Indira Zahra Aridati examines the rise of Japanese soft power across Southeast Asia and its many facets.
What do Pokémon, Thai girl group BNK48, and Jakarta’s mass-rapid transit (MRT) system have in common? They are assets that have strengthened postwar Japan’s image in Southeast Asia and positively contributed to the country’s appeal and attraction – or soft power – in the region.
Constrained by its pacifist Constitution, Japan has had to rely more on non-coercive measures to recalibrate its position as a rising middle power. This rings especially true in Southeast Asia, where the legacies of war have often bred distrust among regional countries towards Japan. The establishment of ASEAN and the 1977 Fukuda Doctrine was a turning point that redefined Japan’s engagement within the region. The doctrine emphasised a “heart-to-heart” partnership as a guiding principle. Since then, Japan has made steadfast progress in gaining ground in the region, thanks in part to its multifaceted soft power strategy, which equally leverages its culture, foreign policies, and political values.
Over the past few decades, Japan’s cultural exports have made a splash globally, with anime, manga, and Japanese pop (J-pop) emerging as the epitome of soft power. Southeast Asia is a major market for Japan’s content and creative industries. The region is home to three of the top five countries by anime popularity. It has also become a hub for fans, with the annual three-day Anime Festival Asia in Singapore attracting over 145,000 visitors last year.
J-pop has also captured audiences across the region, with Japanese all-girl group AKB48 spawning sister acts in Indonesia (JKT48), the Philippines (MNL48), and Thailand (BNK48). In August this year, McDonald’s Indonesia created a J-pop jingle to welcome the return of its “Taste of Japan” burgers. Fully written in Japanese and released without subtitles in Indonesia, the music video garnered three million views on YouTube in the first week of its launch. Despite many Indonesians’ lack of understanding about the lyrics’ meaning, it showcases the country’s strong embrace of Japanese culture.
Beyond capturing the eyes and ears of Southeast Asians, Japan is also a popular travel destination. According to ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute’s State of Southeast Asia survey, Japan has been the top travel destination for four consecutive years, from 2020-2023. As travel resumes after the pandemic, Southeast Asian citizens have returned to Japan, with over 260,000 visits in June 2023 alone. This is a slight decline from pre-pandemic travel levels, which saw 272,000 Southeast Asian visitors during the same period in 2019.
While the ascendancy of Japanese cultural influence may seem serendipitous, the reality is far from it. It is rather the result of government forethought and investment. From the late Shinzo Abe to Fumio Kishida, successive Japanese administrations have promoted policies to amplify the country’s “Gross National Cool”. During the turn of the 21st century, as Japan was in the midst of its “lost decade” of stagnant growth and a decline in the productive population, the government sought new strategies to revive its national economy. Unified by an understanding that the content and creative industries could be the country’s new growth engine, these formerly neglected industries were now seen as newfound natural resources.
Efforts were initially led by the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) through the launch of the Cool Japan Strategy in 2012. The strategy aimed to capitalise on Japanese pop culture and had three elements: 1) to unearth domestic demand, 2) incorporate foreign demand, and 3) transform the structure of creative industries. If accomplished, the three elements would help secure new jobs and revitalise the region’s economy. To support the strategy’s initiatives, particularly in promoting overseas demand for Japanese products and services, the Cool Japan Fund was established in 2013. At its establishment, the public-private investment fund received ¥50 billion from the Japanese government and ¥10 billion from private institutions.
Beyond the attractiveness of its popular culture, Japan’s multifaceted soft power implementation hinges on one other crucial element: its leadership in addressing common challenges. The 1997 financial crisis that struck Asia emphasised the risk of contagion effects that ASEAN’s economic instability could have on Japan. In response, Japan supported ASEAN countries through disbursements of official development assistance (ODA) – bilaterally and as a collective. Japan solidified its support for ASEAN and the bloc’s community-building efforts through initiatives such as the Japan-ASEAN Integration Fund (JAIF) launched in 2006.
More recently, Japan supported ASEAN’s COVID-19 Response Fund. This included donations to the JAIF to address the health emergency, supplies of health equipment and vaccine doses, training of health officers from ASEAN countries, and contributions to the ASEAN Centre for Public Health Emergencies and Emerging Diseases (ACPHEED). To support the region’s post-pandemic recovery, it has also established the ASEAN-Japan Economic Resilience Action Plan to maintain close ties between ASEAN and Japan, mitigate economic repercussions, and strengthen resilience. Concrete measures under the action plan include capacity-building on global value chains and digitalisation, establishment of an innovation network for startups, and support for Micro-, Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (MSMEs).
Japan has also assumed leadership to combat climate change and address regional security issues. On the former, Japan has set its net-zero target by 2050, while pursuing 46% emissions reduction by 2030. It has also initiated the Asia Zero Emissions Community (AZEC), a platform providing financial and technical support to help Southeast Asian countries pursue decarbonisation initiatives. In August this year, ASEAN and Japan also launched the Strategic Program for ASEAN Climate and Environment (SPACE) initiative, to address the trifold crisis of climate change, pollution, and biodiversity loss. Recognising the region’s vulnerability to climate-induced disasters and extreme weather events, Japan has also leveraged its technical expertise to strengthen ASEAN’s disaster management response. Its support to the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (AHA Centre), has helped establish an integrated information and communication technology (ICT) system and the Disaster Emergency Logistic System for ASEAN (DELSA), both of which have provided strategic coordination and facilitated resource mobilisation to countries facing post-disaster emergencies.
On security, Japan was ASEAN’s first dialogue partner to align its free and open Indo-Pacific vision with the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP), announced during the 23rd ASEAN-Japan Summit in 2020. Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) is centred on four pillars: 1) peace and rules for prosperity; 2) addressing challenges in an Indo-Pacific Way; 3) multi-layered connectivity; and 4) extending efforts for security and safe use of the “sea” and “air”. During the 26th ASEAN-Japan Summit in September 2023, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced a new contribution of US$100 million to the JAIF, which is expected to implement key areas under the AOIP. This supplements the previous contribution of US$243.6 million from Japan to JAIF since 2006, to support ASEAN connectivity and regional integration.
Lastly, Japan has provided robust alternatives to China’s Belt and Road Initiative for infrastructure development, promoting quality infrastructure and the principles of inclusivity, sustainability, and resilience in its investments. Through the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), it has built bridges, metro systems, and power transmission lines. Notable examples include the Second Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge connecting Thailand and Laos, the Tsubasa Bridge connecting Cambodia and Vietnam, and Indonesia’s first-ever MRT system in Jakarta.
Have Efforts Paid Off?
Japan’s multifaceted soft power strategy, combining its popular culture, foreign policy, and political values have fared well in Southeast Asia. Currently, Japan is regarded as the region’s most trusted power for five consecutive years since 2019, according to ISEAS’ State of Southeast Asia survey. Across the five years, the top three reasons for respondents’ trust of Japan are the view that it is a responsible stakeholder that respects and champions international law, respect for its culture and civilisation, and the view that it has the economic resources and political will to provide global leadership. The Global Soft Power Index 2023 also ranked Japan fourth, just after the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany. Respondents viewed Japan positively in areas such as business and trade, education and science, and sustainable future.
Japan’s soft power dividends have helped build a robust relationship with ASEAN over the last 50 years – one that has evolved from a donor-recipient dynamic to one of equal partnership based on mutual understanding.
This is an adapted version of an article from ASEANFocus Issue 2/2023 published in September 2023. Download the full issue here.
Indira Zahra Aridati is a Research Officer at the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.