Commentary / Japan

Japan is a soft power superpower

by Joshua Walker

Writing in these pages previously I’ve made the case that given the current leaderless world, this is Japan’s global moment. Having recently returned from Eurasia Group’s G-Zero Summit in Tokyo, which built upon this theme, I’ve never been more convinced of Japan’s ability to lead through harmony and humility rather than polarization and arrogance.

Simply looking at Japan through the prism of geopolitics doesn’t do justice to the broader perspective and value that it brings to the world. Japan today is an artistic, culinary and cultural superpower. Its unique soft power extends far beyond sushi and sake to the designs and philosophies that have been popularized from Muji to Marie Kondo. In the age of social media and short attention spans, this soft power has never been more necessary or valuable.

Populism and polarization have overtaken Washington along with most other Western capitals, but not Tokyo. Instead a new emperor and the longest serving prime minister in Japanese history are bucking the trend with an island of stability in the midst of protests rocking Hong Kong, Chile, Lebanon and beyond. While America is consumed by the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump and Britain is twisted up with the Brexit saga, Japan’s scandals such as the most recent cherry blossom viewing inquiry seem almost quaint.

This is not to say that Japan doesn’t face significant challenges such as the rapidly aging and shrinking population, persistent stereotypes for gender roles, peer pressure or low immigration rates, to name among the most obvious. Yet there is an increasing expectation around the world that Japan may be able to provide solutions or at least meaningful lessons.

Japan has never looked more attractive to the world as when it entered the new imperial Reiwa Era on the precipice of the Tokyo Olympics next year. Having grown up in Japan as a son of Christian missionary parents and the grandson of U.S. Air Force and Army veterans who fought in World War II, I don’t take Japan’s moment for granted.

It’s easy to take Japan’s stability and tranquility for granted, but in the world we live in there has never been a more important time to emphasize bridge-building between the United States and Japan. The architects of the Japan-U.S. alliance, such as Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who my two grandfathers fought under, and Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida, whose namesake doctrine established the modern security architecture, knew that relations needed to go beyond geopolitics and security to the exchange of businesses, cultures, peoples and societies.

Thus an institution like the Japan Society, which had existed since the late 19th century to bring American and Japanese people together, was reopened after the American Occupation ended in 1952 and given a new mission and purpose by John D Rockefeller III, whose leadership of the organization for close to three decades made it the top organization for Japan-U.S. relations.

Donating his own house next to the United Nations to become the first postwar designed building by a renowned Japanese architect, Rockefeller III’s Japan Society became a focal point for celebrating the arts and culture of Japan that united New York’s society in the aftermath of such a divisive war.

Other institutions grew and flourished under the patronage of the Rockefellers along with the other leading families of the time, but the Japan Society was unique in its singular focus on the country and its culture. It became a home away from home for friends of Japan in the heart of New York as well as a gateway for all those who wanted to experience, learn and be inspired by Japan.

Much has changed since then, including the Japanese footprint in New York and beyond, illustrated not only by the number of Japanese restaurants throughout the U.S. but particularly the 37 other U.S.-Japan Societies across the country. Yet the mission remains the same.

Given the state of the zero-sum geopolitical world, where “America First” and the “Chinese Dream” are in direct competition, the Japanese sensibility of seeking harmony has never been more necessary or welcome. Japan’s lack of hard power assets such as nuclear weapons or global ambitions makes it a natural partner of choice for countries from Turkey to India.

Non-Western populations admire Japan’s ability to blend its traditional Eastern culture, religion and society with cutting edge technology and modernity as part of the West. Even its democracy and economy, once ridiculed, have come back in vogue not necessarily as models for all but as natural outgrowths of the very soft power that has come to characterize Japan.

For these reasons and the enormity of the moment, I’m embarking on a new journey far removed from my previous geopolitical world of academia, business and diplomacy. I take on a new role as the 20th president of the Japan Society with an enormous sense of honor and humility for all of those that have served before me and recognizing the unique responsibility to present the very best of Japan to New York and beyond.

I believe the world needs Japan’s soft power now more than ever. In this season of thanksgiving, there has never been a more important moment to appreciate Japan for the new innovations and developments that build on its ancient traditions from across Japan, not just Tokyo. I hope to continue this journey with each of you and share the many lessons and ideas that will come along the way.

Joshua W. Walker is the president and CEO of the Japan Society.