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Japan’s ‘brand’ as good as the people behind it

by Nancy Snow

Special To The Japan Times

Public diplomacy, otherwise known as nation branding, has never been more important in post-3/11 Japan.

Japan is playing a game of catch up with its recent announcement of the Japan Brand Fund “to fund and support business activities to cultivate overseas demand for Japan’s attractive products and services that make full use of the unique characteristics of Japan’s culture and lifestyle.”

Most every nation now has a public diplomacy entity to promote its unique qualities so even Cool Japan and J-Pop have a lot of global competition.

The winning bid for the 2020 Olympics should put everyone on notice that nation branding is a concern for every Japanese citizen, not just government ministries or businesses pushing their products and services overseas.

A recent op-ed at U.S. News and World Report bemoaned the demise of the United States Information Agency (USIA), my former employer, which was for 46 years the official government entity designed to “tell America’s story to the world.”

Fourteen years ago this month, USIA was abolished as an independent foreign affairs agency. Many in America wax nostalgic for the demise of such a public diplomacy agency, but I don’t. Public diplomacy today is not defined by one agency. It involves people-to-people contact, some formal, much of it informal.

A tweet that disparages a nation of people can have as much negative impact as a political leader’s statement, perhaps even more since it is so instantaneous and often impulsive in tone.

A personal visit by Lady Gaga to Tokyo after 3/11 garnered as much media attention as a head of state. We may not think of Facebook and Twitter verse in a public diplomacy context, but we should.

More people are engaged now in international battles of narratives and most of the battle is taking place online. The nations that will win will have better stories that inform at a minimum and influence at a maximum, but the people must be fully marshaled in this effort.

Call it an information and image engagement for all.

What Japan should do beyond the Japan Brand Fund is to engage the citizens of Japan in a seven-year path of public diplomacy leading up to the 2020 Olympics. There is no reason that Japan cannot have the greatest show of its cultural history and hospitality that the world has ever seen. If the people from the grass-roots up aren’t fully invested in Japan’s nation brand, then it will show.

This is not just about finding volunteers to serve from July 24 to Aug. 9, 2020, during the summer Olympics. The Japanese government must educate and engage its people about the value of nation branding and call on the people of Japan to work toward the greater good that is the nation’s unveiling of itself to the world in 2020.

Of course it is about helping Japan’s economy improve, but it is more about showing the world who you are: People before profits.

It is hard to think so far ahead. Seven years is a long time. I’ve learned from the Native American philosophy that there is always a need for seven-generation thinking. But 2020 isn’t even a generation away. It will be here before you know it. And I would encourage everyone to get behind the people’s brand that is Japan.

A nation brand — which is just a country’s good name and reputation in the world — is only as good as the people behind it.

Don’t leave the branding up to a few. Remember, we all are public diplomats in an age of globalization.

Nancy Snow, Ph.D., is an Abe Fellow at Keio University and author of eight books, including “Truth is the Best Propaganda: Edward R. Murrow’s Speeches in the Kennedy Years,” to be published this month. Contact her at www.nancysnow.com.