Japan has just suffered some bad news: its economy has slipped down the world economic league tables from third to fourth place, overtaken by Germany. Yet there is a rival index upon which the news is better: on the 2024 Global Soft Power Index, Japan has zipped up the charts to steal fourth place from the Germans, pushing them down to fifth.

What is ‘soft power’? The concept was first popularized by Joseph Nye, a Harvard Professor, in the late 1980s to delineate how a nation might utilize its collective cultural output, like movies, music, video games, history, and fashion, to project its shared national values out across the world stage, thereby influencing global affairs via less overt and muscular means than crude military force.

It is, as was once said of diplomacy, “Warfare by other means”, and its strongest culture warriors can sometimes adopt some unexpected forms … 

Economic Warfare

In the 1980s, when Joseph Nye first formulated his theory, Japan’s reputation in the West was distinctly low. Four decades ago, memories of Japan’s cruel and barbaric conduct in WWII was still strong. What’s more, Japan was also negatively perceived as a ruthless economic competitor, fueled by post-war success as a manufacturer of cheap semiconductors, whose 1980s stock-market boom saw it potentially poised to overtake the US as the world’s number one economy. 

Within this context, the presence of Japanese corporations in the West from the late 1970s onward were disparaged as further alarming examples of contemporary Japanese infiltration of the domestic American cultural sphere. Events like Sony’s 1989 purchase of Columbia Pictures were widely viewed as though, having lost the shooting war in 1945, Japan had ultimately outcompeted America via industrial and financial means. Many analysts in the late 1980s thought Japan stood poised to supplant the US as the world’s number one economy sometime soon. 

And yet, by the end of the 1990s, companies like Nintendo and Sony, with their hyper-appealing and ultra-successful range of well-designed and innovative consumer entertainment products, from the Walkman to the GameBoy, had become some of the West’s best-loved companies, and perceptions of Japan abroad were becoming increasingly positive. 

One factor was the comparative economic slump which popped the Japanese asset bubble from 1991 onwards, which rendered Japan much less of an economic threat than it had hitherto appeared. Alarmist 1980s US books with titles like The Coming War with Japan stopped appearing, and now seem comical; the text in question was published in 1991, the very year Japan’s bubble burst. Another reason, however, was that, as Japan’s comparative economic power steadily declined, its cultural soft power was steadily increasing.

Diplomatic Language

Nye’s philosophy once seemed novel and niche, but in the decades since has come to be formally adopted and exploited by the Japanese government itself. An officially pacifist nation, Japan’s post-war constitution expressly forbids Tokyo from sending troops into battle abroad. Hence, the Japanese leadership now feels forced to enlist J-pop singers, anime and manga cartoon figures, and videogame characters to fight her corner instead.

In 2006, Japan’s then-Foreign Minister Tarō Asō explained how “any kind of cultural diplomacy that fails to take advantage of pop culture is not really worthy of being called ‘cultural diplomacy’.” “What is the image that pops into someone’s mind when they hear the name ‘Japan’?” he continued. “Is it a bright and positive image? Warm? Cool? The more these kinds of positive images pop up in a person’s mind, the easier it becomes for Japan to get its [geopolitical] views across over the long term.” 

“The world has become increasingly democratized,” Asō added. “That is, public opinion now enjoys much greater influence on diplomacy than before… What we have now is an era in which diplomacy at the national level is affected dramatically by the climate of opinion arising from the average person. And that is exactly why we want pop culture, which is so effective in penetrating throughout the general public, to be our ally in diplomacy.” The way anti-Israel marches in the West are currently swaying US and European policy in the Middle East proves Asō was right here.

Asō further directly linked the increasing number of people studying Japanese worldwide to the country’s all-conquering otaku (nerd) culture: “As the Japanese economy was in a slump for so many years, you might be inclined to guess that the number of people with an interest in [learning] Japanese has been decreasing, but you would be mistaken … In 1990 there were 980,000 people studying Japanese as a foreign language around the world, while in 2003 there were some 2.35 million. I got to thinking about what might account for that, and it occurred to me that the theme songs of anime shows on TV are in Japanese. Naturally, there would be an increase in children with an interest in the Japanese language as a result.”  

Cool for Cats 

In 2010 Tokyo’s government instituted an official emphasis on exporting ideas of what they termed ‘Cool Japan’ abroad. In 2008, Japan had already appointed Japan’s first official cartoon anime ambassador, a kawaii (cute) time-traveling blue, atomic-powered robotic cat named Doraemon, created in 1969 by cartoonist Fujiko F. Fujio. 

Introducing his latest employee to the world’s Press, Japan’s then-Foreign Minister, Masahiko Komura, told him “Doraemon, I hope you will travel around the world as an anime ambassador and deepen people’s understanding of Japan so they will become our friends.” In reply, the cuddly Atomic Kitten promised to tread the globe communicating “what ordinary Japanese people think, our lifestyles, and what kind of future we want to build.”

This may seem harmless, but in 2014 the Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece Chengdu Daily denounced Doraemon as a dangerous political subversive, intended to portray Japan to the Southeast Asian public in a misleadingly lovable light, thereby making them take their old WWII enemy’s side in the ongoing contemporary battle between it and Beijing for maritime control of the South China Sea. 

“Doraemon is part of Japan’s efforts of exporting its national values and achieving its cultural strategy; this an undisputed fact,” argued the propaganda sheet. The Asian people “should be less blind” about the true geostrategic goals of “the chubby blue guy”, the paper added, saying Doraemon’s ambassadorial activities were simply an “attempt to weaken the Chinese people’s firm stance on historical issues”, such as blurring their memory of Japan’s brutal war-time occupation of Manchuria. 

Another Chinese Communist Party newspaper, Global Times, went further, warning readers that “We must never let a robotic cat take control of our minds,” which is actually good advice under all circumstances.  Still, it’s hard to equate Japanese soft power ‘provocations’ with China’s decidedly hard power actions in the South China Sea, such as building artificial islands to serve as military bases and blasting Filipino fishermen with water cannons. 

Ultimately, as tensions rise in East Asia, Japan will continue to seek more ways to project power around the world, in forms both hard and soft. While the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force’s new Izumo-class aircraft carriers, Japan’s first such ships since WWII, may seem more significant, Japan’s cultural clout could yet prove its most important asset.