Polish Japan’s image abroad

by Hugh Cortazzi

LONDON — Japan’s image abroad ought to be better than it is. The Japanese economy has largely recovered. Reform continues. Democratic processes are working. Japanese educational standards and technical abilities are admired. Each of these statements can and no doubt should be qualified, but the overall picture is fair. Yet Japan’s standing abroad does not fully reflect this picture.

There are a number of reasons for this. One is the Yasukuni issue allied to a fear of growing Japanese nationalism. Japanese spokesmen do their best to put the issue in perspective and officials, no doubt, try to warn Japanese politicians that nationalistic speeches are unhelpful, but the problems won’t go away and spin cannot hide the issues.

Another is the specter of China as a growing world power, which in the eyes of some observers is likely to put Japan into the shadow. There can be no denying that China has become the factory of the world, but friends of Japan reiterate the country’s strengths, its ability to adapt, its democratic institutions and society.

To some of Japan’s friends overseas it seems that the Japanese government does not do enough to promote understanding abroad of Japanese life, society and, above all, culture. Promoting culture abroad involves resources and Japanese taxpayers are understandably reluctant to see more of their money spent overseas whether as foreign aid or in promoting Japanese culture. There is also a very understandable reluctance to put resources into what might seem to be propaganda. But these views are short-sighted. Japanese politicians need to work much harder to persuade Japanese people that it is in their long-term interest that Japan’s point of view and Japanese culture should be better known abroad, and they should do more to support and encourage constructive dialogues with other peoples.

In Britain we have been fortunate in having had three major Japanese cultural promotions over the last quarter of a century. The first was the Great Edo Exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1981/82. The second was the Japan Festival of 1991, which marked the centenary of the Japan Society in London. The third was Japan 2001, which attempted to spread the message around the grass roots.

The organization of the Japan Festival of 1991 was a British initiative, as largely was Japan 2001. Both won significant Japanese backing, official and private, but would not have happened without the energy and enthusiasm of British participants. I hope that adequate thought is being given now to the best way of maintaining and developing interest in Britain in Japanese culture. Greater resources will be needed than at present seem to be available to Japanese organizations in Britain.

The Japan Foundation in London has a tiny office and a very limited budget very largely controlled from Tokyo. Unlike Rome, Paris and Cologne, Britain has not been favored with a Japan Foundation cultural center. When we ask why, we are told that this is because the British government, unlike the governments in Italy, France and Germany, have been unwilling to provide a suitable site rent-free. The British Council in Tokyo has always had to pay commercial rents and the British government understandably expect the Japanese to do the same here. A major effort is being made by British friends of Japan to create a Japan center in London. Their efforts deserve Japanese support.

Britain has had the benefit of having Daiwa Foundation Japan House. It has also been able to draw on limited funds from the Great Britain-Sasakawa foundation. Surplus funds from the Japan Festival of 1991 enabled the establishment of the Japan Education Trust, which has been continued by the Japan 21 organization. The Japan Foundation has also established a school in London to train Japanese language teachers.

But all is not as well as the above might suggest. There have been sad and mistaken reductions in provisions for Japanese studies at British higher educational institutions, including the universities of Durham, Essex and Stirling. The establishment of the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures (SISJAC) at Norwich was made possible by the generosity of the late Sir Robert Sainsbury and Lady Sainsbury. The Japan Foundation has done what it can to help within its limited resources and has greatly helped with the expansion of the teaching of Japanese at schools, but it is a pity that there is no real equivalent of the JET scheme for English-language teachers to provide a stream of native Japanese speakers who would be young ambassadors for Japan. The Japan Foundation does what it can to support Japanese studies at universities but more could and should be done if greater resources were available to the foundation.

In the past, the Japanese Embassy in London had quite substantial sums to use in promoting understanding of Japan. These included funds for the establishment and running of the Anglo-Japanese Economic Institute, whose publications over the years did a great deal of useful work in spreading knowledge of Japanese industry and commerce. Publications such as Insight Japan were valuable in explaining Japanese positions without becoming propagandist.

The Anglo-Japanese History project, established with Japanese government funds under the Murayama initiative, supported the publication of valuable research papers and books. These funds have now run out and the Japanese Embassy has only a minuscule sum for its information and cultural section to use. Japanese companies in Britain have been persuaded from time to time to help, e.g., over funding for an assistant post at the British Museum where a Japanese gallery was established with Japanese money.

The Toshiba Foundation and the Suntory and Toyota Foundations have also been helpful. But more could be done if greater resources were available. There needs to be a greater recognition in Japan that friends like Britain should not be neglected in the complacent belief that all is well and nothing more needs to be done. Britain may not seem a priority for the political bosses in Tokyo, but they should recognize the real possibility that unjustified euphoria about China will cloud perceptions of Japan and lead to a decline in Japanese studies as well as in understanding of Japan in Britain.

One simple and inexpensive thing that Tokyo could do to help Japan’s image in Britain would be to enable the Crown Prince, accompanied by the Crown Princess, to pay a leisurely visit to Britain. He would be warmly welcomed and could give a valuable boost to Japan’s image.

His book “The Thames and I” not only records his warm recollections of Britain but also his real scholarly instincts, and his love of music and sport.