Japanese soft power in Washington, a Lithuanian war hero and Australia's soft power revival.
The enthronement ceremony of the Japanese emperor is a rare event. The official accession of Emperor Naruhito to the Chrysanthemum Throne in October was only the third such ritual in 100 years, befitting a hereditary monarchy that dates back millennia. Donald Trump sent a note of congratulations that was duly tweeted by the Japanese embassy in Washington, which is a common practice; later that week the Twitter account of ambassador Shinsuke Sugiyama congratulated runners in the city’s Marine Corps marathon.
Twitter has become the main social-media outlet of the Japanese embassy as it seeks to keep US-Japanese relations on an even keel. It also uses Facebook and Medium, while its affiliated Japanese Information & Culture Center uses Instagram and YouTube. The outreach activities are tailored to Americans: its tweets, for instance, are written not by Japanese-Americans but American Americans to get the right nuance of language.
Intentionally or not, diplomatic relations between the countries have seemed low-key lately. The US delegation to the enthronement ceremony was headed not by the president, vice-president or secretary of state but the transportation secretary Elaine Chao. Yet it was Japan that quietly signed a trade agreement with the US in October while China was grabbing headlines for an escalating round of tariffs. The accord covered a number of agricultural products, as well as some industrial goods, and was accompanied by a separate pact on digital trade.
Though the Washington embassy doesn’t have direct involvement in negotiating such agreements, it does prepare the ground. In June its presentation at the Foreign Service Institute informed US diplomats of its outreach strategy. Target audiences including policy makers, academics and media receive messages about matters ranging from prime minister Shinzo Abe’s policy declarations to cultural events and exchange programmes.
The embassy’s cultural programme centres on Washington’s National Cherry Blossom Festival, which every spring celebrates Japan’s 1912 gift of trees to line the Tidal Basin. The blossoming draws 1.5 million visitors and the embassy piggybacks information about Japanese culture onto details about the festival. And every month it screens an anime film. On Halloween it was Okko’s Inn, in which sixth-grader Okko grows up with a ghost as a helpful companion – a metaphor for the quiet, sometimes invisible work of Japan’s diplomats in Washington.
As China flexes its muscles in the South Pacific, Australia is reviewing its use of soft power and media services in the region. monocle asked Shane McLeod, a research fellow at the Lowy Institute think-tank, about the country’s Pacific strategy.
Why the shift in Australia’s approach to the Pacific?
The post-colonial connection dropped away over the past two decades. And the rise of China’s role in the region means countries have other options for the likes of infrastructure and loans, so Australia has to change how it connects with the region.
How has Australia responded?
There has been an effort to step up its relationship with the Pacific region, that’s for sure. For example, prime minister Scott Morrison is a fan of sports diplomacy. There are also new initiatives in education, such as the schools partnership programme with Papua New Guinea, which will connect high schools there with Australia.
One policy review focuses entirely on broadcasting. How is that going?
Having axed the contract for abc’s Australia network amid a domestic political squabble, the government seems reluctant to admit it made a mistake. It couldn’t give abc money to improve its services so instead had the idea of a fund to promote commercial broadcasters.
Will commercial TV better serve Australia’s image?
The commercial broadcasters don’t seem to know what to do with the money. Most of their high-rating shows these days are live sports or reality TV. It seems a case of pique, bad policy and politics: two steps backwards, maybe one step forward and an uncertain outcome for Australian soft power in the region.
Though Lithuania and Japan are worlds apart, they do share a surprising history. In 2020, Lithuania will celebrate the life of Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara, stationed in the city of Kaunas during the Second World War. Sugihara issued thousands of lifesaving transit visas to Jewish refugees in defiance of his pro-German government. Lithuania is marking the 80th anniversary of his good work with Sugihara Week in October, which will bring art, films, concerts and talks to Kaunas. “Though Lithuania and Japan are distant, the tragedy of war connects us,” says Kaunas mayor Visvaldas Matijosaitis. “We must remember such deeds, so future generations know how vital it is to protect humanity.”