Thursday, May 02, 2002

INSOLVENT REPUBLIC OF JAPAN WATCH: Neat Foreign Policy article on the worlwide cultural cache of Japan. A sample:

More than 60 years ago, in a classic study called Mirror, Sword, and Jewel, a German economist at Tokyo Imperial University named Kurt Singer discussed the contrast between the “plasticity” and “endurance” of Japanese culture, the ability to absorb and adapt foreign influences while still retaining an intact cultural core. Yet for Singer writing in the 1930s, the question was “why this gifted and active nation has produced so little that has been found acceptable by other countries in an age open to all foreign influences.”

Today, Japan has outgrown that question, thanks largely to the qualities of Japanese culture that Singer himself identified. In fact, in cultural terms at least, Japan has become one of a handful of perfect globalization nations (along with the United States). It has succeeded not only in balancing a flexible, absorptive, crowd-pleasing, shared culture with a more private, domestic one but also in taking advantage of that balance to build an increasingly powerful global commercial force. In other words, Japan’s growing cultural presence has created a mighty engine of national cool.

It is impossible to measure national cool. National cool is a kind of “soft power”—a term Harvard dean Joseph S. Nye Jr. coined more than a decade ago to explain the nontraditional ways a country can influence another country’s wants, or its public’s values. And soft power doesn’t quantify neatly. How much of modern American hegemony is due to the ideological high ground of its democracy, for instance, how much to its big corporate franchises, to Hollywood, to rock music and blue jeans, or to its ability to fascinate as well as intimidate? National cool is an idea, a reminder that commercial trends and products, and a country’s knack for spawning them, can serve political and economic ends. As Nye argued in this magazine more than a decade ago, “There is an element of triviality and fad in popular behavior, but it is also true that a country that stands astride popular channels of communication has more opportunities to get its messages across and to affect the preferences of others.”

However, while Japan sits on that formidable reserve of soft power, it has few means to tap it. National cool ought to help Japan infuse its universities, research labs, companies, and arts with foreign talent. But in a vast public opinion study conducted throughout Asia in the late 1990s, respondents who admired Japanese culture and Japanese consumer products thought little of the idea of studying or working in Japan, even less of moving there for good. And as open as Japanese culture is to foreign influences, there is neither political nor public support in Japan for immigration, or for immigrants.

When Nye first wrote about soft power, he rightly believed that Japan’s insularity kept it from taking advantage of its formidable economic soft power. Today, a decade of globalization has made Japan somewhat less inward looking, but a decade of recession and political turmoil has made many Japanese seem less secure in some of their fundamental values, undermining traditional ideas in everything from business culture to family life. Those values may rebound with the economy, or they may transform into something new—a national uncertainty infused with even more anxiety by the demographic changes that will accompany the graying of Japan’s population.

Japan’s history of remarkable revivals suggests that the outcome of that transformation is more likely to be rebirth than ruin. Standing astride channels of communication, Japan already possesses a vast reserve of potential soft power. And with the cultural reach of a superpower already in place, it’s hard to imagine that Japan will be content to remain so much medium and so little message.

Via Bizquick. Japan and America are the two countries with worldwide pop cultural influence, and yet we and they do it in completely different ways.

No comments: