:: Article

Japanamerica: Stray Ambassadors

By Roland Kelts.


“The Politics of Pop Culture” was the title and theme of an academic conference hosted by Temple University’s Tokyo campus last weekend and featuring an international roster of scholars and authors. Topics included video games, otaku culture, anime and manga – and especially, the still nebulous concept of “soft power.” Most participants were dubious about the idea at best, poking at the phrase all day until it practically deflated. (One Japanese professor went so far as to call it “rubbish.”)

Joseph S. Nye’s original coinage in the late 1980s referred to the power of political persuasion derived from a culture’s attractiveness to others. Nye has addressed this notion several times since then, notably in 2005, when he argued that American soft power was on the decline during the George W. Bush administration, and warned that the global coalitions necessary to fight the so-called “war on terrorism” would be at great risk without it.

But it was the use of the term in reference to Japan, published in a 2002 article cited in this column last month, that seemed to change everything, at least on this side of the Pacific.

Prof. Kukhee Choo from the National University of Singapore presented ample evidence of how the phrase suddenly ignited governmental efforts to exploit soft power. The number of meetings and proposals related to those efforts spiked dramatically, starting in the early years of the 21st century. The bureaucrats’ catchall term of focus, Prof. Choo noted, has just recently shifted from “content” to “brand.”

Political support for pop culture appeared to peak last year under the short-lived prime ministership of avowed manga fan Taro Aso, whose much ballyhooed plans for a national anime and manga museum were scuttled as soon as he was. But Choo told of her encounter with even shorter-lived former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, who scoffed defensively at her suggestion that his props for pop might be lacking.

The scheduling of the conference turned out to be auspicious: Only a few days earlier, Hatoyama’s humiliating resignation after less than a year in office provided a convincing backdrop for talk of lacking leadership – a softening of power, indeed.

Amid the flurry of activity in Nagatacho aimed at buttressing Japan’s pop culture industries, what’s most striking, of course, is how badly they seem to be sagging, particularly in the market the government is targeting: the United States. Successive years of declining sales in anime and manga merchandise (what keynote speaker, author and translator Frederik L. Schodt called a “cratering” market) have resulted in the severe layoffs reported last month at major U.S.-based anime and manga distributors, producers and publishers, and the outright collapse of others.

Even so, as Schodt and I both demonstrated during our presentations, attendance at U.S. conventions, expos and festivals celebrating Japan’s pop culture continues to climb, in some cases at a dizzying rate. Seattle’s Sakura-Con, for example, has more than tripled its numbers in the span of five years. And in another scheduling coincidence: on the same Saturday of the Tokyo conference, organizers in New York were staging the fourth annual “Japan Day @ Central Park,” the largest celebration of Japanese culture in my other hometown. Over 45,000 were on hand.

Sadly, this disparity points to what’s really soft: the quality of the ideas and strategies for promoting Japan’s cultural attractiveness, and their execution.


Two years ago, I watched from the front row as a Japanese ambassador strolled on-stage during the opening ceremonies of a massive anime festival. He held one hand behind his back, and as he greeted the tens of thousands from the podium, he revealed and quickly donned a Doraemon mask. Some tittered and applauded, a few shouted out the character’s name.

But Doraemon, while enormously popular and immediately recognizable in Japan and many Asian nations, is a virtual unknown to most Americans, where the anime has never received a proper airing.


Here he was, the magic blue cat, selected by the Japanese government as its “anime ambassador” to the world, greeting many who had probably never seen his show.

The fumbling persists. As Prof. Dan White of Rice University recounted, Japan’s kawaii taishi, or cute ambassadors, are three young models plucked by the government last year, dressed up in infantilizing Lolita-style, street fashion and schoolgirl outfits – and, in one instance at least, spun around on-stage for audiences to observe.

It’s worth noting that Nye, Obama’s first choice for ambassador to Japan, recently revised his soft power phrase, and now advocates the use of “smart power,” a hybrid employment of soft and hard (military/financial) strengths. While that may be equally vague, the importance of using power of any kind smartly definitely isn’t.


Roland Kelts is a Temple University, Japan Campus, lecturer who divides his time between Tokyo and New York. He is the author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S.. This article is hosted by 3:AM and Daily Yomiuri.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, June 15th, 2010.