Honda, and Nissan, fixed with Bridgestone tires. They use Canon and Nikon cameras, and buy electronics from Panasonic, Toshiba, and Sharp.  Their pianos come from Yamaha, and their video games from Nintendo, Sony, and Sega. The products of Japanese corporations fill American households and workplaces, bringing a level of cultural intimacy that the soldiers on either side of the War in the Pacific could never have imagined in 1943. Ultimately, this is the point of soft power.  To imagine that a country like Japan could flip the script, from mortal enemy to supplier of cars and televisions, from militaristic empire to pop-culture hegemony, points to the influence and importance of Japanese soft power. In a 2015 Chicago Council Survey, 88% of Americans recognized that bilateral relations with Japan were either very important or somewhat important.¹⁰ As opposed to the sharp edge of military force or economic action, Japan has made its former enemy into its now-biggest supporter, while staying mostly constrained to the realm of non-forceful action.

  The extent of Japan’s soft power has even become so influential that it permeates the international community.  This was apparent in a brief video played during the closing ceremony of the 2016 Rio Games, touting the upcoming 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.  Amidst a flurry of sporting events and scenic shots of Tokyo prefecture, cultural figures such as manga character Captain Tsubasa, a cheerleading Hello Kitty, and a racing Pac-Man featured prominently,¹¹ tying the most famous elements of Japan’s popular culture to the capital city itself.  Most telling, however, was a scene when the Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzō Abe, was digitally transformed into Mario, before emerging in Rio de Janeiro, red cap and all. This scene represented not only a metaphorical, but a physical connection between Japanese culture and the government. It best demonstrated the desire to use Japan’s wide portfolio of cultural assets, such as the internationally known Mario, for the benefit of the Japanese nation itself and its image.  The implicit message was that to love Japanese culture is to love Japan, as embodied by the Prime Minister.

  However, this message has not worked with everyone.  This is most true in Japan’s own neighborhood, where 67% of South Koreans believe that Japan’s influence is negative, and 74% of Chinese say the same.¹²  Though the easy answer is to say that the legacy of the Second World War is to blame, ultimately nations like the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, and Indonesia fought long wars against the Japanese, and suffered under them, only to now have a positive outlook on the country.  Could the greater extent of devastation in China and South Korea explain the reluctance to support Japan, or does soft power simply have its limits? It is likely that the real reasons lie in the pages of history, where centuries of rivalry and conflict have poisoned the status of East Asian relations.  It can thus be argued that soft power, though effective in improving bilateral relations, is perhaps incapable of reversing centuries of tension. Soft power works as a deterrent and a healer of international wounds, but cannot heal the deep gashes of history – at least, not without more time.

  Ultimately, Japan’s ability to project and improve its national image through its soft power has opened up an entirely new element of international affairs, and a different way of measuring the dominance of states.  Writer Douglas McGray, in a famous essay, described Japan’s ability to manipulate its soft power as its “gross national cool.”¹³ Though obviously not a quantifiable statistic like gross national product or the human development index, this new term represents a variation in what it means to be a great power in the post-World War II era.  For Japan, this has meant a rise in soft power and in its ability to shape its own national image and the international perception of that image. Americans born in the years since World War II have been raised in a society where it is common to travel to the store in a Japanese car, buy Japanese inspired food and a Japanese television set, and use that set to watch Japanese cartoons and movies.  The two cultures have grown increasingly interconnected, and this has proven to be beneficial for both countries – Japan in particular. A nation once looking to heal itself and redefine its national identity after the most devastating war in human history, it has proven capable of using its soft power to not only survive in the post-war community, but to thrive as one of the world’s true great powers.


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