Monday, 11 February 2013

Japan declares propaganda war

On 8 February 2013, published a report with an intriguing title: 'Japan declares propaganda war on China, Korea and Russia' (Japan declares propaganda war). The report is mainly concerned with competing claims over the Kuril and Senkaku islands.

Given that Russia and Japan are in conflict over the Kuril islands it is no surprise that Pravda uses a very confrontational discourse in reporting this news, as revealed in its free (and interchangeable) application of the terms 'propaganda' and 'information war.' There is little in the report to support the casual use of these labels: We are told that the Japanese government has established a 'special unit' - we learn nothing more except the unit is composed of 'officials and independent experts' - to 'study and thoroughly analyse the positions of other countries on the territorial dispute.' Shouldn't such research be a priority for any government involved in difficult diplomatic negotiations with another power? It is a huge leap from engaing in such research to the launch of an 'information war'. Moreover, the report then refers to Japan's urgent need to 'communicate its position to the international community'. This is public diplomacy, hardly the basis for an information war or propaganda campaign.

Beyond the rhetoric, the Pravda report does identify some interesting challenges for Japanese public diplomacy. In particular, it reinforces the existing evidence that the Japanese believe there is a strong correlation between the dissemination of its culture and the capacity to shape the international conversation in its favour, or modify attitudes and behaviour towards Japan (although of course the Japanese are not alone in placing their faith in the power of culture to meet international aspirations).

Research on Japan's JET programme of cultural and educational exchange demonstrates that there is no guaranteed correlation between participation in such a programme and sympathy/empathy for Japan. Participation may increase knowledge about Japan and help one's familiarity with the language, but such outreach can encounter cognitive dissonance among audiences socialised into perceiving a Japanese threat (either historical or contemporary). China is understandably very suspicious of Japan because of their traumatic shared history, yet the Chinese remain major consumers of Japanese pop culture products (Yoshiko, 2008). Writing on the JET programme of cultural and educational exchange, McConnell (2008: 24-7) reveals that, when interviewed, '[M]any alumni were at great pains to separate their love of Japanese culture and people from their views about the Japanese state, and, in their minds, deeply critical views of Japan often co-existed with positive elements.' McConnell also references the 'last three feet' of public diplomacy when he describes the 'face-to-face' interpersonal 'dimension of human exchange'; and he concludes that the JET programme 'is not teaching people to like Japan, so much as teaching them to communicate with Japanese' (McConnell, 2008: 30). This is an important distinction, though it is often overlooked.

The Pravda report reveals that the Japanese 'information war' is likely to mobilise manga, anime and other cultural products that appeal especially to the youth of East Asia and in Russia (which is 'currently going through the Japanese boom'). This conforms to a new strategy in Japanese public and cultural diplomacy which was designed by the government's Public Diplomacy Department in 2004 to project 'Cool Japan'. This strategy made four mistakes:

1.  It assumed that simply disseminating culture was the route to success and failed to reference the audience in a way that would identify whether and how these products were consumed. Does Japanese pop culture reach beyond East Asia? It may have some effect in helping the government realise its ambitions in its neighbourhood, but more research is needed to understand the global audience for such cultural products. There is possibly an issue of cultural dissonance here: manga and anime are extremely popular in East Asia, and it is usual to see adults in cafes, bookshops and on buses and trains reading such books. In the west, however, there is still some suspicion of manga and anime as 'cartoons' (despite their critical success and their often dark, adult and disturbing content - just watch Miyazaki's 2001 Oscar-winning Spirited Away) which means they are seen primarily as entertainment for children (you are more likely to see an adult on the London tube unashamedly reading Fifty Shades of Grey than an animated book).  

2.  The strategy confused public diplomacy, cultural diplomacy, soft power and even nation-branding. Again, Japan is not alone in this. The absence of precision in terminology merely confuses strategy and the capacity and instruments required to implement the strategy. It also means that Japan had no starting point: what was the strategy designed to achieve?

3.  By using culture as an entry point Japan overlooked the research that demonstrates there is a negligible correlation between interest and consumption of Japanese culture in East Asia and sympathy/empathy towards the Japanese nation and government.

4.  Japan also failed to notice that the British Labour government's attempt to brand the UK 'Cool Britannia' in the late 1990s failed (and was something of an embarrassment). This strategy was artificial and contrived. Tourists still flock to the UK to breathe its history and tour Britain's castles, stately homes, the Tower of London and to watch the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace . It is possible to argue that interest in Japan is similarly based on its history and cultural memory. Why change what works? Is this an example of Japan throwing the baby out with the bathwater?


Yoshiko, N. (2008), 'Shared memories: Japanese pop culture in China'


McConnell, D.L.M. (2008), 'Japan's image problem and the soft power solution'

are published in Y. Watanabe & D.L. McConnell (eds.), Soft Power Superpowers: Cultural and National Assets of Japan and the United States (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe).

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