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Romancing Japan's Soft Power

By Rufa Cagoco-Guiam
Mindanao State University
December 22, 2023
My love affair with Japan and all things Japanese - its traditional and modern architecture, its culture, cuisine and art, both modern and ancient – started a long way back, even before I first embarked on my very first visit to Japan in 2005.

A team of scholarly anthropologists in the Department of Sociology – Anthropology mentored me when I started my master’s in anthropology program at Silliman University in Dumaguete City. One of them, who was like an academic mother to me, Dr. Harriet R. Reynolds, was responsible for fanning my fascination about Japan. While she was not a Japan area specialist, she was fond of discussing in our class on Social Theory the “national character” of several Asian countries, and one of her favorites was Japan. One of my most unforgettable lessons from her was from one of our assigned readings – The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture, a book written by prominent American cultural anthropologist, Ruth Benedict. This was a study commissioned by the United States government “to understand and predict the behavior of the Japanese during the war by reference to a series of contradictions in (Japanese) traditional culture.” Needless to say, the book was quite influential in shaping American ideas about the Japanese and their culture. But it also received a lot of harsh reviews as well, since first of all, it was mainly based on a compilation of Benedict’s analyses of Japanese culture from her review of materials at the US Office of War Information.

In both Japan and the United States, the book ushered in a series of studies done by Japanese scholars to determine the “Japaneseness” of the Japanese, and triggered a sense of “ethnic nationalism” among many of them. Still, several fellow anthropologists and Japanese specialists decried Benedict’s “moralistic” bias about describing cultural tendencies among the Japanese, especially in pointing out the contradictions in Japanese behavior, that they are “both aggressive and unaggressive, both militaristic and aesthetic, both insolent and polite, rigid and adaptable, submissive and resentful of being pushed around, loyal and treacherous, brave and timid, conservative and hospitable to new ways…”(see page 2 of the book)

On my very first trip to Japan, specifically to Osaka for a forum organized by the Japan Center for Area Studies (Minpaku), Osaka, Japan, November 7-12, 2005, I interacted with some Japanese co-participants to test my own conceptual notions about the Japanese, based on what I have learned from Benedict’s work. But having gone through an anthropological training on how we approach learning other people’s culture, which is referred to as “cultural relativism”, I realized that it was not realistic to assess people on a rigid dichotomization of their behavior as Benedict has earlier described. Moreover, there is danger in using static, immutable descriptions of something so dynamic like human behavior, and culture as well.

The culture of the Japanese from Benedict’s attempt to describe a slice of their lived realities from more than seven decades ago has changed so much in innumerable ways. Perhaps even those who stood by Benedict’s description of Japanese “national character” of those years can no longer see the elements in their national character she described.
Yasaka Pagoda in Kyoto
I was lucky to get a Visiting Research Fellowship at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS) at the Kyoto University from November 2006 to May 2007. It was that time I relished my extended stay in Japan’s historical city, its former capital, Kyoto, which for me, is one of the most beautiful places in Japan. It was this time that my fascination for Japan reached a level of being enamored with it. I was there from the height of autumn to winter, until spring of 2007. Luck was really on my side, as after just a year of being back to my work station at the Mindanao State University in General Santos City, I was again scheduled to go back to Japan the following year, 2008 – this time as an Asian Public Intellectual (API) Senior Fellow of the Nippon Foundation. When the members of the selection board interviewed me for the fellowship, I immediately told them I will spend the first six months of my one-year fellowship first in Japan, specifically in Kyoto and Tokyo before I proceed to two other universities in Asia. When the selection board members asked me why I picked Japan as my first destination, I immediately replied that I feel at home in it; I love it like my second home country.

And these trips would be followed with more, when I was invited in 2018 as a Visiting Scholar at the College of Intercultural Communication at Rikkyo University in Tokyo.

My most recent visit to Tokyo was last May 23 to 28, 2023, to participate in a joint analysis workshop of a two-country research project funded by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, in Tokyo, the mother organization of Nippon Foundation.

This nth visit to Japan was still fascinating for me. And this time, it dawned on me that like all the others who have benefited from being granted opportunities to visit Japan for intellectual pursuits, I have become deeply affected and enamored by Japan’s ‘soft power.’

Joseph Nye, Jr, a distinguished service professor and former dean of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government published a book, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics, in 2004. Nye lists three ways to make other countries become attracted to Japan: first through coercion; second by payment, and the third is through attraction or persuasion. The first two are examples of hard power – the use of military might and arsenal to sway people to an ideology. Payment is of course like bribing people to make them follow a certain way of life. Nye adds that soft power is the ability to affect others to obtain the outcomes one wants through attraction rather than coercion or payment. A country’s soft power rests on is resources of culture, values, and policies.
A matcha set on a tray
But soft power’s effects are more long-lasting, as it appeals more to a people’s sense of affinity; of a higher sense of gratification that can only come from a country’s showing of its profound aesthetic sense through art, architecture and historical vignettes, and most of all, its deep cultural values of harmony. For me, Japan is all these, and more.

And these are what attracted me to Japan: its soft power as manifested in its preference to promote harmony rather than discord; of ensuring that no one gets harmed by one’s action. This preference is aptly captured in a classic Japanese proverb that says (in English): a nail that sticks out needs to be hammered down.”

Japan is a country that expresses its mindfulness in dealing with its constituency through its architecture, its ability to enforce policies to keep a clean and safe environment; of nurturing nature rather than exploiting it.

And countless Filipinos have been attracted by Japan’s soft power, and have perpetuated what they have learned from Japan in the work that they do here in the Philippines. But it is not only the Filipinos who have been “attracted,” and benefited by this soft power; many of my colleagues at the CSEAS and in the other universities I have visited come from different countries of Southeast Asia, even from Europe and the Middle East. One outcome of this exchange is intermarriage and even conversion to Islam, as I have seen among some Japanese women being married to Muslim men from the Middle East and Indonesia. I visited a small community of these families in the mosque near a Tokyo train station in 2018.

One concrete expression of this wide influence of Japanese culture and ways of doing things is what people say about Japan: “Modern Japan has conquered the world without firing a single bullet.”

As for me, the things I have enjoyed in Japan are outcomes of its soft power – and these have become hyacinths for my soul, food to satiate my hunger for durable peace that has been elusive in my own homeland.

A Japanese woman wearing kimono
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