Global understanding does not come cheaply. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government has budgeted ¥70 billion — yes, that’s more than $500 million — to help get the word out about Japan and ensure that China and South Korea aren’t the only ones controlling the narrative.
This lavishly funded PR program more than triples the strategic communications budget over last year’s ¥20 billion, essentially an admission that Japan has been losing the international war of words — and thus global support for its positions — during Abe’s tenure. Given that Seoul and Beijing have been playing hardball in getting their sides of the story out, Tokyo is responding in kind.
Part of this gold-plated approach to global understanding involves conveying government positions on wartime history and overlapping territorial claims. A portion will be allocated to improving the government’s ability to analyze and respond to developments in global opinion and making sure Japan’s message gets across. Another slab is earmarked for supporting researchers and promoting Japanese studies at universities and think tanks; Columbia, Georgetown and Massachusetts Institute of Technology are getting $5 million each, no strings attached. Such endowments are the right way to go rather than doling out grants to Japan-friendly academics, because doing the latter will only provoke criticism about what criteria are applied to judge scholars’ amenability. This would risk generating a backlash like the one China is facing with its 80 Confucius Institutes in the United States. There is also a risk that using the PR campaign to promote Abe’s revisionist views will backfire, focusing attention on the worst chapters of modern Japan’s history.
Is this a useful way to spend taxpayers’ money? Undoubtedly some of it will be well spent, but one suspects that Japan’s bumbling diplomats are not only thinking about mounting a counter-propaganda campaign. Apparently, some of this budget will go toward establishing what will be called Japan Houses in London, Los Angeles and Sao Paulo. The latter two cities have fairly large Japanese communities, but the rationale for London is less certain. It’s likely because London is a media hub and, more importantly, a plum posting for a retiring diplomat. There is no pressing need for Japan Houses to promote the government’s perspectives on world affairs, but recent inept efforts to do so create an opportunity to seize the moment — or at least the budget.
So just as Japan’s diplomats are embarrassing the nation by harrying U.S. publisher McGraw Hill on its textbook’s depiction of “comfort women” and territorial disputes, now the Foreign Ministry is establishing snug sinecures for former diplomats to keep up the good work? These are the same people who came up with the ludicrous idea of “kawaii (cute) ambassadors,” sending young women around the world to promote the country’s pop culture. Given the interest in anime and cosplay overseas, and avid trendspotting on social media, there was no real need to have Lolita-esque fashion models and teens in school uniforms serve as roaming representatives of “Cool Japan,” but who knows, maybe they’re better at brand boosting than the dour diplomats are.
It would be churlish to suggest that the diplomatic corps are the only ones involved in bureaucratic boondoggling, but why Japan Houses? The spurious logic is that they will serve as information centers to make sure that the neighbors’ bad-mouthing of Japan and distortions of the historical record are countered in a timely manner. Until recently, the Foreign Ministry has taken the high road, assuming (quite mistakenly) that everyone would see Chinese and Korean “propaganda” for what it is. However, now it understands that the world is not warming to the revisionist history that is plugged by Team Abe and that the media is a decisive battlefield where lost ground must be regained.
It would seem, however, that the Japan House initiative is the work that embassies and Japan Foundations are already doing, cultivating pundits and politicians and ensuring that they get the correct history and proper maps. There is also a significant herd of Japan lobbyists in Washington, for example, who do what they are paid to do. Moreover, funding is also funneled to ensure that Japan-friendly views, conferences and research are supported. So what will Japan House do that isn’t already being done, and how can it do better?
Another option would be to tap the vast network of Japan-friendly organizations abroad. All of these are starved of funds but do an amazing job of promoting Japan on shoestring budgets. The Japan House money would be better spent bolstering existing Japan Societies because they have roots in local communities and enjoy more credibility as they are not under government control: Endow them generously and reap the rewards. Japan is easy to promote, so rather than creating sinecures, why not rely on and expand existing networks. If it makes everyone feel better send out lots of maps and pamphlets for distribution and offer fully funded speaking tours by academics, journalists and ex-diplomats to plug government views and create connections.
My preference would be to use the Japan House money to establish a museum for trafficked women in Asia, which would help restore the nation’s dignity and convince the world that Japan is not in denial about the comfort women. This museum could trace the arc of exploitation from the young Japanese girls known as karayuki-san recruited by Japanese brokers for brothels around Asia to the wartime comfort women system, the postwar equivalent established at the behest of Japanese government authorities to service American Occupation troops, subsequent sex workers linked to U.S. bases and the long-standing trafficking of Asian women into the 21st century. Such a museum would help undo lots of the damage that Abe has inflicted on Japan’s reputation and would be a grand and gracious gesture that would help repair relations with China and South Korea. It could be an attractive tourist destination and an excellent site for educational visits and research that would bolster Japan’s global image and transform an issue that divides Japan from its neighbors into a collaborative project.
Given Abe’s “truly shocked” comments in the Diet on Jan. 29 demanding revisions to the McGraw Hill textbook’s depiction of the comfort women, it is unlikely he would back such a project. Doing so, however, would serve the national interest far better than peevish outbursts or cushy jobs for retired diplomats.
Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.