Summary of JSPS Conference

Thu, March 2, 2006

Joseph Nye coined the phrase "soft power" in 1990 to describe the ability of nations to obtain desirable outcomes in international relations by relying on their cultural and ideological appeal abroad rather than their "hard power", i.e. military and economic might. Soft power operates through the attractiveness of cultural resources, gaining international stature for nations through seduction rather than through coercion or direct economic incentive. Analyses of soft power have tended to focus on how American values like capitalism, democracy, and individualism are exported through popular and consumer culture including movies, television, popular music, fashion and fast food, as represented by the global omnipresence and appeal of Disney, Levis, Nike, Coca-Cola, McDonalds and lately, Starbucks.

Since the late 1990s, Japan's exports of popular cultural products have been growing exponentially and its increasing soft power potential is widely recognized. Despite an entrenched recession, Japan has achieved a reputation as a trend-setting nation in the realms of popular and consumer culture in areas like video games, character-based goods, animated movies and TV and their tie-in merchandise. Recognizing this trend, in the last few years, the Japanese government has advocated explicit policies for the development of cultural resources as a means to improve international economic competitiveness. Yet, despite the government's high hopes for soft power, it is notoriously unpredictable, impossible to measure and difficult to control.

In this conference, eight well-known scholars of Japanese culture and history took up the task of "interrogating" the concept of Japan's soft power. Rather than limiting the discussion to contemporary pop culture, we took a broader, more historical and multi-disciplinary approach, comparing Japanese cultural influence in the 19th century and postwar period to the contemporary phenomenon. We also examined other cultural fields like religion, science and literature. Eight papers were presented and discussed, organized into four panel sessions. The first session, entitled Japan's Aesthetic Influence, included papers by Susan Napier and Christine Guth, who examined the appeal of Japanese culture and aesthetics for US audiences, in particular for 21st century anime fans and 19th century and postwar woodblock print collectors. Session two discussed aspects of religion, science and ethics in Japanese soft power. Yamada Shoji explored US appropriation of the term "Zen" for disparate purposes and William LaFleur discussed how Japanese views of bio-ethics provide an alternative to a U.S. and market dominated discourse. The third session addressed film and literature, with presentations by William Tsutsui, who described how postwar Japanese monster movies were made "cheesy" through American dubbing and editing, affirming American superiority and underlining racial and cultural difference. Tatsumi Takayuki provided an analysis of cyberpunk literary texts as elements of a new transpacific cultural imagination. The final session of the day addressed the relationships between consumerism and national "branding" in Japan's current soft power efforts. Anne Allison examined how Pokemon serves as a vehicle of global capitalism and Japan's "gross national cool." Iwabuchi Koichi outlined the Japanese government's current policy direction stressing the use of culture for the promotion of national interests and analyzed the political implications of this development.

The conference website can be viewed at

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