Government funds soft power push in US universities

New government funding has been earmarked this year to support Japan’s ‘soft power’ programmes in foreign universities, a move viewed by experts as aimed at countering the growing cultural influence of China and South Korea internationally.

During his official visit to the US in the past week, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited three universities - Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University, reaffirming during his visit to MIT his government's plan to fund university chairs for professors of Japanese studies.

The ‘soft power’ move has sparked mixed reactions from academics.

Japan’s Foreign Affairs Ministry has announced it will extend some US$15 million this fiscal year starting in April to support Japanese studies in nine selected US universities, including Massachusetts Institute of Technology or MIT, Georgetown University and others still to be announced.

This follows a Japanese endowment of US$5 million to Columbia University, New York, announced in January, to fund a professor of Japanese politics and foreign policy – the first such donation to a US university in 40 years.

With the rise of China, a number of universities in the US and the UK have scaled back their programmes in Japanese language, politics and history over the past decade or more, while boosting Chinese language and other programmes with financial support from the Chinese government-funded Confucius Institutes.

The new funds will support student exchanges and Japanese studies. The curriculum of such courses would include Japanese popular culture focusing on internationally known products of Japanese culture, such as animation and manga or comic books and graphic novels.

Popular culture

Japanese animation started penetrating the overseas markets in the 1970s, building a massive international following, especially among youth in East and Southeast Asia. This includes the hugely successful Pokémon media franchise.

The industry has world-class artists including the 2002 Oscar-winning film director Hayao Miyazaki, with domestic sales clocking in at almost US$12.5 billion in 2013. Japan has established a Japan Creative Centre in Singapore to disseminate Japanese pop culture in Southeast Asia.

In a survey carried out last September by the government of Tochigi prefecture, west Japan, foreign students cited Japanese popular culture as the top reason for opting to study there. Some 47% of respondents in the poll of 680 students cited Japanese animation as the reason for coming to study in Japan.

Ray Lee, a Taiwanese university student in Japan describes himself as “bowled over” by Japanese animation.

A design graduate, Lee told University World News: “Japanese animation is special. I am attracted to the stories and beautiful drawings and I am here to try to pursue a career in that field if possible.”

Japanese universities started launching animation programmes a decade ago. They report increasing enrolment, including foreign students mostly from Asia as the courses are taught in Japanese.

Some 95% of the 140,000 foreign students in Japan are Asian with China top of the list, followed by South Korea, Vietnam and Nepal.

“The expansion of the study [of animation] abroad is a good thing. We would also like to start an international curriculum on the subject,” said Toru Monoe, spokesperson for the Tokyo Polytechnic University, referring to the need for new courses in English to attract foreign students.

The university specialises in media and mobile game technology and is located in Akihabara – Tokyo’s mecca for animation and manga. It now has 60 students including six Asian students on its undergraduate programme.

Cool Japan

A gentler, cool image for Japan has helped counter the negative impact of the country’s militaristic past, particularly its colonisation of Asian countries up until the Second World War. It has been most effective in countering negative impressions among Asia’s youth.

Shinzo Abe, Japan’s conservative prime minister, has set a goal of restoring Japan as a strong global leader, backing the ‘Cool Japan’ project with an annual budget of US$17 million.

‘Cool Japan’ uses the country’s cultural industries to project itself internationally, including in Japanese studies courses at overseas universities such as the ‘Cool Japan’ research project at MIT and Harvard University in the US, first launched in 2006.

The MIT-Harvard project is aimed at encouraging scholarly debate and research on Japanese culture.

Supporters of Japan’s ‘soft power’ push argue that Japan has waited too long to promote Japanese culture against a backdrop of rising South Korean and Chinese influence.

Often referred to as the ‘Korean Wave’, Seoul has supported public-private partnerships to successfully promote Korean pop stars and television dramas abroad, especially in Asia.

“I think it’s a good move to promote the best in modern Japan,” said media expert, Koichi Ishiyama at Waseda University.

China spends heavily on promoting its Confucius Institutes at foreign universities to promote its national culture. There are currently 97 such institutes around the world.

Short-term benefit

But critics warn that this type of soft power push risks being only of short-term benefit to the Japanese government.

Kyle Cleveland, an associate professor of sociology at Temple University’s Japan Campus, specialises in youth culture. He said while animation appealed to foreign students, disillusion and disappointment sets in after the initial lure.

Japanese popular culture is “far more complex” than they expect, Cleveland said.

“Japan’s soft power goal is to develop closer relations with foreign countries. But this depends on building cultural values that must be shared over the long term,” he said.

“Soft power cannot do it alone,” he added, referring to the current shaky bilateral political ties with China. He stressed the importance of sharing political values as a stronger base for international ties.