Both Japan, U.S. must improve their ‘soft power’: experts

by Mariko Kato

The world’s two largest economies should reinvigorate their collaborative use of “soft power” to influence other countries as they approach a milestone year in their security alliance, participants said at a recent symposium that included key U.S. commentators on diplomacy.

The United States and Japan, marking the 50th anniversary of their security alliance next year, should reassess their noncoercive tactics to tackle urgent global issues such as climate change and maintaining stability in East Asia, Joseph Nye, a former assistant secretary of defense and now an international relations professor at Harvard University, said in a videotaped message to the June 12 event.

The phrase soft power, coined by Nye in 1990, means a nation’s ability to obtain desired outcomes through the attraction of its culture, technology or policies, rather than by coercion, or “hard power.”

The administration of President Barack Obama has embraced the concept of soft power, combining it with hard power to develop a foreign policy based on “smart power.”

Building on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s comment earlier this year that the U.S. regards its alliance with Japan as a “cornerstone” of its Asian policy, the Japanese and American panelists brought together by Fulbright Japan, the U.S.-Japan Conference on Cultural and Educational Interchange and other groups agreed Tokyo must make greater contributions to the two nations’ use of soft power.

Although soft power is often channeled through philanthropic mediums such as education, aid work or the arts, Richard Armitage, who served as U.S. deputy secretary of state from 2001 to 2005, reminded the audience that the end goal is far from altruistic.

“We don’t engage in soft power or smart power because we’re humanitarian, but because of cold calculation of our national security,” he said.

Gerald Curtis, a political science professor at Columbia University and a visiting professor at Waseda University, agreed Japan must be proactive in securing its national security through soft power.

“Let’s not confuse the attractiveness of our societies with our ability” to influence the rest of the world in positive ways, he said. “Japan is wildly admired but doesn’t translate that popularity into power.”

Curtis pointed out that his own country misused its attractiveness during the presidency of George W. Bush.

“The U.S. has a lot of appeal to the world — prosperity, lifestyle, individual freedom. But a lot of that has done damage in the last eight years,” he said.

He added that President Obama is trying to reverse “that kind of negative soft power” in efforts such as his speech to the Islamic world in Cairo earlier this month, which sought to mend relations damaged by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

One urgent global concern where soft power should play a key role is the denuclearization of North Korea, panelists agreed. They said that while direct negotiation with the hermit state would be ineffective, the U.S. and Japan can exert diplomatic influence on neighboring China in what Nye called an unequal “triangular relationship.”

“China has legitimate security concerns about North Korea,” Curtis said. “Destabilizing North Korea raises huge issues of refugees trying to cross the borders into China, and of the possibility of the unification of Korea under a government that has a military alliance with the U.S., bringing the U.S. Army to the border of China.”

His points were echoed by Armitage, who said, ” China has the right to know the limitation of our involvement should there be unrest in the region of North Korea.”

Commentators added that in its relations with China, Japan should take the lead in exporting technology to encourage energy efficiency and reduction of carbon dioxide emissions.

While the panelists at the full-day symposium applauded Japan’s contributions in foreign aid and in developing new technology to fight climate change, they said it has yet to fully exploit its soft power in other areas, including the arts and education.

“Although we can see that Japan has soft assets, it is doubtful whether it has converted them to power, and whether it has the desire to do so,” said Yoichi Funabashi, editor-in-chief of the Asahi Shimbun.

According to Joe Earle, vice president and gallery director of the Japan Society, other countries have difficulty accessing Japanese artwork because the government has too much control over overseas exhibitions, limiting the length and frequency of exposure, and is too concerned about the risk of damage during shipping.

“Rather than worrying about ‘correct,’ authentic settings of Japanese works of art abroad, we should consider it perfectly normal for Japanese works to be displayed alongside those from other cultures in well thought out, thematic exhibitions,” he said.

Earle pointed out that about 95 percent of Japanese artwork is still in its home country, and that Japan’s protectionist stance could cause it to fall behind other parts of Asia as a global participant in the field.

Another medium of soft power that Japanese observers are unnecessarily wary of is education, the experts said. Recently, the number of people taking Japan studies at the university level has been flagging, and many point to the growing interest in fast-developing China or India.

But panelists said that instead of despairing that the study of Japan is losing its audience, institutions should capitalize on students’ mounting fascination with other parts of Asia.

“It’s not a zero-sum game. China is becoming more interesting because Asia is becoming more interesting,” said Robert Pekkanen, an international studies professor at the University of Washington.

Susan Pharr, a professor of Japanese politics at Harvard University, agreed that institutions should take this opportunity to provide more integrated options on Japan within studies of Asia as a region.

In exerting soft power as a whole, panelists said, Japan needs to be more vocal and aggressive.

“There is almost a pessimism that people are not interested in Japan, that we don’t have anything to offer, and that people prefer China,” said Tadashi Yamamoto, president of the Japan Center for International Exchange, referring to the lack of strong internship programs for foreign students at Japanese firms.

“I’m afraid that the U.S., and sometimes rightly so, is accused of confusing public diplomacy with loud speech,” Armitage said, explaining that Japan has the opposite problem. “For far too long, Japan has spoken too softly,” for example in lauding its humanitarian efforts, he said.

Curtis agreed that Japan needs to be more assertive, and that the relationship where U.S. makes proposals and Japan responds is no longer appropriate.

“So many Japanese ask me, ‘What does Obama want from Japan?’ That’s the wrong question. What does Japan want?” he said. “If that is not responded to, I think the (Obama) administration will further and further bypass Japan. For the relationship to get very strong, it’s in need of some very significant change.”