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The Japan Foundation

is key to the country's soft power

Cultural connections have helped build trust around Southeast Asia

Nancy Snow is distinguished visiting professor of strategic communications at Schwarzman College of Tsinghua University. She was previously an Abe Fellow at Keio University and is the author of "The Mystery of Japan's Information Power"


Hiroko Tsuka became a womenomics success story decades before the term was embraced by late Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as a slogan for female economic advancement.

In 1989, eight years after joining the Japan Foundation, Tsuka became the first woman to head an overseas office of the government-backed agency for cultural exchanges and the promotion of Japanese culture. Tsuka's three-plus years in Mexico City had many challenges that were not made any easier by her youth or gender.

"I quickly learned that if I failed, it was really going to spoil any chance for any woman to come after me," she told me recently.

Not only did she succeed and go on to become the organization's executive vice president, but the pressure she felt was its own liberation. If others thought she would fail, then why not take more chances?

A local performing arts theater company that worked with street children was doing the rounds of Mexico City's embassies, seeking support and a collaborative partner. Its last stop was the Japanese mission and a meeting with the young Tsuka.

She connected the theater company with a popular Japanese pantomime group. The collaboration blossomed to such a degree that by the time Tsuka was preparing to go back to Tokyo, the performers were outside the Japanese Embassy pleading for her to stay.

The Japan Foundation was founded in 1972 to focus full-time on connecting the country with the world at a time when cultural exchanges and the promotion of Japanese language instruction and Japan studies overseas were not yet the norm.

Fifty years ago, mutual understanding between Japan and the world was narrowly cast. The nation had successfully hosted the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games, the Japan World Exposition 1970 in Osaka and the 1972 Sapporo Winter Olympic Games. Japanese companies like Sony and Honda were becoming global household names.

Many, though, viewed the country only through a lens of products and events. Japan's people remained enigmatic. In Southeast Asia, Japan's influence was seen as singularly economically focused and potentially threatening.

The Japan Foundation helped to put a sociocultural face on Japan, particularly for Southeast Asia, where many had been seeing little beyond exported cars, appliances and other products. From the start, the organization placed special emphasis on building connections within Asia. More than a quarter of its 25 offices are in Southeast Asian cities, including Hanoi, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Phnom Penh, Vientiane and Yangon.

The Japan Foundation, in turn, promoted Southeast Asian arts and culture back in Japan. Going beyond displaying completed works, it sought to strike a balance between culture dissemination and mutual collaboration for Japan and Southeast Asia, similar to the spirit of collaboration Tsuka showed in Mexico City.

Japan is viewed today as the most trusted regional power in Southeast Asia, brought up regularly in discussions about economic security and defense of the free and open Indo-Pacific region. The Japan Foundation's 50-year emphasis on cultural heritage, cooperation and dialogue in Southeast Asia has surely contributed to that trust.

Other cultural diplomacy organizations have bigger budgets and longer histories, including the British Council, the Goethe Institute and Institut Francais. The Japan Foundation is younger and smaller, but given the precarious geopolitical East Asian neighborhood and the country's prominent profile in international relations, much needed.

In recent years, the government of Japan has stepped up on the international stage, far beyond economics and sports, to take a stronger leadership role in alliance strengthening and coalition building against global threats to the planet and its people.

We forget that strengthening alliances and building coalitions are the result of person-to-person connections that can often begin in a language course, at an art exhibition or in an educational or cultural exchange program.

About 3.8 million people are actively studying the Japanese language overseas, almost 30 times more than in the late 1970s.

I would not have become a longtime resident of Japan were it not for a Japan Foundation program called the Abe Fellows, designed to forge intellectual ties between American and Japanese scholars and journalists.

Japan's rebound as an economic powerhouse made it into the cultural superpower of today, the sort of country other free and open societies want to cheer on. It represents something exceptional, not only in its language, history, arts and cuisine, but also its enhanced social capital that demonstrates a sharing economy of identity, norms, values, trust, cooperation and reciprocity.

The defense and security of a global civil society that treasures democratic values and human rights begins and ends with buy-in from the public. If you want public support, then you have to go where the public is engaged, including the arts, theater and national exhibitions that inspire the human spirit.

That is where the Japan Foundation's soul lies, in the spirit to educate, inform and engage.

"It is precisely in turbulent times such as these that the true value of cultural exchange is being realized," says Kazuyoshi Umemoto, the organization's president. "In an increasingly multipolar and uncertain international society, it is more important than ever for Japan to strengthen its ties with people around the world."

I thank the Japan Foundation for making me a Japanophile, and for continuing to serve as an institution of mutual understanding and trust building in an era that now needs it more than ever.