Japan’s PR battle for U.S. hearts and minds

A Xinhua billboard in Times Square. Japanese companies are no longer as prominent as they used to be.

A Xinhua billboard in Times Square. Japanese companies are no longer as prominent as they used to be.

NEW YORK — It might not surprise anyone to learn that China’s state-owned broadcaster CCTV America more or less ignored Hong Kong’s democracy protestors, except to note police injuries by “aggressive” activists. Nor would Americans be shocked to read in China Daily — available for free in towns like Boston and Washington DC — that China has historical claims over the entire South China Sea.

But it’s more disappointing for we Americans with ties to Japan to learn that Japan’s theoretically independent NHK World has editorial guidelines forbidding any reference to the Senkaku/Diaoyu territorial issue as a “dispute.”

Few Americans without links to Asia may be aware of it, but in the airwaves and on the ground, Japan, China and South Korea are engaged in a soft power scrum to get Americans to see territorial and historical issues their way.

So how do Japan’s efforts stack up in the court of public opinion in its key ally the U.S.?

When it comes to propagandizing by state media outlets, China’s media blitz blows Japan and Korea’s out of the water. The Xinhua news agency staked its claim in the Western media space with a 40 by 60 foot billboard in Times Square in 2011. CCTV has embarked on a hiring blitz that now sees its CCTV America channel fronted by onetime CBS anchor and USA Today correspondent Mike Walter.

But China and Japan’s strenuous English-language media efforts sometimes result in an own-goal.

For example, despite the slick packaging, China’s soft power spin may be having the opposite of its intended effect — helping to push Americans away. (A Harvard-educated friend in Boston scoffed about the China Daily he receives in his weekend Globe. “Does anyone read this propaganda?” he asked.)

NHK’s guidelines on the Senkakus have been given rough treatment in the Western press, and the broadcaster didn’t exactly endear itself to Americans when one of Prime Minister Abe’s new board picks reportedly termed the World War II Tokyo tribunal a “cover-up” of American atrocities.

Supplementing their media organs, northeast Asian countries also lavish support on cultural foundations.

China in recent years established numerous Confucius Institutes worldwide including some in the U.S. These have become the subject of controversy over accusations they are stifling free academic debate on subjects sensitive to the country.

Japan has the Japan Foundation for academic and cultural endeavors, and a new billion-dollar fund to support Cool Japan industries like anime and manga.

South Korea has the Northeast Asian History Foundation, which supports books and conferences in the U.S. on issues of history relevant to Korea, and has played a key role in telling the Korean side of the story on disputes with both Japan and China.

Asian and other countries also spend millions trying to influence policy by funding U.S. think tanks, such as Japan’s contributions to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. This backing recently sparked congressional demands for a Justice Department investigation over worries about its potential to warp policy debate on the US approach to trade and security in Asia.

When it comes to pop culture and entertainment, China, Japan and Korea mostly have better luck in their campaigns to win friends and influence people.

At street level, Japan funds a wide range of well-attended events such as the Japan Day in New York’s Central Park, while young Japanese and Americans have rich exchanges in the pop culture sphere.

Chinese pop culture has had some noted successes in film and the performing arts, although in the fine arts the country’s best-known figure is the defiant Ai Weiwei.

Without the large markets of its northeastern Asian rivals, South Korea has to look abroad; the success of Psy and Korean soaps are the products of Korean global media savvy, and K-pop acts play to crowded houses in the U.S.

And CCTV, NHK and South Korea’s KBS all do a better job at broadcasting documentaries and cultural programming than they do at hard news.

So with all the state money and sweat being expended on soft power, are the Asian powers’ American friends being won over?

The evidence is murky. “No country does what any of these countries want them to do because they want to emulate Korea, Japan or China,” says Temple University’s Asian Studies Director Jeff Kingston. “Soft power Asian style is more about rebranding nations to be more appealing, undermining negative stereotypes and cultivating admirers.”

Kingston is blunt in his appraisal of the tide of Chinese cash being funneled into the media and Confucius Institutes. But Chinese soft power may have a subtler lure for some — the very success of its governance model.

“There is a widespread view around the world that the Chinese model ‘works’— somebody labeled it the ‘Beijing consensus,’” says Columbia University’s Andrew Nathan. “While we chew our nails over the failings of our own democracy, people look at China as a place where decisions can be implemented and the economy can be kept on an even keel.”

Rather than the shared values and universal rights promoted by the West, Kingston believes Asian style soft power seems to be more about “getting countries to take your side in disputes and convincing them to do so by all means possible.”

This can make for uncomfortable situations, such as the current one U.S. President Barack Obama is facing in his ballyhooed “Asian Pivot.” “Korea is putting increasing pressure on the US to side with Korea against Japan on issues such as the World War II ‘comfort women,’” says Charles Armstrong, also from Columbia, “which can put the U.S. in an awkward position between its two main Asian allies.”

For the moment, China, Japan and Korea’s soft power campaigns seem likely to have about as much effect shaping US policy as, say, Qatar-owned Al Jazeera is having influencing Western public opinion.

It’s likely that the news of the day coming from Asia on CNN and in the New York Times et al has a far greater impact than any Asian soft power effort. And it’s here where China’s thrusts into waters near Southeast Asia and Japan have likely soured Americans on the country.

A recent survey by the Chicago Council On Global Affairs shows Americans ranking Japan at 62 on a 0-100 favorability scale, with China at 44. More Americans than in the last 2012 survey favored building relations with traditional allies like Japan and South Korea, even if that means diminishing relations China.

Disturbingly, despite a U.S. commitment to defend the Senkakus, it’s questionable how many Americans are even aware of the stakes. This, after all, is a country where each day thousands happily eat sushi without realizing the restaurants they’re seated at are owned and staffed by Chinese people.

Japan Today, Oct 31, 2014

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