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Japanese Diplomacy Through J-Pop, Anime, Pokémon, and the Cultural Arts

Updated on September 14, 2019

Cultural Soft Power

In the 1990s the Japanese economy collapsed. A monstrosity of an asset bubble that had been expanding for years had finally burst, leading to a series of vicious banking failures (Schaede 2012: 174). Japan’s economy was in shambles and its’ regional influence was being challenged by China. In light of its’ economic downfall, to reestablish itself Japan would have to turn to another kind of power… cultural soft power. The following will be discussed, the Japanese experience of soft power, and culture and arts as an economic asset.

Soft Power: The Japanese Experience

Harvard Professor Joseph Nye coined the term ‘soft power’, that is the idea that a country should not only promote its military and economic power, but also its cultural powers, to attract, fascinate, and appeal to other countries, so that a country can maintain positive relations in world politics (Otmazgin 2012: 41). These positive relations are produced out of admiration, curiosity, and appeal, rather than the accustomed respect and fear produced out of military might. However, ‘soft power’ as Joseph Nye terms it is anything but new for Japan.

When foreigners started flocking in mass to Japan for trade in the 1800s one of the most popular ways to make money off of them was through the selling of cultural commodities such as woodblock prints (Huffman 2011: 43). In another instance, during Commodore Matthew Perry’s first arrival in Japan in 1853 he brought with him a model of the locomotive train in an attempt to awe and shock the Japanese. To counter the Americans, during Commodore Perry’s second arrival the Japanese prepared a culturally distinct sumo-wrestling event in an attempt to intimidate them (Gordon 2014: 50). These exchanges of culture would only be a precursor to much further reaching applications of soft power.

Throughout the 20th century Japan would adopt three different cultural policies. During the 1930’s up to the occupation of Japan the Japanese would use culture to promote their empire. Then from the end of the war in 1945 to the bursting of the economic bubble in 1991, Japan would use culture and the arts to present itself as a peaceful power in an attempt to make up for the negative image that was generated during World War II. Lastly, after the bursting of the economic bubble Japan would begin to promote its present day policy of being a culturally-exciting country in the hopes to generate economic growth and soft power (Otmazgin 2012: 38-40).


Culture & The Arts as an Economic Asset

In 1996 the Pokémon brand emerged. By 2003 Pokémon acquired $15 billion in U.S. sales, broadcast its television program in over 50 countries, sold its games in 70 countries, and even had a partnership with All Nippon Airlines to introduced Pokémon themed air flights (Allison 2009: 92-94). Pokémon embodied “Gross National Cool” or “J-Cool” as it’s frequently termed, which can be defined as “the global trade and cachet of Japanese youth goods” (Allison 2009: 89). J-Cool is used to represent a wide array of Japanese products such as, Japanese pop music, Hello Kitty, cosplay, anime, manga, computer games, and a more liberal understanding of J-Cool could even include the elaborate sex culture and nightlife of Japan (McGray 2002; Hendry 2013: 182-183).

According to research conducted by Anne Allison in her article “The Cool Brand, Affective Activism and Japanese Youth.”, the J-cool brands have excelled at generating affection in consumers for their products through using a “feel good” approach that creates addictive and narcissistic consumers (Allison 2009: 92-94). For Japan, the hope of J-cool is that its products will inspire consumers desires to gravitate towards something that is Japanese (Allison 2009: 93). The idea of J-cool has even transcended to the government as they have started to take notice to the potential of this phenomenon.

During Japan’s economic rise to stardom in the 1970’s and 80’s promotion of Japanese culture was subsided in a fear that it could provoke wartime grievances or undermine the country's vital commercial and industrial interests (Otmazgin 2012: 38). However, after the collapse of the economy in the early 1990’s different alternatives would be considered and the realization that cultural commodities could help boost a struggling economy came to fruition. In addition, the previous fear that culture might provoke wartime grievances was replaced with the idea that culture could create a friendlier image of Japan (Otmazgin 2012: 38).

By the early 2000s so called “J-cool” products were selling extremely well all over the world and in 2003 The Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) published a report presenting the “Japanese Brand” and proposed its international expansion through the selling of cultural products, such as anime, manga, video games, music, movies, and TV dramas (Mandujano 2013: 32). The government was now showing a willingness to closely cooperate with cultural products, media, and corporations. This would help to propel Japan’s global image rankings spot to number two on the BBC/Globespan Survey in 2008 (Heng 2010: 288). The public private partnership in promoting culturally products would continue to grow in the years ahead.

In 2009 Japan founded the Japan Creative Centre (JCC) in Singapore where they have focused on promoting Japanese tradition, innovation, and culture. This has contributed to fostering a greater relationship between the two countries through an exchange in culture. In 2010, facing competition from Korean cultural art, METI established the Creative Industries Promotion Office. The Creative Industries Promotion Office focused on developing culture and promoting Japan as a tourism-oriented nation to attract capital and investment (Mandujano 2013: 34). After the Japanese earthquake of 2011 the government realizing the strength of culture and the Japanese Brand would use the Cool Japan Advisory Council (CJAC) to shift focus on revitalizing the people and gaining a greater sense of national unity through the promotion of “Japaneseness” (Mandujano 2013: 37). In 2013 riding the wave of cultural euphoria, the imperial diet passed a bill establishing the Japan Brand Fund with the purpose of supporting business activities to promote overseas demand for Japanese products or services that use distinct Japanese characteristics (Mandujano 2013: 38). This unity between public and private in the promotion of soft power has given Japan a clear advantage over other countries in their region such as China who has yet to successfully establish a joint effort between public and private in the promotion of cultural commodities (Heng 2010: 287).

Hesitant at first because of wartime history, Japan is now finally using their national culture to influence the world again through the use of cultural commodities, such as anime, video games, cosplay, manga, music, and television dramas. But, this time Japan is promoting their culture for another kind of reason, not for empire, but for acceptance and stability. As in the words from a 2005 Council of Promotion of Cultural Diplomacy report , traits encompassing “Japaneseness” such as harmony, compassion, and coexistence can go a long way in bridging the gaps between cultures (Heng 2010: 288).


Has Japanese 'cool power' influenced you?

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Allison, Anne. (2009). The Cool Brand, Affective Activism and Japanese Youth. Theory, Culture & Society Vol. 26.

Gordon, Andrew. (2014). A Modern History of Japan 3rd Edition. Oxford University Press.

Hendry, Joy. (2013). Understanding Japanese Society 4th Edition. Routledge.

Heng, Yee-Kuang. (2010). Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the softest of them all? Evaluating Japanese and Chinese strategies in the ‘soft’ power competition era. International Relations of the Asia-Pacific Vol. 10 (2010)

Huffman, James. (2011). Modern Japan: A History In Documents. Oxford University Press.

Mandujano, Yunuen. (2013).The Politics of Selling Culture and Branding the National in Contemporary Japan: Economic Goals, Soft-power and Reinforcement of the National Pride. The Scientific Journal of Humanistic Studies Year 5, No. 9

McGray, Douglas. (2002). Japan’s Gross National Cool. Foreign Policy. Accessed at

Otmazgin, Nissim. (2007). Contesting soft power: Japanese popular culture in East and Southeast Asia. International Relations of the Asia-Pacific Vol. 8 (2008)

Otmazgin, Nissim. (2012). Geopolitics and Soft Power: Japan’s Cultural Policy and Cultural Diplomacy in Asia. Asia-Pacific Review, Vol. 19, No. 1


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