Rethinking the discursive relevance of pop culture in Japan’s soft power in Chile: a perspective from Japanese language education

Isabel Cabaña Rojas, International Relations, Ritsumeikan University [About | Email]

Volume 21, Issue 3 (Article 5 in 2021). First published in ejcjs on 20 December 2021.

Abstract: The number of students of Japanese language in Chile has been increasing since 1990; according to Japan Foundation, this rise can be explained by the popularity that Japanese popular culture exerts among Chileans. The official discourse of the Japanese government and its agencies is that Japanese popular culture plays an important role as a representative of Japan and as a motivator for people to study Japanese language. By introducing the case of Chile, this article seeks to re-evaluate this dominant discourse, by examining Chile’s situation of anime, Japanese language education, and other indicators, such as tourism. The argument expressed here is that the data available about Chile reflects the existing scholarship perception that Japan’s interpretation of its own culture and power is idealised, due to the limited information about this country, but, considering the connection between soft power ‘resources’ and its manifestation in ‘behaviour’ would suggest there is a foundation for wielding soft power. This work draws on official documents and data provided by Japan Foundation and Japan’s MOFA.

Keywords: Japan, soft power, Chile, Japanese language, popular culture, Japan Foundation.


The number of students of Japanese language registered at one of the programmes available in Chile has steadily increased in the past three decades. As suggested by the results of the surveys conducted by Japan Foundation, Japan’s leading institution in the promotion of language abroad, the popularity of Japanese animation (anime), J-pop or videogames in the country, explain why people are studying the language in Chile (Japan Foundation, 2017: 127); in other words, they argue that the increment of learners would be influenced, among other reasons, by Japanese popular culture.
Admittedly, since 1990, among all the factors that could have benefited the rise of people learning Japanese in Chile—such as the process of internationalisation that the country started and the massification of internet—what appears to be an important one is the boom of anime shows screened in national television, and the resulting popularity of other cultural products.
Japanese popular (pop) culture has been one central resource promoted by the Japanese government to strengthen its soft power in the world since the early 2000s. In 2011, in a budgetary request document by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan (MOFA), the government appointed language as one of these cultural resources that, along with anime and fashion, were to be considered as ‘Cool Japan’ creative products and the source of Japan’s soft power (MOFA, 2013). As explained by the government, the consideration of language as an important resource was justified on the potential it could have in the creation of human resources, but also on its popularity abroad: by 2012, the number of learners of Japanese around the world had peaked with 3,985,669 people in 136 countries (Japan Foundation, 2013). As deemed by Hashimoto (2018b), this was a reactive and contextual strategy that came in times of population decline, of need for high-skilled migrants fluent in Japanese, and after the signing of free trade agreements with Asian countries (Hashimoto, 2018b: 55).
The use of cultural resources in Japan’s soft power has been designed on the expectation that foreign audiences can act and behave in Japan’s benefit, by consuming its cultural products (Hayden, 2011: 80-81). The way language and pop culture are framed as resources gives an interesting account on Japan’s soft power performance, and in what esteem the Japanese government holds it. Ultimately, the official discourse of the Japanese government and its agencies is that Japanese pop culture plays a role as a representative of Japan and as a motivator for people to study the Japanese language. Some of the evidence for that comes from the Japan Foundation’s questionnaires, which are not answered directly by students in any of the countries surveyed, Chile included. However, the Japan Foundation, and the government by extension, have a specific interpretation of the weight that pop culture has; therefore, they argue there is a connection between pop culture and language education. Based on the Japan Foundation’s periodical reports, the MOFA declared, “[m]ore students learn Japanese, because of an interest in Japanese pop-culture, such as anime and manga, or due to a desire to understand a different culture” (MOFA, 2021).
According to Galia Press-Barnathan (2012), popular culture as a soft power resource can exert influence in three different areas: in agenda setting, in shaping other’s self-interests, and in the ability to influence others, directly or indirectly, into doing something, like traveling or studying Japanese. Previous research tends to agree with this idea. Learning Japanese seems to be a vehicle of connection to Japan, and a starting point to pursue other activities, like travelling or studying in Japan, and popular culture often acts as such starting point to study the language, as Otmazgin (2016) suggests. For Armour (2015), anime and manga are even useful resources for teaching the language, because of their popularity among students, a phenomenon that he describes as “soft power pedagogy.” But for authors like Hashimoto (2018b) and Nemoto (2018), this idea is exaggerated; they believe there are many other drivers to be considered for students to start studying the language beyond anime or manga. Nemoto’s research, in particular, concluded that pop culture is not motivation enough to make student learn Japanese, but a more concrete and specific interest was needed for students to engage in language education (Nemoto, 2018). However, for Groot (2018), it should be acknowledged that “the continued popularity of learning Japanese…, is all the more remarkable and owes much to the disproportionate success of Japanese pop culture in building bonds of affection with youth” (Groot, 2018: 17). In view of the case of Chile, what is the real weight of Japanese pop culture in Chile and in Japanese language education decision-making? And how can we assess this relationship from a soft power perspective?
The purpose of this article is to re-evaluate the dominant discourse of the weight that pop culture has in Japanese education and as a soft power resource, by examining the situation in Chile of anime, Japanese language education, and other indicators, such as tourism. The argument expressed here is that the data available about Chile in these matters reflects the existing scholarship perception that Japan’s interpretation of its own power is idealised, due to the limited information about this country. This does not mean, however, that there is no soft power potential, considering the connection between soft power ‘resources’ and its manifestation in ‘behaviour’ (like the rise of language learners, popularity of culture and tourism to Japan), that would suggest there is a foundation for wielding soft power.
The relationship between Japanese language, pop culture, and soft power has not been studied extensively for the case of Chile. The research regarding these variables is limited to the Chinese and Korean languages. Some recent studies focus on the impact and influence that the Korean wave has on Chilean youth (Min, 2015; 2021), and the majority are concentrated on the Chinese language in Latin America and Chile (Cornejo, 2018; Ting, 2013). No research regarding Japanese language and soft power has been conducted on the Chilean case till the present. This paper contributes to the emergent field in this country, by presenting the data available, as well as some preliminary reflections on this topic for the Japanese case.
This article concentrates on the period between 1990 and 2018. These three decades cover the most active phase of Japanese language education in Chile and its major transformations until 2018, which is the last year of available complete material on these matters before the social uprising of Chile in 2019, and the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020. This work primarily draws on official documents and data provided by the Japan Foundation and Japan’s MOFA. It starts by presenting a clarification and contextualisation of the notion of soft power, its understanding in Japan, and conceptualisation in terms of its resources and behaviours. Then, it continues with a presentation of the background of Japan-Chile relations, emphasising the history, the popularity of anime and the landscape of Japanese language education. Finally, it analyses the relationship between language education and popular culture as cultural resources, and other indicators, to conclude that the data available supports the extent of Japan’s perception of its own culture vis-à-vis the actual reality of the country.

Japan’s soft power: from resources to behaviour

The notion of soft power in the Japanese context

‘Soft power’ emerged as an analytical category rather recently. Coined by Joseph Nye Jr. in 1990, this term meant to explain the situation of the United States and how this country needed to reconsider the most appropriate resources that could help it maintain its hegemony in the new world order. According to Nye (2004), the term soft power describes the capacity of making others want what you want, by shaping their preferences through attraction and co-optation; more accurately, it refers to how states can use their resources, such as foreign policy, political values, or culture, to wield political power over others.
Nye’s biggest contribution, as it turned out, is that his conceptual term has become the cornerstone to analyse the role of identity, values, and culture in international relations and diplomacy studies and, in the same way, it has given a framework whereby countries have been able to instrumentalise culture, articulate policies around it, and legitimise the position that culture has in their foreign policies. The notion of soft power emerged to name the type of power that existed beyond, and vis-à-vis, hard power (military power). In that sense, soft power has proven to be both an explanation of a contemporary phenomenon, and an alternative to traditional perspectives (Hayden, 2011).
The surge of soft power in Japan’s foreign affairs and public and cultural diplomacies originated after the spread of Japanese popular culture worldwide during the 1980s. Particularly, it was a reaction to the popularisation of anime in Asia, Europe, and the Americas, which was later followed by the mass commodification of other products, such as music, videogames, cosplay, and manga (Watanabe, 2017). Specialists recognised this trend and started to discuss the popularity of Japanese cultural products abroad in media and in academia; however, it is said that it was the article of the American Douglas McGray in 2002, “Japan’s Gross National Cool” (McGray, 2002), which precipitated the ‘soft power era’ of Japan. McGray’s article was received as a wake-up call: Japan needed to adapt and react fast to this juncture, where the Japanese cultural industries, deemed as ‘Cool’, could have more use and revenues than previously (Burguess, 2015).
This situation played a substantial role in the agenda-setting of soft power and prompted the creation in the early 2000s of the ‘Cool Japan’ policy, a set of programmes that different ministries and departments used as a framework to manage the initiatives related to cultural industries and products, as well as boosting the national brand (Bouissou, 2012; Burguess, 2015; Groot, 2018). From the beginning, the nature of this ‘Cool Japan’ idea and strategy was economic rather than cultural, given the focus on marketing and domestic industry, and the starring role entrusted to the private sector. However, what started as an economic strategy, with time turned into a tool for cultural promotion (Burguess, 2015). After the implementation of that framework, government agencies began outlining their programmes under the idea of ‘Cool Japan’ and popular culture, including Japan Foundation. One example is the case of 2009’s website “Japanese in manga and anime,” created and managed by Japan Foundation; or the appointing of ‘Doraemon’ as anime ambassador in 2008, or in the appearance of the former prime minister Abe Shinzō in the closing ceremony of 2016’s Rio de Janeiro Olympics dressed as Super Mario. Additionally, Japanese created a Public Diplomacy department and organised the Council on the Promotion of Cultural Diplomacy, among other actions.
Most of the scholars working on Japan’s soft power agree upon the idea that the matter at stake is how Japan perceives its own power and the discourse that emerges from it (Hayden, 2011; Otmazgin, 2016). Whether Japan has soft power over other countries or not seems to be less relevant than the idea Japan has of its own power, and how that affects its policies (Leheny, 2006). Japan’s consideration of its soft power might not be the same as China’s or South Korea; for this reason, Craig Hayden (2011) suggests looking at soft power in its discursive aspect, as a rhetoric that adapts to different contexts, likely to be translated into states’ policies and programmes, in a process he names the “indigenization of the concept” (Hayden, 2011: 80). Further, Japan does not hold an official military power, nor a political ‘sphere of influence’ (Otmazgin, 2008), but it has experienced marketing success of its cultural products and tourism (Leheny, 2006). In this line, Nissim Otmazgin (2008) even suggests that, for Japan, soft power is not necessarily political, but economic power. In sum, what seems to be relevant is Japan’s perception that its culture exerted some influence in international audience, and the subsequent elaboration of policies around it since the beginning of 2000s.

Assessing soft power

One way to evaluate soft power is based on the capacity of a country to transit from the recognition and use of ‘resources’, to the production of ‘behaviour’ (Hayden, 2011). Cultural resources do not have power per se; they need to be used or consumed, then to be managed (Bouissou, 2012). Resources, as Lee (2009) describes, are the core of any theory of soft power, because they are the instruments used to alter the preferences or the way of thinking of others, or produce shot-term attractiveness and fear in the recipients and, as a result, attain soft power. For this reason, this transit (resources to behaviour) would be the essence of soft power: a country’s capacity to change the behaviour in a foreign public. For instance, in the case of Japan, the existence of previous conditions, like the popularity of anime and manga during the 1970s and 1980s, was necessary for Japan actually to acknowledge the influence of these resources and frame them into soft power policies. The Japanese government has expected that these ‘resources’ could be translated into ‘behaviour’ in foreign audiences and/or consumers, based on the assumption that those who consume Japanese cultural products are more likely to support cultural industries, making them “serve as subjects for soft power interventions in their own right—as the opinions of foreign audiences are the arbiter of successful diplomatic initiatives” (Hayden, 2011: 80).
There are certain indicators that help to measure a country’s soft power and their impact in a foreign public. One is, for example, international exchange. In his evaluation of the American case, Nye explains that foreign students “usually return home with a greater appreciation of American values and institutions” (Nye, 2004: 45). The number of foreign students a country receives attests for the willingness of students to travel, live and study in another country, which in turn reflects the success of the positive projection of that country’s image.
Similarly, tourism represents a clear indicator of the degree of attraction towards a country, through the total amount of tourists entering a territory. From a soft power perspective, “the tourist is a geopolitical subject and object” (Ooi, 2016: 878), because the tourist is likely to transmit in their return the values of the country he/she visits. Irene Wu (2014) places tourism at the centre of the ‘spectrum of attraction’, which consists in a series of activities ranging from watching movies, to studying abroad, and emigrating (Wu, 2014: 2).
The number of people learning a foreign language is also an indicator of a country’s soft power. Hence, in its promotion rests the expectation that studying a language “will create not only deep bonds of affection, but also the likelihood of an internalisation of its values which may subsequently become politically beneficial” (Groot, 2018: 27). The study of Japanese language abroad has been encouraged by Japan, because it must be one of the most associated resources with Japanese culture, as “[e]mbodied in a language is the history, the beliefs, the cultures, and the values of its speakers. Language and cultural identity are mutually constitutive” (Tsui & Tollefson, 2007: 2). For the Japanese government, the Japanese language represents a resource through which the country can make foreigners have a deeper understanding and awareness of Japanese culture on site (MOFA, 2021). In this light, the number of those studying Japanese can serve as a benchmark for how successful the position of Japanese culture in the international context is.
The seemingly reactive approach of the Japanese government on its soft power resources, namely, language and popular culture, reveals the degree of importance Japanese policymakers assign to the promotion of their culture abroad, and why they should devote resources and budget into these areas (Hashimoto, 2018b; Otmazgin, 2008; Watanabe, 2017). On close analysis, Japan’s case may shed light on how relevant it is to recognise the discursive aspect on soft power and its weight in the elaboration of strategies to pursue foreign policy’s goals.

Japan-Chile: History, popular culture and language

Historical background of Japan-Chile relationship before and after 1990

Japan and Chile have a long-standing diplomatic relation, which officially began in 1897, when the then-Empire of Japan signed the ‘Treaty of Amity, Navigation and Commerce’ with the Republic of Chile. Their bond, however, extended beyond the limits of formal treaties, as their connection across the Pacific ocean has taken many forms: Japanese and Chileans have travelled cross-country since late 19th century; both nations share common experiences of natural disasters (earthquakes and tsunamis), as well as a constant exchange of products and resources, all expressions of the interaction between these two countries that have developed a stable and solid relationship, only interrupted by the World War II (Takeda, 2002).
During the Cold War, Japan maintained a pragmatic approach towards Latin America, detached from ideological conflict, and preferred not to get involved politically with this region which, just like Asia, was a sphere of dispute between the United States of America and the Soviet Union (Ross, 2005). Even though Japan became an ally of the United States after signing the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security (1951), this pragmatic approach, or ‘low-profile diplomacy’ (Matsushita, 1993), enabled Japan to preserve its relations with left-wing governments of the region. Thus, when in 1973 Chile went from a socialist government to a military dictatorship backed by the United States, Japan-Chile relations remained mostly unaffected (Ross, 2015), and progressively grew in trade, cooperation, and assistance.
The 1990s was a decisive period for both countries in domestic, international, and bilateral levels. In 1989, Chile finally brought to an end the 17 years-long dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, with the presidential election of Patricio Aylwin (1990-1994), and started a process of gradual democratisation, economic liberalisation, and re-entry into the international system (Saavedra-Rivano, 1993), with the expectation to reconnect to a world that was, at the same time, in transformation after the fall of the Soviet Union and end of bipolarity. During this process, Asia Pacific became an important axis of Chile’s foreign policy, shaping Chilean’s identity as a ‘bridge’ country between Latin America and Asia (Ross, 2015). The government of Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle (1994-1998), and those that came after that, had reinforced, and reproduced this strategy.
Simultaneously, by the time of the death of Emperor Hirohito in 1989, the inauguration of Heisei era, and the subsequent burst of the economic bubble, Japan was trying to open up and engage more actively internationally, while facing socioeconomic difficulties, such as recession and labour shortage. For that, Japan had set off a timid internationalisation program (Kokusaika) that evolved during the 1990s, under the pressures from the international community, particularly the United States and Europe, that demanded for the Asian country to play a new political role in the globalised era (Ogoura, 2009; Watanabe, 2017).
Both Chile and Japan, ultimately, had emphasised economy over politics, as demonstrated by their bilateral relation. Particularly since the 1990s, these two nations assembled in international forums, like APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation), FEALAC (Forum for East Asia-Latin America Cooperation), as examples of the efforts that laid the foundations for the following negotiations for a trade deal, that culminated in 2007 with the signing of the Japan-Chile Economic Partnership Agreement. The 2010s initiated with both countries experiencing earthquakes and tsunamis in February of 2010 (Chile) and in March of 2011 (Japan), events that activated bilateral assistance and cooperation in many levels. In 2015, the ‘Kizuna Project’ was launched, as a triangular cooperation project among Japan, Chile, and LAC, on disaster risk reduction and the creation of human resources. Since then, Chile and Japan have participated in the negotiations for the TPP-11, celebrated the 120th anniversary of the diplomatic relations (2017), and introduced the program of Working Holiday visa (2018), that have allowed nationals of both countries to travel to each other’s territories for tourism and work.

Anime and Japanese popular culture in Chile

The 1990s witnessed the onset of the ‘Japanese boom’ in Chile. Even though Japanese culture had a modest but significant presence during the twentieth century, thanks to the work of Chileans and Japanese-Chilean communities in the organisation of cultural and artistic activities (BCN, 2009: 122-123; Ferrando, 2004: 297-298), over time the events expanded, Japanese language learners diversified, and Japanese ‘pop’ culture burst onto the national scene.
The most representative element that exemplifies the popularity of Japanese culture in Chile during the 1990s is Japanese animation (anime). Before that time, the anime content broadcast in Chilean television was not necessarily associated with Japan. Series like ‘Heidi’, ‘Marco’, ‘Captain Future’, ‘Candy, Candy’ or ‘Mazinger Z’, to cite just a few examples, were broadcast during the 1970s and 1980s on television stations like TVN (Chile’s National Television) or specific programmes (as ‘Pipiripao’), and presented stories, many of which were set in Europe or imaginary places, but not Japan.
However, in the following decades the audio-visual catalogue expanded and shaped the way ‘Japan’ began to be perceived by Chileans. Between 1993-1994, the dorama ‘Oshin’ was aired and, soon after, anime series like ‘Sailor Moon’, ‘Ranma ½’, ‘Captain Tsubasa’, ‘Dragon Ball’ or ‘Pokemon’ marked the beginning of a ‘Japanese wave’ that was seized by the television industry. For instance, in 1996 a cable channel was created, called ‘Etc TV’, to devote almost exclusively to Japanese content and animation; later, the station Chilevision launched ‘el Club de los Tigritos’ (1994-2004), ‘Bakania’ (1998-2000), and ‘Invasión’ (2005-2008), whose target audiences were the so-called otaku people, a term which describes a population that consumes ‘Japanimation’ and manga in an active and constant manner (Espinosa, 2015: 14). According to Carla Espinosa (2015), these programmes were responsible for the continuous presence of anime in television over the decade.
By the year 2000, anime represented 39.6% of the animation aired in Chilean national television and, as explained by Fajnzylber (2002), it was the only animation (compared to American and European) that expanded its presence on television, mostly due to the sustained consumption of Chilean audience (Fajnzylber, 2002: 77-78). This success can also be attributed to the dubbing industry that developed alongside it. Latin American Spanish dubbing, in particular (neutral, with no local accents), has become a huge industry in countries like Mexico, Argentina, or Chile, and is also responsible for the way anime has been welcomed in Latin American countries; it performed editing of some series and censorship, as many of anime were oriented to adults, but broadcast during children’s time. Furthermore, the adaptation of anime music to Latin American Spanish-speaking countries was the foundation for the later popularisation of Japanese music in the region (Cobos, 2010).
The high level of television content consumption, however, weakened by the end of the decade, and derived into other types of consumption, exchange, and association, manifested in the popularisation of Japanese music, the establishment of official stores of Japanese merchandising, the organic rise of areas or locations of gathering and socialisation for otaku people in the capital city of Chile, and the commercialisation of pirated products (del Villar, 2010; Perillán, 2009). Some examples of these are the commercial centres named Eurocentro, Portal Lyon, and Persa Bío-bío, where it was possible to find stores exclusive to the sale of manga, anime (VHS) and music products, both original and pirated merchandising. Many events and conventions started to proliferate, the most massive ones being the ‘Anime Expo’ or ‘Super Japan Expo’. With time, the fan communities have adapted to the new digital era, where they could now buy things online with credit card and receive them at home, or attend events and participate in virtual groups, something unthinkable for the fan of the 90s (Espinosa, 2015: 73).
The scenery was irrupted in this decade by the ‘Pokemon generation’, an urban subculture that originated in the early 2000s, who followed the aesthetics of Japanese visual kei and developed specific ways of social interactions and behaviour (Perillán, 2009: 4), and in the 2010s, by the popularisation of another cultural product, food, as Chile became the biggest consumer of sushi in Latin America, according to data from delivery services (Evans, 2018). Anime has continued to flourish in the era of Netflix and other on-demand services, to the point that, according to Parrot Analytics (2019), Japanese animation is one of the most consumed subgenres in these platforms in Chile, 2% higher than the global average (Parrot Analytics, 2019: 20). These examples show the growing impact of Japanese pop culture in Chile.

The landscape of Japanese language education in Chile

Another significant element that shows the increase of engagement of Chileans with Japanese culture in Chile during the 1990s is language. Japanese language education has been mostly a Post-War venture in Chile, materialising in established institutions and organisations, as a result of the initiatives of Chileans and Japanese in Chile. Before 1990s, Japanese language was regarded as a convenient tool to ensure business opportunities with Japanese companies, in the Cold-War context of economic emphasis in Japan-Chile relations. Since 1990, however, the number of learners started to grow substantially, and by 1998 there were four times more Chileans learning the language than by the end of 1980s, in spite of the economic recession of Japan, or that English was the primary choice as second language for Chileans (Japan Foundation, 2019).
The Japan Foundation, which was created in 1972 as a semi-independent government agency to improve the image of Japan overseas, collected the first official data of language learners in Chile in 1975. That year, Japan Foundation opened an office in São Paulo, Brazil, to this day the only one in South America, from where it has managed the funds and programmes for Brazil and the rest of the countries in the sub-continent. The report of 2018, more than 40 years later, shows that the number of learners has increased substantially, as explained in the following graph.

Graph 1. Growth in the number of students of Japanese language in Chile, 1975-2018

Source: Elaborated from the information provided by Japan Foundation on Japanese-Language education abroad, between the years of 1975 and 2018 for Chile. Retrieved from Japan Foundation:

The latest report published by Japan Foundation on Japanese language education abroad indicates that, by 2018, there were 1,205 people studying the Japanese language in one of the 10 programmes and courses that were recognised by this foundation, a number that could be significantly higher if we were to include un-surveyed learners, who study on their own or in one of the many independent groups and institutions that have surfaced in recent years.
Japanese language education in Chile is implemented and carried out through joint efforts of several institutional and individual actors, such as the Japanese Embassy in Santiago; JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency) in Chile, through its volunteers’ programmes; the Japan Foundation, from Brazil; and Japanese and Nikkei community, non-governmental organisations, students, among others.
Of the ten programmes that currently offer courses on Japanese, six are in the capital city of Chile, Santiago [1].[1] The oldest one is the Chilean-Japanese Cultural Institute, founded in 1940, and officially opened in 1941. The original purpose of this private institute was to foster mutual understanding between Chileans and Japanese. For many years, it operated physically inside other buildings, like the Japanese embassy or inside the Japanese Association. Nowadays, the institute offers intensive courses at four levels, and a certification of proficiency. In recent years, this institute has adopted the Marugoto system, a coursebook published in 2013, implemented by the Japan Foundation, which is now being used alongside the Minna No Nihongo coursebook, and is offered in a four-year program.
The second oldest is Japanese Association in Santiago (officially called Japanese Society of Beneficence), founded in 1954. Japanese classes began only few years later, organised by the Nissei Students Association, and oriented toward the public and children (Ferrando, 2004: 290-291). Today, the Association offers elementary level courses, with native teachers.
Those two were the main institutions for Japanese cultural promotion that existed in Chile before 1990. The turning point in the evolution of Japanese language education in the country took place in 1995, with the establishment of the first college-level Japanese language program at the Universidad de Santiago de Chile, the first of its kind in Latin America. Initially, the School of Humanities offered elective courses for the student community, but later transformed these into the ‘Bachelor of Arts program of applied Linguistic in Translation’, offering two majors: English-Japanese, and English-Portuguese. Presently, since 2011 the university has been responsible for the national administration of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) (Japan Foundation, 2019). Before they took over this responsibility, there was no JLPT administration in Chile, and those who wanted to take the test were obliged to travel abroad to neighbouring countries to do so.
Thereafter, all the current existing institutions appeared. Together, they have been providing information periodically to the Japan Foundation concerning the state of education, teachers, and students’ profiles, among other things, which this institution later use to elaborate its recurrent reports. Along with language education, most of these organisations promote activities related to the culture of Japan and host events and festivals, such as the Japanese cultural Festival in Valdivia (image 1), the cultural week of Japan of La Serena, or the Nihon Matsuri (image 2), held every year until the social uprising of 2019, and organised by the students of Japanese language-major at the Universidad de Santiago. Many of these events have pop culture references and manifestations, such as cosplay, movies, karaoke or music.

Image 1. Japanese Cultural Festival in Valdivia 2014, organised by the Japanese Club of the Universidad Austral de Chile.

Image 2. Nihon Matsuri 2018, organised by the students of Japanese language of Universidad de Santiago.

What these elements have shown is that there has been a greater presence of Japanese culture in Chile since 1990 in the forms of anime, language, and others. How intertwined these elements are, and what does this tell us about Japan’s soft power in the country?

Interpreting Japanese cultural resources and soft power in Chile

Pop culture in Language education

Japanese is a language that is basically, and officially, spoken in only one country in the world. Even though in Brazil or some countries of Asia, like Taiwan, Japanese is still used due to historical and migratory reasons, Japanese is the national language of one country and, unlike the cases of English or Spanish, is strongly associated with that one culture. In addition, the complexity of its writing system, makes this language a rather challenging and time-consuming endeavour for those not familiarised with it, like Latin Americans. Then what moves people in general to study Japanese? And why would people in Chile choose to study this language?
In its last report, the Japan Foundation presented that there were 3,851,774 people worldwide studying Japanese in 2018, and that the number of countries in which Japanese-language education had been implemented hit a record since 1974, the year they started conducting the survey. In this report, the Japan Foundation also indicated that the most common reason given by respondents all over the world to pursue language learning was pop culture—manga, anime, music– (Japan Foundation, 2020: 24).
The information in the Japan Foundation’s report about Chile offers a closer look at this issue (Japan Foundation, 2020). The survey covered the 10 above mentioned institutions, and tackled different issues, including the level of education of the students and the number of native teachers in the country. When asked about students and the ‘purpose’ and ‘reasons’ for studying Japanese (目的・理由 in Japanese, “Reasons for Japanese-language study,” in the English version) in 17 categories—which include interest in Japanese culture, popular culture, language, taking Japanese exams, visit and work in Japan, among others—100% of the answers (i.e., 10 institutions) said that students decided to study Japanese for an interest in anime, manga, J-pop, fashion, etc., as well as Japanese language and the prospects of studying in Japan; 90% (9 institutions), answered that students intended to visit Japan for tourism; 80%, that they had interest in history, literature, art, etc.; 50% (5), responded students wanted to take a language exam, obtain qualification and get a job; less than 2 institutions said their students pursued the study of Japanese because of an interest in either politics, economy, society, or science.
At first glance, there are some points that are worth mentioning. First of all, we will elaborate on the question. The Japan Foundation posed two different ideas as one: ‘purpose’ and ‘reason’. As a result, the answers are partly about why students are studying Japanese (interest in anime or history), and partly about what they intend to do with it or what is their ultimate goal (to study or work in Japan). This may easily have caused confusion in respondents and, additionally, make the process of analysis more complicated.
Second, the survey is answered institutionally. All the answers to this question are the impressions of the respondents (either teachers or administrative staff). In other words, out of the 1,205 people accounted by the Japan Foundation for Chile studying Japanese, we only have a general idea provided by 10 interviewees who belong to these institutions and programmes, which makes it hardly representative of the group of students. Nonetheless, this should not be necessarily dismissed a priori, since it is filled out by people in constant contact with the students of the institutions and organisations they belong to.
Even though the number of Chileans studying Japanese is modest and represents only 2.9% of the total of South America (Japan Foundation, 2020: 53), data shows that it is undeniable that Japanese language education has increased in Chile: people are still actively registering to study the language. If we take into account the information provided by the survey, it can be argued that popular culture is a factor that needs to be considered, but without further data there is still no conclusive evidence that there is an actual correlation, as the Japan Foundation and MOFA suggest.
Another report that may shed light into Japanese pop culture in Chile is the Opinion Poll. Every year the MOFA commissions an opinion poll about the image of Japan in different countries, which was initially shaped and elaborated to get information about the United States since its first version in 1999. Only three times has the Ministry surveyed Latin America, and only one Chile, in 2014. This year, the poll was conducted in five countries: Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Trinidad y Tobago and Chile. The questions were standard for all of them, and the questionnaire included items such as the impression people have of Japan, the areas of culture that captures their interest, their perception on Japanese companies and on Japanese immigrants and their descendants in their countries, among other issues.
For the case of Chile, this poll was conducted by telephone to 300 people. The main conclusions extracted from this survey shows that Chileans have a positive image of Japan (strong economy, great tradition), that the majority of respondents feel sympathy for Japan, and, interestingly, that the features of traditional culture seem to capture more interest than those of pop culture among Chileans. When asked in a multiple-option question ‘which area of Japanese culture are you interested in?’ the results showed:

Table 1: Q.3 Which area of Japanese culture are you interested in? (In percentage %)

Source: MOFA (2014). Opinion Poll in Chile. Retrieved from MOFA:

The areas often associated with pop culture, such as videogames, anime, fashion, manga, movies and doramas, and music, all got less than 20% of responses. Only food stands out, with 47%. This poll appears to challenge the importance of pop culture for the general public, and it shows no connection with language specifically. The only information pertaining to language is to be found in Q.1, about the ‘aspects’ that interest Chileans about Japan, where the most popular were: technology (69%), culture/art (64%), Japanese food (51%) and Japanese language (51%); and Q.6.2., as displayed in table 2, that shows a positive response to the prospects of learning it. Unfortunately, because there is not a second version, it is difficult to know the evolution of this image.

Table 2: Q.6.2. Would you like to learn Japanese language? (In percentage %)

Source: MOFA (2014). Opinion Poll in Chile. Retrieved from MOFA:

As it was the case with Japan Foundation’s surveys, the image of Japan mentioned in this poll is unidirectional: is what Japan thinks foreigners might see or believe. As Hashimoto (2018b) concludes, these polls seem to be focused more on popularity, rather than reality (Hashimoto, 2018b: 45). And since the questionnaire is standard, is not contextual o particular to the specific country. This is consistent with the notion that a country imagines possible outcomes of the benefits that the use of soft power entails, and “contains assumptions about how influence works, both domestically and internationally” (Hayden, 2011: 7), as well as “believing that virtues they see in their own nation are validated overseas, and that they become power resources in their own right” (Leheny, 2006: 212), which would explain why most of the questions are posed positively.
Apart from the reports detailed here, no other specific surveys from the Japan Foundation or MOFA about Chile that address cultural perception or interests about Japan from where we could complement and conclude the correlation were found.

The Weight of popular culture through other lenses

Complementing the data presented before, with the total of Chilean visitors arriving to Japan in the same period, we can see that the number reached a historic record. For almost 20 years, the entries to Japan from Chile remained rather stable, with less than 3,000 people annually. Since 2011, however, as the graph 2 shows, the entries have steadily augmented, although this does not incorporate the data of the 352 Working Holiday visa grantees between 2018 and 2020. By 2018, Chileans entering Japan had reached 14,285 people: 94% of them entered Japan with short-term visa (up to 90 days), 78%, for touristic activities.

Graph 2. Growth in the number of entries of Chileans to Japan, 2000-2018

Source: Elaborated from the information provided by the Ministry of Justice (MOJ), between the years of 2000 and 2018, for Chile. Retrieved from MOJ: 

An additional point to be considered is the generation: 62% of Chileans entering Japan in 2018 were between 20 and 39 years old, hence, they were born between the years of 1979 and 1998. Thinking about the generation and the exposure to Japanese animation, it is natural to think about how the number increased in the decade of 2010, and how many of the visitors travelled to Japan due to the influence of popular culture. We are talking about a generation that grew up with influences from Japan and Asia, and they were the children and teenagers that compose most of the viewers of national television in the 1990s (del Villar, 2010: 174).

As explained before, the audience built in Chile for Japanese culture became important; it made this country a big consumer of anime in the Latin American region (Woo, 2017), and the originator of that can be television and the movement that emerged from that. From its origins, there is evidence that the influence of Japanese popular culture in Chile has been translated into action and participation. The places, events and stores facilitated the creation of ecological hubs where people could experience all kinds of exchanges, friendship, information and merchandising (del Villar, 2010: 176), which later adapted to the digital context. As Perillán (2009) pointed out, the fans of Japanese culture in Chile are consumers, and their participatory culture is through consumption (Perillán, 2009: 24). Thus, for what it was described, it is possible to argue that there is a tradition of participatory culture of Chileans related to Japanese pop culture and, in parallel, there are clear behaviours associated to Japan in tourism and language education.

Image 3. Chileans protesting during the social uprising of 2019, showing anime references. A manifestation of the participatory influence of pop culture. The image in the left reads: “Otaku, but never right wing”; the right: “Naruto never gave up, neither will we.”


The examples presented in this paper showed the special characteristics that the popularisation of anime has had in Chile and the influence that pop culture could offer to explain the rise of language learners. Despite this, we do need further studies that can help us establish the correlation. This work aimed to reveal that need, and to show the real extent of Japanese culture attractiveness and influence, in order to have a better grasp not only about Japan’s soft power in the country, but about issues like the place of the actors involved, the importance of the generation and the history of Japanese language education in this country.
All in all, what can be argued from the evidence exposed is that the pop cultural resources from Japan may have played a role in the decision of Chileans to connect to Japan, expressed in the creation of Japanese language institutions, in studying the language, or the increase of short-term visits to Japan. If these cultural resources, like anime, are partly the reason for people in Chile to study Japanese, then it means that Japanese cultural resources are translating into behaviour and, therefore, there is a potential for Japan’s soft power in Chile.
In this regard, the weight of Japanese popular culture in behaviour is undeniable. The examples showed the landscape and potential of the participatory and consumption culture that emerged since the 1990s in Chile associated with Japan. But the real question is whether this is translated from the actual management of resources by the government or, on the other hand, it is the result of an organic process. From the point of view of the state and the use of resources, the challenge is to channel and lead that behaviour, because “[t]he key question here is whether citizens make this desired link between an attractive TV show, or music, and politics, and whether such attraction translates into a more positive/accommodative approach toward the other state’s policies and political behaviour” (Press-Barnathan, 2012: 36). Having sympathy for Japan and supporting Japan in the international context may be two different things. Those Chileans that today love Japan because of its popular culture, might think differently if Japan once more became a militaristic country. However, based on the economic benefits that tourism represents for Japan, and the long-term benefit of Japanese-language speakers as human resources, it can be argued that Japan’s soft power in Chile has economic manifestations. It may not be translated into political or diplomatic power in the short-term, but this does not mean it could not be in the future. The actions and approach that Japan has chosen to Latin America and Chile have been historically driven by economic purposes.
These reports and data show, at the end, the magnitude of Japan’s perception of its own culture in Chile, vis-à-vis the actual reality of the country. Nevertheless, the fact that Japan builds an image of itself through popular culture, while official, does not make it less real. For Press-Barnathan, “[d]oes it matter what popular culture actually does as a soft power tool, or does it only matter what actors believe it can do? (Press-Barnathan, 2012: 43). Whether popular culture has an impact on the foreign public, or can become a source for soft power, is not as relevant as the idea that states have about it. It can help us comprehend the degree of importance that Japanese policymakers see in the role of Japan regionally and globally and, in turn, the role that Chile can have as a regional hub of Japanese pop culture.


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About the Author

Isabel Cabaña Rojas is a Chilean PhD student in International Relations at Ritsumeikan University, where she is conducting her research on the role of non-state actors in the development of Japanese language programmes and their relationship with Japanese government. She received her MA degree in international relations at the same University in 2013.

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