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Home > Opinions Last Updated: 15:04 03/09/2007
August 30, 2004

Japan's Soft Power Reconsidered

Toyoo GYOHTEN (President, Institute for International Monetary Affairs)

(This article is based on an interview with Mr. Gyohten on July 28, 2004)

Japan's non-military power

What is "soft power" in the international context? If a nation is regarded as having soft power in any field, it must have at least two things: "presence" and "respect" in that field. First, when it comes to that field, the nation should not be ignored but should always be listened to, because of its presence. Furthermore, respect must be earned so that the nation's opinion or position will be highly regarded by other nations. Without presence or respect, soft power cannot be a real power internationally.

For example, in the security field, Japan has no military power due to its peace constitution. However, this does not necessarily mean that Japan has no power in the security area. Actually, quite a few people in Japan--including not just communists and social democrats but many social activists such as NGO members--seem to think that the nation should be highly respected due to its pacifism in the international community. Of course, whether or not pacifism can be a kind of soft power is to yet be tested, but at least in today's international environment very few people outside Japan regard pacifism very highly. So there seems to be a large gap between domestic perception and international acceptance regarding the possible power of Japan's pacifism.

Japan's intellectual power

How about Japan's intellectual power? There seem to be two key areas where Japan's soft power could be identified in this field: technology and education. With regard to technological development, Japan's power is well recognized in the international economy. However, Japan has its own problems in basic as well as applied technology fields, and is relatively weak in disruptive technological innovation. Although Japan excels in manufacturing technology, there seems to be a problem in innovative ideas and applications in service industries in general.

In the education field, we can identify three kinds: (1) family education, (2) school education, and (3) corporate education. These days neither family education nor school education is highly regarded in Japan, and only corporate education remains effective in Japan as well as overseas, especially in Asia. But even Japan's corporate education seems to be losing its power as Western-style corporate management and training are gaining popularity globally. Given these facts, probably Japan's soft power in this field may lie in its excellent system of educating the masses for general intellectual gains. Since this is not widely recognized overseas, Japan needs to promote this potential power more actively, especially among developing nations.

Japan's cultural power

There is no doubt that cultural power is Japan's most distinguished soft power, because Japan's artistic sense has long been recognized and is so highly regarded internationally, whether it is literature, arts or music. In order to make it Japan's real soft power in the long run, public policy should be directed to help provide a better environment in which creative artistic sense can be nurtured and realized.

Rather than publicly supporting creators directly, the government should protect and promote the nation's cultural assets and heritage, just as French language is supported in France. That way individual creativity will flourish based on traditional cultural assets. This should apply not only to traditional culture but also to pop culture. One obvious example is that the government might financially support theaters, museums as well as cultural events in order to promote creative activities indirectly, if not directly.

Importance of proper balance

It is often said that Japan could become the world's soft power, although its economic power might be declining, as China may well take over Japan economically in the near future. But this kind of thinking is not correct. In reality, proper balance is needed for a nation to be regarded as any power, whether hard or soft, in the international arena. At least a minimum necessary level should be maintained in each of the key fields: military, economic, cultural and foreign policy.

Currently, Japan might be regarded as a "kangaroo" nation that has only two strong legs, whereas the U.S. can be considered a "lion" nation with four strong legs, meaning its strengths in military, economic, cultural and foreign policy fields. Japan should strengthen its power in all these four areas at the same time, if possible. In particular, economic competitiveness must be maintained by all means, and this should be a never-ending effort on the part of business and government.

If Japan becomes a "normal" nation with proper balance among military, economic, cultural and foreign policy powers, then Japan's soft power, largely based on its cultural power, would be highly regarded in the global community. For that purpose, Japan should recognize and promote the global value of its cultural heritage overseas, while strengthening its power in other fields as well.

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