Japanese Manga Diplomacy

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"My name's Doraemon. I'm Japan's Anime Ambassador". / Photo: gutninja, flickr

I didn’t take it seriously when in 2007 foreign minister Taro Aso launched the International Manga Award. The media ridiculed Aso for not being able to read Japanese properly, which some said was due to him preferring cartoons to books. And indeed Aso liked to portray himself as a manga otaku, a freak.

I thus saw nothing else in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ initiative to actively use pop culture in public diplomacy than the minister’s personal obsession.

Even though it had never interested me much, I knew that many young people were attracted to Japan because of its manga and anime culture. But creating the post of an Anime Ambassador and filling it with Doraemon, the popular comic cat, didn’t seem like serious foreign policy to me.

However, recently, a couple of impressions have changed my mind. First, there was the article in Le monde diplomatique‘s Atlas. In “Japan’s innocent faces” Namihei Odaira argues that theĀ  government’s efforts in promoting anime and manga abroad have contributed to Japan being perceived favorably in the yearly BBC global attitudes survey.

He also mentions how the trucks of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces in Iraq were painted with the image of Captain Tsubasa, another popular anime figure. The trucks were never attacked, which is attributed to Captain Tsubasas positive influence.

I keep meeting teenagers who start studying Japanese because of their interest in anime and manga. Japanese is by no means an easy language to learn, so committing to it is a sign that people take Japanese culture seriously. The Japan Foundation, the Japanese equivalent of the British Council or the Goethe Institut, has taken this up recently by launching a website dedicated to the study of Japanese through anime and manga.

Increasingly, the government’s strategy makes sense to me:

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, aiming to further the understanding and trust of Japan, is using pop-culture, in addition to traditional culture and art, as its primary tools for cultural diplomacy. Among young people, pop-culture, such as Manga and Anime, has been popular worldwide in recent years.

But is this really going to heighten Japan’s profile in international politics? Well, not in the short term. But as a researcher put it: “In a decade or two, younger generations in many countries who love Japanese cartoons will start to fill leadership roles […] Japan can benefit from that.”

Now if they would just stop whaling.

For more information on public diplomacy in Japan and around the world, check out the bountiful resources in the ISN Digital Library.

7 replies on “Japanese Manga Diplomacy”

Another popular Japanese art: EU President Herman van Rompuy has published his first collection of Haiku. This is an example of a political leader being fascinated by Japanese culture. The book was released timely before the EU-Japan summit, taking place in Tokyo 28 April. Asahi Shimbun quotes Rompuy saying he hopes to compose Haiku also when visiting Japan for that occasion.

I think that things are not as simple as they might seem. It is true that Japanese culture may attract new interested people, but quantity does not necessarily mean quality. Example: I met douzens of students doing Japanese Studies and their expertise on Japan is very limited and their motivation has more to do with admiration than with academic research. One student I talked to loved Samurai (movies, managa, etc). But he was not aware of samurai in Japan in the past and today, didn’t study Japanese history, only sad “it’s cool, they’re strong”.
Will it be of any benefit for Japan to attract those people? Will they become leaders or help the Japanese economy?
I think Japan is making a major mistake here. Japan is cool. Yes. It’s trendy. Yes. But what is trendy and cool is a fashion, a fad. And a fad can and will pass. So is Japan buling it’s foreign policy on a fad? Is this a good enough basis for a supposedly long-term strategy?

Zang Yimou’s ‘wuxia’ films (Hero, House of the Flying Daggers) certainly spread Chinese culture/myths far and wide- and were visually stunning as well- but this is hardly a sign of a consistent influence/appeal to non-Chinese or non-Asian audiences and in any case his films were heavily criticized for putting forward a very selective interpretation of Chinese history…

I must admit I didn’t expect cultural diplomacy would be such a big issue.

Thank you for the hint, Paul. I like your fresh magazine; excellent work. We’ll add a link to it to our Digital Library.

There is the Korean Hallyu, Japan has got Anime and Manga; what does China have? When discussing the post with colleagues, someone argued that China is lacking popular products for effective cultural diplomacy. Can you think of any?

Korean TV dramas are popular in Japan, Japanese Anime seem to be popular in China… Do you think, Renee, that sharing popular culture beyond borders is reducing distrust among Northeast Asian nations?

Very nice blog post.
Cultural Diplomacy is surely something important and a phenomenon that is clearly underestimated today. In this regard, Mangas are definitely more efficient than Swiss chocolate, French literature or US Comic books.

To help balance out the Japanese, I suggest people read about the phenomenon called Hallyu. Literally meaning, ‘wave,’ this is a fascinating movement of Korean pop culture diplomacy using Korean movies, film, television, and music. This ‘wave’ opened doors for Korea between foreign governments and it’s been a super force of soft power, helping the Korean economy tremendously over the last several years. Google “Hallyu” and you’ll see. In fact, “Hallyu” all started in JAPAN because of a Korean television series that was WILDLY popular there, and today even Mrs. Hatoyama is an advocate of promoting Hallyu as well. Google “Winter Sonata” and “Japan.” Hallyu has helped in all sorts of ways to show South Korea to the world and now many global cities hold Korean Film Festivals in addition to normal international film festivals.

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