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 the 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.