Mark Leonard had a somewhat negative image of Japan before his arrival, thinking that people would be pessimistic over the prolonged economic downturn and that Tokyo would resemble a ghost town populated by listless youths.
But the perceptions of the 25-year-old foreign policy adviser to British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government changed when he arrived in Tokyo late last month and walked along Tokyo’s upmarket Omotesando Street.
“The street was packed with young people enjoying themselves,” said Leonard, who serves as director of the Foreign Policy Centre, a think tank launched by Blair in 1998.
In a recent interview with The Japan Times, Leonard, who wrote a well-known report describing the problems associated with Britain’s musty image as a nation that clings to its past glories, said image can seriously affect a nation’s international position.
He suggested that change here may be possible by “rebranding Japan.”
“(Foreigners) think (British) weather and food are bad, the people are arrogant, unfriendly and racist. . . . Britain has terrible industrial relations and there are employees that are on strike all the time,” he said, adding that even British people believe goods “made in Britain” are low in quality.
So in his September 1997 report, titled “Rebranding Britain,” he came up with stories that could reflect the best of Britain to present a different image of the country, to create a bridge between past events that Britons are still proud of and the future.
Leonard said Britain is a “hybrid” country that mixes diverse elements together, as well as a nation of “creativity,” with William Shakespeare and a contemporary revolution in the arts, architecture and music.
Britain is also a “silent revolutionary” as seen in the industrial revolution and in the fact that the country has exported many institutional models abroad, such as postal services, civil services and parliamentary democracy. “Together, they tell a new story about Britain,” he stressed.
Leonard said Japan and Britain, which have several things in common, such as their long histories and people who cherish traditional values, may be able to learn from each other.
“It (cherishing traditional values) is a lesson we learned from you, but maybe you can learn it back from us,” he said.
When searching for a new Japan, or rebranding it, Leonard argued that it is important not to lose some of the points that make Japan very special.
“You have got commitments to international engagements, which is shown in your support for peacekeeping missions, but you don’t . . . express your identity through military power. Those are very valuable things.”
Yet, what the Japanese can learn from Britain does not seem to be limited to his report. Leonard suggested that Japan should promote youth in government, look for a strong leader and raise its global image.
Thanks to the report and its wide media coverage in Britain, Leonard, despite his youth, captured Blair’s attention and was appointed to his current position in the FPC and to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Panel 2000, a task force that advises the foreign secretary on promoting Britain abroad.
“If people are talented, Tony Blair wants to promote them. He wants people who have ideas, who can actually make a difference,” he said, referring to the Blair government’s young lawmakers and policy advisers.
Leonard also said Blair’s strong leadership played a key role in helping create the country’s new identity, as the prime minister devoted himself to the idea of a “new Britain” and made several speeches on the topic.
To improve Japan’s global image, which is often criticized as “faceless,” the country should remain engaged in international affairs and be open to other countries, he suggested.
He said a nation preoccupied with domestic economic difficulties may forget its international roles, adding that during the bubble era Japan often talked about playing a more global role, as opposed to now.
“By being open to other countries, to their ideas, to their investment, you paradoxically strengthen (your own) role in the world, because people will know more about you and more about what you want to do.”