Last month a motley bunch of mostly grey-haired academics, actors and architects sat around a large conference table at Japan’s foreign ministry to talk about how to raise the country’s profile overseas. This was the first time the ministry had set in motion a project to establish a Japan House in major cities around the globe.
The project, announced late last year, is an acknowledgement that Japan hasn’t done a good job of marketing itself to the rest of the world. In its scrappy dealings with regional rivals China and South Korea, Japan tends to be on the losing side of a PR war: Tokyo gets called out for trying to whitewash atrocities dating to the Second World War more often that it does for any of its more recent efforts to broker peace around the globe.
To remedy that, the ministry is spending an eye-watering ¥50bn (€360m) from public coffers to build new venues in London, Los Angeles and São Paulo beginning next spring, as well as a few other locations in a not-so-distant future. It’s no small sum: the ministry will pony up more than seven per cent of its annual budget.
The idea is to present a side of Japan that doesn’t always make it beyond its borders. And what better way to win over hearts and minds than with anime, gadgets and tasty morsels? You can be sure that diplomats will want to squeeze in official propaganda too – what Tokyo is hoping is that it will sway opinions in its favour when it comes to territorial and historical disputes with China, South Korea and Russia.
The foreign ministry has made the wise decision of hiring Kenya Hara, one of Japan’s top designers, to lead the process. Last month’s meeting of experts who assembled at the foreign ministry zeroed in on the Japan House project’s biggest challenge. How do you strike a balance between what Japan wants the rest of the world to know about itself and what the rest of the world wants to know about Japan? It’s an ongoing theme.
Here’s another one: Tokyo’s PR efforts in the past haven’t always had the desired effect. Last December, when Japanese diplomats petitioned a US textbook publisher to make changes to a high-school history textbook describing Asian women who were coerced into working at wartime brothels run by the Japanese military decades ago, the backlash lasted for weeks.
There’s a lesson here for Japan. Stick to anime, artisanal craft and food instead of trying to spread what your critics say is a revisionist version of history. You might win more fans that way.
Kenji Hall is Monocle’s Asia editor at large.