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Kawaii Culture and Japanese Diplomacy

This article was written by Anandatara Gautham, an Economics undergraduate student at Azim Premji University from Bangalore, India.

Soft power diplomacy is a method of gaining influence by using one's public image or influence, rather than through violence or coercion. In his work, Joseph Nye describes soft power as the use of a country's “resources of culture, values and policies” to cultivate a public policy. 

Kawaii culture uses the characterization of human and non-human figures to portray cutesy images. They often use overly simplified visuals and solid colors to portray a sense of naivety. These figures are meant to represent dependency, vulnerability, and weakness as they “emphasize (on) the sense of pathos that the powerless and helpless object inspires”.

The Showa Period and Japan's role in the Second World War meant that it had grown into an aggressive power in the eyes of the West. In the 1970s and 80s, Japan focused on replacing this image of hostility that it had cultivated with one of submission. Kawaii figures began to represent this new version of Japan, as the innocence and harmlessness of the characters became increasingly associated with Japan to Western consumers. Popular figures like Hello Kitty could allow greater acceptance of Japan among the general public in countries like the UK and the USA, where Japan was closely associated with the terrors of the Second World War. 

In the late 1990s, Japan entered a period known as the Lost Decade, a time of economic stagnation. Caused by a combination of factors including the imposition of low interest rates on loans which lead to a liquidity trap, as well as an ineffective fiscal policy, the value of the yen fell drastically, and unemployment rates rose. In this time of economic downturn, it may seem surprising that the popularity of kawaii products grew, along with the creation of numerous new kawaii characters. Products like the TarePanda- a lazy sleepy bear, represented the exhaustion of the Japanese population and economy but were also crucial elements in aiding the rise out of the deflation. Kawaii products helped stimulate spending within the Japanese economy, among the drained workforce, and also auxiliated in stabilising the economy through the increase in exports. 

A more recent effort to use soft power to gain influence has been less successful. Set up in 2013, the Cool Japan Fund aimed to “commercialize the attractiveness unique to Japanese lifestyle & culture” through the popularisation of Japanese products, culture, and ideas. This public-private initiative aimed to invest in and support the globalisation of Japanese products, culture, and services. Through the propagation of a positive image of Japanese popular culture, it would be able to encourage stronger trade and diplomatic relations, in addition to promoting tourism.


However, by 2022 the fund's cumulative loss was more than 30 billion yen (~229 million US Dollars), and several possible reasons for its failure exist. Sayuri Kawamura, Japan Research Institute’s chief economist, explains the possibility that the government may have been overly involved in the campaign, leading to the misrepresentation of markets. Though it was a public-private partnership, 80% of the capital was government funds. Others blame the rise in competition, including the growing popularity of Korean culture (in the form of K-Dramas, food, etc.) which diverted attention from Japan. Substitutes to Japanese companies reduced their power- Netflix became a more popular platform in comparison to anime distributors like WakuWaku Japan. 

Though the ways in which Kawaii culture and other elements of Japanese culture have been used have evolved over the years, the influence of such policies is evident in the still prevalent popularity of Japanese food, technology, media and overall culture.

The views and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the Warwick Economics Summit.




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