A New Look at Cultural Diplomacy: A Call to Japan's Cultural Practitioners
Speech by Minister for Foreign Affairs Taro Aso at Digital Hollywood University

Speech by Minister for Foreign Affairs Taro Aso at Digital Hollywood University     Foreign Minister Aso

April 28, 2006

On the Entry into Force of the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage

I've thought for some time that I would like to come to Digital Hollywood University. I plan to touch on a number of topics concerning the new cultural diplomacy that Japan is now pursuing, and for that I have to say that I couldn't have found a better place to present my thoughts. I want to extend my thanks to all the people here at the school who have made great efforts to provide such a setting and welcome me today.

In the area of cultural diplomacy, we've had one very good thing happen recently. A new international convention has just entered into force, one which Japan has taken the lead in promoting over the years.

The Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage was adopted in 2003 at the urging of UNESCO. Recently the number of signatories reached the required 30-nation mark, bringing about its entry into force on April 20.

As you can imagine from the name, this Convention promotes at a global level safeguards very similar to a framework already existing in Japan, through which our intangible cultural heritage and our living national treasures have been protected.

For decades since the end of World War II, Japan has been protecting the intangibles of skills, techniques, and master craftsmen themselves, which must exist before any tangibles can be created. In this way it has protected heritage such as Joruri puppet theater and Bizen ware. And now, the goal is to get those same protections in place around the globe.

Much of the intangible cultural heritage in need of safeguarding, such as traditional performing arts and other such skills, can be found in Asia or in developing nations. We can say that in looking to preserve those valuable assets, this new Convention found some significant points of inspiration from Japan's ideas on this issue.

Japan has been, for this to happen, an active partner of UNESCO since 1993, and there have been numerous areas in which Japan has taken the lead to produce positive results, such as in creating a map of the languages of the world which are in danger of dying out.

Now we have protections in the form of a convention, with these safeguards existing in the form of formal rules governing international society. This particular form of Japan's cultural diplomacy may indeed be "intangible," but it represents a tremendous contribution to the world, in my opinion.

To Practitioners in the Content Industry

I am assuming that there are many practitioners in the content industry here today. I believe that it is you who will be this new era's promoters of modern Japanese culture to the world.

You can see this clearly if you take a peek in any of the shops in China catering to the young otaku-type manga and anime fans. You will find the shops' walls lined with any and every sort of Japanese anime figurine you can imagine.

With all due respect to Mickey and Donald, whether you look at J-pop, J-anime, or J-fashion, the competitiveness of any of these is much more than you might imagine.

What you in the content business are doing is work that you yourselves have chosen to do, not work that someone-least of all people at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs-has asked you to do. It is that fact that is bringing about a steady increase in the number of fans of Japan. We have a grasp on the hearts of young people in many countries, not the least of which being China.

What you are doing through your work is something that we over at the Ministry couldn't do if we tried. And that is why I say that you are the people who are the new actors involved with bringing Japanese culture to the world.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs looks forward to building solid partnerships with you in the years to come, and that is something I want to mention to you immediately this evening.

The Power of Popeye and Astro Boy

I am sure that you are familiar with the American animated cartoon Popeye. Popeye was broadcast on Japanese TV for many years after the war. When Popeye the sailor man downs a can of spinach, he is suddenly endowed with huge muscles and is able to take on his scoundrel rival Bluto and win back his true love Olive Oyl.

Now what kind of impression would watching that kind of cartoon leave on Japanese kids? The image that American sailors are on the side of justice, of course.

Similarly, there is an American comic strip called Blondie, which some of the younger people here might not be familiar with. "Blondie" in this strip is the name of a housewife, and her husband, son, and daughter join her in the strip.

Blondie was run in Japanese newspapers from the 1940's into the 1950's. What emerged through this cartoon strip was a bit of a dream for the average Japanese housewife, this American way of life Blondie led, taking care of just her husband and her kids without a care about her mother-in-law, in a house in the suburbs with an entire array of household appliances. You could find the dreams of post-war Japan all wrapped up in that one household.

Popeye and Blondie caught hold of the hearts of Japanese children and mothers in an era in which Japan was still under American occupation. Now, this means that the people of post-war Japan had such a strong infatuation with the United States even though just a little while before Americans had been something akin to devils. I would argue that American comics had an influence that we simply cannot ignore.

My message to you here is that Japan has held its own very nicely in this area. I would even say that Astro Boy deserves to receive the People's Honor Award.

The word "robot" is said to have come to us from the Czech word robota, which means "labor" or sometimes even "drudgery," and thus is a word that originally carried a negative connotation.

But through Japan's Astro Boy or the cat-like robot Doraemon, the meaning of the word "robot" shifted, instead becoming a benevolent friend who helps human beings. In Asia and elsewhere around the globe, robots came to be understood as the "white hats" -the good guys.

The impact of this situation is that countries with an affinity for Doraemon do not have workers who reject industrial robots, and thus in those countries, industrial productivity rises. In addition, you find that Japanese-made industrial robots sell well.

Yaskawa Electric Corporation and the other firms of Japan's "big three" hold a market share of half the global market in the area of robots for welding or applying coatings. Of course, Astro Boy and Gigantor-what we in Japan know as "Tetsujin 28"-are there in the background to all this. In other words, what created the climate in which all this could take place was Japanese culture, and I am continually speaking of culture's significant contributions in this area.

Taking Pop Culture Seriously

When I start speaking about manga, in my case I find it pretty hard to stop, and I am going to force myself to move on here to the topic of what exactly diplomacy entails. First of all, I would like you to rid yourselves of any stereotypes that diplomacy means diplomats sitting around having dry, rarefied discussions with each other and classified, hush-hush negotiations.

What is the image that pops into someone's mind when they hear the name "Japan"? Is it a bright and positive image? Warm? Cool? The more these kinds of positive images pop up in a person's mind, the easier it becomes for Japan to get its views across over the long term. In other words, Japanese diplomacy is able to keep edging forward, bit by bit, and bring about better and better outcomes as a result.

Generally speaking, Japan has had a rather good track record in this area throughout history. Tea ceremony, for example, has always been coupled with the culture of Zen Buddhism, and even now it is receiving a significant amount of attention. You can say the same about Kabuki or Bunraku. Even if you have only a stereotypical, single-pattern image of Japan as being the land of Fujiyama and geisha, it is clear that there is nothing aggressive within that image at all-it is a very peaceful image.

So for this reason, in Poland and other countries-and this is something I heard directly from the Polish Foreign Minister the other day-when people hear the word "Japan," words such as "the cherry blossoms in bloom" automatically pop up in their minds, like a set phrase of sorts. Now if we are to say that foreign relations between Japan and Poland are going well, we would have to say that part of that stems from the fact that underlying our relationship is a positive image of Japanese culture.

So as we continue to get the word out on Japan's truly splendid traditional culture, and we are very fortunate that in addition to the items of Noh drama and Bunraku, tea ceremony and flower arranging, Japan also boasts many newer forms of culture that have a high degree of appeal.

This would be pop culture, including anime, music, and fashion among others, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is really going all out to "market" this, so to speak.

I believe most of you know the manga InuYasha. But you might not know that there is a Polish version of InuYasha.

Now I have to admit that I myself did not know this until the other day, when the Polish Foreign Minister presented me with a copy. It's a powerful example of just how far Japanese manga have come to be known around the world. I think we can safely say that any kind of cultural diplomacy that fails to take advantage of pop culture is not really worthy of being called "cultural diplomacy."

Diplomacy, Image, and Branding

The reason for this is that the world has become increasingly democratized. That is, public opinion now enjoys much greater influence on diplomacy than before.

It may be true that in times past, ordinary folks, such as the famous Kuma-san and his buddy Hattsuan in rakugo comic storytelling, had no contact whatsoever with diplomacy. But if you were to suggest such a thing now, you would really get a laugh.

What we have now is an era in which diplomacy at the national level is affected dramatically by the climate of opinion arising from the average person. And that is exactly why we want pop culture, which is so effective in penetrating throughout the general public, to be our ally in diplomacy.

To put this another way, one part of diplomacy lies in having a competitive brand image, so to speak. Now more than ever, it is impossible for this to stay entirely within the realm of the work of diplomats. It is necessary for us to draw on assistance from a broad spectrum of people who are involved in Japanese culture.

And so, I am speaking to you here today to urge you to join with us in polishing the Japan "brand."

Since I was appointed Minister for Foreign Affairs, I have given a lot of thought to the question of what the Japanese brand really is, as well as what kind of country Japan is, and I have taken up these topics before in other speeches I have given.

I want to introduce that to you now, saying first off that by no means does Japan have a weak brand image.

On the contrary, a recent survey conducted by an American university and the BBC inquired about which countries around the world have a positive influence, revealing that of 33 countries polled, no less than 31 indicated Japan as having a positive influence. No other country in this survey enjoyed the support of such an overwhelming majority of countries. Japan was far and away the highest-ranked country.

There is even a British specialist who conducts surveys which measure the brand strength of individual countries, by treating them as one kind of corporation for the purposes of the survey.

In those surveys, too, we find Japan ranked just under Germany, and higher than France, with a ranking of seventh of all countries included. Japan was the only Asian nation to make the top ten. I would argue, then, that what we need to do now is to build on this foundation and attract people to Japanese culture, whether modern or that handed down from antiquity.

Expectations towards International Television Broadcasting

Now, let me summarize what I would like to say in the rest of my address this evening.

The first of my points I have already mentioned tonight, namely that I would like to see us redoubling our efforts to market modern Japanese culture more assertively.

The second point is that I would like to see us clearly delineate the roles of you in the private sector and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and create a positive reciprocal relationship.

Third, I would like to explain why the new cultural diplomacy which would result from an expansion of that scenario would be an all-Japan type of effort. Then, in conclusion, based on all of this, I would like to note some innovative directions that I see emerging.

So, coming back to my first point, I would like to summarize for you what is happening in the area of marketing modern Japan. Recently the Ministry of Foreign Affairs set up the Overseas Exchange Council to examine how to do exactly that and also what areas we should be starting with.

Mr. Fujio Cho, Vice-Chairman of Toyota Motor Corporation, is serving as the Chair of the Council, and the Council also includes Mr. Yusuke Okada, former actor and President of Toei Company, Mr. Osamu Kamei, Executive Director of Shogakukan, and Mr. Osamu Sato, President of Pony Canyon. We are very fortunate to be receiving the assistance of these prominent individuals whom, frankly speaking, the Ministry has not interacted with much in the past.

It is my personal hope that in its early stages, the Council will focus in particular on how to advance TV broadcasts abroad that enable viewers to learn more about Japan in English.

You go abroad and after a long day you arrive at your hotel and are happy to see that you can watch NHK. You slowly reach to switch on your TV, and what do you find being broadcast but a singing contest or something of that nature. Compare that to the other channels offering BBC or CNN and you can't help but notice how great the contrast is.

Of course NHK is also making various efforts to increase its rate of English-language programming in its international channels, but NHK's main task is to provide programming for Japanese audiences, seeing as it receives viewing fees from the Japanese public. So the content of its programs for overseas audiences has also been designed in consideration of the needs of Japanese abroad, as a matter of necessity.

The fact is, unless we create an English-language channel for viewers who are not Japanese, there is no way that this will be a tool for us in our cultural diplomacy.

Efforts are already underway in China and South Korea in particular. The trend of the times even has France-France, the country which has pursued so strongly a policy of French first and foremost-talking about creating an English-language channel for overseas audiences. I very much hope to see Japan creating at the earliest possible time a television channel that conveys Japan-related content to viewers in English 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

At the risk of repeating myself here, the reason why I feel this way is that conveying to the world more extensively a true-to-life image of modern Japan and the Japanese people will gradually increase the depth of support that exists for Japanese diplomacy.

We have all grown up nourished by Shakespeare and Beethoven and other forms of culture emerging from the West. Yet we are now at the point where culture made in Japan-whether anime and manga or sumo and Japanese food culture-is equally able to nourish the people of the world, particularly the younger generations. We would be remiss not to utilize these to the fullest.

Public-Private Partnerships

My second point involves separating the roles of the public and private sectors in this area of cultural diplomacy. Now, of course the main task of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is to be involved in the creation of global rules. As professionals that the people of Japan count on, our task is to push forward in the creating of frameworks through which content originating in Japan can more easily spread around the globe, such as in the area of protecting intellectual property.

In addition, I would like to see us pursuing a fundamental strengthening of education in Japanese as a foreign language. One of the best means of spreading an understanding of Japanese culture in foreign countries is without a doubt increasing the number of learners of Japanese. Let me ask you this now: do you think that the number of students of Japanese around the world is increasing or decreasing?

Seeing as the Japanese economy was in a slump for so many years, you might be inclined to guess that the number of people with an interest in Japanese has been decreasing, but you would be mistaken; the number is, in fact, increasing.

According to a survey conducted by the Japan Foundation, an independent administrative institution affiliated with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in 1990 there were 980,000 people studying Japanese as a foreign language around the world, while in 2003 there were some 2.35 million. So the number of students has more than doubled over that time.

I got to thinking about what might account for that, and it occurred to me that the theme songs of anime shows on TV are in Japanese. Naturally, there would be an increase in children with an interest in the Japanese language as a result. That is to say, Japanese pop culture has generated an interest in the Japanese language that is entirely different from anything we have seen in the past.

This is where we need the Japan Foundation to step up to the plate. I hope that the Japan Foundation makes a fresh start in this area in earnest, paving the way abroad, by making the Japanese Language Proficiency Test easier to sit for, or setting up and running model Japanese language classrooms in various countries, or creating standardized textbooks, as just some ideas worth pursuing.

At the same time, you in the private sector can help by making more and better use of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. You should think of our Ministry as Japan's largest overseas corporation.

Our overseas branches-that is to say, Japan's embassies and consulates-can be found in no less than 116 countries, at a total of 189 locations. The people there are specialists well-versed in both the local language and the local culture and on par with any major trading house. We have a significant number of specialists with skills in Urdu and Swahili and the like, and we carry only one product, namely, Japan.

As a point of fact, we are more than ready to make inroads into areas abroad by utilizing the new content coming out of Japan, and so I think that you will find that we are able to create a true win-win relationship.

Efforts to Be Undertaken Nationally

Third, I think you can already surmise that it will be necessary for these efforts to be undertaken nationally throughout Japan.

The question arises of what exactly we need to do for Japanese TV dramas to be "sold," so to speak, to other countries around the world. Expanding across the globe the number of people who have a friendly feeling toward Japanese through increases in person-to-person interactions is what we might call the ultimate goal of cultural diplomacy. But in order to achieve this, what sort of relationship should the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have with relevant people in local governments, NPOs, and NGOs.

This is clearly not a task that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs can tackle on its own, and attempts to take this on through a traditional strict division of labor, inevitably resulting in a lack of concerted effort, represents the ultimate in inefficiency.

For example, recently, major Japanese corporations are almost without exception making social contributions in the countries in which they operate. Would you not agree that we should be creating networks and establishing good public-private partnerships, polishing the brand of Japan together?

I expect that the Overseas Exchange Council will be acting as a catalyst in this area and providing its wisdom and experience to us. In terms of implications for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I believe that in the future we need to give serious consideration to how we can go about building teamwork with people involved in pop culture, anime, and other such areas.

Creating an Award

I would like to touch now upon a few innovative developments before I conclude my address to you tonight.

One is an award which will be presented to up-and-coming foreign manga artists. We haven't yet settled upon just the right name for it, but it will be an award that will serve as a gateway, leading to even brighter careers for these prominent artists.

Manga, as a genre originating in Japan, is truly unique in its form of presentation and expression. In manga, it is possible to depict the realities of life or convey to the reader a person's innermost thoughts.

There are people who argue that diplomacy is the art of negotiation, but if you were to ask me, I would respond that if you really want to know what diplomacy entails, you should read the Yugo series by Shinji Makari.

Yugo appears as a running manga strip in the magazine Evening. It's the story of a tough negotiator who takes on all sorts of challenges around the world, wielding words as his only weapon.

In any event, I would like for Japan, as the origin of manga, to award to the standard-bearers appearing in the world of manga all around the globe a prize which carries real authority-the equivalent of a Nobel prize in manga. And I hope that by receiving that prize, they will have a feeling of association with Japan.

A second innovation would be conducted as a trial and would take the opposite approach.

The truly superior works among the visual works and animated films made by Japanese creators have easily succeeded in overcoming barriers of language and culture, as demonstrated by Hayao Miyazaki.

Miyazaki's Spirited Away is a truly impressive work, succeeding in conveying the Shinto concepts of impurities and purification along with the mood that is associated with a polytheistic worldview instead of a monotheistic one.

For that reason, what I would like to do is seek out young, promising visual and anime artists and present them with an award, in order to enable more Hayao Miyazakis to emerge.

We could call the award winners something such as Cultural Ambassadors for Anime, and I would like to see people from around the world enjoy their works, making use of our full network of embassies and consulates.

If possible, I would like to have that job of introducing such works to the local people done by staff raised in the local culture who are of the same generation as the local youth and understand their feelings and viewpoints.

The third innovation I would like to introduce tonight is a system called Cultural Exchange Interns.

Through this program, students at foreign schools and universities would be accepted as interns at embassies and consulates for a fixed period of time to work in the area of cultural exchange.

These interns would have no access whatsoever to confidential diplomatic information. And as the interns would be unpaid, this program could be implemented at no cost. We could also perhaps issue certificates of completion in the name of the ambassador or consul at the end of the internship to those young people who worked with Japanese for a month or two and made efforts to disseminate Japanese culture to the local areas.

Selling the Japanese Dream

Seeing as this is a World Cup year, it may be somewhat poor timing to mention this, but there is something that two of Europe's best-known soccer players, Zinedine Zidane of France and Francesco Totti of Italy, have in common-something that I think you may already know. They grew up as enormous fans of the soccer-themed Captain Tsubasa. Captain Tsubasa was originally a manga strip running in the publication Shonen Jump, and it later appeared as anime on TV.

Both of these players say it was watching that TV anime that instilled a love of soccer in them.

If you aren't quite convinced, I urge you to take a look at the web site of the French professional football team Grenoble, which Japanese footballer Masashi Oguro now plays for. You can see on their web page caricatures of the Grenoble footballers, drawn by Yoichi Takahashi, the creator of Captain Tsubasa.

Incidentally, Captain Tsubasa is known in Iraq as "Captain Majed." In Al-Muthanna Governorate, where the Self-Defense Forces are conducting humanitarian and reconstruction assistance, the water supply vehicles which Japan has provided through its ODA do their rounds with large Captain Tsubasa stickers stuck to them. At the beginning of March, the Japan Foundation concluded an agreement to provide to the largest Iraqi television station free of charge the third season of the Captain Tsubasa anime series-a total of 52 shows-dubbed into Arabic.

The content that is being created by you here tonight is providing hopes and dreams to young boys and girls around the world. In Iraq, a country now struggling to create a political system, we are showing the children the promise of a bright future.

I very much hope that you will help the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as we press forward in these and other areas. Let's work together to provide dreams to young people as we polish even further the brand image of Japan.

Thank you for listening tonight. It was a pleasure to be able to address you.

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