Japan Today

Japan’s PR battle for U.S. hearts and minds

By Dan Grunebaum

It might not surprise anyone to learn that China’s state-owned broadcaster CCTV America more or less ignored Hong Kong’s democracy protestors, except to note police injuries by “aggressive” activists. Nor would Americans be shocked to read in China Daily — available for free in towns like Boston and Washington DC — that China has historical claims over the entire South China Sea.

But it’s more disappointing for we Americans with ties to Japan to learn that Japan’s theoretically independent NHK World has editorial guidelines forbidding any reference to the Senkaku/Diaoyu territorial issue as a “dispute.”

Few Americans without links to Asia may be aware of it, but in the airwaves and on the ground, Japan, China and South Korea are engaged in a soft power scrum to get Americans to see territorial and historical issues their way.

So how do Japan’s efforts stack up in the court of public opinion in its key ally the U.S.?

When it comes to propagandizing by state media outlets, China’s media blitz blows Japan and Korea’s out of the water. The Xinhua news agency staked its claim in the Western media space with a 40 by 60 foot billboard in Times Square in 2011. CCTV has embarked on a hiring blitz that now sees its CCTV America channel fronted by onetime CBS anchor and USA Today correspondent Mike Walter.

But China and Japan’s strenuous English-language media efforts sometimes result in an own-goal.

For example, despite the slick packaging, China’s soft power spin may be having the opposite of its intended effect — helping to push Americans away. (A Harvard-educated friend in Boston scoffed about the China Daily he receives in his weekend Globe. “Does anyone read this propaganda?” he asked.)

NHK’s guidelines on the Senkakus have been given rough treatment in the Western press, and the broadcaster didn’t exactly endear itself to Americans when one of Prime Minister Abe’s new board picks reportedly termed the World War II Tokyo tribunal a "cover-up" of American atrocities.

Supplementing their media organs, northeast Asian countries also lavish support on cultural foundations.

China in recent years established numerous Confucius Institutes worldwide including some in the U.S. These have become the subject of controversy over accusations they are stifling free academic debate on subjects sensitive to the country.

Japan has the Japan Foundation for academic and cultural endeavors, and a new billion-dollar fund to support Cool Japan industries like anime and manga.

South Korea has the Northeast Asian History Foundation, which supports books and conferences in the U.S. on issues of history relevant to Korea, and has played a key role in telling the Korean side of the story on disputes with both Japan and China.

Asian and other countries also spend millions trying to influence policy by funding U.S. think tanks, such as Japan’s contributions to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. This backing recently sparked congressional demands for a Justice Department investigation over worries about its potential to warp policy debate on the US approach to trade and security in Asia.

When it comes to pop culture and entertainment, China, Japan and Korea mostly have better luck in their campaigns to win friends and influence people.

At street level, Japan funds a wide range of well-attended events such as the Japan Day in New York’s Central Park, while young Japanese and Americans have rich exchanges in the pop culture sphere.

Chinese pop culture has had some noted successes in film and the performing arts, although in the fine arts the country’s best-known figure is the defiant Ai Weiwei.

Without the large markets of its northeastern Asian rivals, South Korea has to look abroad; the success of Psy and Korean soaps are the products of Korean global media savvy, and K-pop acts play to crowded houses in the U.S.

And CCTV, NHK and South Korea’s KBS all do a better job at broadcasting documentaries and cultural programming than they do at hard news.

So with all the state money and sweat being expended on soft power, are the Asian powers’ American friends being won over?

The evidence is murky. “No country does what any of these countries want them to do because they want to emulate Korea, Japan or China,” says Temple University’s Asian Studies Director Jeff Kingston. “Soft power Asian style is more about rebranding nations to be more appealing, undermining negative stereotypes and cultivating admirers.”

Kingston is blunt in his appraisal of the tide of Chinese cash being funneled into the media and Confucius Institutes. But Chinese soft power may have a subtler lure for some — the very success of its governance model.

“There is a widespread view around the world that the Chinese model ‘works’— somebody labeled it the ‘Beijing consensus,’” says Columbia University’s Andrew Nathan. “While we chew our nails over the failings of our own democracy, people look at China as a place where decisions can be implemented and the economy can be kept on an even keel.”

Rather than the shared values and universal rights promoted by the West, Kingston believes Asian style soft power seems to be more about “getting countries to take your side in disputes and convincing them to do so by all means possible.”

This can make for uncomfortable situations, such as the current one U.S. President Barack Obama is facing in his ballyhooed “Asian Pivot.” “Korea is putting increasing pressure on the US to side with Korea against Japan on issues such as the World War II ‘comfort women,’" says Charles Armstrong, also from Columbia, “which can put the U.S. in an awkward position between its two main Asian allies.”

For the moment, China, Japan and Korea’s soft power campaigns seem likely to have about as much effect shaping US policy as, say, Qatar-owned Al Jazeera is having influencing Western public opinion.

It’s likely that the news of the day coming from Asia on CNN and in the New York Times et al has a far greater impact than any Asian soft power effort. And it’s here where China’s thrusts into waters near Southeast Asia and Japan have likely soured Americans on the country.

A recent survey by the Chicago Council On Global Affairs shows Americans ranking Japan at 62 on a 0-100 favorability scale, with China at 44. More Americans than in the last 2012 survey favored building relations with traditional allies like Japan and South Korea, even if that means diminishing relations China.

Disturbingly, despite a U.S. commitment to defend the Senkakus, it’s questionable how many Americans are even aware of the stakes. This, after all, is a country where each day thousands happily eat sushi without realizing the restaurants they’re seated at are owned and staffed by Chinese people.

© Japan Today

©2024 GPlusMedia Inc.

Login to comment

All the countries in the world use the media to brainwash others. Is that a surprise? How otherwise did the American people overwhelmingly support the invasion of Iraq that they now denounce? The Americans own most of the worlds media, so it must be the case that the resulting world opinion is heavily biased in favor of the Americans interests.

So! Now we read about Americans lecturing others about media bias. Can we say: arrogance?

-4 ( +16 / -20 )

"The Americans own most of the worlds media, so it must be the case that the resulting world opinion is heavily biased in favor of the Americans interests."

How much of the media does the US own in the three countries mentioned, China, Japan, and South Korea?

10 ( +15 / -5 )

It is clear to me that anyone that thinks that China is the future without flipping it's Party over is not a true patriot of the US or Japan. Democracy is the future of the world, not what China has going on. Americans may be some of the dumbest people on earth, but I think even China's lousy group-think fails to impress here.

5 ( +14 / -9 )

unuepb alrteady said everything.

-11 ( +9 / -20 )

I'd be surprised if China's media efforts have any positive impression on the US - at least in terms of folks at "street level." It has failed miserably in whatever claim it has in Tibet; Americans have always been sympathetic to Tibet and China has tarnished its image with what it's done there. And China's attitude towards Taiwan and recently HK? Not a positive impression. There are simply too many more important territorial disputes out there - West Bank, Kashmir, etc., for the US to care much about these Islands...

6 ( +10 / -4 )

NHK really is a joke. That hapless organization's opinions and policies shouldn't bother anybody.

2 ( +8 / -6 )

But China and Japan’s [and Korea's] strenuous English-language media efforts [and remarks by politicians] [often] result in an own-goal.

Great quote (but it should also have included S. Korea).

The leaders of all three of these countries continually shoot themselves in the foot. It would be comical if the stakes weren't so high.

Unfortunately, it is clear that politicians in the three countries are deliberately shifting focus from problems at home by fueling an "us against them" mentality against one another. There will be a rough road ahead if they keep resorting to this counterproductive strategy.

6 ( +8 / -2 )

We're already leery of commercial news, but definitely don't trust state-run news. There's no advantage in trusting state-run news.

8 ( +10 / -2 )

@combinibento The best propaganda victory is when your victim does not even feel he was propagandized. And by that standard, China may be doing horribly well indeed.

The Chinese strategy is best described as multi-layered. At the front are claims like Tibet or the Diaoyu Islands are ours. It's great if you believe them but they don't expect a lot of takers.

The real decision is in the 2nd or 3rd echelons, which look moderate relative to the 1st, and thus look legitimate rather than propaganda. For example, consider the Yakusuni ruckus, or the idea there IS a legitimate dispute over the islands. These ideas, covered by the 1st echelon, have gained rather wide acceptance and can be exploited by the Chinese. The best part is, most Americans don't even recognize what is happening.

0 ( +9 / -9 )

If it's in the US geopolitical interests, they're going to do it. Mubarak, the House of Saud, the list is endless--it doesn't matter what a regime does as long as they have the resources and markets the multinationals fancy. I'm always amused by folks who buy the rhetoric about how much Yanks loves the Israelis or Japanese, the friendship our two nations share and other rubbish. Japan and Israel are outposts of an empire, nothing more.

2 ( +13 / -10 )

More Americans than in the last 2012 survey favored building relations with traditional allies like Japan and South Korea, even if that means diminishing relations China.

And all of this doesn't matter a brass tack because at the end of the day US business owners simply as, "Where can we get the products we want cheapest?". Low quality is now a selling point, just look at Apple's lousy cables. They break all the time, consumers complain and Apple twirls its moustache and laughs, because they know that rather than spend 50 000yen on another smartphone we'll go out and buy a new 2000 yen cable. Cables that cost about 100yen to make probably earn Apple more profit than anything else.

For so long as we consume Chinese products all this media posturing is just that, posturing. The current "war" is economic, and we're all happily handing China the ammunition it needs while saying, "You really are naughty though... here, have some more bullets/money".

3 ( +13 / -10 )

The battle is among elites, so elites are the ones to watch. I'm sure Japan's leaders are acutely aware of how American elites in the 1930s and early 1940s managed to tip public opinion in the US in favor of Nationalist China and against Tokyo. Lots of elite Americans at the time were the children of missionaries who had served in China, people like Henry Luce of Time Magazine. It was people like him who pushed the US towards embargoing oil sales to Japan to force the withdrawal of Japanese soldiers from China.

Elites don't have quite the direct influence over US Asia policy that they had in 1940, but they still matter the most. Not really sure that Japan's efforts to promote anime and manga will amount to a hill of beans if disputes in the South China Sea turn deadly.

3 ( +6 / -3 )

Well, China is usin brute force propaganda, while Korea is using the most perfid ways of manipulation, they are the most adept ones in manipulating westerners, their K-pop and K-dramas are mostly centered around fangirls, and thats why Koreans are pushing "confort women" so much, because they got huge number of female suporters in the world , bdw, did you know that some Korean confort womens sued Korea for making them work in bordels for US troops ? here the article http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/07/11/us-southkorea-usa-military-idUSKBN0FG0VV20140711

3 ( +10 / -7 )

This is not about how the U.S. media giants control news.... it is about how much of U.S. News is reported around the world. When the U.S. sneezes the rest of the world will report it. So if U.S. Govt's foreign police backed say... a Japanese agenda... then the rest of the world would know it. The rest of the world would then line up to possibly advance political favors to the USA in exchange for things they want. The USA would then approach Japan and ask a favor in exchange for said countries to back their agenda. This is all politics... tit for tat.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

Let me be honest when I say: Americans don't care.

They're not concerned with the island dispute in the slightest, the average citizen probably can't name any Asian country's president, and like most citizens of their own respective countries they only are concerned with their country's economy, jobs, and the national sports.

Stereotypes are set in most minds: China is a socialist country that makes cheap crap, South Korea has a crazy neighbor and we lost the war there, and Japan has crazy electronics, they bombed us and then we beat them in WWII.

It's a waste of money to start any PR campaign. Americans are thinking about ebola, terrorists, and American football.

13 ( +17 / -3 )

SKorea's soft power is not sustainable in the long run. Its pop culture were copied in the west. Besides, they keep on doing the same style of music over and over. That kind of soft power won't give westerners/americans an idea on what Korea is like. All people see is a group of plastic-surgery performers dancing and lip-synching western-style of music.

Japan on the other hand has this stereotyped idea of a land of rich culture. I'm pretty sure most Americans/westerners have heard things like "ninja", "ramen", "samurai", "geisha", "sushi" etc etc. Japan has already propagandize the west with its own cultural image.

China is just not making any progress in making its own image, positive. That's because most Americans know their jobs were robbed by China. Not to count, piracy and tech thefts.

12 ( +14 / -2 )

I wish I could take all the propaganda that comes out of all their mouths, and stuff it back in the other end. Would not be long before they all exploded for surpassing capacity to hold all that excrement.

They have all got some valid claims, and they have all got some outrageous ones too. The trouble is people want to believe that one has no valid claims and only one side does. And that tack is a lot easier than actually sitting down, shutting up, researching in earnest and only then forming an opinion.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

A Harvard-educated friend in Boston scoffed about the China Daily he receives in his weekend Globe.

Any educated Chinese person would recognize it as propaganda was well. They are targeting the dumb people.

5 ( +6 / -1 )

Japan has a tin ear for this kind of stuff. It all comes across like force-feeding from bureaucrats. They have no idea of their intended audience. They could use media consultants, but it's doubtful they'd want to hear what those consultants would have to say. For things like war-time sex slavery and whaling, there's no way to put a positive spin, so there's no point in engaging on these issues.

-2 ( +4 / -6 )

Not much to worry about re: China in terms of image state-side; they are, after all, the new Ruskies. South Korea is the killer, though, as increasingly people are buying Hyundai, Samsung, and LG rather than Toyota, Panasonic, or Sony, and I'm not sure all that manga is going to stem the time. K-pop has already conquered Europe, or so I'm told, and there are a lot of interesting manhwa about theses days...

-2 ( +2 / -4 )

Perhaps the headline is disconnected from the story, but does Japan seem to think it's non-image here in the U.S. needs burnishing?

Beyond trade, the U.S. has a relationship with China that is just slightly less frosty than the one we had with the Soviet Union during much of the Cold War - we don't really like and certainly don't trust the Chinese. Many of us are happy to travel there, we like the food and some of the movies (most of the best actually coming from HK anyway) are good fun, but not taken too seriously. Do many of us sit around and worry that China will take over the world? Maybe too frequently of viewers of Fox "news," but otherwise we're more concerned about who's going to win the next Super Bowl and don't really care how much of our debt they hold as we are also their largest market. Piss off the U.S. too much or, heaven forbid, start a war and who's going to buy all your goods produced by near slave labor?

S. Korea? Isn't that the country just below N. Korea? We like some of the food, are loving the cars and more of their electronics and appliances are finding their ways into our homes. "K-Pop plays to crowded houses" of S. Korean ex-pats. Beyond that . . .

Japan we still love, though we're very confused about that's going on at Toyota and, for people of certain age, what's happened to Sony is heartbreaking. Sushi is now part of the food pyramid here. How's the Fukushima recovery going? What's Yasukuni? Senkakus?

Writer needs to step out of his bubble.

0 ( +5 / -5 )

Overall it does appear all media outlets are protecting favored governments and politicians from the people. But it is not always clear and sometimes the media can accidentally provide substance to What is otherwise ridiculous. Take the senkakus, from Japan's perspective it is a non issue, effectively saying other countries can't just make land claims and magically the claim becomes an issue merely because of the claim. Basically so What, the Chinese fabricated a claim based on a centuries old map, made for unknown purposes for a monarchy the Communists long killed of. There is nothing there. So why should Japan even respond? And the nhk world, why should they talk about a non issue? If they Do it helps legitimize a spurious claim, even if they disparage it, the fact they reported on it legitimized the claim as possible. Can the media be trusted, No way. All of them protect government from people But to paint everything they Do in the same way is,Also not good. Especially when it comes to groups trying to get their insane ideology sold as real or fact, such as the socialist Democrats of America. Their media backers report everything they day, with No fact checking and No challenges.

-2 ( +3 / -5 )

@Todd There is a party called the Socialist Democrats of America? Where can I sign up for this?

4 ( +5 / -1 )

Easy. When was the last time China or Korea inspired an American? In intellect, soul or even style, it hasn't happened in a long time(if ever)!

6 ( +9 / -3 )

Christopher CroninOct. 30, 2014 - 06:31AM JST Easy. When was the last time China or Korea inspired an American? In intellect, soul or even style, it hasn't happened in a long time(if ever)!

The product that you might be using might be engineered and designed by Chinese or Indian. The Asian engineering workforce in Silicon Valley accounts for one-third of the region's total scientific and engineering and two thirds of the U.S. foreign-born engineers were from Asia.

-3 ( +1 / -4 )

@sfjp330 No one should be looking at their smartphone for inspiration in intellect, soul, or style.

5 ( +6 / -1 )

Personally I am weary as well as ashamed of ugly propaganda wars the three governments are waging in North America and Europe on such issues as Senkaku, comfort women, etc. These are issues we have to settle here.

6 ( +8 / -2 )

Americans are usually inclined to like Japan, for cultural reasons mostly. Every time the Japanese government attempts any form of PR, they fail miserably. They never think of their target audience.

The saving grace is that China is even more tin-eared than Japan.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

How can anyone be at all surprised that most Americans (and anyone else outside NE Asia) does not know about or care about the Senkaku Islands - there are so many much bigger and more bloody disputes going on around the world.

When I go back to the UK, I still meet people who ask questions like, 'What part of Hong Kong is Tokyo in?' 'You live in Japan - you must like Chinese food.' 'Korea is a country?' One survey of the most famous Japanese for Britons had 1) Yoko Ono 2) Godzilla 3) Bruce Lee.....says it all really.

7 ( +7 / -0 )

@Stewart: People in the UK are really That ignorant?

1 ( +1 / -0 )

NHK is an old outdated TV network. Oh and it's ran probably buy a lot of old man with white hair. I have lived in Japan for 18 some years now and there is one thing that it's almost always true. And that is old people don't listen and they always think their way is the right way especially old Japanese men. I know that this is a stereotype but more often than not, it's true.

So, NHK's point of not mentioning the island situation as a dispute is an old Japanese mans way of thinking.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Oh what utter drivel. The New York Times is the most widely read daily in the USA and has extensive coverage on Japan thanks to their ownership of the Japan Times. This little pity party for "poor little Japan" is getting absurd. Everyone I am in contact with in the USA knows about the Japanese side in all issues. The US media is not as "kawaii" focused as Japan's and actually covers news and not just "tarento" sightings.

0 ( +1 / -1 )


"The New York Times is the most widely read daily in the USA...."

After the Wall Street Journal, yes.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

sfjp330OCT. 30, 2014 - 06:45AM JSTChristopher CroninOct. 30, 2014 - 06:31AM JST Easy. When was the last time China or Korea inspired an American? In intellect, soul or even style, it hasn't happened in a long time(if ever)!*

>The product that you might be using might be engineered and designed by Chinese or Indian. The Asian engineering workforce in Silicon Valley accounts for one-third of the region's total scientific and engineering and two thirds of the U.S. foreign-born engineers were from Asia.

Let see. The Dell lap top, while assembled in the PRC, was designed in the U.S. and may have a U.S., Taiwanese or Japanese micro processor.

My Apple products, while assembled in the PRC, are of American design.

Chinese or Indian designers? Think not, unless they have emigrated or are working in the U.S. on an H-1 visa.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

Jeff Huffman Oct. 31, 2014 - 01:09AM JST My Apple products, while assembled in the PRC, are of American design.

Then why is Apple remains critically dependent on Korean company Samsung? The microprocessor brains that control iPods, iPhones and iPads are Samsung-built. And some new iPads still use Samsung screens. Samsung is the world's biggest maker of some of the most sophisticated parts that Apple craves, such as 64-bit A7 processors, memory and high-resolution screen. Why don't Apple design on their own?

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

Totally agree with Harvey Pekar above. The vast majority of Americans don't care. Asia is about as well-known as Africa.

As far as they know, Japan is where Godzilla, PlayStation, Nintendo, some baseball players, sushi and sumo come from. South Korea has a bunch of people who do plastic surgery and the crazy leader in the North, (though I suspect they still think the guy with the big hair and platform shoes is that leader)! China makes cheap stuff, takes our jobs away, and makes good cheap food.

Island disputes? Who cares? Average Americans have always been rather insular when it comes to politics. If it doesn't affect jobs, my quality of life, etc then why should I care? I've lived in Japan for 25 years and go back to the states at least once a year. Nothing has changed in regards to knowledge about Asia, so all these countries are just wasting their time trying to influence Americans.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

Login to leave a comment

Facebook users

Use your Facebook account to login or register with JapanToday. By doing so, you will also receive an email inviting you to receive our news alerts.

Facebook Connect

Login with your JapanToday account

User registration

Articles, Offers & Useful Resources

A mix of what's trending on our other sites