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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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The debate over what kind of global leader Japan wants to be is far from settled. But it's clear that its under-the-radar influence – relative to the attention China gets – is strong, and growing in some areas.

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Japan is building, of course, on a strong base. It remains a key US security partner in Asia. A study this year by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations ranked Japan ahead of China and South Korea in cultural, economic, diplomatic, and political influence in Asia.

Japan has fallen from its 1990s perch of top donor of overseas development assistance, but still ranks 5th worldwide. Its manufacturing prowess and energy efficiency are second to none; Toyota now vies with GM's as the world's No. 1 car producer. Millions of people around the world are huge fans of Japanese comics and animation.

In the coming year, a global financial crisis, threats to world shipping lanes, and a growing US focus on Afghanistan will test how Japan chooses to exercise its influence in the world.

Already, in the financial crisis, Japan has expanded its global footprint with the Nomura Group's $2 billion purchase of Lehman Brothers' Asian, European, and Middle Eastern operations, and with Mitsubishi Financial's $9 billion investment in Morgan Stanley, the struggling New York investment firm. The government has also pledged $100 billion to the IMF to aid developing countries, the only country so far to do so. In the first such meeting outside a multilateral forum, Japanese leaders this week hosted Chinese and South Korean counterparts in Fukuoka to discuss how to buffer the Asian region.

Of course, Japan's slow response to its own bubble in the 1990s has offered a cautionary tale to the US and Europe on how to manage the credit crisis.

Japan just passed a law recommitting itself to Afghanistan-linked support operations, despite opposition. It provided 600 noncombat troops in southern Iraq, withdrawing them in 2006. Working with the UN Development Program, the country just invested $92 million to help 21 African countries deal with climate change – part of its $10 billion Cool Earth Partnership. And the rise in piracy off Somalia has prompted discussion of a bill to allow Japan, constitutionally limited to a defensive military, to send destroyers to escort oil tankers and commercial ships.