Japanese Language and Soft Power in Asia

Mitsuyo Sakamoto

This edited volume by Kayoko Hashimoto, consisting of four parts (Cool Japan and Japan’s soft power, Japanese language and the historical construction of Asia, Japanese language teaching in Asia, and Japanese language and learners’ empowerment), offers a current, comprehensive account on Japanese language and soft power, defined as ‘getting others to want the outcomes you want…. Soft power rests on the ability to shape the preferences of others’ (Joseph S. Nye Jr., Soft Power: The Means To Success In World Politics, New York: Public Affairs, 2004, 5).

Chapter 1 by Hashimoto explains why language is important in exercising soft power. In 2011, Japan has defined the cultural concept of ‘Cool Japan’ as the creator of Japanese soft power, of which Japanese language is one component. The question is how such coolness is created, realized, promoted and maintained, which this volume eloquently addresses.

The second chapter is a piece by Gerry Groot that challenges the common belief that Japanese pop culture popularity equates to soft power. He explores various aspects of Japanese pop culture, including anime, kawaii culture, otaku, cosplayers, and fansubbers. However, tourists going to Japan because of pop culture only account for 9 per cent. Moreover, Japanese universities are failing to entice international students to study in Japan. Groot argues that Cool Japan just commodifies pop culture, failing to be a means of soft power.

The third chapter by Hashimoto follows the discussion on Japan fans. According to Hashimoto, public rhetoric that assumes that Japan fans wish to learn Japanese due to their interests in Japanese pop culture leads to confusion and misconceptions. She argues that merely creating Japan fans does not lead to soft power.

The fourth chapter by Astghik Hovhannisyan offers a historical account of the evolution of Japanese writing system. Tensions between those who wished to preserve the complex Japanese writing system using kanji, and others who promoted the use of simple Japanese writing hiragana or katakana, and those promoting the use of roman alphabets (romaji), believing that a simplified version would allow the propagation of Japanese soft power, are explored. Historical attempts in simplifying script is understood as a form of Japanese initiative to exert soft power.

The fifth chapter by Masakazu Matsuoka provides a historical account of Japanese language and cultural policy during Japanese occupation in Singapore. During the occupation, attempts, such as having cultural and linguistic campaigns, were made to replace Western educational curriculum with Japanese values. However, attempts lacked long-term visions for Japanese language education and understanding of the target learners, resulting in a failure to promote Japanese language as a source of soft power.

Chapter 6 by Rika Kusunoki presents the issues related to foreign trainee nurses in Japan. Japan first signed an Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) with Indonesia, then with the Philippines and Vietnam to employ trainee nurses. The study explores why the trainees take part in EPA and what their perception of Japanese language is like. Five EPA trainee nurses were interviewed and the study revealed how Japanese language was perceived differently based on different contexts; local Japanese dialect used on daily basis was regarded positively, whereas formal Japanese used in textbooks and exams were not. A call is made to accommodate the needs and desires of the trainees by establishing a long-term vision for the nurses, so that the program can exert soft power.

In Chapter 7, Kaoru Kadowaki compares native Japanese speaker teachers (NJSTs) in Korean, Indonesian, and Thai high schools. In the three countries, Japanese native speakers are treated differently. This largely stems from the nature of the arrangements in each country; NJSTs in Korea are hired by individual local schools on a full-time basis, whereas Thailand relies on a dispatch program and NJSTs are often employed as assistant teachers. Indonesia also depends on a dispatch program but has come to employ teachers full-time. Given the inconsistencies, the Japanese government is not fully capitalizing on the possibilities of changing Japanese language teaching into a means of soft power.

The next chapter by Aiko Nemoto explores the impact Japanese pop culture has on Japanese language learning in Qatar by looking at those who belonged to a Japanese cultural club at Qatar University and those who also enrolled in Japanese language courses. The study revealed that interest in Japanese pop culture alone is not enough to entice students to study Japanese. Instead, instrumental reasons, such as obtaining a job, are noted to be a better predictor for people to learn the language.

Chapter 9 by Kazuyuki Nomura and Takako Mochizuki is an ethnographic study that looks at the connection between the Japanese language and Hong Kong's Umbrella Movement in 2014. According to their study, the use of the Japanese language allowed activists to access and disseminate information otherwise inaccessible. Attention paid by the Japanese to the Umbrella Movement is described as a ‘gaze’, conveyed via Japanese language. In this way, Japanese language served as a form of soft power that promoted sociopolitical values for the Japanese-speaking Hongkongers.

The last chapter by Esther Lovely on Korean migrants' learning Japanese in Australia describes interesting ways the Koreans use the Japanese language to establish a desirable identity. While at a disadvantage in building a favorable English-speaker identity, the Korean students established for themselves a multilingual Australian identity via Japanese language learning.

This book’s biggest strength lies in its comprehensive, current outlook on Japanese language as soft power. Focusing on the Japanese language's potential to serve as a soft power, Hashimoto has brought together scholars from various fields, ranging from historians to language teaching specialists, using different research methods to offer up-to-date insights into the issue. The book is cohesively organized, allowing discussions to flow logically from macro to more micro, according to the four areas covered.

Ironically, the shortcoming of the book is also its strength – its currentness. Because the discussions are so timely, its relevance will eventually shift from exploring prevalent, pressing issues today to documenting Japanese-language related phenomena up to 2018. Nevertheless, the book offers valuable insights into issues which have remained largely unexplored. For those wishing to obtain a sound, comprehensive understanding of and appreciation for current Japan and its attempts in creating and exercising soft power, this is an indispensable read.