The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

Soft power isn’t just about pop culture (i.e. the government’s Cool Japan campaign) or cuisine (Tokyo’s many Michelin stars).

Fundamentally, it is based on government policies and societal values. Soft power rises and falls based on a nation or region’s ability to attract others with the legitimacy of its policies and its underlying values.

The more formal institutional twin of soft power is public diplomacy. A recognized subfield of international relations, public diplomacy is now on the curriculum of highly respected advanced degrees at some of the best US institutions, including the University of Southern California and Syracuse University—where I’ve taught the subject.

Japan offers no academic degree or advanced course of study in either public relations or public diplomacy, but both subjects would offer Japanese universities growth opportunities in response to the call for more global competitiveness in education.

The U.S. Department of State has an under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, whose mission is “to support the achievement of U.S. foreign policy goals and objectives, advance national interests, and enhance national security by informing and influencing foreign publics and by expanding and strengthening the relationship between the people and government of the United States and citizens of the rest of the world.”

Both advertising legend Charlotte Beers and Karen Hughes, senior communications advisor to President George W. Bush, served in the post, and former Time editor Richard Stengel is the current under secretary.

In Japan, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) remains the chief government ministry associated with the nation’s public diplomacy, along with the Japan Foundation, which carries out public diplomacy goals set by the ministry.

Since summer 2013, I have been living in Tokyo part-time and talking with hundreds of Japanese about public diplomacy. I ask many questions, such as:

“What would be the Japanese answer to China’s Confucius Institutes [government-run bodies to promote language and culture]?”

“If you could lead public diplomacy, what would you emphasize?”

“What are Japan’s most important values?”

To the last question, a Japanese language instructor answered with the word isogashii (busy). Being busy and occupied gives him a sense of purpose and meaning. It makes him feel more valuable in Japanese society.

US public diplomacy leads with great promotion of our core values—freedom, democracy, open markets, and an open society.

These values are reinforced using educational and cultural exchanges, cultural diplomacy, and the largest slice of the resource pie: US government-sponsored international broadcasting. These programs include many post-9/11 creations, such as Alhurra (The free one), a 24-hour Arabic language network launched on February 14, 2004.

NHK, founded in 1925 as a radio network and modeled on the BBC, is not an official public diplomacy broadcaster, but how NHK operates in the world and the stories it tells impact Japan’s global image and reputation.


Snow (left) with Nobuyuki Ota, CEO of Cool Japan Fund Inc., at the opening night of the Cool Japan campaign in November 2013.

Brand Japan
The nation-brand image of Japan is currently tied to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

During his first term in 2006, Abe prominently emphasized public diplomacy in his inaugural speech to the Diet: “It is quintessential for Japan to present its ‘country identity’ to the world so that many countries and many people will regard Japan as a good model to emulate. Moreover, I will place emphasis on creating an environment that will attract such people to come to Japan.”

Abe’s plate has been full over the past two years with contested domestic and international policy issues. This year will be a political tightrope for not only Abe, but also any government official, private individual, or group involved in promoting Japan to the world.

Japan’s policies and politics have become an international focal point.

While speculation about policy pervades global headlines, Japan is testing its market share in other soft power attributes. This is why Japan may want to draw on its strengths in “desti-nation” branding, which fuses tourism with national interest goals.

Tourism to Japan reached record levels in 2014, and the top sending countries, South Korea and China, have robust public diplomacy programs. Japan is seen as playing catch-up in regional public diplomacy, but it doesn’t have to stay in the shadows.

As my friend, former chairman of advertising agency DDB Worldwide, and founder of Business for Diplomatic Action Keith Reinhard once said, “Creativity often comes down to changing ‘what is’ to ‘what if.’ ”

What if MOFA’s Public Diplomacy Department held consultative meetings with tourism industry officials to discuss mutual goals?

The stories we tell
Tokyo is one of the greatest city-states in the world, easily marketable overseas. While located in Japan, the capital seems to transcend the nation in tempo and temptations.

I recall once telling my Japanese students at Sophia University that I had been invited to speak at a regional university in Fukui. They were bewildered; why would I want to leave Tokyo to go to Fukui?

Conversely, when I met with the Japanese students in Fukui, they were perhaps more impressed that I had traveled from Tokyo than that I had originally traveled from the United States to Japan.

I realized then that Japan is challenged just as much with location branding internally as externally. Tokyo’s young people can’t imagine leaving the capital, except, perhaps, to spend some time overseas. Meanwhile, the young people in Fukui may come to Tokyo for a visit, but are quite proud of their own prefecture, with its strong arts and crafts heritage.

Every nation-state needs 360-degree vision and active-listening perspectives gleaned from its greatest asset: its people.

I first met Tadashi Ogawa 21 years ago on my initial visit to Japan as an official of the U.S. Information Agency. Ogawa was my junior officer-equivalent at the Japan Foundation, and he is now director general of the Japan Foundation in Jakarta.

In 2008, Ogawa published a chapter about Japan’s public diplomacy for my edited handbook on the topic. Therein he describes the Japan Exchange & Teaching (JET) Programme as one of the largest and most successful cultural exchange initiatives in the nation.

Everyone who lives in this soft-power superpower has a contribution to make in telling Japan’s story, and I will introduce more of these key storytellers in upcoming columns.

In his new book, Japan and the Shackles of the Past, R. Taggart Murphy writes about a principle that rises above in Japan: no matter your pursuit, even if it’s one you don’t especially love, do it well.

Given such an atmosphere, this country can be a most pleasant place to live. And in a place where people’s everyday tasks invoke an excellence of spirit, the unifying personal story should become the global narrative, one that is equal to, if not more significant than, the political and economic debates that pervade today’s headlines about Japan.


Dr. Nancy Snow is a speaker, university lecturer, and author who has been published in outlets such as The New York Times and The Guardian. She is currently in Japan as a Social Science Research Council Abe Fellow, completing her next book, Japan: The Super Nation Brand.