TIU Global Dialogue Series: Japanese Pop Culture and Nation Branding

Lecture on Japanese Popular Media by Professor Barbara Greene

By Kazi S.

Earlier in March, the TIU Global Dialogue Committee successfully held another seminar with Professor Barbara Greene, providing an exciting and thought-provoking presentation on Japanese Pop Culture and Nation Branding. The session was joined by other professors, TIU students, and students from The Chinese University of Hong Kong. 

Before delving into how Japanese pop culture influenced Japan’s image, Professor Greene explained how nation branding works. According to her, nation branding and private enterprises function in a similar fashion. The media and products represent the country it originates from and thus influence the country’s image elsewhere. States can use this as a soft power tool to attract foreign investors and tourists, compete with other states, and also improve diplomatic ties with other states. “Cool Britannia” for example, is a term used to describe the time period of the UK’s increased patriotism through their pop culture. During this time, various artists gained a lot of popularity, which induced great pride in the UK and love for British pop culture elsewhere. This boosted their economy as more attention was drawn to British culture, especially London, the “coolest city on the planet” (McGuire, 1996, Newsweek). This goes on to show the power of the media in nation branding. 

Professor Barbara Greene

Similar to the UK, Japan tried to harness the increasing popularity of its pop culture, especially Anime and Manga, to create a better image. Post-war Japan struggled to develop and industrialize as states refused to trade with Japan or simply banned selected Japanese products. Japanese products were also known to be of low quality, lowering the demand. As Professor Greene explained, Japan formed the Iwakura Mission to change this idea. The Iwakura Mission was a team of statesmen and scholars that visited Europe and the United States to showcase the Japanese efforts to modernize and globalize in fields of politics, academics, military and industrialization. Unfortunately for Japan, the upcoming Russo-Japan and Second Sino-Japan War besmirched any progress the Iwakura Mission achieved. 

In the 90’s, Japanese pop culture started to spread across the globe. Anime, a style of animation that was unique to the country rapidly gained popularity. Japanese comics, known as manga, were also loved by a huge population. The government took this opportunity to promote anime and manga, and even used characters such as Hello Kitty and Doraemon as cultural ambassadors. It also led to the formation of the Cool Japan Initiative which focused on popular Japanese media and products for nation-branding efforts. However, the Cool Japan Initiative was not a complete success and lost money due to unsuitable projects that failed to relate to the trends that put Japan under the limelight. Japanese pop culture still thrives as the fanbase of Japanese anime and manga are especially very attached to a perception of Japan the fanbase themselves have molded. This is an issue itself as well, since a lot of ideals the fanbase supports are controversial and not necessarily how Japan actually is in real life.

While the Otaku keep defending old and controversial Japanese ideals, the government is struggling to utilize the immense appreciation of Japanese pop culture. It seems as though the fanbase of Japanese pop culture has more influence on the content than the content has on the perception of Japan. To what extent pop culture can affect how Japan is viewed, and how Japan plans to utilize the effect, is yet to be seen. 

The Global Dialogue Committee and Representatives from CUHK

Professor Greene’s excellent presentation was able to spark a keen interest in the topic which was apparent with the Q&A round that followed. Afterwards, Professor Li opened the floor for discussion, where the present TIU faculty, IRSA members, and students from both TIU and The Chinese University of Hong Kong were able to share their cultures. Being a part of the discussion allowed us to learn a lot about the influence of popular media, whether national or international, and its effects on the perception of a country. The professors also shared their insights on how this plays out in the realm of politics and diplomacy. All in all, the seminar enhanced our understanding of pop culture and nation branding and left us wondering how pop culture’s influence will change in the future.

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