Exploring Japanese Popular Culture as a Soft Power Resource

By Michael J. Norris
2010, Vol. 2 No. 05 | pg. 1/1

Power and Popular Culture

Power is the ability to achieve one’s purposes or goals.1 Through the scholarship of Joseph Nye, the concept of power occupies two distinct spheres: ‘hard’ and ‘soft’. The former purports to have a coercive function through economic might or military strength. The latter is loosely defined as attractive power, resting centrally upon a state’s foreign policy, culture and political values.2 In the post-Cold War international system, soft power has risen to increasing prominence.

This essay argues that Japan does not derive soft power from its popular culture. After defining soft power, the essay assesses the attraction of Japanese cultural export to audiences. The essay gauges such attraction through a consideration of the levels of cultural export, the rise of otaku sub-culture and the increase in foreign Japanese language students. By investigating these three factors, the essay attempts to quantitatively measure evidence of attraction to Japan. However, Japanese popular culture does not provide Japan with soft power; the quantitative attraction to Japanese cultural export is not translated into active support for the Japanese state. The essay determines this conversion is hindered by the scars of militarism and the lack of moral and ethical value projection. Moreover, the paper examines Japan’s failure to acquire a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council and ascribes this to a lack of potent soft power resources. Far from granting the state soft power, Japanese popular culture fosters an attraction to a benign image of Japan as ‘cool’.

Defining 'Soft Power'

‘Soft power’ has eluded a competent definition. This is perplexing given the increasing role of soft power in the international system and International Relations (IR) scholarship. The role of military might, the typical indicator of state power, is slowly eroding due to the economic impact of maintaining military forces. This leads Napier to describe soft power as the “quintessential late millennium mode”.3 Broadly, soft power is synonymous with co-optive power, the attraction to one’s ideas.4 Crucial to the idea of ‘power’ is the ability to exert influence by shaping the way states act.5 Hence, a state’s attractive properties cannot be classified as power unless these features exert sufficient influence over other states.

Nye proposed the pillars of a state’s soft power are culture, political values and foreign policy.6 Certainly, these are the core beacons from which soft power can emanate from, however, it is erroneous to advance that soft power is limited to these three ideas. Any property which is attractive and exerts influence on another state’s actions, regardless of whether it falls into Nye’s three categories, should be termed as soft power. Suppose state (A) has made a technological progression (t), which state (B), a rival, wishes to adopt. Moreover, let us assume that (B)’s allies cannot develop a comparable advancement to (t) and it is within (A)’s interest to maintain stable relations with (B). Thus, for (B), (t) is an attractive commodity and engages (A) through diplomatic channels in order to attain (t). Hence, (t) represents an article of soft power; it does not coerce, but co-opts (B) to engage with (A) on the basis that (t) is attractive to (B). I would therefore argue that it is possible that states can have soft power sources outside those which Nye advanced; insofar as the potential soft power source is attractive and influences another state by co-opting it to alter its behaviour.

Whether a soft power source should be value-laden is a critical question. Given the essay’s definition, an object of soft power need not be value-laden for it to be ‘powerful’. Nonetheless, the attractiveness of a soft power resource may be augmented by the source’s implicit values; Nye stresses potent soft power sources should hold “cultural and ideological appeal”.7 In the given example, (t) represents that (A) is a technogically-advanced state. The implication is that (B), in possession of (t), would be viewed in a similar vein; hence occupying an ideological appeal, which may form the basis of (B)’s attraction to (t). As such, the essay adopts the definition of soft power as an attraction which co-opts another state into altering its behaviour in the favour of the soft power’s disseminator. This attraction is not necessarily based upon values, although implied moral-ethical standards may form the basis of, or increase, the appeal.

Judging the Attraction of the Cultural Product to Audiences

Having defined soft power, the essay considers if Japanese popular culture fulfils the first criterion of soft power: whether the soft power resource engenders attraction. Unlike foreign policy and political values, popular culture cannot be directly ascribed to the state’s governmental organs. The attraction to be considered is hence two-fold: (1) attraction to Japanese popular culture; and (2) attraction to the Japanese state. Both aspects must be present for the soft power resource to fulfil the first criterion of the established definition; (B) can only be co-opted by (A) if (B) has an attraction to (t) and (B) is drawn to engage with (A) because of that attraction.

Japanese popular culture has garnered sufficient following for the conclusion to be drawn that the cultural product is attractive to audiences. This is shown by two factors: the rise in otaku fan culture and the mass-commercialisation of anime and manga. The otaku sub-culture grew as fans expressed their appeal for anime. These fans create internet forums and organise conventions dedicated to their favourite shows. The growth in such groups has been explosive: Roland Kelts asserts that the numbers of costumed fans frequenting weekly conventions are in their thousands.8 The otaku sub-culture also encompasses “cosplay”, an activity where fans will dress in the costume of their favourite characters. However, quantifying the number of otaku is a difficult task. For instance, how do we differentiate between regular fans of anime and otaku? Although it reasonable to suggest that the existence of such a sub-culture attests to the popularity of Japanese cultural export, the complexities associated with defining otaku and the minor place it occupies in social practice means that it is not the best indicia of the attraction to Japanese cultural export.

Instead, it is highly arguable that the popularisation of Japanese cultural export is best understood through commerce; mass-commercialisation of Japanese cultural export demonstrates the allure of Japanese popular culture. The boom in capitalistic marketing in the last decade demonstrates the expansive market for Japanese cultural product among Eastern and Western audiences. Sales of anime videos and DVDs in the US alone are estimated at half-a-billion dollars.9 Kelts asserts that the total profits from Japanese cultural export are incalculable, stating “no one dares speculate the numbers for the profits of TV, merchandise or licensing.”10 As such, the large revenue Japanese cultural exports generate shows the existence of an audience which is sufficiently large to constitute a profitable market. By extension, based on the enormity of commercialisation surrounding such products, it can be suggested the audience is either a large entity or a niche entity with significant purchasing power. A breakdown of the demographic purchasing Japanese cultural product would yield a greater insight into the range of attraction. Accordingly, based on the considered factors, it can be assumed that Japanese popular cultural has generated a strong attraction among certain segments of the population. The extent to which the attraction permeates societies, both Eastern and Western, remains unclear. Nevertheless, the key question is whether Japanese pop-culture has generated attraction to the Japanese state.

Examination of the Attraction to the Japanese State

Japanese cultural export has engendered an attraction toward a benign image of the Japanese state. Japan’s role as the disseminator of video and computer games, fashion trends, anime, manga and cuisine has, Kelts states, transformed Japan into a “visual arbiter of cool.”11 This representation stimulates a yearning for Japan. Napier asserts, “rather than passively consuming […] fans were inspired to know not only more about the product, but also about its cultural origins.”12 This yearning for Japan is expressed through the numbers of students studying the Japanese language. Foreigners studying the language in 1990, the peak of the Japanese economic titan, numbered 981,407 whereas in 2003, after more than a decade of economic stagnation, the number studying Japanese had leapt to 2,356,745.13 Hence, there exists an appeal for Japan, even though its economic status is declining. This appeal, according to Lam is, “the fascination and love for anime and manga.”14 Indeed, the attraction to the image of Japan is such that marketers are no longer required to endeavour to make their products culturally ‘odourless’, the ‘Japanese’ aspect is now a core component of the allure for audiences.15

The attraction to Japan has its limitations. The distinction between attraction to Japan’s ‘cool’ image and attraction for the Japanese state restricts the operation of Japan’s popular culture as soft power. Attraction to Japan’s image does readily translate to similar appeal to Japanese foreign policy. Similarly, allure to the values of justice, liberty and democracy may not result in support of the US. The linchpin of attraction to a soft power resource is the resource must engender some support for the disseminating state; (B) must be attracted to (t) insofar as it is willing to bilaterally/multilaterally deal with (A). Thus, Japan’s popular culture must win the support of those states it wishes to co-opt.

For Japan, the barriers to gaining requisite support are the scars of militarism and the cultural product’s absence of values. In East Asia, where Japanese cultural product is consumed more eagerly than in the West, Japan’s imperial ambitions and wartime conduct continue to create animosity with its nearest neighbours.16 Lam identifies “without historical reconciliation with China and South Korea, Japan is unlikely to win the hearts and minds of the Chinese and Korean people, notwithstanding the appeal of its comics and cartoons.”17 The essay stated previously that values implicit in soft power resources can increase the appeal of the resource, and by extension, the appeal of the state. Japanese popular culture possesses no value-based properties. Groot identifies this as a central problem for the effectiveness of Japanese soft power.18 While the aforementioned definition argued that implied moral and ethical values were not necessary for a soft power resource to be attractive, it is likely that Japan will need to project such values to overcome the barrier of its past. This should not be a difficult task. Mulgan believes Japan symbolises “an economic development model, a global civilian power […] and […] Asian democracy.”19 For Japan state to be preponderant in soft power, it must seek to enshrine values in its soft power resources as a method to overcome its imperialist past. Thus, Japanese popular culture has generated an attraction to its cultural exports and a benign image of ‘cool’ Japan. However, there is a failure to convert this attraction to support for the Japanese state.

Assessing Whether Power is Derived from the Cultural Product

Having determined the first requirement of soft power, attraction, is not fully fulfilled, the essay determines whether the appeal Japan has garnered through its popular culture is sufficient to constitute ‘power’. Thus, for power to be demonstrated, it must be shown that Japan can influence states to act in its favour: (A)’s possession of (t) encouraged (B) to enter diplomatic relations with it. However, the evidence of soft power’s use can be difficult to quantify. For instance, how can we, as outside spectators, show that (B)’s entry into diplomatic relations with (A) was due to (t)? It is unlikely that we can prove soft power is in operation, unless a state co-opts another in a vacuum of hard power. That is, if (A) did not apply economic or military pressure to (B), then we can assume that (B) was co-opted through the application of soft power.

The discussion of Japanese popular culture exercising soft power will be based in the context of 2005. In September 2005, the UN attempted reform of the Security Council, with intentions to expand its membership from 15 to 24 members. This was viewed by Japan as a significant opportunity to boast a stake in geopolitics as a permanent member of the Security Council. Nonetheless, Japan failed to become a permanent member. In this instance, Japan acted in a vacuum of hard power; Japan’s pacifist constitution nullifies any potential military action and Japan was (and still is) in the throes of recession, reducing economic clout. Thus, it is arguable that Japan’s failure can be solely ascribed to the weakness of its soft power resources, which are not yet sufficient to achieve the outcomes it wants.20 Japan, therefore, unable to exercise power through influencing the behaviour of other states, does not fulfill the second criterion of soft power.

We can extrapolate from this failure that the image of Japan as ‘cool’ through its popular culture or ‘benevolent’ through its substantial foreign aid contributions do not generate the support necessary for the Japanese state to co-opt other international actors. Images, Otmazgin asserts, “do not provide a country with any real essence of power in the sense of authority or domination.”21 This limitation is aforementioned: Japan has not overcome impressions of its imperialist past and fails to project the moral and ethical values which underpin its society. To correct this, Japan must actively seek to formulate a moral-ethical base which underpins its soft power and wider foreign policy. It is unrealistic to assume that states, no matter how large manga or J-Pop aficionados their citizens or heads of state may be, will support Japanese foreign policy on the basis of Japanese cultural elements alone.22 It is only through projecting moral-ethical values that Japan can overcome the crippling problem of its twentieth-century military expansionism.


Japanese popular culture does not provide the Japanese state with soft power. If soft power is defined as attraction which co-opts another state into altering its behaviour in the favour of the soft power disseminator, Japanese popular culture does not generate soft power. Instead, Japanese cultural export generates an attraction to Japan’s image as a disseminator of ‘cool’ not the Japanese state. This conclusion was arrived at through analysing the rise in foreign Japanese-language students, otaku sub-culture and commercialisation of pop-culture, in addition to Japan’s failure to secure a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. The essay determined that the chief barriers to the operation of Japanese soft power, specifically the transition between attraction to cultural export and the state, are historical and value-based. If intangible power resources are the chief power resources of post-modern states, then Japan must overcome these barriers if it is to be a great power in the international system.


Allison, Anne. “The Attractions of the J-Wave for American Youth” in Watanabe, Y. and McConnell, D (eds.) Soft power superpowers: cultural and national assets of the Japanese and the United States (New York: M.E. Sharp Inc, 2008), 99-110.

Groot, Gerry. “Soft power in the Asia-Pacifc Post 9/11: the cases of Japan, China and India” in Groot G., Jain, P. & Patrikeef, F. (eds.) Asia Pacific and New International Order (New York, Nova Publishers, 2006), 1-17.

Iwabuchi, Koichi. Recentering globalisation: Popular culture and Japanese transnationalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 2002.

Kelts, Roland. Japanamerica: How Japanese popular culture has invaded the US. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.

Lam, Peng. ‘Japan’s Quest for Soft Power: Attraction and Limitation,’ East Asia 24 (2007): 349-363.
McGray, Douglas. “Gross National Cool,” Foreign Policy 130 (2002): 44-54.

Mulgan, Aurelia. ‘Why Japan still matters,’ Asia-Pacific Review 12 (2005): 104-121.

Napier, Susan. “Differing Destinations: Cultural Identification, Orientalism and ‘Soft Power’ in 21st Century Anime Fandom,” in From Impressionism to Anime: Japan as Fantasy and Fan Cult in the Mind of the West (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007), 169-191.

Nye, Joseph. ‘What New World Order?’ Foreign Affairs 71 (1992): 83-96.

Nye, Joseph. ‘The Changing Nature of World Power,’ (1990) Political Science Quarterly 105: 177-192.

Otmazgin, Nissim. ‘Contesting soft power: Japanese popular culture in East and Southeast Asia,’ International Relations of the Asia-Pacific 8 (2008): 73-101.


  1. Joseph Nye, ‘The Changing Nature of World Power,’ (1990) Political Science Quarterly 105: 177.
  2. Anne Allison, “The Attractions of the J-Wave for American Youth” in Watanabe Yasushi and David McConnell (eds.) Soft power superpowers: cultural and national assets of the Japanese and the United States (New York: M.E. Sharp Inc, 2008), 102.
  3. Susan Napier, “Differing Destinations: Cultural Identification, Orientalism and ‘Soft Power’ in 21st Century Anime Fandom,” in From Impressionism to Anime: Japan as Fantasy and Fan Cult in the Mind of the West (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007), 170.
  4. Nye, op. cit., 181.
  5. Gerry Groot, “Soft power in the Asia-Pacifc Post 9/11: the cases of Japan, China and India” in G. Groot, P. Jain & F. Patrikeef (eds.) Asia Pacific and New International Order (New York, Nova Publishers, 2006), 2.
  6. Allison, op.cit., 102.
  7. Joseph Nye, ‘What New World Order?’ Foreign Affairs 71 (1992): 86.
  8. Roland Kelts, Japanamerica: How Japanese popular culture has invaded the US (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 149.
  9. Ibid, 20.
  10. Ibid, 20.
  11. Kelts, op. cit., 16.
  12. Napier, op. cit., 186.
  13. Peng Lam, ‘Japan’s Quest for Soft Power: Attraction and Limitation,’ East Asia 24 (2007): 357.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Napier, op. cit., 172.
  16. Nissim Otmazgin, ‘Contesting soft power: Japanese popular culture in East and Southeast Asia,’ International Relations of the Asia-Pacific 8 (2008): 79.
  17. Lam, op. cit., 357.
  18. Groot, op. cit., 7.
  19. Aurelia Mulgan, ‘Why Japan still matters,’ Asia-Pacific Review 12 (2005): 111.
  20. Groot, op. cit., 5.
  21. Otmazgin, op. cit., 97.
  22. Lam, op. cit., 359.

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