The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

The race among Asian nations to win friends in Washington D.C. and to influence US foreign policy is constantly shifting and evolving.

Along with the traditional route of accessing US leaders (via embassies), such entities as the media, think tanks, non-governmental organizations, lobbyists, and public relations firms are playing an increasingly important role in conveying the aims of Japan and its neighbors to Capitol Hill.

The problem for Tokyo, believes Kent Calder, is that Japan’s rivals are lobbying more powerfully and effectively, crowding out Tokyo’s voice.

Professor Calder, director of The Edwin O. Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies, a division of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, has coordinated a multi-year international project titled “The Ideas Industry.”

It examines the way in which ideas emerge and are translated into official policy in Washington, Tokyo, and a number of other major cities around the world.

“It’s not how large a country is or how many lobbyists you have that is decisive,” he said. “It’s a combination of flexibility, the ability to respond to rapid changes in the information revolution, and domestic policy-making.”

Calder used as an example the number of South Korean leaders who have addressed the US Congress. He pointed out that, since the advent of a democratic system in Seoul, every South Korean president except one has spoken in one of the US chambers. Indian leaders have also been granted the honor of taking the podium in Congress.

But no Japanese leader has done so since former Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda in 1961—although there are suggestions that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe might break that spell when he pays an official visit to Washington this spring.

The two free-trade agreements that the US government has signed with Asia–Pacific states thus far are with South Korea and Singapore, while discussions on the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement labor on.

The signing of the free-trade pact with Singapore underlines Calder’s belief that the effective routes used by nations to achieve their aims in Washington have changed, as Singapore has a mere 20 accredited diplomats in Washington. China has more than 200, while Japan has around half that number, Calder stated.


Calder’s book examines the advocacy efforts of Asian countries.

Informal networks

“I do not think enough weight is given to the informal networks that ambassadors have—where they went to school, who they speak with outside official discussions,” said Calder.

His most recent book, Asia in Washington, was released in 2014. The text examines the lobbying and advocacy efforts employed by Asian countries and non-state actors, such as the Korea Economic Institute of America, headquartered in the US capital.

Calder then pointed out that Keidanren, the Japan Business Federation, closed its offices in Washington in 2009.

The media is another way of exerting influence, with Beijing particularly active in this area. State-run China Central Television has about 100 journalists based in Washington D.C., and it employs a number of high-profile Americans to present its key programs.

In contrast, Japan’s national broadcaster, NHK, has a staff of 17 in Washington.

Yoshihide Soeya, a professor of law at the Keio Institute of East Asian Studies, says the initial aim of Japan’s public diplomacy immediately after World War II was “to recover from the past image of Japanese militarism.” Soeya has written a book with the tentative title Understanding Public Diplomacy in East Asia, due to be published later this year.

There has recently been an emphasis on Japan’s soft power and the government’s Cool Japan export-driven campaign, although Soeya also notes a shift toward what he describes as competitive diplomacy.

“Japan is competing with South Korea and other nations in East Asia in its public diplomacy outreach,” he said. “But this is exactly what traditional Japanese diplomacy has tried to avoid. The Japan Foundation, for example, was created in the 1970s to encourage cultural and intellectual exchanges, but also to avoid controversial issues.”

Issues that generate friction between East Asian nations—such as differing interpretations of history or territorial claims—are now being placed firmly on the agenda in Washington by China and South Korea, much to Japan’s discomfort.

Japan as a “middle power”
The Japanese government does not openly refer to the nation as a “middle power,” meaning a state that can stand on its own and exert international influence, but is not considered a great world power.

Nevertheless, Soeya suggests that many of the ways in which Tokyo dispenses its approach to diplomacy, such as developing human resources, infrastructure and so on, fit the definition of middle power diplomacy.

Projection of its influence overseas, however, has brought Japan into various degrees of competition with a number of its neighbors. Some of them these days are quick to recall history and use that to tarnish Japan’s name.

If Tokyo can overcome some of the deep-seated differences with its neighbors, then a more cooperative approach to diplomacy might be brought to bear in Washington.

“The more we cooperate with other nations in the region, the more we will be able to create some sort of regional infrastructure in East Asia,” he said, adding that Australia and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are also important players.

Changes have not been confined to the lobbying nations of East Asia, Calder said, pointing to developments in the information industry in the US capital. “This began after World War II, when the growth of greater Washington began to accelerate beyond the beltway.

Anyone who drives down Massachusetts Avenue and sees all the building cranes will appreciate what is happening there.

“Both the ideas industry and the penumbra of power in Washington are growing,” he added, pointing to developments in the region such as the Baltimore-Washington Parkway north of the capital, Baltimore-Washington International Airport, the National Security Agency, and NASA.

To the west, the Dulles Tech Corridor, a business cluster containing many defense and technology companies, leads to Loudoun County, Virginia, the richest per-capita county in the United States, also the founding location of AOL and the headquarters of USA Today.

“Washington today is a dynamic entity that has grown in the last decade much more rapidly than the nation as a whole. It now includes three of the wealthiest five counties in the United States,” Calder elaborated.

A different approach
If Japan wishes to once again gain the ear of a country that is still by far its most important ally, Calder believes it must change its approach.

Calder does not believe anyone in Japan “has been a culprit in this,” but he believes that Tokyo has failed to formally articulate interest. Meanwhile, other nations have been engaging and influencing Washington far more effectively.

Tokyo, like many large Japanese companies, relies far too heavily on formal mechanisms of operating. It goes through official diplomatic channels such as the embassy in Washington. Japan needs to start thinking outside the box, Calder believes, and take a leaf out of South Korea’s book.

The semi-governmental Korea Economic Institute has a high profile in Washington, along with the Federation of Korean Industries and “a multiplicity of either informal or semi-governmental organizations.”

“And it is interesting to note,” Calder added, “that Seoul’s sister city in the US is Washington Beijing’s sister city is also Washington; Tokyo’s is New York.”

(The Japan Times, March 16)
The Japanese government has budgeted $5 million each for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Georgetown University for fiscal 2015. The funds will support Japan studies at the schools, and are part of a $15 million allocation to nine overseas universities.

“Washington today is a dynamic entity that has grown in the last decade much more rapidly than the nation as a whole.”