Cool Japan’s Soft Power In Action

J-popsters SMAP played Beijing on 16th September 2011, the first overseas gig in their 23-year career. The delay in visiting their legion of fans in China wasn’t because of lack of support or popularity: it was purely political. Previous gigs had fallen through rifts in the always-stormy relationship between Japan and its most powerful neighbour. This one went ahead thanks to a combination of disaster, goodwill and soft power.

China was generous with aid after the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami in March 2011. Many Chinese sources quoted Japan’s help for China after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. The theme of the show – “Do Your Best Japan, Thank You China, Asia Is One” – was carefully calculated to accentuate the positive, hinting as it does that there’s already unity in Asia: no need for any nation to spend time and money repeating the mistakes of history.

Besides, the balance of power at the moment is not entirely in China’s favour despite its huge economic might, its rich natural resources and its sheer physical scale. Its tiny neighbour wields a global influence even greater than its still-considerable economic clout, thanks to a messy, informal collection of cheap toys and transient entertainment that Japanese politicians and power-brokers hardly know and don’t understand.

Japan’s first calculated use of soft power in modern times came from a film company. Toei’s 1958 feature animation Hakujaden – Legend of the White Serpent – was based on a Chinese legend with a deliberate eye to overseas sales in a former enemy country. In the event it also sold well in another enemy country, becoming the first postwar anime shown in America, in 1961, under the title Panda and the Magic Serpent.

Japanese animation and comics – anime and manga – slowly spread through Asia and the West, winning a cult following but primarily popular with cartoon-watching kids who called the heroes by their own local names. American kids watching Force Five and Star Blazers had no idea the cartoons were made on the other side of the world unless they actually paid attention to the credits.

Maybe this was partly because many anime are multicultural in inspiration, accidentally adapted for world cult status. The heroine of Candy Candy, beloved by little girls across the world, is American-born and English-educated. Arab kids thrilled to the romance and drama of the French court in Rose of VersaillesMaya the Bee, a children’s TV series from 1975 based on a German novel, has been dubbed into over 40 languages and screened on every continent except Antarctica. Japanese bands, games and graphic arts also moved in a global milieu, responding enthusiastically to influences from the exotic, inscrutable West.

But Japan’s pop culture didn’t become a genuine global phenomenon until broadband Internet connections became widely available in rich countries, and youth culture adopted anime, manga and videogames from Japan as the badge of cool. American journalist Douglas McGray was the first to label the trend “cool Japan”. It took another eight years for the Japanese government to get behind the idea. Now Cool Japan has a logo and a website.

Another American, Joseph Samuel Nye Jr., is generally credited with pioneering the theory of “soft power”  from the late 1980s. That in itself is an example of soft power in action. America’s military and economic might dominated much of the world at the time, but its cultural hegemony was even more widespread. Coca-Cola, Levis and rock’n’roll were good currency in parts of the world where the American flag was valued on a level with toilet paper.

Nye took the concept from much earlier sources. The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, who lived in the seventh century before the Christian era, is widely quoted as writing: “Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield. As a rule, whatever is fluid, soft, and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard. This is another paradox: what is soft is strong.” But Lao Tzu also wrote “Men are born soft and supple; dead, they are stiff and hard. Plants are born tender and pliant; dead, they are brittle and dry. Thus whoever is stiff and inflexible is a disciple of death. Whoever is soft and yielding is a disciple of life. The hard and stiff will be broken. The soft and supple will prevail.”

So soft power is not only a means of wearing down opposition: it’s a way to promote and preserve life. Conventional power – military and economic – tends to be coercive and destructive, fast and highly visible. Bombing a city or a nation into the Stone Age wipes out any immediate opposition and sends a strong message to others considering their options. Buying up all their assets, depressing the prices of their crops on the world market, effectively enslaving them works in the same way. But the long-term effectiveness is questionable. Coercion and destruction are expensive, both psychologically and economically, and can become a self-fulfilling, self-defeating default mode. Katsuhiro Omoto’s short animation Cannon Fodder, part of his anthology movie Memories, makes a powerful argument against weapon-dependency.

The obvious benefits of soft power are very persuasive: it can be promoted without any aggressive actions, it’s ideally adapted for mass communication methods, and instead of costing a fortune it can actually make money. In 2009, the bill for Britain’s US-made Trident missile defence system was estimated at £3.2 billion a year over its 30 year life. In the same year, in a declining market, the US videogame industry earned $19.6 billion.

Music, games, fashion, anime and manga are pulling money into Japan, at the same time as  promoting the idea that Japanese people are pretty cool: not the kind of people you want to kill. It doesn’t make Japan’s mighty neighbour any less unpredictable, or their shared history any less confrontational, but turning people into good neighbours who help each other out in times of trouble is an improvement on arguing over which bit of water belongs to which of the nations it could overwhelm at any moment.

Painful as they can be in the wrong hands, nobody ever killed anyone with a merciless barrage of pop songs. Maybe in the new millennium, as in the hopelessly romantic future of 1982 TV space opera Superdimensional Fortress Macross, we can actually use music – and games, and cartoons, and cosplay – to save the world instead.

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