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The term ‘soft power’ is often used in the discussion of popular culture. This essay will utilise knowledge obtained through scholarly enquiry and education in Asian studies to discuss popular culture as a form of soft power. Firstly, I will provide a summative outline on the theory of soft power. Following this I will discuss Japanese and South Korean popular culture and whether they are consistent with the theory of soft power. The thesis of this essay will argue that soft power is a useful term in relation to the discussion of popular culture.
Joseph Nye, who focuses on international relations, developed the theory of soft power in 1990. Nye suggested that power is ‘influencing others to achieve a desired outcome’. Similarly, the term ‘soft’ power may be understood through a state’s ability to achieve the outcomes it desires by leading as an example for other states. This conveys that soft power is the ability of a nation to attract others to mirror interests consistent with their own. The desired outcomes of soft power vary, however most nations have broad aims for international stability and consistency, which may prevent or address global and national issues. For example, the United States has used mediums of soft power to justify actions towards ‘weapons of mass destruction’ by presenting American culture as attractive through its liberalism, democracy and human rights. This conveys that soft power is an intangible resource which uses ideologies, culture and economics to address international issues. Soft power has been used in contemporary international relations due to the interdependent nature of nations, making direct force costly. For example, a nation’s militarization incurs political and economic costs, which in return could reduce rather than increase a nation’s power. Rather, soft power is used in other resources such as transnational corporations, which allow more leverage of the global system as a whole. Contemporarily, these resources generate more power for nations because of a shift in power structures. Modernization, urbanization and increased communication have diffused power from the government to private sectors. The spread of power into the private sphere, in regards to transnational corporations, means that the most powerful form of soft power is popular culture. Ideologies of nations can be imbedded into products and communication. These commodities are introduced to other nations through transnational corporations and private sectors, who market their products to be attractive, consumerable and resultantly, popular.
Since the mid twentieth century, Japan has been increasingly integral to global popular culture. Central to Japanese exports are manga and anime, the most distinguished forms of Japanese popular culture; hence their potential as forms of soft power.
Japan’s ‘International Exchange Research Programme’ of 2003, reported the potential for Japanese popular culture’s assistance in international diplomacy. It was theorised that positive national images should be embedded into popular culture; mainly through the pre-existing subculture of manga and anime. The report’s recommendation was facilitated, and organisations such as the ‘Japan Cartoonist Association’ were created to reward artistic innovation. In conjunction with Japan’s conveyance of its national image, McGray suggests that Japanese popular culture is seemingly egalitarian; devoid of perspective and hierarchy. This suggests that popular culture has effectively used ideologies, in accordance with culture and economics, to embed a positive national image. Therefore, popular culture that embeds national ideologies is a form of soft power.
The Japan Cartoonist Association generates most of its interest and revenue from foreign states, which suggests that manga and anime are attractive to other nations. Hills argues that its appeal comes from the characters within manga and anime narratives, who are internal and selfless. For example, Spike, the hero from ‘Cowboy Bebop’ was not a saint; a paradigm of the right morals, or always successful in his ventures. This conveys an opposition to Western ideologies of individualistic heroes, who fight on the right side of justice and always succeed. In accordance, its attraction may be sourced from manga and anime’s postmodernism; which allows an escape from modern Western culture. Therefore, popular culture that attracts others, generating international interest and revenue is a form of soft power.
Market forces and consumer preferences drive the production and global consumption of manga and anime. For example, the production company, Studio Ghibli has been increasingly popular in the market due to the international consumer desire for Japanese anime. Otmazgin argues that consumer desire is notably expressed in increasing trade, production and interdependence, with the importance of intra-East Asian trade tripling over the last forty years. In accordance, corporations and organisations have had increasing influence and power in transnational relations, such as shaping economic relations and improving perspectives of Japanese culture. In accordance, corporations and organisations have had increasing influence and power in transnational relations, such as shaping economic relations and improving perspectives of Japanese culture. Therefore, popular culture that empowers corporations and private sectors’ leverage over global systems is a form of soft power
Post-war perceptions, such as the Japanese being aggressive or imperialistic, and policies have prevented some of the Japanese state’s diplomatic aims. Mainly, Japan wishes to attain permanent membership on the UN Security Council. In conjunction, the Japanese state has realised the potential of popular culture in facilitating the state’s desired outcome. Popular culture has generated economic prosperity, as well as conveying ideologies of a positive, progressive Japan. These resources may be considered effective in disassembling post-war perceptions and regulations. Equally, popular culture’s economic success has allowed Japan to become the second largest contributor to the UN’s budget, giving leverage over their diplomatic aim. Therefore, as Nye outlines, popular culture that influences a state’s desired outcome is a form of soft power.
In the late 1990’s, South Korea was propelled into global popular culture. So profound was the movement, it has been described as the Korean Wave; with popular exports such as Korean films and music. Korean popular culture may be termed as a form of soft power.
The Kim Dae Jung administration, in 1998, designated the media and entertainment sectors as a focus for development. In accordance to these political agendas, entertainment based private sectors increased their national significance. For example, the film industry doubled its Korean market share within the year. Central to the recognition of these industries is that they contain cultural content, which can enhance images of Korea. Joo argues that Korea attempts to embed into its cultural exports the idea that Korea is refined, sophisticated and prominent. This suggests that Korean popular culture uses ideologies, in accordance with culture and economics, to embed a positive national image. Therefore, popular culture that embeds national ideologies is a form of soft power.
Korean industries are increasingly obtaining status, interest and revenue from foreign states. Taiwanese television currently pays almost double to broadcast a Korean drama over a Japanese production. This suggests that Korean popular culture is attractive, which may be due to its balance of traditional and modern cultural values. For example, the Korean drama, ‘Winter Sonata’, encapsulates social conservatism, employing traditional morals of being sensitive, gentle and caring, yet presented in a modern environment. In accordance, South Korea provides a model for other conservative Asian states; how to modernize and keep traditional values. Therefore, popular culture that attracts and leads as an example for others is a form of soft power.
With the adoption of Neo-Liberal approaches in South Korea, power was diffused from the government to private sectors. Neo-Liberal strategies invoked privatisation and deregulation, which in return allow capitalists to govern systems of production, advertisement and consumption. For example, Korean music is governed by private sectors to be resonant with the Asian youth, which would have previously been stymied by the Korean nationalist government. This conveys that private sectors have more determination in generating what popular culture constitutes, and in conjunction perspectives of Korean Culture. Therefore, popular culture that empowers corporations and private sectors’ leverage over global systems is a form of soft power.
Post-Cold War perceptions of South Korea may be summarised as contemptuous, inferior and economically weak; which were supplemented by the Korean financial crisis in the 1990s. Though, the Kim Dae Jung administration realised the potential of popular culture in granting diplomatic power; by conveying ideologies of an influential and prominent nation. By creating cultural markets and consumer demand, the state has effectively facilitated their desired outcomes. South Korea now ranks in the top 15 market economies, and feelings of affinity towards South Korea have increased unanimously, and by almost double in Japan during the Korean Wave. Effectively, The South Korea state now constitutes a substantial amount of power, conveying the success of soft power in achieving their diplomatic aims. Therefore, popular culture that influences a states desired outcome is a form of soft power.
Japan and South Korea have both provided examples of soft power that is derived from popular culture. In Japan, popular culture was able to generate power and influence in their diplomatic aims; conveying a positive image of Japan and gaining leverage over permanent membership on the UN Security Council. Similarly in South Korea, popular culture was able to convey a refined, sophisticated and prominent nation in conjunction with facilitating their prominence on the global market. Therefore, soft power is a useful term in relation to the discussion of popular culture.
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Hills, Mat, “Transcultural Otaku: Japanese representations of fandom and representations of Japan in anime/manga fan cultures.” Media in Transition 2, (2002): 1-13.
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Joseph Nye Explains the Term Soft Power, Educational Film, directed by Allen Greg (Canada: Conversation, 2004).
Kaori, Hayashi, and Eun-Jeung Lee, “The Potential of Fandom and the Limits of Soft Power.” Social Science Japan Journal 10, no. 2 (2007): 197-216.
McGray, Douglas, “Japan’s Gross National Cool.” Foreign Policy 130, no. 1 (2002): 44-54.
Nakarmura, Toshiya, “Soft Power and Public Diplomacy: How Cool Japan Will Be.” International Studies Association, (2011): 1-26.
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Yang, Jonghoe, “The Korean Wave in East Asia.” Development and Society 41, no. 1 (2012): 103-147.
 Allen Greg, “Joseph Nye Explains the Term Soft Power,” Educational Film, (Canada: Conversation, 2004).
 Joseph Nye, “Soft Power.” Foreign policy, (1990): 161.
 Nissim Otmazgin, “Contesting Soft Power.” International Relations of the Asia-Pacific 8, no. 1 (2008): 81-82.
 Douglas McGray, “Japan’s Gross National Cool.” Foreign Policy 130, no. 1 (2002): 47.
 Mat Hills, “Transcultural Otaku: Japanese representations of fandom and representations of Japan in anime/manga fan cultures.” Media in Transition 2, (2002): 10.
 Peng Er Lam, “Japan’s quest for soft power: attraction and limitation.” East Asia 24, no. 4 (2007): 350.
 Nissim Otmazgin, “Contesting Soft Power.” International Relations of the Asia-Pacific 8, no. 1 (2008): 85.
 Toshiya Nakarmura, “Soft Power and Public Diplomacy: How Cool Japan Will Be.” International Studies Association, (2011): 14-15.
 Jeongsuk Joo, “Transnationalization of Korean Popular Culture and the Rise of Pop Nationalism in Korea.” The Journal of Popular Culture 44, no. 3 (2011): 496.
 Jonghoe Yang, “The Korean Wave in East Asia.” Development and Society 41, no. 1 (2012): 107.
 Hayashi Kaori and Eun-Jeung Lee, “The Potential of Fandom and the Limits of Soft Power.” Social Science Japan Journal 10, no. 2 (2007): 213.
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