The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

I first came to Japan in July 1993 as part of a group of officials from the United States Information Agency (1953–1999), a US government organ dedicated to public diplomacy that was superseded by the State Department.

As I recall, we were led from Narita International Airport to the awaiting limousine bus and whisked to the Park Hyatt Tokyo in the bustling Shinjuku district.

While on the bus, two ladies handed out a list of do’s and don’ts regarding how to comport ourselves in this “unique” country—Japan. I have no doubt that their action was well intended: they did not want newcomers to violate cultural norms and thereby cause embarrassment on our—or our hosts’—part.

But the message I got was that I had to adapt swiftly to my host culture because it was I who had more to learn about Japan from the Japanese than I could teach them about the US. However, when intercultural communication is perceived as being one way, it often makes the receiver feel inadequate. So, I felt I would have to walk on cultural eggshells to maneuver my Japanese environment.

Brand Japan finds new voice
I’m a long way from that feeling today. Moreover, I’m filled with renewed optimism about intercultural communication with Japan—and there is a good reason for this.

A soon-to-be-established Japanese government initiative—to be called Japan House—will aim to ensure that people-to-people encounters between Japan and the world become increasingly free of cultural eggshells.

Japan House is a collaborative, multi-city, multi-stakeholder project instituted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) and designed to introduce the country to diverse populations globally.

Dr. Nancy Snow meets “Mr. Brand Japan,” Hajime Kishimori, one of the architects of Japan House.

Dr. Nancy Snow meets “Mr. Brand Japan,” Hajime Kishimori, one of the architects of Japan House.

To find out more about the project, I spoke with the Director of the Office for Strategic Communication Hub, Hajime “Jimmy” Kishimori, who heads the Japan House initiative at MOFA.

Kishimori—who is often called “Mr. Brand Japan” and is the former deputy director of the Public Diplomacy Department at MOFA—began by explaining the genesis of Japan House.

“I am proud to say that Japan House is the brainchild of a small group of visionaries in [MOFA],” says Kishimori. “At the same time, it [was also developed via] a collaborative and inclusive approach based on diverse and meaningful suggestions [from outsiders].”

As a multi-stakeholder initiative, Kishimori explains, Japan House will provide a comprehensive agenda—via physical spaces and an online presence—for a variety of storytelling events and programs concerning 21st century Japan.

To this end, foreign policy will be seen as an opportunity for “proactive contribution to peace” that can be reinforced via cultural, trade, or even tourism elements, guided by professionals of the Japan House secretariat.

Indeed, the opportunities that Japan House will present are intended to reach beyond traditional forums such as seminars or symposiums on single issues. Rather, the initiative will represent virtual and physical outposts for Japan that act as multilayered platforms for its culture.

In military lingo, troops on active duty overseas are usually referred to as “boots on the ground.” Public diplomats such as Kishimori, meanwhile, are more like catalysts of culture; their job is to open doors, induce connections, and make people feel at home in a new environment.

Frontline diplomacy
The initial launch of Japan House will be in two main phases across three cities. To begin, Virtual Japan House—an online platform—will create buzz in advance of the opening of three Japan House venues: in London, Los Angeles, and Sao Paulo.

By establishing Japan House in locations where people live and work, Japan’s pivot to a global conversation is unprecedented among its public diplomacy tactics.

The step will move person-to-person conversation from a tone of “understand us first” to “let’s learn together.” There will be a professionally managed hub of knowledge specifically tailored to local audiences, while inspiring conversations about Japan.

It will not only allow Japan to have eyes and ears on the ground, but also facilitate partnerships with host populations while enhancing the country’s brand.

The shift in thinking concerning Japan’s global outreach has built into the Japan House mission a foundation of trust and buy-in to the collective wisdom of host countries. Further, the new relationship will include a partnership with the private sector.

Public, private and local dialogue
Japan House will have a café-restaurant and pop-up shop retailing products from various regions around Japan, but most of its spaces will be set aside for seminars, meetings, and exhibition halls to be used by house guests. Some spaces also will be available for hire.

To be efficient, the private sector is to manage this diplomacy of, by, and for the public.

“This is a totally private initiative. The budget to kick it off is appropriated by [MOFA]; this year we’ve allocated $30 million. But this is a four-year budget of $110 million in three cities,” Kishimori says.

Private contractors in each city will offer building design and event management proposals for Japan House, thereby facilitating connectivity between Japan and local residents.

“This is not a diplomatic compound. It’s a private facility, so access is very easy, free from restrictions set by the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations,” Kishimori explains.

Japan House secretariats, which will run day-to-day operations, will be coupled to locally based Japan House steering committees comprising Japanese residents and city leaders connected to their respective corporate or civic communities, in addition to the Embassy or Consulate-General of Japan.

This group will be tasked with tapping into locally based expert knowledge and ideas from business, communications and cultural affairs.

Japan House is not the showcase to unilaterally introduce Japan or Japanese culture, but the platform for interactive communication and two-way cultural exchange.

Each host city secretariat, Kishimori says, will act much like the conductor of a symphony orchestra that is playing a synthesis of several themes: these will include tourism, trade, art and culture-related exhibits, policy-related talks, and information concerning educational and exchange opportunities.

The profits will be available to fund future projects. “It could be a virtuous cycle, a good business model, so that in 10 years—we hope—Japan House becomes more locally integrated or, at least, self-sustainable,” Kishimori adds.

The path to success
Kishimori explains three guiding principles for a successful Japan House: Every man to his trade; allow the professionals and local representatives, not the bureaucrats, to drive the mission; and two heads are better than one.

The latter refers to a Tokyo-based steering committee working with the host city steering committee to offer streamlined services to every guest of Japan House.

As someone who believes public diplomacy best practices should be dynamic, creative, and always seeking collaborative partners, I believe Japan House sounds like exactly what Japan needs to raise its profile in the world.

A house that becomes your Japan home is a comforting thought. I look forward to seeing this “handshake” across the world come to fruition.

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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.

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[Japan House] will facilitate partnerships with host populations while enhancing the country’s brand.