The strength of Japan’s ‘soft power’


BEYOND PACIFISM: Why Japan Must Become a “Normal” Nation, by William Middlebrooks. Praeger Security International: Westport, Conn., 2008, 155 pp., $75 (cloth)

SOFT POWER SUPERPOWERS: Cultural and National Assets of Japan and the U.S., edited by Yasushi Watanabe and David L. McConnell. New York: M.E. Sharpe. Armonk, 2008, 296 pp., $32.95 (paper)

As the Bush administration skulks ignominiously into history, its reputation in tatters and its strategies discredited, debate rages about how best the United States and its allies can project their influence and shape the world to suit their interests. For Team Obama, restoring the squandered stature of the U.S. is a key task as it tries to overcome Bush’s pathetic legacy.

American international relations scholar Joseph Nye Jr., who coined the expression in the late 1980s, views “soft power” as the ability of a nation to achieve its objectives by attracting or seducing other nations to do its bidding or emulate its policies without resorting to coercion. Gains achieved by military force and economic sanctions are often short-lived and provoke a backlash. Nye maintains it is more effective to inspire nations to adopt desired policies and objectives.

Since the first Gulf War, some Japanese conservatives like Ichiro Ozawa, leader of the Democratic Party of Japan, have been advocating the idea of Japan becoming a “normal nation.” Normal means that Japan would jettison Article 9 of the Constitution and beef up its military capabilities so that it could participate more fully in U.N. peacekeeping operations. Given that Japan lives in a dangerous neighborhood and the U.S. wants it to take on a greater security burden, hard power advocates assert that Japan can no longer hide behind its unilateral pacifism.

William Middlebrooks’ polemic in favor of Japan abandoning Article 9 and rapidly expanding its military power takes no prisoners and is unlikely to convert any skeptics. The author, a former CIA analyst, is not shy about offering advice about what Japan “must” do and what Japanese “should” decide. He suggests that the Japanese are ready to become “normal” and ought to do so, but widespread misgivings among Japanese about doing so remain a major obstacle. Indeed, the downfall of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was partly due to his emphasis on revising the Constitution — something few Japanese think is a pressing priority — while ignoring bread-and-butter issues.

Japanese leaders face a public that is uneasy about the growing security cooperation between the U.S. and Japan and have deep misgivings about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is widespread concern that the Obama administration will call on Japan to up its ante on security, and fear that powerful “normal nation” advocates in Japan will seize this opportunity.

Middlebrooks downplays these fears: “It took North Korea’s naked hatred and aggression, and China’s more subtle muscle flexing, to alert the Japanese to the fact that their adherence to pacifist principles . . . is exposing them to dangers that can no longer be bought off with aid or deflected by American force. The Japanese have earned the right to be trusted by their neighbors, but more importantly, the Japanese have earned the right to trust themselves.” Recently retired Gen. Toshio Tamogami’s remarkably ill-informed views about Japan’s last war may be of little consequence, but they have certainly reignited the trust issue.

In Middlebrooks’ view, Japanese defense policy is “hazardously muddled” largely because “Article 9 enshrines equivocation and second-guessing.” Given the dangerous regional neighborhood, where displays of virulent anti-Japanese nationalism are common, the author urges a more “rational” security posture. Rational, of course, is in the eye of the beholder and many Japanese rightly wonder why a rational U.S. would attack Iraq if its aim was to chase down Islamic terrorists. Moreover, there is little doubt that Team Bush was hazardously muddled when it came to national security.

While Middlebrooks is more comfortable with orders of battle, the 15 essays in “Soft Power Superpowers” turn our gaze to the “hearts and minds” side of the equation. There is nothing here to suggest that Japan deserves the superpower sobriquet even if there is a global fascination with cool Japan. Overall, the contributors focus more on the limitations rather than the possibilities of soft power. A key theme is that the instruments of soft power are not, in many cases, under the control of government, and to the extent that the government hones in or tries to use such soft power resources, it undermines their legitimacy and influence.

The editors’ excellent introduction helps readers understand the debate about Nye’s concept of soft power, addressing many misconceptions and criticisms. They argue that soft power is not merely a velvet glove enveloping an iron fist, although they admit that it works best in combination with hard power. One can infer that the weakness of Japan’s hard power undermines the sway of its soft power.

In terms of soft power, the problem is that manga and anime don’t translate into state influence over other nations and as Yoshiko Nakano and Anne Allison point out, it is a mistake to assume that culture maps neatly with nation or can be used by authorities. So Japan may inspire youth around the world, but the J-Wave of popular culture and the exodus of baseball stars to the U.S. don’t do much for achieving national objectives. Nor, according to Akiyoshi Yonezawa, does Japan’s higher education contribute much to projecting Japanese influence.

Naoyuki Agawa, who served in the Japanese Embassy in Washington, D.C., from 2002-2005, shows how Japan effectively engages in public diplomacy in the U.S. to improve Japan’s image there and shape government policies. But achieving these objectives has little to do with inspiring the U.S. government, relying instead on doggedly working the media, hiring lobbyists and doling out grants. Ironically, even as the Japanese Embassy enjoyed success in winning over the U.S. public, Yasushi Watanabe notes that Japanese perceptions of the U.S. have steadily deteriorated.

Kaori Kuroda and Katsuji Imata remind us that civil society organizations could play a role in projecting Japan’s soft power, but admit that they exercise limited influence partly because government policies toward them are inept and have done little to cultivate public support.

Larry Repeta also thinks the government is dropping the ball on playing the transparency story for what it’s worth, failing to appreciate to what extent the spread of information disclosure in Japan is a worthy development that could inspire admiration and emulation in other nations.

While this interesting book sheds a great deal of light on the globalization of Japanese culture, it demonstrates that Japan’s soft power has limited potential.

Jeff Kingston is director of Asian Studies at Temple University, Japan campus.