We tend to look to the Western World for references to our way of behavior, not only regarding political organization, but also in cultural terms. It is not strange to anyone that perhaps the United States of America is our political reference point. In the Western world, our sharing of liberal values and democracy is what brings us closer, but even culturally, although there are differences, we are relatively similar.
Professor Joseph Nye defines power as the “ability to affect others to get the outcomes one prefers, and that can be accomplished by coercion, payment, or attraction and persuasion”, thus the concept of power is divided in two ways, hard and soft power, although the concept of sharp power has recently appeared. The first related to coercion, through military or economic means, the second related to a country’s attractiveness, in cultural terms, political values and its policies. If we look to the other side of the world, the first country that occurs to me is Japan. We can see how they influenced, and continue to influence, the West in what were ideas and inventions that catapulted the country to become an example of use of soft power. Manga, anime, cosplay, Nintendo, Pokémon, karaoke, PlayStation are just some examples of inventions and content that emerged in the country of the rising sun and that have been integrated into our lives.
It is in the post-World War II, after two atomic bombs hit Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, that led Japan to surrender to the United States and put an end to the war, and to a drastic change in its position in the international system. Many would argue that it would be natural for Japan to hold a grudge and take revenge on the United States for all the damage done, but this is where Japan stands out. He swallowed his pride, “held” his grudge and looked for alternatives on how to enter the new world order. With the industry shattered by the damage and subsequent American occupation until 1952, stagnating the economy and production, Japan sought alternatives to revitalize the economy.
In the book Pure Invention, Matt Alt, foes through the history of several creations that allowed to revitalize the Japanese economy, also with the help of the USA with the opening of its market, in the years that became known as the Japanese economic miracle. This book goes through the whole process, just before the Second World War, contextualizing the situation that the country was going through, starting with a small toy can, Matsuzo Kosuge’s 1933 Graham Blue Streak, the same one that created a new toy jeep, but based on the vehicle used by the Americans during the occupation, using the can boxes used by the Americans during the occupation, and appeal to the foreign markets. As is noticeable to the Americans, it was a car that represented the heroes of the war, so the appealing element existed. For Japanese children, the symbol of the occupation, also became in fact and element of hope, at a time when the country was in ruins, the children found in the new toy a wat to have fun and “forget” their condition temporarily.
What started with toys, quickly moved to cartoons (anime), with Astro Boy being the face of a new era of animation, animations that would one day win against Disney at the Oscar for Best Animation in 2002, with Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away film. Not forgetting that Japanese anime has a lot of Western influences, that is why it is very rare to see characters that have Japanese features, the reverse also applies, with anime having an influence in films such as the Matrix. During the 1970s, what best describes Japanese creations, is the word kawaii, the closest translation to English is cute. Although there were others before, and being a hallmark in toys and animation, Hello Kitty was remarkable. Initially a coin purse, but the success it had outside Japan led Sanrio to expand its offer for toys, utensils, merchandise, and even planes started to have Hello Kitty advertising, which made the company one of the largest franchises in average in the world, in 2019 it was a 80 billion dollar business, second, just behind Pokémon, also a Japanese franchise. The demonstration of kawaii in different areas managed to make Japan appealing, and over time to change the perception of other countries of an ally of the Nazi regime, to a pleasant and innovative place.
It is during the 90s and after, with the globalization and the widespread use of the internet, toy creations based on anime, and the “gamification” of the world, with the creation of GameBoy and games like Pac-man or Pokémon, even though it was falling economically, Japanese cultural influence only grew, even more than in the 1980s when it was an economic power. More recently, we can indicate anime, manga and j-pop music as the most well-known elements of Japanese culture, without forgetting the cuisine, architecture and arts.
During all these years, Japan has never forgotten the importance of its image. With the entry of the Shinzo Abe administration in 2012, which would last until 2020, and with eh aim of revitalizing the economy, introduced an initiative aimed at promoting Japanese cuisine, fashion and culture, as part of the public administration diplomacy, designated by “Cool Japan Initiative”, The creation of this initiative, under the tutelage of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, demonstrates the importance that is given to culture, and the way in which it is used to promote the country. Through a series of measures, such as the creation of events, television promotion, public-private partnerships, Japan has been demonstrating its culture, something that for us Westerners, was almost incorporated in ours, just see the animations that are shown daily on our televisions, the devices we use and the food we eat.
Its history shows that from difficult and extremely complex situations, it is possible to revive. For us westerners, Japan is an example of using the arts, cuisine, animation, toys, architecture to promote the country, increase tourism, attractiveness and boost the economy. A real soft power superpower.