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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.'

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Still, Mr. Monji says Japan could do far more to capitalize on its deft touch with practical and whimsical technology alike as well as popular culture. He is enthusiastic about the startup of an English language TV broadcast – a BBC-like program by Japan International Broadcasting – that aims to reach most corners of the globe by March 2009.

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Plans are also in the works to open more than 100 language centers around the world to spread the study of Japanese, an effort funded by the Japan Foundation. Cultural grant aid is another target.

But Japan's cultural dynamism stands in sharp contrast to its domestic political and dip- lomatic profile – one that hampers Japan's ability to wield clout in more traditional spheres of influence.

That's something Ichiro Asahina, an idealistic and animated 30-something official with Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry, hopes to change.

After a stint at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, Mr. Asahina concluded that Japan's bureaucracy, long the destination for the best and brightest, was failing to help blaze a path out of Japan's domestic economic and political troubles.

He and like-minded colleagues started brainstorming how best to nudge change within Kasumigaseki, Japan's ministerial hub. In 2005, Project K, as the group dubbed itself, ratcheted things up – publishing a book that pitched mission statements, a national strategy office, and other reforms to help ministries become more dynamic and open to frank discussion. They developed an acronym – PEATH, for peace, environment, art, technology, and human resources – to describe where the group, which now claims some 50 members, thought Japan could be most influential.

Their activism proved a magnet for criticism – and plaudits. "Things are moving toward change," Asahina asserts, noting that their tome sold a surprising 10,000 copies. "Many Japanese young people want a stronger role for Japan in the world – we think Japan can do a lot for the world's prosperity."

For this generation, unlike their parents and grandparents, validation does not have to come from the West. They exude an assurance born of Japan's broad cultural reach, its environmental leadership (this is, they note, home of the Kyoto Protocol on climate change and the trendsetting Toyota Prius), and its industrial competitiveness. Their country's World War II history, while an issue, does not encumber them; many observers see them as pragmatic.

"They're practical on security issues," says Steven Vogel, professor of political science at the University of California at Berkeley, noting that young people tend to take for granted the existence of the Self-Defense Forces and are less opposed to a military role overseas than their parents. "[It's] not a shift to the right, but stems from the disappearance of [ideological] splits. They are unraveling old constraints."