Soft Power, National Branding, and the Process of Engineering Attraction (Part 4: Soft Power, Looking Forward)

In the earlier posts (1, 2, 3) in this series, I’ve tried to lay out the foundations for how soft power is discussed today and contrast it with how it actually works. In doing so, I’ve (re-)defined a bunch of things and looked at data and other observations of K-pop and anime fans, most of which has led me to conclude that cultural flows tend to be much more limited, a-political, and quite a bit more “fuzzy” (both conceptually and physically) than is often assumed within typical soft power arguments. K-pop and anime fans aren’t some “cultural resource” that increases Japan’s prestige abroad in a very meaningful way, but instead are mostly just…K-pop and anime fans. 

In this last post, I’ll summarize most of the main problems I’ve found with political (as opposed to cultural) soft power that I’ve discussed in earlier posts. I’ll then go on to look at some of the more blatant “failures” of soft power, with a little bit of discussion on what exactly “failure” could (and should) mean. Finally, I’ll actually do some constructive thinking (!), and put forward some suggestions for how we should probably be thinking about soft power going forward, and some of the (generally positive) implications.




Also, it turns out this is my 100th post on the blog! Yay! 1.5+ years strong and still going! :)

Note: This is the last 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.

The Limits of Soft Power

First, based on the issues seen in my examination of K-pop and anime fans, I can pretty confidently say political soft power is subject to several issues that make it difficult to build up or use successfully:

  1. National branding: by failing to realize that nationalistic persuasion does not directly follow from (positive) national branding, nations fail to politicize their goods and achieve the types of reactions they desire. In addition, by nationally “branding” goods such as anime, nations intrinsically promote a type of “reductionist” ideology, such as that witnessed in the Japanese Korean Wave. To make matters worse, countries like Japan often don’t really “make” the goods they so espouse (e.g. anime or other forms of Japanese pop culture) – it’s private companies, subject to their own (capitalist) logic, who actually make the products. So attempts at turning national branding into nationalistic persuasion would actually very likely run into a bunch of logistical problems, not to mention strong corporate resistance!
  2. Limited engagement, both in terms of demographic (e.g. K-Pop tends to be biased heavily towards young women instead of a general audience) and (heavy) time investment (watching K-Dramas and anime can be time-consuming!). As nations want to broaden their political soft power on a national level but are mainly reaching individual actors, such limitations should be taken into account when considering future political soft power projects. While the time-intensive nature of watching, say, K-dramas might actually encourage more active fan engagement, it still tends to (considerably) limit the size of the audience. And this isn’t even counting certain features of said products that often tend to make them niche foreign products almost by default.
  3. Determining “focus”, which is in essence the inability of a nation to control how other actors respond to certain goods and incentives. As with anime fans, this inability can rob certain aspects of political soft power of much of its potency or influence.
  4. The “marketing” problem: since there are economics involved, and soft power by design is usually built up through desirable goods, the lines between constructivist, liberalist, and realist notions (see part 1) of (hard) power is thin. Ask most soft power advocates what the final goal of soft power programs are supposed to be, and most will probably answer with some along the lines of “soft power has a very real potential to translate into hard power!” I mean, why else would government institutions such as Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) pledge $500 million to support the promotion of “Cool Japan” abroad (Kelts 2013)? So the dividing line between “soft power” and “hard power” gets pretty thin. For instance:
    1. While actions like funnelling tons of cash into exporting “cultural products” can easily be seen as just a benign attempt to promote a country’s (political) soft power, it also contains government sentiments to control certain aspects of trade and policy with other nations (which could be viewed as a type of hard power).
    2. Alternately, if Japan decides to try and instead preventthe export of “Cool Japan” and establish a monopoly on the production of, say, anime, with the intent of achieving certain political goals that would normally be accomplished by hard power, does this still remain a source of political soft power only? (Wait a minute, isn’t this the exact train of thought explored in Outbreak Company?!?!?! O.o)
    3. As you can tell, both the situations above involve some element of government economic influence over certain goods, but blur the lines between promoting symbolic expressions of power and exploiting/creating consumer demand. Even worse, this can also work in reverse: symbolic expressions of power, such as the (supposed) popularity of certain goods in countries like the US, can be used to try and create domestic consumer demand within the country of “origin”! In both cases, the connection between symbolic meaning and purely economic results remains strong and difficult to disentangle.

All these issues, coupled with issues about the ways in which hard power both enhances and enables (political) soft power (see, e.g., Watanabe and McConnell 2008), showcases the difficulty both in conceptualizing and implementing political soft power.



Examining the Failures (and Successes) of Soft Power


So, at this point, I’ve discussed the theoretical basis behind soft power and examined how (and why) it works. But while the deconstruction of the simple conceptions of political soft power through Korean and Japanese pop culture’s influence both abroad and at home has been helpful, they don’t actually showcase solid results (or lack thereof). So, to deal with that side of things, I now briefly turn my attention towards more concrete instances where political soft power has seemed pretty ineffective at strengthening national interests.

The most prominent example of soft power’s failure in East Asia was the emergence of widespread anti-Japanese demonstrations that took place in China in 2012, which were in response to heightened tensions surrounding the Sino-Japanese territorial dispute of the Senkaku Islands. And by demonstrations, I really mean full-out riots: they were so intense that they forced the temporary closure of a wide swath of Japanese-owned business and factories in China (Kurtenbach 2012; IBTimes Staff Reporter 2012).

Given the intensity of the anti-Japanese response at the time, the extent to which Japanese (political) soft power played in easing tension between the two nations is…questionable at best. Although Japanese pop culture has been present in the region of decades (indeed, the study of the history of manga and anime in the region is a fantastic example of the ability of media to cross borders and create shared experiences) and many animeare widely consumed there (indeed, the shows themselves are largely produced in China; Mōri 2011), their popularity failed to prevent the majority of Chinese citizens from expressing strong anti-Japanese sentiment. Or the Chinese government from taking strong anti-Japanese stances (see the Wikipedia article linked earlier).

In short, it was a complete political soft power failure not only to engender positive feelings towards the Japanese state but also to help “paper over” Japan’s colonial history, and one took place in the heart of the very type of situation that political soft power was supposed to prevent. 

Note: In fact, this failure of soft power to undercut/subvert historical tensions or longstanding problems is actually very similar to the ones that Joseph Nye (the guy who coined the term) argues was at the heart of China’s ultimate soft power “failure” during the Beijing 2008 Olympics (Nye 2008) or that Koichi Iwabuchi (the cultural scholastic badass) contends is one of the main problems with the Korean Wave (Iwabuchi 2008).

Clearly just Evangelion fanboys waiting to happen.

Clearly just Evangelion fanboys waiting to happen.


However, if we relax some of the preconditions of political soft power, cultural soft power (the more general definition I like, first described in part 2) does seem to have its share of success. One example includes the proliferation of Nazis in popular culture. By being recast many times in a wide variety of circumstances, their continuous (re-)usage seems to make this era of history almost a trope, a fact or artifact of history rather than real events that are directly passed down from the Germany then to the Germany today (and is something I talked about in an earlier post). By doing so, it indirectly helps to increase the sense abroad that a divide exists between the Nazi state and the current one.

One important thing to note about this “success” was that this movement was pioneered by a broad set of individuals in a wide array of circumstances, ranging from Jewish comedians such as Mel Brooks (e.g., The Producers) to mangaka such as Hirohiko Araki (e.g., Stroheim in JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure), and is perpetuated in popular culture through movies such as Iron Sky. Although this proliferation could be seen as German “soft power” and has led to positive consequences for modern Germany (both the country and its image), Germany itself likely has had little influence in this process.

Note: In my opinion, misattribution of these types of results to (political) soft power is one of the biggest dangers of soft power as it is often discussed today!

Second note: A more arguably successful instance of German political soft power could be Japan’s adoption of many Prussian/German governmental institutions during the early years of the Meiji Era. Although Britain was arguably the most powerful nation at the time, and the US was the country that forced Japan to finally open its borders, Japan’s decision to adopt/mimic German institutional structures is striking.

Don't doubt the power of NAZI GERMAN SCIENCE. Although honestly the fact that we can laugh and joke about this is actually quite amazing.

Don’t doubt the power of NAZI GERMAN SCIENCE. Although honestly the fact that we can laugh and joke about this is actually quite amazing.

Re-Examining the Role of Soft Power

Both in terms of concept and implementation, soft power as it currently stands is just too simple a concept to be useful in political discourse or national policy. If it is to become a useful policy tool in the future, increased attention must be paid to the politicization of goods (both as concept and as practice) coupled with an increased emphasis nationalistic persuasion rather than just simply national branding.

In addition, soft power is often phrased as something that nations can simply objectively “express”. However, as K-Pop and anime fans can show (and probably would attest themselves!), consumers must be taken into account. Consumers are the ones who ultimately must draw associations, and if soft power is to become a viable policy tool increased emphasis should be placed on how to get consumers to assign/make associations in such a way as to serve a given nation’s best interests. As a result, nations would probably do well to try and learn from corporate content producers, who grapple with similar problems in order to increase consumer engagement (and their consumption in general) and better predict consumer response.

Ultimately, however, I think the purpose of these posts is to help shed light on what role a nation might wish to fundamentally play in the context of soft power. The most popular belief at present seems to be that nations should try and “direct” soft power flows to accomplish their own interest. This is at the heart of what I defined as “political soft power”, which leads to troublesome issues such as those related to national branding, the politicization of goods that are popular precisely because they are “culturally odorless”/value-less, and problematic definitions and conceptions of “culture” (see also Iwabuchi 2010).

Pretty much how "soft power" works.

Pretty much how “soft power” actually works today.

This viewpoint treats soft power like a good or commodity that can be used without questioning its ability to engender attraction. As such, it seems natural to ask whether nations should instead be focusing on establishing conditions where soft power will naturally manifest itself, since these conditions are likely to be those under which goods gain the ability to carry soft power in the first place (Norris 2010; Smith 2013). In this viewpoint, nations should function less like directors of cultural flows and more as caretakers of national interests. This difference is akin to viewing Hollywood as an industry that enables popular movies to flourish (which ensures its prominence and subsequent consumer engagement) rather than a corporate conglomerate with an agenda that it tries to channel/express through its films. The distinction seems pretty clear in Hollywood (unless you’re just super-paranoid about the CAPITALIST ESTABLISHMENT in which case there’s not too much I can say), so why can’t it also be the same with respect to nations?

This difference is crucial, because it suggests several ways that nations can avoid many of the problems that plague political soft power:

  1. It allows soft power to be founded on vague notions outside of “coolness”, and is one that is based in improving conditions within the nation as well as its actions abroad. This naturally connects the relationship between soft power and hard power. For instance, Japan’s soft power in this view is arguably based on its stable democracy, generally positive foreign policy, overall economic well-being, and vibrant civil society rather than some subjective notion of “cool”. In addition, it also links soft power projection abroad to improving conditions at home, enabling soft power to become more than just a foreign policy tool and shifting the focus away from the simple export of goods. I don’t know about you, but these all seem to me like pretty good things!
  2. By creating such an environment, nations have the possibility of “short-circuiting” the process of politicization by directly trying to improve upon the ideals and values intrinsically associated with the overall image of the nation. If the concepts surrounding Japan become progressively more positive, and those concepts better match political (and physical) reality, then the gap between “Japan-as-abstract-fuzzy-idea” and “Japan-as-physical-concrete-nation” will be reduced. As a result, goods would not need to be inherently politicized because they would already carry certain values with them while likely remaining “culturally odorless”. While what exactly could be classified as “culturally odorless” in such a framework remains an open question (some possible values include things like political/economic stability and well-being, thriving civil societies, and public safety), that’s not so much a big deal – in my opinion, it is exactly this type of question that we really should be asking in the first place!


This effect of "blurring" the abstract and the real is not that innovative of a concept. In fact, a similar type of thing (except as it applies to our perception of Japanese "history") plays out in Samurai Champloo.

This effect of “blurring” the abstract and the real is not that innovative of a concept, really. In fact, a similar type of effect (except as it applies to our perception of Japanese “history” rather than the modern Japanese state) plays out in Samurai Champloo, and is one of the main reasons the show works so well.

Wrapping Things Up

While soft power remains a popular concept, it is useful to reassess what exactly the concept is thought to (and should!) mean. Inter-national cultural flows are a byproduct of our increasingly glocalized (what a term) society that can carry power – power which many nations now hope to utilize. However, attempting to control these flows is at best difficult, at worst misguided, and often ineffective. In the future, each nation should take a hard look (harhar) at both its role in promoting soft power as well as what role it plays (and should play) in international relations as well as domestic policy. Once policymakers begin to think about soft power more critically, hopefully slogans like “Gross National Cool” will come to encompass more than just pop culture.

In ∑: No matter how you look at it, soft power is pretty much bullshit. If you think long and hard about why it’s bullshit though, you’ll get a lot out of it.

So that’s that! :D

15 responses to “Soft Power, National Branding, and the Process of Engineering Attraction (Part 4: Soft Power, Looking Forward)

  1. Pingback: Soft Power, National Branding, and the Process of Engineering Attraction (Part 3: Soft Power, K-Pop, and Anime) | Chromatic Aberration Everywhere·

  2. Ending. As good as it is.

    Hmm… Creating an environment that nourishes the growth of culture, not merely control it. Yes, I agree with you on that (Can’t say that I think culture products should be letting free 100% without guidance in ideology, given that I’m living in a Communist country), but how long do you think that a country could truly export culture, and how hard? A fine example would be Singapore, and Australia before it. They have achieved all the requirements, but they still couldn’t truly make it like America or Japan?

    • I think the idea of “exporting culture” is exactly the type of thing we shouldn’t be thinking about, because it makes “culture” seem like something that can be commodified, commercialized, marketed, quantified, and – most importantly – controlled. And while this seems to becoming increasingly true today (eerily enough), we don’t have to “buy in” to the same logic.

      That said, what exactly becomes popular internationally – and how influential said culture becomes – is difficult to pin down. Many countries that are well-functioning democracies (and even some that aren’t) don’t necessarily “make it” like America or Japan. Or at least, not when they’re compared in economic terms (although that being said, they’re also not hegemonic world powers and usually don’t possess an extremely large, hyper-consumerist “pop culture” industry). But why should that be the standard (especially given the arguments I’ve presented here)? Should France be considered “highly influential” because of the ubiquity of French fries (or French kisses)? How about the popularity of tacos and burritos? Or Starbucks (and “coffee culture”)? Or the fact that everyone knows about the harsh conditions about the “Outback” in Australia (plus kangaroos)? Or the infamous “quality” of Chinese products? Or the popularity of sushi or fortune cookies? How much of these count as an exported “culture”? And how “hard”? And where do we draw the line?

      Anyways, so that’s my theoretical objection here. If you’re talking about the marketing of, say, pop culture-related products associated with companies (supposedly) tied to individual nations, then that’s a bit easier to deal with. What ends up fitting into most of these “export culture” categories is almost inevitably commercialized goods targeted towards a consumer base that rides on some combination of 1) exoticism, 2) fads, and 3) consumerism, along with (probably) some type of cultural “odorless”-ness. So if you want countries to “export” pop culture, they should be cultivating those types of industries (film, fashion, etc.). How exactly you do that, I don’t know. But, off the top of my head, that would probably be where to start.

  3. Also, I want to talk more about the “odourless” of anime. You see, through analyzing the great works of art, we could somewhat see an aspect of the society that work was based (for example, Madam Bovary, War and Peace, The Great Gasby,…) However, it would inevitably lead to the writer to express his/her personal opinion -> Can’t be “Odourless”.

    However, I rarely seen this in anime. Is it because it’s an industrial product, its target audience is young man, or escapism has too much effect on it?

    • Nah, forget what I said above. It’s just the repeat of what I said last time.

      Guess that money doesn’t go that well with art, although the latter can’t exist without the former.

    • So here’s I think the main point. Nothing is completely sterile/odorless, simply because we infuse value into anything we consume, be it books or whatever. And when you consumer or produce any product, you have to start somewhere – which means in some ways “culture” exists within (or through) these products.

      What I was trying to say in regards to cultural “odorlessness” is that the cultural backdrop does not interfere with consuming the good: the inner themes, messages, elements, etc. feel universal, and people relate to them on a visceral level. It’s this quality of certain goods that encourage consumers to see “past” their “inner” culture (or vice-versa – it all depends on where you put your emphasis) that renders them “culturally odorless” and universally appealing. And is why, I think, when people are asked why they started watching/reading anime/manga, the overwhelming response is the quality and universal appeal of the stories.

      As for anime not possessing culture, that’s actually not true: there’s actually tons of culture packed into it, and I’m always surprised how much information I (and other viewers) can absorb about Japanese society just through watching these (very biased) cartoons! While the target audience and specific tendencies within the “genre” might have something to do with making this happen (sci-fi stories, for instance, can be pretty far out there for everyone), I don’t think it’s really a “money just can’t mix with art” type of thing.

  4. You’ve certainly given readers a lot to think about over the course of these articles. I’m still thinking over some of it and so don’t really have anything much to add for now, but I just wanted to chime in anyway to congratulate you on a job well done. As always, you write very compellingly – not to mention, the time and effort alone you must have put into these posts definitely deserves plenty of credit. Nice work!

  5. I think it takes a lot of thing. A lot of time, money, and resource. And an uncountable number of luck: Do you notice that Magnum Opus always come with a human name attached to it? I think that people tend to narrowed down on culture of each country with its most prominent artists (for example, with anime the most well known names are Tomino, Anno, Go Nagai and Tezuka – Urobuchi and Mari Okada are not that famous outside the Otaku circle.)

    But you can’t teach anyone to be a genius, right?

  6. Yes, I forgot Miyazaki.

    Do you think that the Big Five make anime for everyone? I notice that no matter where are you, how old you are, what is your background, you could all connect a piece of yourself into their characters?

    It’s hard to see a piece of yourself in something like Puella Madoka (although Psycho Pass did it better.)

    • I would agree with that – they I think are more concerned with making good stories in general than good stories targeted at any specific audience (as with Madoka).

  7. What about shows like Detective Conan (Case Closed) which are set in the “real” Japan, I think I’ve learned some stuff about the “real” Japan after watching this show. Does that mean that I’ve been affected by the the soft power of the anime industry?

    • As I said to fireminer above, it’s actually surprising how much information I (and other viewers) can absorb about Japanese society and culture just through watching anime. The question then is how that knowledge affects you. In my opinion, just learning about places and watching anime should be classified as (cultural) soft power (defined in post 2).

      However, if you’re talking about the more contentious political soft power that I attempt to deconstruct at length, the issue’s more tricky. How much do you associate the things you learn about Japan in these shows with the fuzzy concept of “Japan” that serves as the backdrop for anime, and how much bleedover is there when you discuss/think about Japan as an actual political state? (Because those two are not the same.)

      In my opinion, while knowledge (gleaned about Japan through anime) =/= political soft power, it definitely is a form of cultural soft power.

  8. Pingback: re: Your Taste is Bad and So Are You | Fantastic Memes·

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