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Japan’s PR Strategy: Narratives in the Information Age

Edward Schwarck
Commentary, 20 April 2015
Asia, International Security Studies, Japan, Information, Pacific
Japan’s more activist security policy is arguably successful in design and implementation. It is, however, failing in how it is being presented to the public.

Effective policy typically achieves balance between three elements: design, implementation and presentation. A sound policy should be designed well, implemented effectively, and sold convincingly to the public. In shaping a more activist foreign policy for Japan, the Abe administration is arguably successful in the first two elements, but not the third.Tokyo’s mixed messaging about its war legacy has, in particular, left it open to attacks in the media from China, which is proving adept at taking control of the public discussion surrounding Japan’s foreign policy.

Design and Implementation

In terms of policy design, Japan is focussed on strengthening defence and security relationships with new partners in Europe, Australia and India. These relationships feed a highly outward facing policy known as the ‘Pro-active Contribution to Peace’. The policy’s aim of steering Japan away from its post-war pacifist defence posture is part of the country’s ‘normalisation’: the process by which Japan begins to contribute more to international peace and stability rather than take a backseat to its partners.

The implementation is exemplified by deployments to Iraq, logistical support to NATO operations in Afghanistan, and contributions to anti-piracy in the Western Indian Ocean. The US and many countries in Europe are strongly supportive of Japan’s position on this point.


Yet Abe’s approach to the third item – presentation of policy – is a mixed bag.

On one hand, Japan explains its re-emergence as a military power by the growing threat the country faces from an array of state and non-state actors. Concurrently, Tokyo is seeking to shape a new narrative of Japan as an upholder of international norms and ‘global rules-based order’. Anti-piracy missions, for example, were conducted under the banner of ensuring the global ‘freedom of navigation’ – a decidedly internationalist security objective befitting Japan’s profile as a ‘status-quo’ power.

Japan’s efforts in this regard are driven by the correct assumption that ‘soft power’ – the ability to affect outcomes through persuasion or attraction, as opposed to armed force – partially rests on communicating compelling narratives.

In shaping such a narrative, Japan presents its Proactive Contribution to Peace as an innocuous evolution of the country’s post-war pacifist stance. In doing so, the Abe administration hopes to draw international support for its defence reforms, as well as for the threat the country faces from China. The ultimate goal is to embed Japan within a network of ‘like-minded’ countries that will understand and support Japan if the atmosphere in the Asia-Pacific becomes even more fractious. 

Yet to the frustration of many in Japan (and sympathetic observers outside), the country’s war history continues to affect the narrative surrounding its diplomatic initiatives. Indeed, Tokyo seems unable to prevent the war legacy issue from infecting its contemporary foreign policy. The problem persists despite an immensely well-resourced public diplomacy drive.

Communicating Smartly

In assessing the UK’s performance in projecting soft power, a House of Lords committee recently commented that ‘Just the act of projecting a narrative can be viewed as coercion or manipulation.’ ‘Mutuality’ in how a country presents its narrative is therefore crucial. Soft power, the committee concluded, should not simply be about ‘showcasing the UK's assets’ but sharing those assets and supporting a reciprocal exchange of ideas and culture.’

This message is equally applicable to Japan: Tokyo cannot ultimately control how other countries interpret its communications. Messages intended and messages received are usually not the same. Japan must be prepared to discuss the problematic sides of its war legacy – and do so in a fashion that serves its foreign policy objectives.

The importance of this debate is intensifying alongside increasing global inter-connectivity. The conduct of international relations is moving beyond mere government-to-government diplomacy. The rise of mass and social media has increased the importance of public opinion in diplomacy, but also facilitated a state’s ability to shape that opinion. As Joseph Nye argues, international relations ‘is not just whose army wins, it is also whose story wins in an information age.’

In this area, Japan’s would-be adversary – China – has the edge. While Beijing’s authoritarian vision is unappealing to most, it is proving adept at shaping the public discussion about the actions of other countries.

This is partially a product of China’s power. It is much easier to exert ‘soft’ influence if one is well resourced economically and militarily. But Chinese political and military thinking also shows a strong awareness of the power of information. PLA writings contain a growing body of work on ‘political warfare’ and the psychological elements of strategy.

Beijing’s approach in its contest with Japan over sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands has therefore centred on a high volume media assault.

The potency of this assault does not lie in the credibility of Beijing’s accusations of Japan’s return to ‘militarism’ (although these may sometimes be taken seriously in other Asian capitals), but rather the extent to which they distract attention among third party audiences from China’s own behaviour.

This matters less in Washington, where the US commitment to Japan’s security is absolute, despite widespread anguish when Japan’s history hits the headlines. However, China’s verbal diatribes cause particular discomfort in Europe, where willingness to engage Japan as a partner or ally is tempered by lingering suspicion over its unpredictability. For many European countries, keeping silent when verbal sparks fly between China and Japan is more appealing than supporting a like-minded partner in Tokyo that may nevertheless drag them into conflict.

Policy Options

Resolution to the war question in Japan will probably involve a public discussion that takes decades. However, Japan can help build a more effective narrative through an all-of-government approach. Branches of Japan’s civil service, along with the leadership, must be walking in lock step on the messages they deliver to the public. A long-term and unified strategic narrative about Japan’s foreign policy – promulgated from the very centre of government – is vital in generating positive views about Japan’s conduct abroad.

Currently, Japan’s difficulty in controlling discussion about its own trajectory means that while it is succeeding in most of its foreign policy, it is allowing its adversaries to take control of the public debate. This is damaging Japan’s ability to present its naturally attractive values and welcome contribution to international security.   

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