National / Politics

Japan House opens doors in LA as government looks to extend soft power

by Ko Hirano

Kyodo

With the official opening Friday of Japan House in Los Angeles, the last of three planned facilities worldwide, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government will now step up efforts to further extend the country’s soft power and strengthen its “strategic” global communication.

Along with familiarizing foreign people with Japan, Abe’s government plans to use the facilities in Sao Paulo, London and Los Angeles to better communicate with the world on sensitive issues such as Japan’s perception of wartime history and its position on territorial disputes with China, South Korea and Russia. The LA facility — which, unlike an embassy or other diplomatic establishment, can be accessed by anyone without prior appointment — is a cultural promotion center with exhibits featuring the nation’s cutting-edge technology, arts and regional specialties, as well as a library, hall and restaurant serving Japanese food and sake.

There aren’t any exhibits or planned events linked to history and territory — at least for now.

“A starting point is to provide visitors with various information about Japan, be it business, animation, J-pop or washoku Japanese cuisine,” said a Foreign Ministry official involved in the Japan House project.

“The initial goal is to get many people to develop an interest in Japan and broaden the base of international understanding on the country, especially in the run-up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics,” the official said, requesting anonymity. “We hope Japan’s position and views on history and territory, which can be easily misunderstood, will be known around the world as a result.”

In an address at Friday’s opening ceremony for the Los Angeles facility, Foreign Minister Taro Kono said, “With Japan House LA, we would like to bring everything Japanese — its history, its culture and hopefully its people, as well.”

American scholars regard the project as an acknowledgment by the Abe government that Japan is not successfully responding to alternative narratives about the nation being advanced by other countries, especially China and South Korea, as well as some Americans and others.

Andrew Oros, a political science professor at Washington College in Maryland, said, “I think it shows that the Japanese government feels it needs to message to Americans directly, not just through the media, businesses, and organizations like the Japan Foundation,” a government-run cultural promotion agency that runs offices in Los Angeles and New York.

Oros backed Japan’s decision to base Japan House in Los Angeles because “there already is a lot of outreach by the Japanese government to Americans on the East Coast, Washington and New York in particular.”

Calls to boost the country’s strategic global communication increased within the government and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in 2014 when China aggressively promoted an anti-Japan public relations campaign around the world in response to Abe’s visit to the war-related Yasukuni Shrine in December 2013.

In the campaign apparently aimed at driving wedges between Japan and the United States — which expressed disappointment over Abe’s pilgrimage to the Tokyo shrine — and Japan and South Korea, Beijing accused Abe of lacking repentance for the country’s acts before and during World War II, such as its aggression in China and colonization of the Korean Peninsula. Abe said his visit to Yasukuni was meant to be a way of pledging that Japan “must never wage war again” based on “severe remorse for the past.” But China and South Korea view Yasukuni as a symbol of Japanese wartime militarism as it honors convicted war criminals, along with millions of war dead.

Beijing also asserts its claim over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, describing the Japan-held islets — known as Diaoyu in China — as its “inherent territory.”

The government earmarked ¥12.8 billion in its budget from fiscal 2015 to fiscal 2018 for the Japan House project, including ¥3.6 billion for the Los Angeles facility. Officials have not ruled out the possibility of opening similar facilities in other major world cities in the future.

While believing that neither China nor South Korea has been successful in delivering their messages about Japan and East Asian history in the United States, Oros pointed out that the governments in Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo “tend to deliver one-sided messages that most foreigners such as Americans find biased.”

“Like all great powers, Japan has much to be proud of and should share its successes with the world. Japan also has aspects of its history that it should not be proud of,” he said.

“It is my hope that Japan House will offer a new model of openness related to the challenges of presenting history for a modern audience and the challenges of presenting and addressing minority voices in Japanese society.”

James Schoff of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace agreed, saying Japan should carefully program the project so that Japan House will not only convey positive things about the country and the officially approved “correct view” of history, but also come to be seen as a cultural asset by the Los Angeles community.

To brush up the nation’s global communication skills, Schoff, a senior fellow of the Asia Program at the Washington-based think tank, suggested that aside from investing in hardware, the government should step up training of citizens to increase their proficiency in English — and ideally Chinese and Korean.