Japan and Power: Soft Power in Becoming a Superpower

It has become widely accepted that, day by day, national borders are being erased in the world. With globalization, some local cultures, practices and commodities have become known worldwide to become an ingredient contributing to the so-called ‘global culture’. And with the contribution of ‘kawaii’ culture of Japan (be it in music, cartoons, or video games) to the global culture, Japan’s name has often been mentioned when the concept of soft power was to be discussed. In addition, although Japan is now considered as a cultural superpower, on an economic level the global influence of Japan’s entertainment industry is claimed to have not developed into a significant pillar of Japan’s economy (Tsutsui, 2010). Hence, this disappointment in Japan’s soft power’s failure in providing an economic boost to the nation has led people into questioning whether Japan’s soft power could indeed be considered as real “power” in an international relations sense. Although many people’s apparent doubt in Japan’s soft power, I believe that soft power is the most impactful form of power on a human level, which eventually dictates international relations to make soft power’s influence surpass the impact of all other forms of power, on many aspects in the long run. So, in this essay I will be arguing for an alternate understanding of soft power and how Japan benefits from becoming one of the monopolies of soft power. I will first re-question the notion of soft power, as I believe that the concept has been evaluated with a very superficial perspective by many critiques. Then, I will present some crucial examples regarding Japan’s dominance in international relations due to their immense influence in the global culture which has produced an overall sympathy towards the Japanese. 

Firstly, I would like to start by forming a better understanding of soft power by looking at its most widely used definition by Joseph Nye. “Soft power, Nye wrote, is ‘The ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payment. … When you can get others … to want what you want, you do not have to spend as much on sticks and carrots to move them in your direction.’” (Tsutsui, 2010:59). As can be seen, soft power is being related to make other people do what you want without using material means or threats, such as military or economic power. However, if we regard power as merely making others do what you want them to do, then we would be reducing the dimensions of influence that power can have over individuals. To better comprehend, in Foucauldian terms, power is everywhere; and power is what dictates our actions, thoughts, sexual tendencies, desires, souls, knowledge… Therefore, power not only makes one act as you wish them to do, but also forms individual subjects and constructs knowledge. To further elaborate, it would be apt to integrate this wider understanding of power to effects of soft power. A nation’s potency in the field of soft power, such as that of Japan, can, on an international level, form an individual’s, 1) physical actions-by taking the form of kawaii products in everyday life, 2) thoughts-by making the individual go through a disciplinary process of thinking like the way your favorite anime character thinks or behaves, 3) sexual tendencies-by presenting, via kawaii culture, a normative understanding of what is sexual and what is not, 4) desires-by the constructed reward system an individual may find in a game, 5) soul-by portraying ‘the ideal’ purpose in living via anime scripts, 6) knowledge-by providing a propaganda of historical events, layered under entertainment, to alter the already-known knowledge. I do not claim that these examples are indeed systematically practiced or not today via kawaii culture, but my point is that these aspects, which form an individual’s very self, are stringed to the impact of soft power, of nations, on the global culture. So, soft power not only makes people do what you want them to do but it forms human beings. 

I have previously attempted to form a broader understanding of soft power and tried to elaborate on what ways Japan’s influence on the global culture can form both individual subjects and knowledge. My previous examples regarding the potential transformations of the individuals on six different aspects were theoretical. Now I would like to touch upon how Japan’s soft power benefited Japan in ways which its military and economic power could not have achieved by giving more concrete examples. When it comes to international policies, one may regard military power as the most decisive, as it carries a direct physical threat. However, historical examples prove otherwise. To demonstrate my point, I would like to investigate both Turkey and Japan, which are notorious for committing a genocide, and how the countries’ immense (or lacking) soft power has helped in cleansing their notoriety in international relations (or failing to do so). Turkey has had problems in negotiating with the European Union for decades and one major reason is that both sides differ in claiming whether the Armenian Genocide has indeed occurred or not. And this has debate has always formed tensions between Turkey and other countries, leading to Turkey’s damaged international relationships. On the other hand, Nanjing Massacre (mass murder committed by Japanese Imperials against Chinese people), which is not subject to debate, has not been a relevant aspect in forming negative international relations due to an overall contemporary sympathy people have towards Japan. The soft power of Japan has cleansed the hatred some youngsters may have had, as many Armenians hate Turkic people today, to a point that the Chinese youth mostly adores and imitates the Japanese culture instead of acting otherwise. As can be inferred from the example, soft power, in a longer run, not only plays a more prominent role in forming international relations but also corrects the failures of the military force of a nation, as in Japan’s case. 

I have mentioned how the influence of Japan’s soft power has been more prominent than its military power. Now, I would like to move our attention from military power to economic power of Japan, which is also mistakenly considered as more benefiting to the country and international relations than soft power. In terms of material wealth of a nation, it is true that it is the economic power which give birth to an overall prosperity in the nation. However, by saying so, we should not disregard the way Japan’s soft power has played a role in the economic success of Japan. Even though Tsutsui’s had pointed the economic disappointment of the kawaii market, I believe that such conclusions are made by only observing the international revenue of all the popular culture products Japan has exported. It should be noted that the formation of a Japanese culture fanbase (Napier, 2007) becomes a significant factor in forming a national income from tourism. Additionally, Japan’s business success in other industries, such as electronics, cannot be isolated from the influence of Japanese soft power because we have no reason to not believe that the overall sympathy and trust to Japanese, in terms of business, is also a product of Japanese pop culture, which may have managed to establish deep personal bonds with consumers. 

In conclusion, soft power’s impact has been underestimated by many critiques who have failed to see soft power as the most significant form of ruling, not only the world, but also the individuals’ actions, thoughts, sexual tendencies, desires, souls, and knowledge on a global scale. And this significant tool of dictating people has formed an overall sympathy towards Japan. Eventually, the constructed sympathy towards the Japanese has become more formidable than Japan’s military power itself by being able to erase the failures of the military force in establishing a form of power that would increase Japan’s influence in international relations. Additionally, the positive emotional bond people have towards the Japanese have positively influenced other economic industries, such as tourism and technology. Combining all these examples and factors, one should re-question the concept of soft power to realize its dominant effect in making Japan an unrealized superpower in international relations today. 


Tsutsui, William M.,Japanese Popular Culture and Globalization. Ann Arbor: Association for Asian Studies Inc., 2010. “Japan as Soft Superpower,” p. 59-69 

Napier, Susan J. From Impressionism to Anime: Japan as Fantasy and Fan Cult in the Mind of the West. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. “Anime Nation: Cons, Cosplay, and (Sub)Cultural Capital.” 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: