Nation branding is all the rage these days as governments and industry seek a competitive marketing advantage in attracting business, trade and tourism. Japan feels a greater sense of urgency in the 2020 Olympics spotlight as it plays a game of catch-up with regional competitors like China, South Korea and Taiwan.
China alone is the biggest winner in international public relations. The ubiquitous language and cultural promotion of its “Confucius Institutes” are embedded on hundreds of university campuses across the globe.
Many universities are hard pressed to resist the presence of self-financed cultural diplomacy institutes that meet the growing demand for foreign language and culture instruction. China has a goal of 1,500 Confucius Institutes by 2020, but these institutes have increasingly become the target of resistance — as academic freedom questions emerge about a one-way government propaganda purpose.
The Republic of Korea has its own King Sejong Institutes and Korean Cultural Centers that are on the rise, along with global interest in the movies and TV dramas of Korean Wave or the music of K-Pop.
The Japan Foundation (JF), which coordinates international exchange projects, celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2013. JF has 22 overseas offices in 21 countries, with 25 Japan Cultural Centers. Meanwhile, Japan’s public diplomacy budget — the government’s name for nation branding — has declined by one-third over the last decade.
What is Japan’s answer to the Confucius Institute? This is part of the problem when a nation has been too passive about its national image and reputation management.
Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) is at the forefront of a Cool Japan campaign to boost Japanese products through more private industry–government collaboration. This is all well and good as Japan’s reputation for quality, design and attention to detail puts it on the path of a global culture super power.
But a narrow focus on corporate goods and services, or even a designation of Washoku on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list, is insufficient in raising the nation–branding profile of Japan. It’s not enough just to increase the global and regional presence of Cool Japan products like manga and anime or J-Pop and J-Fashion. Persuasion 101 tells us that it is the customer who gets to decide what’s cool, not the seller. And far too many countries have designated their culture as cool (eg, Cool Britannia), long before Japan took on the mantle.
If Japan is known best for Cool Japan otaku or cosplay — or foreign press buzzwords like “weird” and “wacky” associated with the Tokyo nightlife — then Japan’s nation–branding efforts narrow-cast the millions of attractive features that don’t play as well on the global market. International visitors to Japan aren’t that different from buying customers. In order to give up their money in exchange for goods or services, they want sellers to answer this: “Yeah, you’re cool. So what. What’s in it for me?”
Having a government bureaucracy like METI lead the nation–branding effort is a recipe for a top-heavy, risk-averse, business-as-usual outcome, which Japan cannot afford. Japan needs to tap more into its “cultural creatives” — from social and business entrepreneurs to global citizen ambassadors in the educational and cultural exchange sectors. These sectors attract people with a greater tolerance for risk and adventure.
What does a country do when the pull factors of image, reputation and credibility are so paradoxical? There are just as many people drawn to Japan for its quiet temples and forests. How does one reconcile a robot restaurant with a walk in the woods?
It might be worth asking international visitors what draws them to Japan. Andrew Tuck, editor of Monocle, a London-based global affairs and lifestyle magazine, said of his recent trip here: “Having good manners shouldn’t be difficult, but a country as well behaved as Japan has turned being nice into an art. And if I was in charge of marketing for Japan, I’d be bottling it and selling it. Being nice is nice.”
Tuck’s comments reflect a truism in marketing. People tend to buy products, services, or country visits based on feeling and emotion. If you feel kindly appreciated or understood, it doesn’t matter if you understand all the features and details of what is being offered. This may reconcile the weird and wacky Japan with the refined and quiet one.