From pariah to chart-topper

Last year, Japan scored its first top spot in a country brand index when it came first in FutureBrand’s annual index.

The FutureBrand index measures the strength of countries’ brands based on factors including the number of consumer brands the country is known for (an easy win for Japan with its multitude of famous names in electronics), its expertise across a whole range of consumer categories, plus its overall momentum in sustainability, innovation and technology.

Anyone who’s been to Japan will know about all the quirky, unique things that can be found there, so it’s no huge surprise that Japan scores highly for innovation. And of course, Tokyo winning the 2020 Summer Olympics is the icing on the cake of Japanese popularity.

With the huge leaps forward made by Japan over the last few decades, it’s easy to forget that it was once a very unpopular nation. After the Second World War, Japan, along with Germany, was one of the global pariahs, lambasted and despised for the part it played against Allied forces in the war.

However, Japan made a concerted effort to salvage its image, combined with making big strides in creating a strong economy. By the turn of the century, Japan was well-established as a respected and admired nation.

But from the perspectives of two of its closest neighbours, Japan remains unpopular. According to a 2013 Pew survey of Asian attitudes, only 8% of Chinese voiced favourable opinions about Japan. Although the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, is considered generally popular among many countries in the Asia-Pacific region, he is not well-liked by either China or South Korea.

This animosity has long-standing roots in history, much of it stemming from the brutality of Japanese soldiers towards Chinese and Korean citizens during the Second World War. Many Chinese and Koreans believe that Abe has still not apologised sufficiently for these tragic events, although some analysts argue that in fact Japan has tried to apologise but China has so far not accepted.

It seems that, despite Japan’s growing popularity and strong global image, the nation still has concerns about how it is perceived globally in the light of these historical negative encounters with its nearest neighbours.

A recent article in the Japan Times mentions an upcoming government initiative to help address this situation. Called ‘Japan House’, the plan is to set up communication centres in various major locations around the world, such as London, Los Angeles, Sao Paulo to start with. If successful, these will be followed by centres in Hong Kong, Jakarta and Istanbul.

The centres, in the style of the British Council, Goethe Institute or Alliance Française, will promulgate Japanese culture around the world, aiming to further strengthen Japan’s global image and perhaps mitigate some of the concerns surrounding wartime events. According to the article, ministers have said that the Japan House centres will use a mix of animation, comic book displays, restaurants and local specialities to promote Japan.

One can’t help but think, however, that it would be most effective for Japan to go directly to the source of the discontent and perhaps consider what China and South Korea really want. Of course, diplomacy is far more complex than just issuing an apology.

But on a fundamental level, perhaps it would be a good start if Japan accepted more responsibility for its wartime actions. Then neighbourly relations may begin to improve and Japan could start to repair the one part of its image that is less glowing than the rest.

In the meantime, it’ll be great to see the new Japan House open in Istanbul, along with all the local food specialities!

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