Remastered Series: H1 "Origin of the Sun: Japanese Soft Power and Public Diplomacy Evaluated"

Yamisle Barbara Roca, Ritsumeikan University [About | Email]

Volume 21, Issue 1 (Article 2 in 2021). First published in ejcjs on 14 April 2021.


This article evaluates how soft power has evolved in post-Cold War Japan, primarily between 1991-2017. Existing literature lacks a consensus on the research question, “Why does Japan’s use of soft power, as seen through public diplomacy, vary over time?” Variables that could affect this change include the geopolitical environment and economics. To test the hypothesis of the project, the soft power theory proposed by Joseph Nye is applied, in the context of Japanese strategies using public diplomacy as soft power. Therefore, to determine which variables play a role in the evolution of soft power across various cases within Japan, this project analyses10 prime ministers’ terms and measures whether there has or has not been any kind of change in policy, emphasising the geopolitical environment, to establish what those changes, if any, might mean. This method involves looking at how policy is officially documented across secondary sources. The analysis narrows the scope of the research to Prime Minister Koizumi and PM Abe’s terms, though each case evaluates soft power policy positions. This project finds support for the hypothesis presented, though the limited nature of the resources available for this research must be acknowledged.

Keywords: Soft Power, Public Diplomacy, Japanese Prime Ministries, 1991-2017.

1. Introduction

Why does Japan’s use of soft power, as seen through public diplomacy, vary over time? In May 2016, during the G7 summit, Prime Minister Abe Shinzō and President François Hollande decided to set up a large-scale event in two years, titled Japonismes 2018, to demonstrate Japanese culture in Paris and other French cities as a celebration of the 160th anniversary of Japan-France diplomatic relations. This cultural presentation of public diplomacy only partially demonstrates Japan’s ongoing dedication to soft power; the intent is to focus on the wider political, historical, and geopolitical sphere where Japan’s soft power may be outlined and projected among some of the country’s other recent proposals. In particular, public diplomacy has emerged as a common tool used by many administrations to advance the goal of Japan’s international influence through soft power.

This article evaluates how soft power evolved in post-Cold War Japan, primarily between 1991-2017. Existing literature lacks a consensus on the research question above. Variables that could affect this change include geopolitical environment and economics. To test the hypothesis of the project, the soft power theory proposed by Joseph Nye is applied, in the context of Japanese strategies using public diplomacy as soft power. Therefore, to determine which variables play a role in the evolution of soft power across various cases within Japan, this project analyses 10 prime ministers’ terms and measures whether there has or has not been any kind of change in policy, emphasising the geopolitical environment, to establish what those changes, if any, might mean. This method involves looking at how policy is officially documented across secondary sources. The analysis narrows the scope of the research to Prime Minister Koizumi and PM Abe’s terms, though each case evaluates soft power policy positions. This project finds support for the hypothesis presented, though the limited nature of the resources available for this research must be acknowledged.

The following general definitions align with this article, given their concise nature that maintains accuracy, and should help with ease of understanding before deeper detail is provided:

1) Soft Power

Soft power is essentially the ability to attract with the use of a persuasive approach, instead of a coercive one, to shape preferences or serve a purpose through appeal (Nye, 1990).

2) Public Diplomacy

Public diplomacy may be defined, simply, as the conduct of international relations by governments through public communications media and through dealings with a wide range of nongovernmental entities (political parties, corporations, trade associations, labor unions, educational institutions, religious organisations, ethnic groups, and so on including influential individuals) for the purpose of influencing the politics and actions of other governments.

— Alan K. Henrikson, Professor of Diplomatic History, April 2005.

2. Expected Contributions and Findings

This thesis delves into what variables may have driven change in Japan’s approach to soft power, within the time period of 1991 to 2017, and whether its use of soft power policy has shown an increase in public diplomacy. Since current literature has not reached a general conclusion on this front, policy debates are used to evaluate soft power policy from post-Cold War prime ministries across the main variable, reiterated below, in an attempt to attain an answer. In particular, the argument that the post-Cold War era has made Japan’s soft power evolve to emphasise public diplomacy is explored. The theory is that, after the Cold War, Japan shifted away from self-reliant tendencies because of relations with allies, which has affected Japan’s foreign policy and relationship with soft power.

Japan has a deep history of isolation. In 1623, Sakoku (鎖国), meaning closed country, was a policy enacted in order to keep borders tight on relations and trade, and closed to nearly all incoming foreigners as well as outgoing Japanese citizens. The nationalist foreign policy decree remained effective until 1853 when the Perry Expedition forcibly opened Japan to regular trade and communication with the United States and the Western world as a result. Fast-forward to the defeat of Japan in World War II, when, between 1945 and 1952, General MacArthur, as Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers (SCAP), imposed widespread military, political, economic, and social reforms. These fundamental changes to the Japanese government and society encouraged Japan to shift further away from autarkic (self-reliant) tendencies with each passing year, especially in the modern post-Cold War era in which it can be considered an interactive world power, whether by means of its diplomatic relations, economic power, technological advances, and so on.

Through reports related to soft power, it can be determined whether the variable, geopolitical environment for the purposes of this article, has provoked change in Japan’s policy by analysing how policy is officially documented along with its actual applications. This work serves to contribute a unique explanation as to why we see change, and a source that provides a partial index of post-Cold War Japan’s prime ministries and policy with their relation to soft power and public diplomacy. Further, there is an additional contribution to literature on theories of soft power and Japan’s foreign policy. Since the hypothesis based on the theory is falsifiable, being wrong would be illustrated if there is no change toward soft power or public diplomacy within reported policy. Nonetheless, the scope of this thesis is purely on the use of soft power; the concept of effectiveness is a different question. Research materials are limited to what is available in English, through such venues as databases provided by Ritsumeikan University, the University of West Florida, JSTOR, Google Scholar, and ResearchGate. We must acknowledge at the outset that we may be seeing the effects of soft power that is visible when the geopolitical environment is doing well versus hard power preferences that are visible when tensions arise.

3. Soft Power Theory

To explain the hypothesis of the present research, this thesis uses the soft power theory proposed by Joseph Nye. As previously described, soft power is essentially the ability to attract with the use of a persuasive approach, instead of a coercive one, to shape preferences or serve a purpose through appeal. Since “public diplomacy” is a subset of soft power, it follows the outlined theory when applied diplomatically. According to Nye (1992, 25), soft power is able to guide the capabilities, culture, ideology, and social system of others. When soft power is effective or successful, other countries tend to follow a nation because of its attractiveness and appeal. After World War II, Japan adopted democracy and was regarded as a pacifist state. The post-WWII era was crucial for the economic and technological development of Japan, allowing it to emerge as the world’s second largest economy after the United States until it was surpassed by China in 2011, as demonstrated in Figure 1.

Figure 1. IMF’s World’s Biggest Economies (in trillions), 2018.

Nye (2008) does not provide a simple definition of soft power. Instead, he defines it as:

1) the ability to shape the preferences of others,

2) the ability to attract, and this attractiveness often occurs with tacit consent,

3) the ability to make others want the same result that you want because of the appeal to your culture and ideology,

4) the ability of countries to achieve desired results in world politics because other countries observe their achievements, imitate their example, and strive for their level of prosperity and openness,

5) and the ability to form queries that establish an agenda.

While Nye coined the term in the late 1980s, the concept of soft power originates in the writings of Hans J. Morgenthau, Klaus Knorr, and Ray Cline (Fan, 2008). Morgenthau (1967) identifies nine elements of national power, including national character, national identity, the quality of diplomacy, and the quality of government, all of which are closely associated with intangible sources of power; that is, with soft power (Fan, 2008). Similarly, power over opinions is no less important for political purposes than military and economic power; however, this influence is correlated with political objectives. Some scholars consider that there are five pillars of power: legitimate (or formal or bureaucratic power), reward, coercive, expert, and referent (French and Raven, 1959). Soft power falls within the referent pillar, which is based on attractiveness and determines influence in relation to other powers.

Arguments in support of the concept of soft power can be traced in philosophy for more than two thousand years. In The Art of War by Sun Tzu, soft power is portrayed as stronger and more effective than hard power. We may arghue that Nye was hardly the first to reveal the essence of power outside the context of threats or promises. Such scholars as Foucault, Bourdieu, Gramsci, and others attached similar importance to power; however, they did not formulate the concept of “soft power.” Nye proposed an original theory, which reveals new facets of understanding power.

Soft power is based on three main resources: culture, values, and foreign policy (Nye, 2008). In a narrow sense, soft power is similar to cultural influence. In a broader sense, soft power is synonymous with non-military power and includes both cultural and economic strength (Nye, 2008). While these broad understandings give rise to misunderstandings, the question arises as to why they are popular and relatively stable. It should be noted that the concept is misunderstood not only by the public, but also by experts in international politics research (Panda, 2013). The essence of this misunderstanding seems to lie in the confusion between the categories of “soft power” and “resources for soft power,” of which there is some illustration in Figure 2, as referenced in the Hypothesis section. In many ways, these problems are associated with the poorly developed analytical tools of the concept of soft power.

The ability to achieve the desired results through attraction rather than coercion is the essence of soft power and it has become an important part of social-scientific thinking. The main component of soft power is attractiveness, which has been largely neglected in quantitative research (Brumann, 2012). Previous studies have suggested variants of this policy and have made conclusions about soft power based on implicit and often unconfirmed assumptions about what attractiveness is (Paul, 2004). Attractiveness, the quality of being appealing or persuasive, in world politics reaches through non-physical and difficult to measure but still compulsory forms of power (influence, culture, etc.), which are exercised through diplomacy. Therefore, soft power should not be understood through comparison with hard power, but rather as its continuation on a power spectrum.

Soft power is not always associated with size, economic, or military might, or the ideology of the state (Nye, 2008). A smaller, relatively less economically powerful country can, for example, be a leader in terms of wages and pensions, in national currency reliability, in environmental standards, and in the level and availability of education that constitute reputation and authority over other nations. However, quantifying how culture, ideology, and values are variables of soft power can be problematic. Such a conclusion is based on the assumption that these sources of influence are naturally attractive, convincing, and sympathetic (Beeson, 2014). Still, in reality, this expectation may not always be the case.

On the one hand, these sources of soft power do not always contribute to attractiveness, persuasion, appeal, and imitation (Nye, 2008). Culture, ideology, values, and norms can often lead to resentment, rejection, hostility, and even conflict. On the other hand, hard power is not always used for coercion, threats, and intimidation. The above reasoning puts the dynamically developing theory of Nye into an epistemological deadlock. To analyse the process of soft power influence, it would be effective to use a form of institutional analysis. The fact is that institutions are usually visible; one can view actions in the sphere of consciousness and in the area of motives and motivators for the decisions of individuals or the political elite in general (Riegl, 2014). Institutions of soft power, which can be government administrations, international organisations (IOs), nongovernmental organisations (NGOs), etc., are the means by which it is formed and where one can assess the potential of the soft power of a given state.

However, the full potential of soft power cannot be attributed solely to the aforementioned institutions because soft power is an extensive system of presentations, meanings, and historical and cultural heritage (Nye, 2008). Institutions serve as a tool for translating these components, shaping a policy of soft influence as a kind of phenomenon (Arase, 2013). Observable institutions in many ways set standards for understanding the tasks that can be achieved through soft power and gauging soft power investments. The question of how broadly or narrowly specialised the interpretation of a particular image, cultural code, or ideological concept is could be determined by soft power institutions.

Despite the vast capacity of soft power, a major shortcoming of soft power theory lies in that it can be considered an incredibly vague and all-encompassing concept that may be impossible to quantify even within observable institutions. Consequently, soft power is limited by a variety of elements. At least two other weaknesses are present in terms of the theory’s originality and the excessive emphasis on agents. According to Yukaruc (2017), soft power resembles many other approaches in international relations, such as E.H. Carr’s realist theory, Steven Lukes’ three-dimensional power, and the Gramscian Approach, and fits within realist, liberalist, and constructivist perspectives as an analytical concept. Likewise, Nye tends to focus on either agency of actors, e.g., Japan, or the structure that determines what it means to be attractive instead of blending agent and structure (Yukaruc, 2017). Logically, there are other agents who have soft power beyond states and their control, such actors including corporations, popular idols, and civil society groups, all of which add to the ambiguous nature of soft power and the complex, arguably impossible task that is measuring it.

Kearn (2011) identifies soft power as a concept that is highly dependent on codependent, rule-governed interactions between states that share central goals and values. Through the outlined criticisms, including defining the scope and context, the problem of attraction, the linkage between soft and hard power, and possible hegemonic influence, Kearn (2011) considers:

In short, attempting to understand, even in a very general way, how certain policies are going to be interpreted and understood in a given state is a daunting task. This is the task the foreign offices and intelligence agencies around the world attempt to effectively complete every day. It may be possible to make tentative judgments concerning the impact of policies on certain subsets of states at given points in time, but like other theoretical approaches that incorporate domestic-level factors, there will always be empirical questions to be answered before any larger implications can be drawn. From a theoretical perspective, this is a major limitation of soft power as a concept. From a practical perspective, this discussion shows just how much we need to know about a potential context and relevant actors to understand the implications of a given policy in soft power terms. It is no small task (79).

Overall, soft power critiques tend to revolve around definition, sources, and limitations (Fan, 2008), not to mention that soft power is still a power capable of making enemies through feelings of manipulation since the actual “power” rests in the response and reaction of the party who receives it (Fan, 2008). As an intangible and unpredictable concept, soft power is difficult to wield, especially given the fickleness of human nature, but policymakers have realised the increasing importance of soft power, despite the complexities that come with application (Nye 2004; Fan 2008; Kearn 2011). In terms of Japan, because of residual suspicions in East Asia, with particular emphasis on China and South Korea, soft power needs to be harnessed with great care to be effective. Naturally, soft power is one of countless approaches, every one of which has shortcomings and is owed its due diligence.

4. Japan’s Approach to Soft Power and Public Diplomacy Over Time

(1) Power

Power is typically studied as political or social authority or control, especially as exercised by a government. Dahl in “The Concept of Power” (1957) describes power as, “A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do” (202-203). Meanwhile, Barnett and Duvall (2005) define power as the ability of a nation to take advantage of its material resources as a strategy of compelling another nation to act in a manner that it does not want. The acquisition, administration, and uses of power are considered the fundamental preoccupation of politics (Welch, 1999). Soft power strategies manipulate the preferences of others through attracting and persuading. Nye (2004) affirms that “soft power resources are the assets that produce attraction which often leads to acquiescence; seduction is always more effective than coercion” (Duong 2013, 12).

Many researchers find that Japan is considered to be the first nation in East Asia explicitly to adopt the use of soft power for its foreign affairs and security policy. Hsiao and Alan (2009) argue that Japan adopted the use of soft power because of its constitutional constraints on the usage of military hard power. According to Nye (2008), Japan possesses more resources and potential to exercise soft power compared to its neighbouring nations. Japan has a significant amount of revenue and modern technology, both of which closely compare with Western countries like the United States, but it still maintains traditional cultural practices (Cull, 2008). Article 9 restrictions within Japan’s constitution, which outlaws war altogether or rather renounces the sovereign right of belligerency for international peace, have forced it to resort to expanding its soft power (Lam, 2007). Lukes (2005) asserts that the externally imposed constitutional restrictions, following WWII, to minimise Japan’s use of military force in the international arena have contributed to the country’s experience of maximising the use of soft powers.

(2) Historical Constraints

According to Lam (2007), Japan’s soft power usage has been influenced by historical constraints, including the lack of popular international news outlets like CNN and BBC as well as its language that is spoken by relatively few outsiders. Historical constraints are evident because of past issues arising from war and disputes with leaders from neighbouring nations (Otmazgin, 2012). For example, although Japan has been trying to strengthen its ties with Taiwan, their relationship is culturally sound, but still constrained because of their history, e.g. the “One China” policy does not allow Japan to send ambassadors to Taipei beyond those that are de facto. Moreover, Japan’s soft power is limited, because many East Asian nations fail to trust it, and its involvement in a number of territorial and resource disagreements with China and South Korea (Smith, 2013). East Asian experiences of Japanese imperialism and Cold War ideological tensions have been major impediments to normalising relations in the region. As a result, Japan is still distrusted since its Eastern neighbours believe that there could be hidden motives within negotiations. Japan’s approach to exert soft power internationally is faced with many challenges from the lack of internationally recognised institutions in the country, unsettled historical issues, and the unpopular nature of the Japanese language (Paradise, 2008). All of this contrasts with the general appreciation of its pop culture.

(3) Culture

Japan’s soft power is made up of its culture, political values, and foreign policy. According to Lee and Melissen (2011, 19), “Japan’s cultural attraction—both for the distinctive elements of Japan’s ancient culture and modern culture—has been the most distinguishing part of its soft power.” Similarly, Mori (2006) suggests that the highest level of Japan’s soft power is derived from its appealing traditional and popular culture, and the prosperity of its free society. The role of culture in Japan’s government and diplomacy has grown over the years, thus influencing the nation’s international relations (McGray, 2002). Likewise, technological advancements and international influence have encouraged the international community to grow fond of Japan’s traditions through their cuisine, television productions, and entertainment products. The growth and development of Japanese culture internationally has enabled it to integrate its values and ideas in foreign domains. According to a study by Otmazgin (2012), Japan’s cultural policies and cultural diplomacy have played a significant role in enabling the country to enhance its soft power and national powers.

(4) Political Values

Limited and generalised research appears to be available on Japan’s actual political values since the country is still typically considered to be a group-based society whereby individual freedom of expression is disregarded. As such, it seems that uniformity, homogeneity, and hierarchy characterise Japan’s political values in foreign studies. However, these principles do not allow for a universal political value that can be recognised in foreign nations. Hsiao and Alan (2009) argue that even though the Japanese government supports liberal and democratic practices, the nation still fails to utilise its political ideas in its international relations. This misstep has further affected Japan’s soft power since it cannot use this set of political values as an instrument in international politics, given that the traditional values that Japan is more known for, rather than its modern cultural advancements, are not desirable in foreign relations. Beyond pop culture, Japan’s soft power is primarily in its economic and business capabilities.

(5) Foreign Policy (Economics)

Furthermore, Japan’s source of soft power in foreign policy is its focus on economic development (Hall and Smith, 2013). According to Mori (2006), Japan focuses on economic development, economic interdependence, and political stability, which have informed the country’s investment in official development aid in third world countries for the expansion of its international influence. Administrations in Japan usually commit to maximising the achievement of their foreign policy objectives, which assists in developing international relations and diplomatic policies in the country (Kitano, 2007). According to Ma (2015), diplomacy in Japan is used as a tool to enhance foreign policy. Therefore, the implementation of international agreements and cooperation between Japan and international communities has had a significant influence on the country’s public diplomacy (Scheneider, 2006). Lacquer (1994) suggests that an understanding and positive perceptions of Japan with its foreign policy play a critical role in developing its public relations. Thus, the public relations strategies formulated by Japan function as a problem-solving tool that offers solutions to international issues that affect Japan’s culture and economic experiences (Ma, 2015).

(6) Foreign Policy (Geopolitical Environment)

Kitano (2007) mentions that international public relations shape the image of Japan in the international community. International public relations influence foreigners’ perspectives regarding the nation’s political, social, and economic status. The Japanese government has used surveys and opinion polls as tools to find ways to improve their public relations with other countries (Hsiao and Alan, 2009). In an effort to enhance its public relations, the Japanese government has continued to create sustainable relationships with foreigners by inviting them to visit Japan and publicising the tourist attraction sites in the country, e.g. Visit Japan Campaign. In addition to this, the country has become popular in maintaining sustainable international relations by hosting international gatherings, whether in foreign Japan Houses, governmental events, or other venues.

The Japanese government has implemented peacekeeping initiatives to develop its public diplomacy (Mori, 2006). Territorial disputes and regional conflicts between Japan and its neighbouring nations are among the issues that negatively affect the economic, social, and political aspects of the country’s public relations (Hsiao and Alan, 2009). Japan’s peacekeeping efforts consist of assisting in intellectual contributions, such as conflict resolution and peace restoration (Mori, 2006; Kitano, 2007). For instance, in 2007, Japan’s peace building initiative’s main objective was to offer training to its civilians and other Asian countries as part of the Human Resource Development Program (Hsiao and Alan, 2009).

Cultural exchange has served an important role in Japan’s international relations. According to Ma (2015), cultural exchange entails undertaking activities with the main objective of enhancing mutual understanding and respect through international exchange. The government of Japan uses cultural exchange as an effective medium that fosters positivity and understanding between countries. Cultural exchange continues to be used in political and economic activities to spearhead bilateral ties and bonds between Japan and other countries (Soeya, 1998).

(7) Japanese Scholarship

Within written works authored by Japanese researchers that have made their studies accessible and available in English, there have been a variety of external cultural and economic influences that have helped form modern Japan. However, Japan acted as a “black hole” for some time, playing the role of a “receiver” while assimilating various cultures from outside to develop an advanced technological society, before seeking to project more of itself internationally in a nominal, i.e., purely technical, capacity (Umesao 1990; Matsunaga 2010). An example of nominal efforts is present in the attitudes of Japanese people toward foreign languages, especially English. As Matsunaga (2010) aptly writes, “some people regard the lack of intensive utterance in English as a crucial reason why many Japanese have not been good at speaking and writing in English in spite of tenacious studies and why the presences of Japanese media in the world has been very low” (71). Even so, soft power and public diplomacy by extension are gaining traction as important policy instruments and there have been instances of advocation for more aggressive “soft power diplomacy;” for example, in the case when Japan’s cooperation with the U.S. during the Iraq War threatened to tarnish its image in the Middle East (Ogoura, 2009).

Of course, as soft power and public diplomacy have gained importance over the last few decades, it is only natural for Japan to emphasise the need to reach beyond the nominal. Likewise, because there are a number of historical and territorial issues in East Asia, public diplomacy can be applied to alleviate concerns and stress the Japanese government’s desire and willingness to form partnerships, especially with other developed nations, in the international community while making other countries more receptive of Japan’s positions with the additional soft power applications of spreading cultures and values, which can be done through media, education, exchange programs, etc. (Ogoura, 2009; Iwabuchi, 2015). Though prime ministers have previously dealt with conflicts in damaging ways that contradict the intent for warmer relations, e.g. PM Koizumi’s repeated visits to Yasukuni Shrine that even Nye (2005) criticised, Japanese scholarship follows that, as early as the 1920-30s, Japan sought to be an imperial and colonial power equivalent to those in Europe and America, so actual dialogue regarding the uses of culture and media to enhance Japan’s image started up, only to be interrupted by the defeat during WWII and the subsequent American occupation before being brought back in the 1960s because of Japan’s remarkable economic development (Sato, 2012; Iwabuchi, 2015).

5. Hypothesis

Drawing on Figure 2, based on Worne’s (2015) spectrum, that shows categories that make up soft power and hard power as well as the extent within those categories that public diplomacy covers, researchers may be able to use a wide variety of operationalisations for variables of soft power within an observable category of public diplomacy, other forms of soft power (cultural relations, traditional diplomacy, defense engagement), and individual components of soft power (aid, access to opportunity, exchange, promotion, projection) or hard power (defense and security).

Figure 2. Based on Worne’s (2015) Soft Power Spectrum.

The operationalisations (how you know it when you see it) used in this thesis for the geopolitical environment are boycotts, friction, exterior incidents, etc. that mark tension, military and otherwise, while treaties and deals being negotiated as well as situations that lack friction can mark diplomacy. To expand on this variable, another researcher might be able to use relative defense spending and how fast that spending might be increasing as well as a proxy by establishing the number of Confucius Institutes or the number of students abroad for China.

Hypothesis #1: → If post-Cold War Japanese prime ministries (with an emphasis on PM Koizumi and PM Abe) perceive the geopolitical environment to be confrontational, then there would be reduced initiatives or declining governmental support for public diplomacy. Likewise, if post-Cold War Japanese prime ministries perceive the geopolitical environment to be diplomatic, then there should be more initiatives or increasing support for public diplomacy.

This hypothesis assumes that, in the case of tensions, public diplomacy intent will decrease toward the source of tension. That is not to say that it would not increase elsewhere, e.g. if Japan has conflicts with China, it might not take steps toward reconciliation, but it may reinforce ties with the United States in the meantime. However, that analysis is not within the scope of this article. Presently, this hypothesis stems from the notion that if the geopolitical environment poses imminent tensions, any prime minister will not seek to emphasise soft power usage toward the main source of tension. Public diplomacy would be emphasised when behaviours from any source lack tension, almost as a reward or for the sake of positive association with a constructive ally, i.e., winning hearts and minds rather than relying on sticks and carrots to exercise influence (Nye, 1990; Watanabe & McConnell, 2008). Better to understand geopolitical tensions, the Appendix breaks down an example of a geopolitical dispute between China and Japan.

6. Method

This article follows the belief that, in the post-Cold War era, Japan has emphasised public diplomacy and seeks to explain why. From the case list of administrations, mainly the Koizumi and Abe administrations, the emphasis here is the study on the geopolitical environment, particularly when there is tension and lack thereof, omitting the state of economics that was present in the full thesis because of publication limitations, to determine whether the geopolitical environment has an effect on change in the amount of reported intentions for soft power policy.

According to the method, it will be determined whether x, being the geopolitical environment, causes y, being change in the amount of soft power policy mentions, and notes whether the hypothesis is supported. Simply put, it will be established whether or not there has been change in the amount of mentioned policy, usually manifested through major speeches or recorded statements within secondary sources, involving soft power within administrations across variables on a High-Medium-Low scale.

High — Most (accessible) speeches talk about a form of soft power, not material or security threats.

Medium — Speeches involve a mix of soft power promotions and threat concerns.

Low — Most speeches talk about material or security threats, not soft power.

This scale would measure whether there has or has not been any kind of change in frequency of policy intent before expanding on the implications of the degree of such changes or lack thereof within the soft power realm.

Ultimately, this study mixes quantitative data into qualitative research that fits the general approach of similar case study research in which there is a relatively small number of possible observations. Formal models and statistical studies have become commonly accepted tools in studying social science phenomena, but they are not the right fit here as they often involve mathematically oriented game-theoretic, agent-based, rational utility maximisation theories. In addition, with this thesis, I hope properly to interpret the observations available and be able to reach a broader audience by making the subject understandable to those beyond the political science field.

(1) Case List

In order to gather information from cases, according to what is available, international news sources with contemporary and recent scholarly work, such as political science research, articles, professional histories, etc., are used. Some examples of soft power policies that will be observed are the JET program, Cool Japan, Anime Industry, Japan Houses, and so on. In this research, the administrations from which policy mentions are gathered fall within the timeframe of 1991-2017, the Post-Cold War era. A prime minister (PM) must have been in office for at least one consecutive year for the term to be measured. The criteria, set at a consecutive year, gives policy intent enough time to be implemented and analysed. However, this article will emphasise the hypothesis over the Koizumi and Abe administrations, typically through major speeches or recorded statements present in previous research. As such, the cases are listed in Tables 1 and 2, though the focus in the analyses is narrowed.

Table 1. Case List

(2) Data Analysis

Before delving into Japan’s administrations, the state of affairs over time should be clarified. Better to understand geopolitical tensions, the Appendix breaks down an example of a geopolitical dispute between China and Japan. Economics and the geopolitical environment have a degree of overlap, but the relevant measures that tie back to the geopolitical environment are referenced here. Figure 3 shows defense spending compared among key allies. Compared to the United States, South Korea, and China, Japan’s defense spending over time has remained regular, despite fluctuations in GDP as well as tensions over time and varying priorities per administration (“U.S. Defense Spending Compared to Key Allies,” 2019). To expand in this direction, a researcher could try tracing the size of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) over time instead of defense spending.

Figure 3. The U.S., South Korea, China, and Japan’s Defense Spending (% of GDP), 1990-2018.

In 2015, the UK led the world in soft power with Japan in eighth place, “according to a Portland Communications ranking, which assesses nations on six measures of reputation and influence—Government, Culture, Education, Global Engagement, Enterprise, and Digital—using data from Facebook on governments’ online impact, and from ComRes, which ran opinion polls on international perceptions of countries. ...Professor [Joseph] Nye describes the Portland work as ‘the clearest picture to date of global soft power’” (Jones, 2015). Figure 4 shows that, as of 2018, Japan’s rank rose to fifth place, though other surveys place Japan upwards of third place since “tourism to Japan is booming and as the 2020 Olympic games approach, Japan is preparing to host even more people by improving infrastructure and building hotels. Political stability has continued under Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, though the resistance to accepting refugees hasn’t eased. The country’s culinary prowess and design continue to appeal, and cultural recognition is extending beyond anime and J-Pop” (Mcclory, 2018; Kardová, 2018).

Figure 4. The “Soft Power 30,” 2018.

7. Case Analysis

After touching on how soft power theory functions in Japan, with some geopolitical environment and soft power preference measures outlined, this section elaborates on PM Koizumi and PM Abe’s terms alone to narrow the scope of this article.

(1) Koizumi Junichirō’s Three Terms

To achieve his first term, Prime Minister Koizumi took advantage of his enormous popularity in which more than 80 percent of the country’s population expressed support for him in 2001 (Beeson, 2014). Likewise, he was widely popular among young people and the urban population. Koizumi came to power on the wave of expectations for reforms in the economic and political fields (Beeson, 2014).

Voters were impressed by the unusual appearance of the prime minister and he was called “eccentric” because he often behaved unlike what was expected of liberal democrats in that he was divorced with two sons while he often made harsh statements (Beeson, 2014). Koizumi enjoyed the reputation of a reformer as he worked to increase the economic dynamics of the country and was in favour of introducing a system of direct national elections for the prime minister, which would drastically change Japan’s political system (Dittimer & Sharp, 2014). Further, he insisted on the privatisation of mail and state savings banks while he promised to promote high work positions for young men and women that were unheard of in the traditional power structures of Japan (Koichi, 2018).

Koizumi proclaimed the task of his government was “continuous reforms” (Cull 2008, 88). In the field of foreign policy, Koizumi put full cooperation with the United States first while also maintaining great attention to relations with the closest neighbours in the region (Cull, 2008). Koizumi became the first Japanese prime minister to visit North Korea (Cull, 2008). Over the course of his three terms, the GDP rose and fluctuated slightly between 2001 and 2006. Based on the limited resources, his administration is coded as Medium since Prime Minister Koizumi supported soft power theory, though his concentration was on economics.

(2) Abe Shinzō’s First Term

Prime Minister Abe defined the revision of Japan’s position in world politics as the most important foreign policy goal (Beeson, 2014). He believed that Japan should play a role in international politics, provide adequate economic potential, and become a permanent member of the UN Security Council (Elliott, 2014). However, in order to participate in UN peacekeeping operations, Japan would have to take the opportunity to send troops abroad. This was seen as the final step to ensure that the armed forces would become legitimate.

In 2007, after the Department of National Defense of Japan was officially transformed into a ministry, the Abe government took an important step, the result of which would be, as experts suggested, a revision of the constitution (Elliott, 2014). Toward the end of his term, at a parliamentary session, Prime Minister Abe called on lawmakers to extend the term of the law, based on the time that Tokyo provided logistical support to the states participating in the anti-terrorist operation in Afghanistan (Koichi, 2018). Between 2006 and 2007, the GDP fell. Given the available information, this administration is coded as Medium. Still, Prime Minister Abe supported hard power theory and concentrated his politics on the geopolitical environment.

(3) Abe Shinzō’s 2012-2017 Terms

Prime Minister Abe announced the intention of Japan to pursue a more active and aggressive foreign policy (Cull, 2008). It would include a revision of the pacifist articles of the constitution, an increase in defense might, and an active search for regional allies (Beeson, 2014). The government planned to occupy a niche in the world arms market and refused to deal with anti-Japanese gestures of East Asian states meant to serve as reminders of Japanese war crimes during World War II (Koichi, 2018). This set of measures was called the Abe Doctrine.

It could be argued that the “Abe Doctrine” appeared because of the pressure from China as it strengthened its military and political presence in the region. In November 2013, China expanded its identification air defense zone to the entire space of the East China Sea (Koichi, 2018). At the same time, Beijing was no longer satisfied and desired respect for its sovereignty (Koichi, 2018). Chinese aircrafts deliberately flew in dangerous proximity of other’s air targets that fell within the so-called “Chinese air defense zone” (Koichi 2018, 77). The United States and Japan demanded that the Chinese stop making such dangerous maneuvers, but Beijing refused (Akhtar, 2018).

Abe Shinzō said that Japan intended to help all the states of the region that had territorial disputes with China and would “provide maximum support to the efforts of ASEAN countries to ensure the safety of the seas and skies, as well as to maintain freedom of navigation and flights” (Elliott 2014, 109). To this end, the Japanese sought to intensify cooperation with interested states in the military-political sphere as was done in March when Tokyo abolished a number of unilateral restrictions on arms exports (Elliott, 2014). During this time, Japan paid special attention to Vietnam and the Philippines.

The Japanese government offered to sell coast guard patrol boats and train local sailors, and Manila promised to give a loan of $183 million to buy 10 Japanese ships (Elliott, 2014). Since it was possible that Japanese weapons would go to other countries in the region, a special agency with a staff of 2,000 was being created in Japan to coordinate arms export, handle import issues, and protect the interests of Japanese military-industrial companies abroad (Koichi, 2018). During both terms, the GDP fluctuated slightly and this administration is coded as Medium. Prime Minister Abe seemed to support hard power theory and concentrated his politics on the geopolitical environment.

8. Use of Powers

Hard power is connected with external coercion. Intuitively, it is perceived as the power of external forces that subdue the human will. It is this interpretation of power that was formed under the influence of classical as well as non-classical political philosophy and has become widespread in popular political science literature (Kokubun, 2017). In the postmodern interpretation of political power, the main emphasis is placed on the fact that, in the modern era, the most effective way to rule is flexible power, or soft power. Unlike hard power, soft power is not perceived as a force that acts from the outside (Nye, 2008). Soft power is power, which is realised in the form of a certain communicative influence, during which the behaviour dictated by the power is observed by the recipient as a free and voluntary choice, bringing, moreover, joy and pleasure to the subject (Li, 2008). The entry of society into the era of global marketing communications was marked by the emergence of integrated power complexes that combine traditional power in the form of hard power with soft ways of power, appealing to consumer interests and the thirst for gratification (Li, 2008).

Combining traditional sources of power with communicative methodologies and soft power practices is able to provide mobility and flexibility of modern political power (Nye, 2008). The idea of ​​soft power is today receiving conceptual development in various theories of collective, social, and political identity (Fieve, 2013). From the standpoint of the concept of identity, soft power is presented as one of the sources strategically aimed at the formation of social communities based on common life experiences, ideals, value preferences, and similar ways of self-representation. Experience and awareness of national, cultural, confessional, political, civil, and other identity leads to the voluntary accession of citizens to a certain community toward a development within the community of feelings and relationships of solidarity, common behavioural and role models, as well as strategies of claims to sociopolitical recognition as a worthy place in society (Nye, 2008).

Japan is actively reviewing its foreign policy priorities. It is expected that this process will be painful not only for Japan itself, but for all countries in the region (Nye, 2008). Until recently, Japanese society was generally satisfied with the foreign policy that the country pursued in the post-war period (Fieve, 2013). Its key elements were a military-political alliance with the United States, a refusal to conduct active diplomacy in the region, and a patient and generally understanding attitude toward anti-Japanese sentiment in the region (Nye, 2008). The purpose of these measures was to create conditions for the economic development of Japan.

Such a strategy allowed Tokyo to make Japan the second largest economy in the world before that rank was overtaken by China (Lai, 2012). Of course, part of the country’s political-academic community opposed self-restraint in foreign policy, demanding the alignment of Japan’s foreign political power to its economic status (Nye, 2008). However, until recently, these people were considered marginalised in the Land of the Rising Sun. Now, they may well be part of the mainstream. Prime Minister Abe Shinzō announced the intention of Japan to pursue a more active and, to some extent, aggressive foreign policy that will include a revision of the pacifist articles of the constitution, an increase in defense might, and an active search for regional allies. Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force ranks among the top 5 in the world and can be considered the most powerful navy in Asia; with 114 warships, 46 destroyers and frigates, 45,800 volunteer personnel, and such, the country is no stranger to hard power despite its emphasis on diplomacy (Mizokami, 2018).

9. Conclusion

In short, the essence of the administrations studied can be gathered in Table 2.

Table 2. Case Summary

(1) Summary

There are two hypotheses on which the original research is based. Hypothesis #1 was supported while hypothesis #2 was less clear; as such, this article emphasises the first. The first hypothesis is that if the geopolitical environment were confrontational, there would be reduced and declining support for public diplomacy. As an example, if there are territorial issues between two nations, soft power cannot be helpful. Japan and China had been good trade partners until the end of the Cold War (Yongnian, 2010). At that time, Japan had helped China to build infrastructure. Import-export between the two nations was solid and established their trade relationship. The relationship was strained because of a territorial issue. Disputes were not limited to the government. Hostility spread among the citizens as well. Many Japanese businesses were targeted because of the hostility felt toward Japan to the extent that Japanese goods were boycotted in the Chinese market, though there has since been steady growth in trade (Lai, 2012). Thus, it did not remain a mere political issue, but a public issue as well.

On the contrary, Japan’s relationship with the United States has been strong after World War II. As a result, trade and general relations have been friendly between these two countries. Japan has managed to use its soft power in the U.S., e.g. incorporation of Japan Houses, but it has been unable to use soft power in the tense atmosphere with China (Kitano, 2007). Part of this may be attributed to geopolitical issues being stronger in countries that are geographically close to each other. China, Japan, India, and Pakistan are among such examples. When a territorial dispute occurs, countries that are close to each other claim the region and can struggle to maintain trade relationships with each other. The geopolitical environment cases studied seem to show support for the first hypothesis; however, it is important to keep in mind the scope of the research and the limited availability of expanding in certain areas, given that only English sources in particular databases were able to be used here.

The administrations analysed show that while soft power usage might not be rising in a linear sense, there is still more of an emphasis on soft power than hard power in most administrations that fit the yearlong minimum criteria. In any case, Japan is one of the most affluent nations in the world. It has succeeded in maintaining its image as a big donor that can afford spending on international issues. Such would not be as possible for developing countries that are not in the financial position to provide foreign aid. As for Japan, its capacity to spend has allowed it to spread its culture through displays of public diplomacy, e.g. Japonismes 2018, on the global platform. If a country is in good economic condition, there are reasonable incentives to promote initiatives for public diplomacy (Ma, 2015).

(2) Omissions

There are some unaddressed elements that may be affecting the calculations within this thesis. Demographics in Japan and perceptions of the economy could drive prime ministers to make certain decisions and alter administrative goals. On occasions when the hypotheses presented contradict each other, prime ministers have agency, within parameters, that allows them to decide what might be in the best interest of personal, party, and national goals. Prime Minister Noda, for example, chose to focus on resolving economic issues internally; a different prime minister may have chosen to rely on foreign direct investments. Likewise, tensions in the geopolitical environment, particularly from the rise of China, and economic issues could be what determine hard power or soft power preferences. Regardless, the most significant limitation lies in the shortage of data on this topic, both qualitative and quantitative, that is available in English to English institutions. Ultimately, each administration prioritises foreign policy differently, depending on whether a prime minister and his party are seeking to use foreign policy to affect Japan outwardly or inwardly.

(3) Outlook

In any case, the analysis shows that, despite the historical and cultural differences of Japan from the continental states of Europe, Asia, and America, this state considers the traditional mechanisms of soft power as an important means of winning leading positions in world politics, economy, and culture (Fieve, 2013). Across the board, Prime Minister Abe alone shows preferences toward hard power and, throughout every administration, the methods of using soft power have been enriched by national traditions. Japan, through its institutions, provides a national application of soft power and builds long-term strategic plans for its cultural expansion as well as the promotion of the political and economic interests of the state.

Japan is, slowly but surely, spreading its influence. In a number of developing countries, it is the main donor, investing in projects aimed at solving social problems, improving their economic growth, helping with construction and modernisation of roads, adding more industrial facilities, and increasing agriculture, water supply, health care, and human resources (Nagy, 2013). In developed countries, promoting Japanese language and culture among various strata of the population has far-reaching goals of creating conditions for the conquest of markets by national producers of cultural and creative industries (Lukes, 2005). In an effort to achieve goals, Japan acts by promoting its values, creating a positive image of humanitarian Japan, providing financial support, and enhancing methods of education and persuasion rather than relying on direct propaganda or incorporating coercion for the sake of cooperation.

(4) Implications

Though singular articles can only address so much, this work hopes to add clarity and contribute a piece in literature that seeks to partake in the endeavour that is quantifying soft power. On its own, there has been no serious social-scientific treatment by scholars toward soft power to date (Watanabe & McConnell, 2008) even while, on a wider scale, soft power has become far more broadly discussed after 9/11, following the Bush Administration’s hardline policies, before it was revisited, given the desire for a more diplomatic approach to U.S. world security (Nye, 2004; Iwabuchi, 2015). In the case of Japan and its conflicts, soft power can likewise offer preferred approaches that work to ease geopolitical tensions while encouraging deeper exchanges and warmer interactions. These benefits might become especially helpful as China and South Korea’s rising soft power profiles can make them tough rivals (among the many governments that are interested in maximising media culture, overseas language education, tourism, and so on to improve image, smooth international political negotiations, and boost the economy alongside Japan) rather than the main targets of public diplomacy (Fan, 2008; Iwabuchi, 2015). Still, there remains hope that yesterday’s rivals might become friends of today, true to the expression,「昨日の敵は今日の友 (Kinou no teki wa kyou no tomo).」


The geopolitical environment can be considered as the way geography is implicated in global politics (Vandenbrink). To illustrate the presence of tension in the global political sphere, in order to identify other tensions and lack thereof, a post-Cold War scenario is necessary for this thesis. For example, Japan did not receive significant strategic advantages from the destruction of the bipolar world order, compared with what the United States, Germany, and China gained upon weakening Russia’s position (Li, 2008). For the Japanese elite, being out of the Cold War turned out to be more difficult than expected. There was a temporary loss of political orientation, which allowed for a split in the ruling party and the chance to strengthen the country’s position in the international arena was not taken. Not having secured appropriate influence, Japan was unable to play a decisive role in the restructuring of the world order (Li, 2008). This, however, does not mean that there were no political, scientific, and public concepts in Japanese circles that reflected national interests.

Figure 5. The Coming Conflict between China and Japan (Geopolitical Futures, 2017).

The geopolitical environment, which can be characterised by tensions or lack thereof, can be directly associated with maritime disputes among countries. Territorial or geopolitical conflicts can result as adverse repercussions in bilateral trade. These disputes have always created tension in East Asian countries, such as China, Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Taiwan. Nagy (2013) illustrates how geopolitical disputes have hampered trade between China and Japan. There was an incident that took place in 2010 when a Chinese fishing vessel hit a Japanese Coast Guard vessel in the area of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. During this incident, the captain of the Chinese vessel was arrested and imprisoned by the Japanese government for damages, which created an uproar among the Chinese public.

China’s response to this incident was to stop trade relations with Japan, limiting exports to Japan. Then, there was an informal boycott on Japanese products in China. Japanese trade was adversely affected because of this trade decision by China, as Japan was dependent on the materials coming from China (Austin, 2001). However, the Japanese response was to reinforce activities of mining and exploration in other parts of the world. Thus, a serious dispute occurred between China and Japan because of this incident. This event serves as an example in that if there is tension between two countries, maintaining and sustaining healthy relations between them can be difficult as diplomacy efforts take a backseat or are emphasised elsewhere.


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About the Author

Yamisle Barbara Roca is an American-born Cuban and a graduate student currently working to achieve her Ph.D. in International Relations at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto.

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