Island disputes damage cultural ties in Asia

Hard Times for Soft Power

Roland Kelts

Three days after Prime Minister Yoshihiro Noda announced that his administration had purchased the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, municipal authorities in Beijing ordered a prohibition of Japanese imports – not of cars or electronics, but book content. Chinese publishers were asked not to release books by Japanese authors and those related to Japan by authors of any nationality, and also to cancel cultural promotional events.
The economic damage to the automotive and manufacturing sectors stemming from Japan’s territorial disputes with Asian neighbors China, South Korea and Taiwan has been widely analyzed and measured in recent weeks, with some pointing to Japanese makers losing out on sales and others noting the losses to Chinese workers employed by Japanese firms. News reports in Japan repeat the meme of Japanese corporations fleeing China for the more stable environs of nearby Southeast Asian nations.
But the impact on the region’s cultural markets, its so-called “soft power” interchange of ideas, entertainment and imagery, is both harder to quantify and, potentially, more meaningful and deeply felt.
“When political disputes with other countries arise, the entertainment business is always one of the first industries to feel the negative effects,” says Yuji Nunokawa, founder and former president of anime studio Pierrot, producer of such global mega-hits as Naruto and Bleach, and Chairman of the Association of Japanese Animation (AJA). “The AJA was invited to a recent ceremony celebrating the 40th anniversary of the restoration of diplomatic relations between Japan and China, but [the invitation] was rescinded at the last moment. We had been working hard on building trust and good relationships with China on a non-governmental level, but it was all ruined very quickly when politics came into play.
"We also had a Chinese company interested in making a film based on one of our titles, but the discussions have come to a halt since the island dispute erupted."

The conflict between Japan and China has been the most newsworthy and vociferous. International television broadcasts in September showed Chinese protesters hurling bottles, eggs and other items at Japanese embassies in several Chinese cities. “Enough is enough,” said one Beijing agitator last month on CCTV. “We’re not going to take this from Japan anymore.”
Samuel Pinansky, Chief of the International Media Strategy Division of Yomiuri Television Enterprise in Tokyo, and a former staffer of Tezuka Productions, Osamu Tezuka’s posthumous company, says that the timing of Japan’s latest rift with China is particularly troubling. After years of rampant piracy, he says, “direct sales to China were just barely starting to happen in a serious way. Legal media licensing is still in its infancy in many respects, and this is a major setback.  But at least there wasn't as much progress to reset as there is for the automotive industry, for example, where Japan had made huge gains. Manga and animation from Japan were already highly restricted by the government before this flare-up.”
The dustup is ongoing, Pinansky notes, and doesn’t look like it will be quelled any time soon. Earlier this month, the Tokyo International Film Festival was notable for China’s absence. Chinese films were pulled, and “the booth space usually reserved for their delegation was completely empty, changed to an awkward ‘meeting space,’” adds Pinansky. “I would also expect the Chinese area for next year's Tokyo Anime Fair to be gone, especially if [right-wing former Tokyo Governor] Shintaro Ishihara continues to be involved.”
The filaments of cultural transactions are slippery. Books about Japan, and by Japanese authors, are not being shelved in China’s cultural centers, but that doesn’t mean they are outlawed.
“The ban on Japanese books in China was more of a direction than a command,” says one Japanese publishing agent who specializes in transactions with China and, understandably, wants to remain anonymous. “There was never any document that could be traced or verified. But some publishing houses in Beijing said they got the news that the ban should be put into practice. Many national book stores won’t sell books translated from Japanese, some publishing houses won't buy Japanese books’ translation rights, and some won’t publish translated books, or are delaying their release dates.
“The decision of whether to publish editions of Japanese books seems more dependent on the publishing houses’ policies than the kinds of books in question. Even with bestsellers like Haruki Murakami, they may choose to remain loyal to the government,” she says.
The self-restraint on behalf of culture purveyors in the Asian region at odds with one another politically seems to be at the heart of the collateral damage. People working in Japanese media are “made aware” of a trend to ignore Chinese and Korean artists and themes. Chinese and Korean factions are quietly feeling the same pressures.
“It’s little spiteful stuff right now,” says Leo Lewis, Beijing Bureau Chief of The Times of London. “Performance cancellations, no Japanese books on the bookshelves, stuff like that. But if we’re having this conversation in six months’ time, it will become substantial.”
Lewis notes that ardent consumers of culture in the Asian region are Internet savvy: Even if the books and DVDs and broadcasts are not available officially, fans will find them online. China’s recent censorship activities bear him out. Twitter and Facebook are blocked, as are stories from U.S. media stalwarts like The New York Times, if they run afoul of government sensitivities. But popular culture on domestic sites like is largely left alone.
The South Korean angle is more complicated. One veteran music journalist in Tokyo tells stories of Japanese deejays being pressured to reduce Korean stars on their playlists. Global sensation Psy’s “Gangnam Style” song and video have barely dented Japanese charts, and some theorize that it’s due to Japan’s national rejection of Korean soft power. The president of the Korean Wave Research Institute, Han Koo-hyun, recently labeled Japan’s inability to embrace the hit “a primary school kid’s jealousy and envy.”
Envy aside – it’s clear that Korean pop music in Japan is not nearly as welcome as it was just a year ago.
“I’ve heard that spots to promote new singles by K-pop stars on the various song and variety shows have been canceled because the Japanese TV networks get complaints from viewers saying they don’t want to see Koreans on TV,” says a features editor at a top-shelf Japanese fashion magazine. “It seems to be coinciding with a wane in the K-pop boom in general, so it’s really hard to say. Many star acts will remain, but I think it's tougher for newer stars to break into the market.”
Pop music industry insiders tell me the same story. The island dispute has cast a pall over the Asian cultural exchange, darkened by top-down hierarchies.
“A lot of the Korean media are blaming the drop in sales to the island issue,” one prominent music producer tells me. “But the fact is: sales were dropping before this happened. Still, there’s clearly a reaction to the disputes. It’s not like the U.S., where Internet sales can make or break you. Here in Asia, you need TV to market your product. And if TV decides they won’t feature you, you don’t have a platform.”
The cultural effect of Japan’s territorial disputes with its Asian neighbors will remain vague – who knows why nationals like a song or video from another country, let alone why they might re-tweet it to thousands of followers? Still, the latest conflagrations between Asian nations provide a revealing keyhole view on how culture and politics fast become personal, and history is intimate.
“If I go to the countryside in China, I don’t have to look too far to find people over a certain age with vivid memories of being tortured by Japanese soldiers,” says Lewis. “They were held down while a vehicle rode over their stomachs, for example, and they remember. There is no proper valve or outlet for that rage and humiliation.”
Perhaps the most depressing result of these island arguments is the multilateral costs they are exacting in an otherwise vibrant region. As in a playground brawl, indifferent players are being asked to take sides, even when they don’t want to.
“The Taiwanese National Symphony Orchestra was set to play in Beijing,” adds Lewis, “when three or four of the instrumentalists in the orchestra were identified by officials as Japanese. Their visas weren’t approved. The concert went on, but without three key musicians who have nothing to do with this pathetic political mess.” ❶
Roland Kelts is a writer, editor, essayist and lecturer specializing in contemporary culture who divides his time between New York and Tokyo. He is the author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the US

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