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Japan Loses Control Over Its Soft Power

SNA (Tokyo) — “Japan was postmodern before postmodernism was cool,” wrote Douglas McGray in Foreign Policy magazine. While that may be true, Japan has lost control of its own major cultural exports.

On July 25, United Nations University held the 36th Peace Diplomats Forum, where the main topic of discussion was “The Role of Soft Power in Japan’s Diplomacy.” Seiichi Kondo, a former high-level diplomat, spoke extensively on the topic in his keynote address.

According to Kondo, Japan’s most prominent cultural exports are anime, manga, and video games. Naruto, Sailor Moon, and Pokemon have gained international recognition and have created a window on Japan. Anime and manga have showcased the Japanese image internationally.

By this stage, a generation around the world has been raised with nostalgic memories of sitting by their television after school watching their favorite anime shows. Cultural practices, famous locations, and beautiful artwork depicting Japanese society and behavior became familiar to many who have little connection to Japan.

However, the actual content of Japanese images in the global media has increasingly slipped out of the hands of the Japanese themselves.

The international anime audience is now controlled more by major US companies such as Netflix and Crunchyroll, owned by AT&T, than by any firm based in Japan. Similarly, the famous international app Manga Rock used to read manga on smartphones has been developed by a Vietnam-based studio by the name Not a Basement Studio.

Essentially, both the manga and anime industries are exported internationally by non-Japanese companies, which control and profit from Japanese culture.

This has significant implications for the Japanese government’s assertions that anime and manga form major planks in the nation’s soft power.

Kondo further explored the notion of soft power being “difficult to predict scientifically” and described the sources of soft power as being “difficult for the Japanese to identify because of the gap between self-image and the images held by others.” In other words, the last ones to truly understand Japanese soft power may be the Japanese themselves.

At any rate, their control over the Japanese image has degraded significantly as its cultural products have become part of the global heritage.

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