Friday, 18 March 2011

Japanese-style diplomacy

Japan’s cultural diplomacy throughout the years since the Second World War makes good sense. In his book Japan’s Cultural Diplomacy Kazuo Ogoura, President of the Japan Foundation, makes distinctions between public and cultural diplomacy, stating that the former is directed “at certain pre-determined targets” and is used to “enhance a nation’s political influence" whereas the latter has “less precise goals.”

When participating in cultural activities abroad, the Japanese government believes in simple traditions as the tea ceremony and ikebana (flower arrangement) - to symbolize Japan’s peace-loving nature to the world. Interestingly, whilst researching Japanese diplomacy, I came across an article on how sake is gradually increasing its presence at Japanese government banquets hosting foreign dignitaries.

Japanese cultural diplomacy includes:

  • · Art and cultural exchange programs
  • · Teaching the Japanese language abroad by dispatching specialists and training local language teachers.
  • · Encouraging Japanese studies overseas and intellectual exchange between Japan and other nations.
Such activities are carried out by institutions like the Japan Foundation, who also organize special events like film screenings overseas, anime and manga exhibitions. In recent years these have attracted a massive following worldwide and are regarded as the “main” culture that represents Japan and its soft power.

The Japanese have a strong cultural ideal of mutual respect, thus when entering political debates or discussions they believe in showing understanding and a sense of affirmation about the other side’s views. When reaching a standstill, the nemawashi (根回し) starts. Both sides seek a hint of common ground to start with and proceed gradually, continuing as far as possible. If no further progress can be made, both sides then attempt to concede ground in order to meet the opponent halfway out of courtesy. As you can see, it’s very different to the Western Socratic method of debate (which is synonymous with developing critical thinking). Simply dismissing one’s views or even firing questions at the argument to expose the weaknesses as we’d more likely be inclined to is perceived to be rude.

Kaplans diagram deals with patterns of speech and argument across language groups

The goal of Japanese cultural diplomacy is to “not only propagate Japanese thought and traditions to the world but also aim at introducing non-Japanese culture to Japan to enrich the cultural heritage of the world.”

Somewhere between public/political culture and private interactions, the idea of balance is clearly important to a nation not only striving to make it’s imprint on the world but to amalgamate that which it finds useful to its own culture.


  1. I am most interested in the idea you introduce of the connections between language and diplomacy and the misunderstandings that can arise through cultural differences. Linguistic and semantic, as well as cultural differences, can be useful ways of looking at diplomatic approaches. Whilst the Japanese have been very open to non-Japanese culture they are not a tolerant country; they have no civil rights legislation and ethnic minority assimilation is a low policy priority ( A good example of their governments attitude to neighbourhood minorities can be found in the history of Okinawa. Okinawa, home of the Ryukyuan people, was an independent kingdom until mainland Japan took control in 1609. After WW2 the US, albeit as part of Japan's defeat in part, were 'allowed' to take gradually take over 20% of their island space with military bases and 30,000 US army personnel. The Okinawans have a seperate, but hidden, culture despite the fact that they are 'seemingly' Japanese.
    The latest natural disaster in Japan has stopped Obama from repeatedly snubbing Japanese diplomatic efforts aimed at asking the US military to relocate to another island. (New Left Review 64, July/Aug 2010 Gavan McCormack 'Obama vs Okinawa')

  2. I found this to be such an interesting article! It certainly highlights and brings up interesting details and customs. Especially as one does not hear much about Japanese-style diplomacy.