Almost Everyone Adores Japan – But why is that?

Everyone Loves Japan - But Why
Traditional lanterns in Kyoto - Mstyslav Chernov - Wikicommons

In case you didn’t know it, Japan is by far the most popular country in the Asia-Pacific region.

This could reasonably come as a surprise, given the ongoing stream of negative East Asian coverage of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his often controversial views, coupled with bitter territorial and historical disputes with the neighbors.

Even wearing those substantial blemishes, last month’s Pew Research Center survey still singled Japan out as being held in substantially higher esteem by a majority of its fellow Asian countries.


So how has this island nation that once ran roughshod across the hemisphere with one of the fiercest war machines in the modern era, become the region’s most beloved nation?

Japan polls much more popular across the Asia-Pacific than top economic counterparts China, India and South Korea.

Love for the Land of the Rising Sun largely rode in on an international cultural wave that has washed over Asia since the 1980s –aided by Japan’s economic bubble, when the Japanese yen flooded the tourist capitals of Asia.

During Japan’s bust years in the 1990s, it was cultural icons that spread the love; as younger generations across the Asia-Pacific grew up on the likes of cartoon robot-cat Doraemon, action manga Dragonball Z, and the magical schoolgirls of Sailor Moon.


Now, in the new millennium, the Japanese government has been steadily throwing money behind the cultural boom to increase tourism and international goodwill.

And all of this has obviously worked.

In the Pew Spring 2015 Global Attitudes Survey released to the public in September, Japan proved much more popular across the Asia-Pacific than top economic counterparts China, India and South Korea.

Asians View of each other Pew Research

The figures are indicative of the changing demographics of Japan’s international brand. As the wartime generation passes on and their grandchildren enter their prime, history is largely being forgotten or, in the case of countries like Taiwan, forgiven.

Not a complete lovefest

Japan is little, if at all loved, in China and Korea. While the survey found that 71% of all Asian countries hold Japan in high esteem, that love drops to only 25% from Koreans and 12% from China.

In fact, both Chinese and South Korean governments invest an abundance of human and financial resources to remind not only their citizens of the horrors of Japanese militarism, but the entire world.

Anti-Japan protest in Seoul

Korean protesters comparing Abe to Hitler – AP Images

South Korea, which has advertised its territorial claims with Japan in Times Square, has even gone so far as to make international demands that maps and other publications rename the Sea of Japan to the “East Sea”, the traditional Korean name for the same body of water.

Japan does little to mend the fences either. Recently, they tacitly threatened to defund the international cultural registrar UNESCO for including documents about the Nanjing Massacre in its Memory of the World program.

Land of the Rising Brand

Naysayers aside, Japan’s cultural exports have seemingly entered all facets of international life. Sushi is beloved around the world — even more so after the acclaimed documentary, Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Mecha and Godzilla are box office hits, so too are Studio Ghibli’s amazing animations.

Books like Memoirs of a Geisha captured the public imagination just as shows like Pokemon, Naruto and One Piece have captured the hearts and minds of children. You may even know the Japanese word for cute, kawaii, thanks to the cultural permeation of this popular aesthetic. And don’t forget Karaoke. (Try as some of us may)

Sports is another good example of how Japan’s image is developing. After a joint hosting of the FIFA World Cup with Korea in 2002, Japan’s love of soccer has spawned a men’s international team who have been seen as the best in Asia in subsequent world tournaments, and a World Champion female team (2011) who are currently second in the world.

Japan’s rugby team has also become international success stories in recent month with a stunning show of force at the 2015 Rugby World Cup in England — just in time for Japan to host the next Rugby World Cup in 2019.

And, to cap it all off, Tokyo will be one of the few cities to have twice hosted the Summer Olympics. That is not even to mention Japan’s recent successes in figure-skating, table-tennis, golf and volleyball.

Even Japanese fans and players burnish the brand, with soccer supporters tidying up the stands at Rio to their players bowing to thank the people of Taiwan for their support following the 2011 tsunami.

Government initiatives

The Japanese government has also jumped in with the Japan Brand Working Group operating throughout the 2000s, ongoing journalist exchange programs and a concerted effort to use the state-run public broadcaster, NHK, to elevate Japan’s image abroad. The name they coined for these efforts is corny but true: “Cool Japan”.

The benefits of Japan’s popular image is clear in the rise in tourism. While the country still lags behind in terms of volume, the gradual increase in visitors from Asia is telling.

In May this year, tourism from Asia was up 56.5% from a year before, with most of the visitors coming from Japan’s immediate (and often agitated) neighbours: China, Taiwan and South Korea.

So far this year, 14.48 million foreign tourists have already visited Japan, surpassing the record-breaking 2014 which saw 13.41 million visitors.

But perhaps the most surprising thing about the Japanese cultural boom is that it has happened largely despite the current administration’s negative ranking in the recent Pew survey.

Shinzo Abe - Branding in Asia Magazine

Japan’s controversial prime minister, Shinzo Abe

Prime Minister Abe’s revisionist views of history and his security policies are controversial at best and offensive at worst. Across the Asia-Pacific, he fared worse than the Chinese leader with favorability at 43% median compared to Xi Jinping’s 47%.

This comes despite the mishandling of the nuclear crisis where the Democratic Party government struggled to reassure Japan’s export markets of the safety of their products. And it also comes despite Japan barely competing with stronger Chinese and South Korean attempts to promote their image through aid and cultural institutes.

Japan has risen to the top thanks to the talents and personality of its artists, sportspeople and even the general citizenry. It has overcome the shadows of the war, of industrial pollution, organized crime and an unhealthy, overworked population to show off its cultural heritage both past and present.

Japan’s biggest competitor, China, who has shared a warring rivalry with the island nation going back to the time of Kublai Khan, might do well to take a few branding lessons from their long time nemesis.

Read More – Japan, by far, is Viewed Most Favorable amongst Asian Nations



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