In February this year, a Japanese university student scribbled her name and that of her college on the walls of Florence’s Duomo. The following month, the university received complaints from Japanese travelers embarrassed to find Japanese graffiti on a World Heritage Site. In June, after another Japanese traveler put pictures of the graffiti on his blog, the media picked up the story. The resulting furor eventually saw the girl return to Italy at her own expense to offer a tearful apology.

The Florence authorities, surprised and delighted by the gesture, praised the civility of the 19-year-old fashion student. The act of apology itself was perhaps not so surprising. Japan is very much a “culture of apology” where “sorry” and “thank you” are often interchangeable. Japanese life is a constant stream of apology, although how much of this is sincere and how much is ritual apology is a moot point. What was surprising about the graffiti incident was the intensity of the reaction.

The perpetrators — which soon grew to include three Kyoto Sangyo University students and a schoolteacher — were roundly condemned. Gifu University fielded more than 500 phone calls complaining about the incident and the Duomo was flooded with e-mails from citizens purportedly ashamed to be Japanese. One Sankei Shimbun headline read: “Japan’s shame: graffiti on World Heritage Site.”

Certainly, it is possible to offer cultural explanations to explain the strong reaction. Ruth Benedict is well-known for contrasting the West’s “culture of guilt” with Japan’s “shame culture.” For Benedict, Japanese rely on external sanctions rather than internalized ideas of right and wrong for good behavior: shame is a reaction to other people’s criticism. However, in this case the Duomo offered no criticism or reproach: no “face” was lost and the Italian authorities were clearly bemused at the Japanese response. A far more convincing explanation as to why society felt it was so important to apologize to the Duomo relates to Japan’s national image and self-identity. The uproar occurred at a time when Japan was particularly sensitive to foreign criticism, coming just before the G8 Summit in Hokkaido. Nevertheless, the process had started long before then.

As early as the 1970s, Japan had felt misunderstood, its abilities and contributions not duly appreciated. With the bursting of the bubble, this became a full blown identity crisis. That most dynamic of all modern industrial nations was no longer “No. 1,” and became riddled with uncertainty about its place in the world. The insecurity about national identity has partly manifested itself in a growing sense of nationalism. One example was the move for constitutional reform, something driven by the fact that the current constitution limits Japan’s exercise of hard power — that is, military power — to influence the behavior of others.

Of far greater importance in recent years, however, is Japan’s exercise of soft power to raise its image abroad. Soft power for Japan describes the ability to influence and attract others noncoercively through the use of cultural resources. The spread of Japanese language, culture and values can encourage interest in and, importantly, the “correct understanding” of Japan abroad, thereby reinforcing Japan’s identity at home. In recent years, Japan has invested substantial sums in the exercise of soft power to shape hearts and minds abroad.

A good example of soft power in action is the promotion of pop culture as a form of cultural diplomacy. Manga fan Taro Aso, during his tenure as foreign minister, was central in developing policies to boost manga and anime overseas. Aso, for example, was behind the establishment in 2007 of the International Manga Award for non-Japanese manga artists. Today, Japanese pop culture — manga, novels, films, fashion, and even cosplay cafes — are hugely popular in Korea, China, Taiwan, and elsewhere.

One result has been increased tourism; the government’s Yokoso Japan Campaign, which started in 2003, is on schedule to reach its goal of 10 million visitors by 2010.

The spread of Japanese culture inevitably results in increased interest in the Japanese language. According to the Japan Foundation, 2.98 million people studied Japanese overseas in 2006, a 26.5 percent rise since 2003. In April, the government announced a tenfold increase in the number of official Japanese language education centers abroad. This ties in with the new plan to increase foreign students to 300,000 by 2020; as of May 2007 there were 118,498 foreign students studying in Japan. For those students struggling to follow lectures in Japanese, more English content courses are being offered. This is part of a wider emphasis on English fluency, partly as a strategy to communicate about “the real Japan” more effectively to the outside world.

In 2003, Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sport, Science and Technology (MEXT) announced that high school students should be able to communicate in everyday English in normal situations by the time they graduate. Meanwhile, English is to become a regular subject in primary schools from 2011.

The enormous effort and resources the country is investing in promoting a positive image of Japan abroad goes some way to explaining the outcry over the graffiti episode at home. Perhaps the press and the public reacted as vociferously as they did because the incident risked undermining much of the good public relations work that had been done to date. But this raises another question: If Japan is a “culture of apology,” overly concerned with its international reputation and image, why the lack of official apologies for past wrongs?

Part of the problem here is one of perception. Japan has, in fact, apologized on numerous occasions for its wartime conduct: Wikipedia lists 45 separate war apology statements issued by Japanese prime ministers, ministers and the emperor since the 1960s. The 1995 Murayama Statement, based on a unanimous Cabinet decision, is probably the best known of these.

The lingering impression that Japan has yet to formally apologize for the war is at least partly due to the fact that Japan has not communicated the form and content of these apologies to the world particularly well. Moreover, some countries, such as China, undoubtedly find it politically expedient to perpetuate the myth that Japan has yet to properly say “sorry.”

On the other hand, the fact that apology and responsibility are not strongly related in Japanese discourse — something which may explain the failure to address compensation issues — can make the apologies made to date appear insincere. Contradictory remarks made by individual politicians exacerbate this impression. Thus, when then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe remarked that the recruitment of “comfort women” had not been “forcible in the narrow sense of the word,” it undermined the force of previous apologies, particularly the 1993 Kono Statement. Given the recent motions passed by legislative bodies in the U.S., Canada and Holland for an unequivocal apology and compensation, Abe’s statements were a public relations disaster. As Tessa Morris-Suzuki has noted, the Japanese government seems unable to grasp the extent of the damage such comments can cause to Japan’s international image, both in Asia and beyond.

A sincere apology can have a dramatic and positive impact on the image of both the speaker and the country they represent. Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s apology to indigenous Australians in February was well received nationally and internationally. Yet, despite the fact that apologies are indispensable for smooth relations for regular Japanese citizens, Japanese politicians and bureaucrats seemingly fail to understand the power of an unambiguous and sincere apology. Naoto Kan’s 1996 exposure of the HIV-tainted blood scandal and his subsequent heartfelt apology as health minister remain a notable exception. It is significant that despite public praise, his actions were roundly criticized by the power elites.

As Japan struggles to find its place and identity in a rapidly globalizing world, the exercise of soft power has become an increasingly popular option.

The intensity of the response to the graffiti incident demonstrated the importance Japan now attaches to improving its image abroad. However, many of those who push for a soft power approach are at the same time attempting to loosen the (constitutional) constraints on the application of hard power. Unfortunately, those who promote the latter, more coercive path risk damaging, not improving, Japan’s overseas image. The harm done to Japan’s reputation by intransigent statements on the war stands in stark contrast to the good done by the apology of a 19-year-old college student.

Chris Burgess lectures in Japanese and Australian studies at Tsuda College. Tessa Morris-Suzuki’s paper on “comfort women” can be found at japanfocus.org. Send comments on this issue and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp

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