Japan, “soft power,” and cosmopolitanism in international relations


I. A double importation of norms to Japan; Introducing cosmopolitanism

A popular refrain whose origin can really be traced to the late nineteenth century is that Japan, as a country, has whatever the West lacks. If the West has modernity, Japan has modernity plus tradition; if the West pollutes the Earth, Japan is environmentally sustainable with its satoyama and various Shinto beliefs. The identity of “Japan” vacillates between having tradition while also being modern and having tradition while being non-modern; what remains consistent is this opposition with the West, of having what the West lost. Through this identification with the West’s nostalgia, Japan establishes itself as a normative leader of the West for the West, speaking back West to remind them of what modernity took from them.

This strange reflection returns to the West what the West gave Japan by pointing fingers at the West’s failure to fulfill its own promise, while claiming that Japan has fulfilled it in its stead; there is no purely “Japanese” norm, only norms that the West aim but have not yet arrived at, and which Japan already achieved. The repeated point of wavering that has colored Japanese modernity is the question of whether the arrival at the West’s finitude is the product of being more Western than the West, or by being Japanese; whether Japanese modernity is a Japanese thing, a debate between developmentalism and essentialism.

How, then, are we to make sense of the believe that Japan somehow has some normative “soft power” in the twenty-first century? The very idea of “soft power” is, itself, incoherent: it involves some combination of international scholarly exchanges, popular culture dissemination, normative invention, and foreign development aid. About the only consistent aspect is the concept itself, in which the “softness” of soft power is contrasted with the “hardness” of traditional power. What is traditional power? This, too, is fuzzy: some combination of stuffing money down another state’s pockets and threatening them with troops and tanks. Even a brief consideration would realize that separating soft power from hard power is impossible. A moral element is undeniable: no longer are we in the Cold War era of military confrontation, but in a peaceful era where relations between states relies on mutual aid, cultural exchange, and verbal rather than military debates about which ideologies and norms are right. Soft power is the future, and the future is Japan; conveniently, Japan’s pacifist constitution and American-tied military means that the country cannot casually declare war anyway.

We are, truly, speaking to a new, peaceful age of global human rights. Think back to the global 1960s, when the idea of “activism” across the developed world meant rioting in the streets and hurling bricks at the police. Before the 1970s, Burakumin “activism” in Japan (I do not know if they would have called it as such) involved physical threats against those foolhardy enough to discriminate against them. On a logical sense, this makes perfect sense. If someone bullies me, it is more expedient to punch them back than to convince them with a philosophical discussion on the nature of human rights, and why their discrimination is immoral. What is the difference between a mafia and an activist, if the mafia stands up for, say, the Italian-American community? The contemporary “activist” is in a way a neutered form of its more violent predecessor; entered into the era of soft power, it knows nothing more than intellectual battles that often lead to many words but little to show.

We began this section noting how Japan’s historical mode of incorporating international norms has been to waver between convincing itself that it is as Western as the West and convincing itself that it has already surpassed the West due to nativist tradition. We see this, too, in our contemporary understandings of human rights and its corollaries, multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism. I use these terms carelessly with intention, for I see them arriving with a great deal of cloudiness, transcending conceptual use in a way that simultaneously translates freely between languages while forming the sturdiest barriers. When Japan slowly began, in the 1980s, to see diversity as an asset rather than a problem — first heralded by discourses such as “internationalization” (kokusaika) — internationalization came at once from the outside, but also from within, as Japan identified itself as not only always-already internationalized, but even better so than the decadent West.

It was no coincidence that in the 1990s, we saw the reformulation of Japanese port cities with sites like “Chinatowns,” and European wonderlands like Huis ten Bosch and Disneyland; it was no coincidence, too, that as Japanese popular culture made its way abroad, Japanese products were celebrated as “odorless” (mukokuseki), why? Because Japan was a blank slate, ready to adapt to any culture around the world, and to be adapted in turn. At the same time, there was no doubt that globalization arrived from an outside: either as a foreigner jealous of Japan’s capability of automobile and other manufactures or as a foreigner with economic lessons to teach Japan following the nation’s economic crash in the 1990s. The globe came from outside, but it was also Japan; if to be global was to be good, doing so meant at once welcoming outside influences while also introspecting internally.

It is for this reason why we remark a certain inconsistency within Japanese multiculturalism. That the Japanese look upon white-skinned Europeans with a different eye than they look at Filipino and Chinese immigrants is undeniable; the difference in eye, however, depends on the perspective from which they look. If the European brings to Japan globalization from abroad, a neo-colonial gaze at the foreigners within their midst reminds them that a Japan-centered internationalization already exists at home. And yet, this is uncomfortable. That internationalization happens at home does not mean that we have the “good” immigrants, for how can we make sure that these immigrants are educated, civilized, and respectable? Herein lies the role of the state in organizing the border control, categorizing people according to technical intern, student, professor, and so on. Indeed, the work at the border distinguishes between good foreigners from the bad ones, but no one seriously believes that all foreigners should be kept out. These administrative divisions seep into public discourse and help people, too, distinguish between types of immigrants. Immigration, downstream from their juridical rules, becomes performed within the state depending on the roles allocated to them; if there are “cultural” immigrants, there are also “economic” ones, and the ideology of multiculturalism is a distinctly cultural one, for culture, not social class, becomes the privileged grounds for judging human diversity, as human diversity in itself becomes an ideological game of ideas.

In today’s world, no one reasonable will claim that all good immigrants are White and all brown-skinned immigrants are undesirable. They would much more prefer to use moral categories, not race, to distinguish between the good and the bad, even if these moral categories often take on implicitly racialized tones. The Japanese would quite appreciate Filipinos who come to Japan, learn Japanese, and open a Filipino restaurant. This domestic categorization that occurs within Japan occurs quite separately from the external introduction of multiculturalism, which believes that the moral norm should be learned from Europe and the United States, but never from Vietnam, the Philippines, or some African country. People from these latter countries can be used as examples of multiculturalism once they have entered the country, but they can never be considered as bringing the norm of multiculturalism into Japan. Indeed, the presence of these latter minorities, and Japan’s comparative successful assimilation of them, is reverberated back as proof to the West of Japan’s fulfillment of its multicultural duty in implicit refutation to the West, with its perpetual race problems that show no signs of ceasing.

II. Unpacking the idea of “soft power”: National self-respect

Let us return to the question: if the idea of “soft power” refers to an internal self-questioning about the role of Japanese normative leadership vis-à-vis the West, what is “soft power”? The most traditional manifestation may be educational exchanges between Japan and the rest of the world, such as scholarships and faculty exchange. When a country invites people from another country to visit it, they usually treat these visitors well. Naturally, different levels exist: someone arriving on a working holiday receives less important treatment than someone arriving on Japan’s JET program or a government scholarship. This is natural, for the government invests in some promising candidates more than others. If these promising candidates become successful in the future, they may look back fondly at their Japan days, which were made fond by the government’s concern for their well-being. It is the same logic that a government would treat foreign dignitaries kindly. When these people return to their countries, the host government will hope that they will enact policy that will promote Japanese interests; or in the case of professors, who readily critique Japan, that at least their writing and lectures on Japan will promote interest in the country within the domestic audience.

Another element of “soft power” occasionally cited is Japan’s respect in international arenas. In high-level state visits, for example, state leaders perform the relationship between Japan and foreign countries. The Prime Minister will not pose for official photos with people not of her same standing, such as a President or another PM; that is why it was so scandalous for Douglas MacArthur, an American military commander, to appear in a photo with the Japanese emperor. Such a photo manifests the soft-power relationship between the United States and Japan, a relationship that would be impossible to show on the surface in bilateral relations today. It is for this same reason that Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy refuses to dialogue with any Russian leader save the president himself, for anything less reveals the relative differential in power between the two countries, which is, in any event, clear as day for even the most casual observer. Here, too, “soft power” becomes transformed into a problem having to do with recognition, in that the country desires to be recognized either equally or as a superior by its neighbors, but never as an inferior if it can help it. The degree to which it can relate in public diplomacy with other states arguably reflects its soft power.

What we also see in both of these cases is that manifestations of soft power respond not only or even primarily to foreign nations, but rather to the domestic audience; if American leaders think highly of Japan or if Japan and America spend equal time on the podium, it is the Japanese audience that feels their importance reaffirmed as the junior member in the relationship.1 We might try to calculate, quantitatively, the effects of soft power, such as the relative success the Japanese government has at having its scholarship recipients lobby for Japanese interests. It is far easier, however, to speak of representations, since it is these representations that Japanese audiences feel most strongly: how Americans and other foreigners speak about them, and how their country is represented on the global stage. Much thinking on soft power focuses on whether soft power operates as a sort of unconscious brain control on the policies of foreign governments, whereas the most important effect of public representations is its public nature, reflected in the eyes of people who know little and care little about the intricacies of policy.

Indeed, most soft power involves some combination of an undeniable unconscious influence on foreign governments and a feeling of pride for domestic audiences. Take, for example, the French government’s financing of French-language education and cultural programming for its former colonies. By expanding knowledge of French in these colonies, France creates a linguistic community of fellow speakers who will grow up consuming French cultural products, just like poor Britons today often grow up watching American television. United by a shared language, consuming the same media means that these geographically distant communities will develop cultural affinities that may make it easier for French companies to sell products to their former companies without needing to pay for localization, or for the French military to someday engage in peacekeeping operations. French at home, in turn, may see their government’s aid to its former colonies as an extension of their civilization mission, naturally emanating outwards from metropolitan France. Here, too, wee see a combination of hard, Realist economic and military concerns with a desire for self-respect on the part of the domestic community.

The curious but rather problematic question here, however, is who the owner of this soft power is. France may donate to its former colonies, but France’s goodwill cannot force these colonies to behave in a certain way; being no more than foreign aid, it is at its core benevolent. If some may suspect China’s Belt and Road initiative as carrying an implicit threat, it is unlikely that China will invade some African country for its debts like France invaded Mexico in the nineteenth century. If two countries speak the same language or share the same culture, why speak of soft power; why not speak of linguistic or cultural community? I mean, we do not often speak of German soft power over Austria, or British soft power over Australia. Soft power carries a distinctly neocolonial tone: it is always emanating from a strong nation to a weak one. That is why the idea of Japanese “soft power” is so disconcerting: Japan essentially claims superiority over not only weaker countries, but back towards the West as well, whereas in contrast, we take the idea of American soft power without blinking an eye.

III. Soft power as mirror; Soft power as illusion

American soft power is so hegemonic, we need not even call it soft power; we may just call it culture. Today, the world’s elite, irrespective of country, are trained in American schools and raised speaking flawless American English accents. They attend America’s best universities before returning home to serve their “people” from whom they have been alienated for all their lives, if they did not first sell their souls to some elite consulting firm in the process. (If I sound bitter, it is because I have experienced it.) On the one hand, it would nevertheless be a hard argument to make to say that these elites are somehow controlled by the American government in some way; on the other hand, they certainly harbor positive feelings towards America and have imbued many so-called American values, promoting future cooperation between the country called “America” and their countries. People in the rest of the world, not least Japan, know well this hegemonic world structure. They know that American universities are the world’s best, and American management techniques the world’s most advanced. They listen to American pop music and wear American fashion. It is for precisely this reason that Japanese soft power needs to exist.

The curious element of Japanese soft power is that it mirrors perfectly American soft power. If America sells its hamburgers and Marvel films, Japan sells sushi and anime. If America exports multiculturalism and environmentalism, Japan exports its own brands of multiculturalism and environmentalism, which ultimately do the same job better than the United States, often with the help of some nativist Japanese tradition. Japanese soft power is, basically, a simulation of American soft power, in which Japan wants to become as loved as America is by everyone around Japan, including America herself. This cloud of soft power floats around the kernel of the desire to be thought of positively, both rationally as a democratic leader and irrationally as the source of sensually enjoyable things.2 It is significant that the government campaign to promote Japanese soft power is titled “Cool Japan,” not cute Japan, even though Japan is best known in the West for being kawaii — why? Because in the Japanese imaginary, the “cool” country is the United States, and the goal of Japanese soft power is not just to become Japan, but to become like the United States.

There is, then, a strange fantasy of the brain control of foreign countries wrapped into the notion of soft power, as is there a belief to establish a distinctly “Japanese” identity vis-à-vis the United States, while also surpassing the latter by declaring Japanese soft power to be the progressive counterpoint to American hard power in a post-Cold War era where friendly discussion, not belligerent war, is to resolve ideological debates.

The problem with soft power is not whether it exists — of course it exists in some form, if you are willing to stretch the definition broadly enough. People will pay more for a Japanese product than a Chinese one because they believe that a Japanese-manufactured good will be more sturdy. The question is rather why we use the term “soft power” and not any other variety of terms, such as “cultural representation,” “cultural hegemony,” and so on. I mean, no one forces me to buy Japanese goods rather than Chinese ones, I do so out of my own judgment, as irrational and as influenced by Japanese public diplomacy as it may be. No government, moreover, has much that is uniquely their own in a globalized world, whether the issue is fashion, music, or norms.

Indeed, when we say that a country has “soft power” such as the United States, we mean that the United States embodies values such as democracy, freedom, etc., but the problem with this claim is that literally every advanced country has these exact same values. These “norms” are norms because everyone already takes them for granted. If we want to say that the US is a norm leader (and that it has a specific soft power because of it), it is only recognized as such so long as the country lives up to its claimed leadership. If a human rights scandal blows up in the United States (which happens frequently enough), foreign countries may well turn to a second nation in its stead. Why call this “soft power,” then, when what happens in practice is the basic functioning of how any international norm works? What is truly phenomenal is the overlay of soft power with every element that can be desirable about the United States: norms, culture, food, etc. In practice, the consumer knows quite well to separate the different elements of a country: I might like Japanese food, but find the government racist and its culture rather uninteresting. Is this still soft power?

(This paper continues several thought pieces I have written on Japanese-Western relations, such as https://medium.com/@scotthma/on-western-cosmopolitanism-and-japanese-being-a-critique-61f7b2cfd6e0 ; and https://medium.com/@scotthma/narrating-the-japan-american-romance-in-japanese-popular-culture-2617b3282355)

  1. Another example of the two-sided domestic/international face of soft power is the Olympics — for instance, the 2020 Olympics carried the troped refrain of Japan “coming back” after the three decades of stagnation, a repeat of the 1964 Olympics that signified Japan’s coming-back into the world of the liberal, democratic, free, etc. This paints a certain rhetoric of Japan both domestically and abroad: and indeed, soft power is notable because it is consistent: it does not limit itself to problems within Japan, but exports these norms outside of it as a statement of what the country is↩︎
  2. I was surprised in China and Taiwan to find that women sometimes wore Japanese high-school uniforms as street fashion. Soft power? ↩︎




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Scott Ma

Scott Ma

Sometimes I write things that don't quite fit into my projects, but I like enough to want to share with others. This blog is for those pieces.

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