As a general trend, all interviewees agreed that the image of Japan over the past couple of decades has changed, and it has changed in a positive fashion.
Some two decades ago, Japan was seen primarily as an outward investing economy, with an opaque domestic economy that, whilst not formally closed to the outside world, was extremely difficult to enter. Through its ambitions to join the UN Security Council as a permanent member and its recent security posture change, Japan is broadening its global role and actively seeking Foreign Direct Investment, although it is currently starting from a low base.
The contributors all shared a similar understanding that Japan is regarded as a longstanding economic partner for the UK. In particular, Japan is still identified in the UK as strong exporter of high-quality manufacturing products with very good brand visibility (Toyota, Mitsubishi, Brother, SONY, etc.). Japan is still synonymous with high quality and major economic player, but it is increasingly understood as the Switzerland of East Asia: affluent, old, but somewhat insular. Abe Shinzo’s Japan has certainly dispelled that image, but the Chinese presence is incredibly pervasive: people throughout Europe already believe China to be the richest world economy. China is certainly regarded as a growing and possibly more ‘strategic’ partner than Japan.
A bolder, more assertive Japanese foreign and security policy has been continually encouraged by the UK because of the stabilising influence it could have on regional and international affairs. Similarly, Japan may emerge as an important regional security actor, complementing US led efforts in regional security capacity building, and helping to advocate for international law and norms against would-be challengers, such as China.
In the perception of soft power, one major cleavage in the UK is between large urban areas, and the rest of the country. In larger urban cities with a strong well-educated portion of society, Japan is recognised with brands that contribute to shape specific aspects of daily life. From Play Stations to Uniqlo, Japanese brands are recognised to be trendy, designer-savvy, tech-savvy, and high quality. Outside the context of urbanised areas, it is hard to see Japanese soft power having any impact at all. In part, this is also because Japanese brands are perceived as serving the high value luxury market and therefore less relevant to the average British person.
All respondents agreed that Japan’s soft power does not necessarily translate in increased global political influence. The reasons for this are unclear, but may stem from Japan’s traditional reluctance to take a leading role in global politics, and therefore less directly related to soft power itself.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.