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Home > Opinions Last Updated: 12:06 08/08/2008
August 8, 2008

Japanese and Chinese Nation Branding: Key Issues and Contrasting Strategies

Keith Dinnie (Associate Professor, Temple University, Japan)

This article is based on Professor Dinnie's presentation at the July meeting of the Global Communications Platform seminar, which was held at GLOCOM Hall in Roppongi, Tokyo, on July 22, 2008.

"Nation branding" is not an easy thing to do, due to the complexity inherent in treating a nation as a brand to be projected externally to the rest of the world as well as internally to the domestic population. Ideally, that would involve all stakeholders, namely, the public sector and the private sector organizations as well as the nation's citizens, but it is not easy at all to involve all those kinds of stakeholders for a nation's branding. In what follows, we will take up nation branding policies adopted by Japan and China, and point out some successful as well as not-so-successful aspects of their policies.

Japan's Nation Branding

First, Japan's nation branding policy may be characterized as ambitious and innovative. It is ambitious, because its key goal is to "improve the image and reputation of Japan and turn it into a nation that is loved and respected by people throughout the world," according to the Intellectual Property (IP) Strategy Headquarters (2006). We all know that it is very hard for any nation to be loved and respected by everyone in the world. It is innovative, because the Japan Brand Working Group at the IP Strategy Headquarters has set a goal of developing diverse local business brands, rather than promoting some of the existing brands, to be accepted overseas. This is in sharp contrast to such European countries as Spain, where well-established brands are emphasized for nation branding purposes.

Other goals set by the Japan Brand Working Group are fostering Japan's rich food culture and establishing Japan's fashion as a global brand. It seems that these goals are being achieved to a large extent, although Japan's food campaigns, such as "Eat-Japan," may require further reinforcement in some countries, where public misconceptions about Japanese food being too expensive and consisting only of raw fish remain quite strong.

One of the strengths of Japan's nation branding policies is the fact that many of the major players including various government ministries (such as the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fishery), Japan Business Federation (Nippon Keidanren), Japan Association of Corporate Executives (Keizai Doyukai) and JETRO are involved and small and medium sized companies are supported by both governmental and private organizations to develop regional brands which can be internationally competitive.

On the other hand, some of the challenges that Japan is facing in making its nation branding policies more effective are (1) to develop a closer cooperative relationship among various organizations to integrate the functions of trade promotion, tourism, inward investment, and public diplomacy, (2) to adopt a more non-traditional, entrepreneurial approach, e.g., maximize the impact of Japanese sports stars abroad such as Shunsuke Nakamura to be appointed as a goodwill ambassador for Japan in Europe (just like sumo wrestler Baruto for Estonia in Japan), and (3) to clarify Japan's position with regard to the desirability of attracting foreign direct investment.

China's Nation Branding

In contrast to Japan's focus on commercial design and branding, China seems to be emphasizing public diplomacy to appeal its "peaceful development" as a non-threatening nation, where its historical culture rather than commercial brands are highlighted. This is an indirect and potentially an effective way of promoting Chinese products and brands through the good management of the nation's reputation in the international arena.

According to the Chinese embassy in Tokyo, various means are being used for their public diplomacy purposes, such as official announcements, press conferences, online communications, social events as well as commercial publications. For example, they regularly hold conferences with the Japanese Press Association, and such events as Chinese National Day celebrations at a major hotel in Tokyo, where more than a thousand people including some politicians and business leaders attend and .listen to the explanations of China's foreign policy. They also have some Chinese film stars participate in a big movie event in Tokyo, and try to communicate with the Japanese public on the Internet as well as through publication of Chinese magazines and literature in Japanese.

Special attention is being paid to cultural diplomacy, since as many as ten Confucius Institutes have been established in Japan to publicize a "deep" connection in culture between China and Japan. In addition, as many as a hundred performances in Chinese culture, e.g., music, dance, and other performing arts, are offered all over Japan every year. Furthermore, there are a number of exchange programs between Chinese and Japanese schools, cities and business organizations have been established and encouraged.

All these efforts on the part of Chinese representatives and diplomats themselves are noteworthy, but the most serious problem is that they are not widely known and often completely unnoticed by the public, especially in Japan. In fact, according to the results of a small-scale survey that the author conducted among Tokyo-based respondents in the media, academia and other professional fields, China's efforts in public diplomacy toward Japan seem to have achieved little impact to date, with very few respondents aware of any of China's efforts to build a positive reputation within Japan. Almost no one had even heard of the existence of Confucius Institutes in Japan. And "mixed" was the typical answer to the question: "Has the media coverage of the forthcoming Beijing Olympics improved, damaged, or had no effect upon China's reputation in Japan?"


There seem to be contrasting strategies in nation branding between Japan and China. In Japan, an overtly commercial branding approach is adopted with a focus mainly on the development of innovative products and design, especially among small and medium sized companies in local regions to be marketed as international brands for national branding purposes. On the other hand, in China there appears to be more focus upon a public diplomacy approach with special emphasis on the promotion of culture in order to improve the country's reputation as a peaceful nation, potentially leading to the future promotion of its commercial brands. From the viewpoint of Japan, however, China's efforts in public diplomacy toward Japan are yet to be noticed even by well-informed specialists, and some new strategies may be needed to appeal to the general public in Japan.

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