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Attending the Association of Asian Studies conference in Singapore last week, I realized that Japan’s global image is not what it might be. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe says Japan is back, but doubts are spreading about the version of Japan he is promoting. It appears that Abe’s energetic regional diplomacy has been undercut by his awkward views on history and failure to deliver on structural reforms.

One panel at the conference saw presenters asserting that Japan is not shifting to the right. It’s an unconvincing argument, though, that overlooks Abe’s progress on implementing his core right-wing ideological agenda. It may be true that Japan’s voters have not shifted much, but Abe is frog-marching the nation rightward as evident in his move to lessen transparency by enacting the state secrets legislation, genuflecting at the war-glorifying Yasukuni Shrine, appointing right-wing cronies to the board of NHK, lifting the ban on arms exports, elbowing aside constitutional constraints on Japan’s military and securing approval for restarting nuclear reactors. Abe has also orchestrated a blatant hit-and-run on the 1993 Kono Statement, trying to discredit the government’s long-standing admission of guilt regarding coercive and duplicitous recruitment of Korean teenagers to provide sex for Japanese troops under the comfort women system (1931-45). Abe’s revisionist history ensures that the past casts a long shadow over regional relations and tarnishes Japan’s brand.

“Abenomics” is the main feature in the Japan-is-back narrative, but skepticism is growing. Team Abe cultivates the international press and encourages energetic Miley Cyrus-style twerking by reporters who should know better, but some regional financiers derided this exuberant cheerleading from publications otherwise known for hardheaded analysis. Instead they slammed Abenomics as a con job, expressing pessimism about the sustainability of Japan’s economic recovery due to the absence of significant structural reform initiatives — the incredible shrinking “third arrow.” In their view, the extended market honeymoon is not based on fundamentals and it’s a case of Japan being less ugly than other options. These analysts told me Abe’s best days may well be behind him, as there is gathering awareness that he is not delivering on his growth strategy, even sparking dissension within the Bank of Japan about the merits of massive monetary easing.

Richard Katz’s recent article in Foreign Affairs magazine that dismisses Abe’s policies as “voodoonomics” is a convincing and comprehensive critique that resonates powerfully among those in the know.

Japan, however, is not viewed as a threat to regional peace and stability while everyone seems worried about China’s hegemonic ambitions and its growing regional footprint. The influx of some 1 million mainland Chinese over the past 15 years is a hot-button issue in Singapore these days. Taxi drivers, hotel staff, businessmen and academics all told me this surge is unwelcome, although I did not check around luxury car dealers or the casinos. There is a general sentiment, including among locally born Chinese-Singaporeans, that recent Chinese immigrants are “barbarians”: pushy, ill-mannered, loud and unpleasant to deal with. In contrast, the Japanese are seen as polite, efficient, meticulous, cultured and not corrupt. The Japanese and their manufactured products are also highly esteemed. Thus, on the “likability and admiration” index Japan enjoys a significant advantage over its regional rival. But the Chinese spend and invest vast sums of their black money in this island hub that bankers assure me is belatedly cracking down on money laundering.

Nancy Snow, an expert on nation branding and propaganda at California State University, Fullerton, says, “Japan can’t recover its 1980s mojo.” In her view, the government’s ‘Cool Japan’ branding strategy has little upside because it relies on what’s already accepted in this product-driven, play-safe approach. She asserts that Japan’s public diplomacy and nation-branding remain weak and tentative, preventing Japan from developing a global footprint, and that Japan lacks the institutionalized promotional presence of South Korea and China, which fund King Sejong and Confucius Institutes around the world.

Snow also believes that the re-launching of Abe has been a great success, but now reality is catching up with image politics and highlighting the growing gaps between pledges and results. In her view, Abe’s rhetorical support for “womenomics” and the empowerment of women is overshadowed by his apologist views on the comfort women and his initial silence about the heckling of a female politician by male colleagues at the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly. Snow says Abe’s inability to really grasp the comfort women issue discredits his empty gestures and stokes a global backlash. This underscores Team Abe’s failure to understand how speeches targeting domestic audiences resonate internationally, and how his party is judged to be out of touch with prevailing norms and values on human rights and gender equality.

In addition to historical revisionism, Snow also believes that Abe scores own goals for Japan on whaling and nuclear energy and needs to get in front on, rather than ducking, issues such as xenophobia and gender discrimination.

“Clearly the brand-spinning is working effectively if Abe is able to make policy changes that are unpopular, but which don’t terribly impact his personal brand,” she says. “I know that his numbers of late are going slightly down, but he’s still seen as in charge and authoritative, even if not always celebrated. Deep down, he’s tapping into a sense of patriotism and nationalism that the Japanese people feel. They are undoubtedly tired of being seen as ‘lost’ either in translation or economy, and his PR people and speechwriters are offering a compass.”

However, Snow continues, “Japan has too may politicians, but not enough politics.” The power of image distracts attention from crucial issues, perhaps explaining why voter turnout has declined. Team Abe is so busy spinning the news that it has lost focus on the need for substance and keeping promises. In drawing everyone’s gaze to the discredited past, Abe hasn’t done much to nurture an inspiring vision for the future. Snow concedes that nation-branding is not about depth, but in her view the evident parochialism and lack of intellectual curiosity are degrading the Japan brand.

“For anyone following nation-brand Japan, it comes down to analyzing the say-do gap between Abe’s rhetoric and his actions,” Snow advises. “This is what we did with George W. Bush in the United States after Sept. 11, 2001. That ever-widening gap led to my book, ‘Information War.’ If Japan’s Abe and other officials aren’t careful with their more aggressive rhetoric, they run the risk of sparking propaganda and information wars in the region. To some, we’re already there. In nation-branding, you want to compete in the global marketplace of ideas and products, but you don’t want to be seen at war.”

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

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