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Home > Opinions Last Updated: 15:03 03/09/2007
January 2002

The Perception of Japan: From a Foreigner's Perspective

Robert Keating
(Representative, Tokyo Office, Quebec Government, Canada)

The following is a summary of Mr. Keating's presentation at a GLOCOM Platform seminar on January 24, 2002

Mr. Robert KeatingPromotion of Japan's Image in the Past

First, I would like to thank you very much for inviting me today. I view this occasion as a chance to exchange opinions with you. Obviously, the views that I will be expressing are not the views of my government, but my personal views.

What I would like to do is to look at the image or the perception of Japan that I have seen myself. But before starting to tell you about my own views, let us recap a little bit on the image that has been promoted by Japan abroad, at least officially.

After the war, Japan adopted a public policy to present itself as a peace promoter to the world and an aid provider to developing countries. The Japanese government has also been trying to change the image of Japan from being an exotic country with "Fujiyama" and "Geisha" to being a very modern country with a dynamic economy, although I am not sure if Japan has been totally efficient in promoting a new image.

Another aspect of promotion is that, probably without knowing it, the image of a modern Japan has been promoted along with a kind of "anonymous" Japan with lots of "yen" and high-quality products such as cars and consumer electronics. That image has strongly influenced foreigners' views abroad, that is, Japan being a very dynamic economy but quite anonymous without promoting any specific image of Japanese people. Rather, the image has been affected more by companies of Japan or more by products from Japan.

More recently, Japan has shifted towards cultural exchanges as one of the pillars in foreign policy along with security and economic cooperation. As a result, you have seen the promotion of culture abroad through various governmental organizations, including programs for cultural exchange, protection of world heritage sites, promotion of cultural diversity for minorities, etc., some of which are linked to security as exemplified by the case of Japan's effort to protect Angkor Wat, while playing an important role in promoting security and resolution of the crisis in Cambodia.

I would also like to mention that in the 80s and 90s the Japanese government promoted international exchanges by inviting thousands and thousands of young people from abroad, mostly westerners, through the JET program for example. The official goal was to internationalize Japan, but I guess that one of the real goals was to maintain some kind of political influence overseas by attracting those young foreigners who can promote a new image of Japan in their home countries as "ambassadors" of Japan.

Japan's Problems in Communication

Having said this, I would now like to tackle an issue that may be a little provocative. First, the Japanese government is now at the point where they promote image, and have to decide whether they should promote the traditional image of Japan or what kind of image they should promote abroad. Should they do like France? Japan is different from France, because I believe that the Japanese don't know very well the influence that the country has abroad in the day-to-day life of people. There is much more influence coming from Japan than you may think. Examples are not just cars and electronic products, but also games, foods, pictures, home decorations, and other cultural objects.

This leads to my second point, that is, Americanization versus Japanization. Although we are living in an era when American culture, American values, American movie films, American literature, etc. are everywhere, you would be surprised to see how many products, values, and ways of thinking are from Japan, at least in Canada and the U.S. When foreigners visit Tokyo, they find that it is not just a modern city but an exceptional city, and this is an image of the future, which is quite important.

My third point is that by promoting Japan as an economic power in the past the backlash now is there, because Japan is obviously in some kind of crisis on the economic side. I think that Japan's problem is more or less related to bad loans, and more structural than cyclical in nature. In any case, there is not one day when I am not reading a newspaper clip from Canada about the crisis of Japan. So it is quite depressing. People in Quebec, Montreal, or Toronto look at Japan and see no future, as they think that the Japanese economy is going down the drain. We are here in Tokyo trying to promote Canadian exports to Japan, but have difficulty in attracting Canadian trade companies to do business with Japan because they see no future here and instead go to China for example. So the image of Japan for decision-making people is quite negative, possibly comparable to the image of Argentina. Although Japan and Argentina are totally different in economic size and strength, it is the image of Japan that is in serious crisis. In reality there are many sectors that have been doing relatively well such as cellular phones in Japan, but the image or perception of Japan is negative. This is one thing that you really have to know.

Let me go to the positive side and talk about building up a new image for Japan. One of the problems for Japan, I think, is how to communicate abroad. More and more young people are able to speak English. Prime Minister Koizumi is very popular among the Japanese, and I can tell you that he is very popular among foreigners too, because he can express himself in English and present the view of Japan differently from the prime ministers you have had in the past. He is very direct and a fantastic communicator, who has brought some kind of fresh wind to the Japanese way of communication.

Is there any future ahead for Japan? Let us not be too pessimistic. Ten years ago when I came to Japan, America was in decline and everybody was talking about the Japanese miracle. Now, everybody says America is so good. Look at it on a long-term basis. I think this country has lots of potential, lots of possibilities, fantastically well-developed and well-educated manpower, etc., which you cannot erase. Especially, education is the key to everything, because the future is based on information and communication among people, where education plays a crucial role. Although there may be some political or economic problems, you have much more potential and much more possibilities. There may be structural problems in Japan, but they can be solved. Therefore, we should not be so negative. The problem for Japan is how to communicate with foreigners to present a view of Japan that is different from what you have seen abroad.

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