SOFT POWER HARD TRUTHS / Soft power useful, but Japan needs to find smarter approach
"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. [more; and @ 3:AM here]