The snap election results of December 14th might make one think that Abe 2.0 has secured a new and reliable update. It was a landslide for the ruling coalition, but featured a twist in the record low voter turnout.
There is currently no credible opposition to Abenomics and little, if any, chance for voters’ concerns to be heard, which is why nearly half of the electorate stayed home. For those who voted, it may have been to follow the political standard: “You got to dance with them what brung you,” and the Abe-lead slow dance of recovery from the Bubble.
Japan’s internal politics aren’t likely to change anytime soon, but an area that needs rapid improvement is its soft power and image abroad—nation brand Japan. In this realm, Abenomics may have been a starting point of publicity but should not be the end point of results. I have met countless numbers of Japanese who express frustration with what is a predictable democracy here—a democracy in name but with little surprise and cookie cutter candidates. In such a system there is slow movement to change and a veritable lack of creativity.
In nation brand Japan, it’s long overdue time for the people to lead the politician.
You can’t manage a nation’s brand through a political leader’s capital that waxes and wanes like the phases of the moon. Just ask Obama or Putin. A much larger number of Japanese people need to take the lead in engaging with the world. Enough of the steady drip of world headlines about the yen’s rise and fall, adult versus baby diapers, the robot restaurant or cuddle cafe. Japan is anime, manga, and cat café, and it is so much more that doesn’t have cute or weird taglines.
Japan hosted a record 13 million international visitors in 2014, majorities of who were neighbor tourists from Taiwan, South Korea and China. How many of these visitors had a chance to experience an interpersonal encounter outside of a shopping transaction or hotel restaurant? Too often, visitors see Japan through an economic or commercial lens (e.g. Abenomics, Womenomics, yen’s rise and fall) but the real asset to life here is the culture. An authentic culture means people, their habits, beliefs, and ways of life passed down from one generation to the next. Those collective stories aren’t being heard because the people aren’t being asked to help shape Japan’s narrative in the global media environment.
Right now the people of Japan have the best opportunity to make 2015 the kick-off year for telling Japan’s full story to the world. Cool Japan, which launched November 2013, is a public-private partnership driven by successful status quo industries working with the government to expand their market share overseas. That’s just one business-as-usual approach, but it’s not enough to improve Japan’s story to the world.
2015 marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. It also marks the 50th anniversary of the normalization of relations with South Korea. Anniversary periods generate a lot of emotion—both good and bad—about a country’s history, present and future. There is no guarantee that everyone can come together in a spirit of mutual understanding but I’m sure about one thing: I’d rather rely on the people of Japan to promote this country than the government or industry alone. Right now the government and industry are working together to promote Japan; which is simply insufficient and inefficient. This isn’t just one outsider’s opinion, but the opinion of many of my well-intentioned friends who are working in the areas of international public relations and public diplomacy. They tell me that they cannot do this work in a vacuum and need more domestic engagement.
The advantage that the Japanese public has, is freedom from the burden of a hidden or official agenda. As a former government official, I know all too well that governments have to deal with litmus tests on their credibility, depending on who is in power and for how long. Likewise, industries rise and fall with the marketplace and use their own public relations to maintain a good corporate image in support of the bottom line.
As I’ve often told my Japanese counterparts: your nation brand is only as good as you make it. If you want to improve it, embrace 2015 as the year to begin to tell a fuller, people-driven story about Japan to the world.
Dr. Nancy Snow will publish a bilingual (Japanese & English) book on nation brand Japan in 2015.
Dr. Nancy Snow
Dr. Nancy Snow is Langley Esquire’s chief advisor for public relations, media relations, public diplomacy, and leadership branding. Dr. Snow is a two-time recipient of the Fulbright Fellowship, as a Fulbright student in the Federal Republic of Germany, and as Fulbright professor of international relations at Sophia University. She is an Abe Fellow at Keio University’s Institute of Media and Communications Research, where she is conducting research for a forthcoming book on Japan’s nation brand global image and reputation. Dr. Snow also completed the two-year Presidential Management Fellowship (PMF) at the United States Information Agency and U.S. Department of State.
When she’s not seeking out hidden meanings and spreading Southern hospitality, Dr. Snow can be found on Twitter at @drpersuasion