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Japan quietly seeks global leadership niches

The island nation seeks to carve out a bigger role in world affairs as a 'soft power.'

By Amelia NewcombStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 17, 2008

A NEW GENERATION: Less nationalistic, less pacifistic than their parents, young Japanese say that their country has a lot to offer developing nations, especially on issues such as the environment.

Andy Nelson/The Christian Science Monitor

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In the 1980s, the buzz here was about "Japan bashing" – the biting criticism of a country that was eviscerating America's postwar industrial dominance. This is still the world's second-biggest economy. But more recently, Japanese have spoken in bemused terms about "Japan passing" – shorthand for a country feeling overshadowed by a rising China and India.

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Japan Influential

Lessons in softer power.

Japan's meteoric economic rise never led to a parallel surge in diplomatic clout. But today, as a pacesetter in everything from green cars to pop culture, it seeks to carve out a bigger role in world affairs as a "soft power."

The country has had remarkable success in shifting the one-dimensional perception of Japan Inc. to a multifaceted image that many in the industrialized world are now hastening to emulate in key areas like energy innovation. Still, Japan's new emergence is closely tied to its ability to reform its domestic political structure and speak more surely on the international diplomatic stage – something far from certain at this juncture.

"Japan used to be [just] an economic superpower," says Michael Auslin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "Now it talks about being a social superpower. Japanese say, 'We're First World, but what kind of power are we?' "

Japan's promotion of a changed image was underscored earlier this year by the ascension – a cutesy gesture, perhaps – of a cartoon character, Doraemon, as the country's roving cultural ambassador.

The animated cat's job, said then-Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura at the March announcement, was to "deepen people's understanding of Japan so they will become our friends." For his part, Doraemon – who is as familiar to young people in Asia as Snoopy was to generations of young Americans – promised to share globally "what kind of future [Japanese] want to build."

To Kenjiro Monji, it's one small piece of a diplomacy that is crucial to that future – influencing the public as well as opinion leaders by presenting ideas and policies more effectively. Japan's director general of public diplomacy, he points to polls by the BBC this year that gave Japan the No. 2 slot in terms of positive image among global respondents.

"The image of Japan is very good, and not just in cultural areas. It is seen as contributing to stability as well," he says.