In Parts 1 and 2, I talked a little bit about the role soft power serves in the context of international relations (IR), how attempting to redefine it in a useful way highlights the problematic ways the term is used today, and how I think people should be talking about it (in what I affectionately called the FAP dynamic).
In this third post, I’ll actually do some real analysis beyond just theorizing and putting things in perspective by applying the concepts I developed last time to look at K-pop and anime fans. Both fan groups are often used as shining examples of Korean and Japanese “soft power”, and so I thought it was only appropriate to examine both of them a little more in depth to see if things match up to expectations. In the end, what I find is that, while they can be helpful in the context of IR, most often they really just…aren’t.
The reasons why aren’t too surprising, to be honest. First, as you might expect, historical tensions and other issues don’t just vanish when you throw some pretty boys/girls on a screen and have them sing beautiful Engrish. So expecting pop culture and other things like that to solve problems without doing all the hard work is being (way) overly optimistic.
In addition, I find that there’s a big problem of focus among the fan groups: namely, fans spend their effort primarily engaging with the medium, rather than with the country through the medium. And, whenever hardcore fans decide to go do things like learn about things related to Japan/Korea/other places, more often then not it’s for the purpose of understanding the medium better. While some fans will inevitably go on to develop much more broad-ranging interests in the countries of origin, most often the actual engagement with, say, the nation-state like Japan is extremely limited.
Note: This is an entry in a series of more academic posts all about soft power, and relies somewhat on knowledge taken from earlier posts in the series. While it is technically related to anime (one of the main motivations for exploring the issue), the actual posts themselves are a little bit removed. Since I’m pulling from a lot of sources in these posts, I’m including citations in case anyone is interested in following up on some of them here. Also be aware this post is 4000+ words.
The Korean Wave and the Failure of Politicization
To examine the role soft power plays in East Asia (especially South Korea and Japan) and further point out some of the problems with current (mis)conceptions of political soft power, I first look at the “Korean Wave”. For those who haven’t heard it before, the term is used to refer to the increasing popularity of South Korean (I’ll just use Korean from now on) pop culture since the late 1990s, which has spread across Asia and more recently has become more popular in the West (Farrar 2010; Seoul 2010).
And this isn’t just me drumming up some small niche interest, because the industry is actually pretty big. In 2011, for instance, Korean pop culture comprised $137 million in Korean exports (Russell 2012)! In addition, it is broadly seen as influential in increasing foreign consumption of Korean goods by both consumers and producers (KCCI 2012; KITA 2011) as well as increasing Korean brand acceptance (Russell 2012). So it’s a thing.
Since it is important enough to get its own cool title, it likely would be insightful to investigate the impact that the Korean Wave has had in getting foreign fans to engage with Korea and in what way. To this end, one of my friends at school (and huge K-Pop and anime fan) attempted to ask K-pop fans directly about how their involvement of K-pop has influenced their perceptions and interaction with Korea and Korean goods. To reach as many fans as possible, a survey consisting of 14 questions (although this is not public data, if you’re more interested in the seeing some of the actual responses, feel free to ask!) delivered through two different survey sites and popularized through several large K-pop blogs in Spring 2013. It received 45 and ~300 responses for each of the survey sites, respectively.
Unfortunately, at the time I started asking around about data to be used for this project, most of the latter (~300) responses had been lost due to site issues, reducing the total sample to 45. If it means anything though, my friend confirmed that the data from the reduced sample I was forced to use (45) displayed similar trends to the overall combined sample (she had used them for an assignment last year). So, although it’s not really “rigorous”, I think it should be safe to at least draw some general conclusions about K-pop fans from the results.
Because the survey was pubbed through popular K-pop blogs, and generally only the most passionate fans even take the time to answer these things, we’re dealing with some pretty heavy selection effects here. Most prominently, the sample I’ll be looking at is likely to be heavily biased towards more active K-pop fans. However, this actually serves as a large benefit to this analysis, as the respondents are the most likely people to be “affected” by Korean soft power!
So, let’s get to it.
First, in question six of the survey, my friend asked respondents “How has K-Pop influenced your view of Korea as a whole?” These were the answers she got.
Approximately 80% of respondents answered that “I feel that I regard Korea more positively because of K-pop”, while the remaining 20% answered “I don’t think it’s had an effect on how I view the country overall”. And that third option got 0 responses.
In addition, when asked “Has K-pop caused you to develop an interest in/desire to learn about other aspects of Korean culture or the country as a whole?” and given the choices of Korean language, history, food, and dramas/general Korean television, many of the applicants also listed that K-pop had led them to a greater interest in Korea.
Approximately 60% expressed that it had led to interests in “all of the above”. In individual cases, about 50% of respondents reported developing an interest in the Korean language, 30% in food and K-dramas/general Korean television, and 15% in Korean history. We thus see that K-pop not only engenders positive feelings towards Korea, but also promotes significant engagement with other aspects of Korean culture. So, if we were being lazy, we would just say “KOREAN WAVE PROVES SOFT POWER POSITIVE FEELINGS KK BUHBYE” and leave right about now.
Note: Judging by the percentages, some respondents indicated both “all of the above” and the individual categories themselves in their answer. As the proportion adds up to ~110%, this is conservatively taken this as a 10% over-response bias and treated as a lower bound in later percentage estimates.
As always, however, there is a catch. First off, when respondents were asked how old they were, approximately 75% of respondents indicated being between the ages of 16-25. In addition, the majority (60%) identified as being between the ages of 16 and 20, while ~90% (!!!) identified as being female. In addition, 90% of respondents when asked identified themselves as students. This implies the majority of respondents (I estimate approximately 50% or more) are college students.
Given that approximately 65-75% of respondents expressed interest in Korean history, it is particularly surprising that when asked “Have you ever taken a class on Korean history?”, only 2% (i.e. 1 respondent) answered “Yes”.
While knowledge of Korean history may very well be obtained through other means outside of a typical classroom setting, and Korean classes are not available at all universities, the fact that the majority of these college-age students have not pursued their purported interest in Korean history indicates a lack of systematic engagement with Korea as a nation rather than just as a cultural entity. Thus the Korean Wave, in even the most “hardcore” fans, fails to generate the prerequisite politicization of Korean goods in order to bridge the gap between national branding and nationalistic persuasion.
Note: This conclusion contains several possible caveats. First, interest in K-Pop is a more recent phenomenon in the West than Japanese pop culture (~70% of respondents lived in the US), and so it is possible many of the fans surveyed were relatively recent converts who did not yet have a chance to act on their interest in Korean culture/history through actual coursework. Second, many people tend to view cultural “history” (as seen through K-Pop, etc.) and formal “history” (as seen in textbooks, etc.) as fundamentally separate entities – as a result, they might feel no need to study Korean history to appreciate (and consume) contemporary Korean culture/”history”, which might contribute to the extremely low engagement of K-pop fans with “real” Korean history in a formal setting. In my opinion, such a viewpoint is exactly the kind of thing that makes political soft power difficult to manifest, and actually supports the overall argument I’m making here.
The Japanese Korean Wave and the Failure to Reconcile Postcolonial History
In many Western nations, the Korean Wave is more like a nice interest or fad, much like anime. In East Asia, however, it is seen in a much more political light, since it offers up (supposedly) the possibility that (political) soft power can help South Korea and Japan resolve historical postcolonial tensions (“Korea” still hasn’t really forgiven “Japan” for occupying them 70+ years ago!). Following the massive positive Japanese response to the K-drama Winter Sonata, regional tourism by Japanese to Korea has boomed (Iwabuchi 2008).
In addition, the large positive reaction has led many fans to learn the Korean language and even study the history of Japanese colonialism (Iwabuchi 2010), and has further enabled many prominent ethnically Korean Japanese (zainichi) to disclose their heritage (Iwabuchi 2008; Lie 2009). These reactions suggest the possibility that the Korean Wave (i.e. Korean “soft power”) has helped to establish a discourse on Japan’s colonial history that may alter Japanese perceptions of Japan and Korea.
While these are all GREAT THINGS, it turns out that the influence of these activities on multicultural and postcolonial issues within Japan is more mixed. By examining audience responses to the first prime-time Japanese TV drama to deal with socio-historical issues surrounding zainichi, for instance, cultural scholar Koichi Iwabuchi (who’s a badass and all-around powerhouse in cultural and fandom studies) finds that while the social recognition and perceptions of zainichi have improved greatly as a result of the Korean Wave, the “historically embedded experiences of resident Koreans have tended to be ignored…[instead] effortlessly associated with the culture and people of South Korea in a way that subsumes postcolonial and multicultural issues under the rubric of inter-national relations” (Iwabuchi 2010).
In other words, the Korean Wave – at least in the context of zainichi – thus tends to subsume pre-existing internal issues by externalizing them under the banner of Korean pop culture and inter-national cultural flows. This example showcases some of the limits of (political) soft power and its inability to control the reactions of its audience. (See, for instance, the anti-Korean manga Kenkanryu, which makes me really sad.) While it does seem to possess the potential to improve foreign relations and increase foreign economic consumption of Korean goods, its ability to quickly and easily resolve long and complex historical tensions seems much more limited.
Note: This idea, which can alternatively be expressed through Korea as a reified “Other”, is formed mostly through K-dramas and can cause problems when other sources of Korean pop culture arrive in Japan. For instance, although PSY became an international celebrity through his hit single “Gangnam Style”, he never really became all that popular in Japan. This might be attributed to his non-conformity to the Japanese’s typically held tragic, heartthrob, “pretty boy”-esque image of the “Korean man” popularized through K-dramas and Korean boy bands.
Second note: If you want to hear more about these issues – and how I haven’t treated them nearly as rigorously as I should – you should get in touch with Froggykun, who’s written quite a bit about this type of thing besides just his blog post.
So now let’s move on to anime!
Anime Fans, Subcultural Capital, and the Failure to “Focus” Interest
Arguably the most prominent example of “successful” soft power is the global popularity of Japanese pop culture like manga and anime (although I’ll be mostly focusing on the latter) around the world. According to government figures, Japan’s cultural exports are valued at approximately $50 billion dollars, approximately 300 (!) times as much as Korea pop culture. Sales of anime videos and DVDs in the US alone are even estimated at $500 million (Kelts 2006)!
Beyond just economic exports, however, these numbers are matched by intense engagement with Japanese culture by fans. For instance, in 1990, the peak of Japanese economic strength, 981,407 foreigners were recorded as studying the Japanese language; in 2003, after around a decade of economic stagnation, the total had leapt to 2,356,745 (Lam 2007)! More recently, Leeds University in the UK reported that applicants to study Japanese recorded the second-highest jump in university applications in 2007, up 40.9% from 2006 to a total of 1,126 students (THE 2007). Fans are also visiting Japan in large numbers: the country drew over 10 million foreign visitors in 2013, up 23.9% over 2012 (Nippon.com 2014). (This still pales in comparison to the tourism other nations get though.)
Anime fans in particular have been extremely active in engaging with their hobby in America through things like animeconventions: in 2012 alone, 449 conventions listed on AnimeCons.com featured anime programming (Delahanty 2012). Of these, the most popular, Anime Expo (which I will be attending this year! :D), drew approximately 50,000 visitors, and the top 10 combined – ranging from locations in Los Angeles to Chicago to Boston – drew almost 250,000 people in total (Delahanty 2012).
Besides bringing in many members from the Japanese anime industry such as directors, seiyuu, and scriptwriters, conventions also frequently host large dealer rooms and a large collection of panels run by fans for fans interested in exploring everything from the politics of Studio Ghibli’s works to the influence of Japanese folktales and yōkai in anime. And, of course, many fans also engage in cosplay, dressing up as their favorite animecharacters to showcase their appreciation and broadcast their interests.
Note: Cosplay is actually a fascinating topic in its own right, and one I won’t be getting into here. If you’re interested in reading up on how people feel it fits in with concepts of performative identity, fan culture, consumerism, and pretty much everything else (it tends to be a pretty popular topic), feel free to look around since there’s a lot of stuff out there!
For the most part, fans at these conventions give every indication that their interest in anime has led to an increased engagement with Japanese culture. According to Susan Napier, Professor of the Japanese Program at Tufts University, her interviews and questionnaires at conventions over a series of years indicate that a majority (65-75%) of respondents reported that an interest in anime had led students to develop an interest in Japan, with at least 50% reporting having “positive feelings” towards the country (Napier 2007 <– note that I actually review Napier’s book here). Many of her respondents additionally reported having studied or were currently studying the Japanese language at the time of the interview, as well as having visited or wishing to visit Japan.
For all this interest in visiting Japan and learning things about Japanese culture, however, not many of the fans actually wished to live there. In other words, anime doesn’t really seem to be bringing Japan any solid, long-term gains (like drawing in talent, which is something the US, for instance, still manages to do quite well). Instead, you get a lot of people engaging with Japan in order to understand anime better…and not much else. Like K-pop, these statistics seem to indicate that anime is another instance of successful national branding (everyone knows anime is Japanese…even when it sorta kinda isn’t) but unsuccessful nationalistic persuasion (interest in anime isn’t leading people to develop positive feelings towards Japan the country – or at least not in the “right” ways).
So why is anime failing to generate nationalistic persuasion? The reason is likely twofold:
- The popularity of anime and other aspects of Japanese pop culture is often attributed to its “culturally odorless” nature: they are successful because they are “neutral” products without inherent value-based properties that mainly generate a positive image of Japan (Iwabuchi 2002; Groot 2006; Norris 2010). As such, attempts at politicization might undermine the very thing that makes animepopular in the first place, weakening their reach and areas of influence even while strengthening their ability as political soft power tools. The same holds true for Korean pop culture as well, which can be viewed through a similar lens. Note: Although the extent to which the “Japaneseness” of anime (or the idea that it is Japanese in origin if not in some internal aesthetic sense) influences its reception today is difficult to pin down, the “culturally odorless” argument is often used even today to explain Japanese (and also Korean) pop culture abroad. In particular, arguments about the “odorless” nature of K-Pop in light of its heavily emphasized Korean nature are actually quite common. Regardless of its origins, however, the term “culturally odorless” tends to more or less refer to K-Pop’s pop cultural aesthetic and the (often argued) essentially universal appeal of K-Dramas. This is discussed in more detail at the end of the post.
- The issue of focus. In the discussion of a “successful use” of soft power discussed in the previous post, one of the key conditions I talked about was that an “object” (x) leads another actor [Y] to engage with [X] in a way that [X] deems beneficial to its own self-interest. As views associated with political soft power tend to view these self-interests in ways that [Y] somehow benefits [X] directly and materialistically, the ways that [Y] can engage with [X] tend to be somewhat limited. As a result, this position often only includes things that can improve foreign policy, encourage larger foreign economic investment, or attracting foreign talent (or similar outcomes). Most importantly though, these mostly involve (x) serving as a vehicle for [Y] to engage with [X]. If (x) becomes the primary object of focus instead of [X], and the subsequent interactions [Y] has with [X] are only viewed as necessary to better understand/interact with (x), then many of the aims of political soft power will likely be significantly mitigated.
This issue of “focus” tends to be the main problem with anime: rather than Japan being engaged with through anime, it instead is accessed for anime. Modern anime fans treat the medium as another form of entertainment, an end unto itself that facilitates the construction of its own “fantasyscape” that is centered on anime and related media products that both encompasses and yet extends beyond Japan (Napier 2007). In fact, one might even argue such a fantasyscape, rather than encompassing Japan, is in fact entirely constructed, divorced from the physical country in almost every way except for the presence of Akihabara and other anime landmarks!
In addition, cosplay, which (most often) identifies explicitly with anime rather than Japanese culture at large, further indicates the anime-centric (or at least Japanese media-centric), rather than Japan-centric, view of anime fans.
Finally, Napier notes that interests in Japan among convention-going anime fans frequently are viewed in terms of accruing “(sub)cultural capital” within the fan base – gaining an improved understanding of anime simultaneously leads to elevated social standings among fellow fans – and so again are best viewed as anime-centric activities (Napier 2007). Together, these observations seem to indicate a “focus” problem for Japan’s political soft power, where the goods through which the soft power of the Japanese state is supposed to be conveyed instead themselves become the main objects of focus. Whoops.
Now onto a not-so-small digression.
What Does it Mean to be “Culturally Odorless”?
Since Koichi Iwabuchi introduced the term “culturally odorless” to describe the popularity and universal appeal of Japanese pop culture, there has been much debate surrounding both the concept as well as its application. Many features of products can contain “odors”, ranging from context (e.g. anime’s general Japanese origins) to content (e.g. the setting of a film) to form (e.g. art style) and everything in-between. Which aspects of products qualify as “culturally odorless” – and what the term itself even means – is an issue that for the most part remains unresolved. So, keeping in line with my penchant for redefining things and then doing addtional research on them, I’ve included a whole discussion about the term (and its applications) below.
First off, the art style common to many anime and manga today, for instance, finds its roots in many foreign art movements – most prominently Soviet montage theory and Disney cartoons, as well as certain aspects of more historical Japanese art products such as ukiyo-e – and can be argued (quite effectively) to be “culturally odorless” (Ōtsuka 2013). Their context and content, however, frequently are not: for every big international hit like the more Western-influenced/culturally ambiguous Cowboy Bebop, Fullmetal Alchemist, or (more recently) Attack on Titan, there are also very “Japanese” hits like The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya and (more recently) Kill La Kill. Nevertheless, with many contexts becoming nationally/culturally “branded” in an increasingly glocalized (i.e. globalized in market while simultaneously localized in context) and hybridized (i.e. the “mixing” of cultures and influences) world, it is likely that consumers have/will become somewhat “numb” to the effect entirely. Because once everything becomes a nationally branded good, branding ceases to have much of an impact (or much meaning in general). Most likely, this “numbing” effect would be yet another barrier against politicization and the effective expression of (political) soft power.
While the immediate contexts surrounding content might not be seen as “culturally odorless”, consumers might not perceive many of the overarching themes, morals, conflicts, etc. to be “cultural”. In Napier’s interviews with fans, for instance, she finds that the overwhelming reason most fans began watching anime/reading manga (or at least, why they think they began watching anime/reading manga) was because of the high quality and universal appeal of the stories (Napier 2007).
Obviously, most stories by their very nature contain elements that are of universal appeal, sharing common themes, structural elements, and character archetypes (Campbell 1968). However, the main strength of “culturally odorless” products is that they allow these universal elements to become the main focus of consumption, even when delivered through a non-odorless medium. This is likely the reason why more political anime such as The Irregular at Magic High School manage to remain popular (even when it is – quite frankly – mind-numbingly boring): the central themes (e.g. desire for acceptance, difficulty of achieving equality) of these shows become the object of focus rather than any explicit politics and/or philosophical frameworks.
For all these positive elements, however, the “culturally odorless” argument tends to overlook the attraction of foreign goods due in some part to exoticism-driven (i.e. somewhat Orientalist) impulses. A significant fraction of the broad appeal of many Japanese goods and culture to the West during the early Meiji period, for instance, was likely due to this type of impulse (Napier 2007; Benfey 2003). Such a viewpoint might also help to explain why certain aspects of the Korean Wave, which could be seen as quite a bit more strongly Korean-tinged and are thus not as “culturally odorless” as much of the J(apanese)-Wave, are attractive to many Westerners.
Finally, this paradigm of “cultural odorless”-ness has changed in recent years as things have become increasingly glocalised. As such, older animated movies like My Neighbor Totoro or more recent anime series such as Waiting in the Summer – both of which are set in/based on realistic locations within Japan – might now be seen as increasingly able to engender more “useful” positive feelings towards both the land being depicted as well as the land in which they were produced.
So that’s it for my long spiel there. The next post in the series will be the last. I’ll be talking about some of the broader implications of these results, summarizing the problems with political soft power outlined in the last couple posts, and then talking about some of the implications for how we should be thinking about soft power going forward! :)