Breaking its streak of year-on-year improvement in the rankings, Japan falls three spots – and out of the top five – to 8th position. Despite this fall, Japan continues to wield considerable global influence through its soft power assets. It remains Asia’s highest-ranking country, and sole Asian representative in the top ten of The Soft Power 30. Moreover, 2019 and 2020 are big years for Japan. Earlier this year, Japan hosted its first G20 Summit, widely regarded as a success for its closing communique that reaffirmed the world leaders’ commitment to free trade and open markets. This might sound perfunctory, but reaching agreement on such matters is no small feat in the current global political context. Despite strong performances in the Engagement and Culture sub-indices, Japan took a hit in this year’s international polling. Japan’s drop out of the top five can be largely attributed to a significant fall from third to seventh in the international polling. Can Japan leverage its other soft power assets to earn back favour from international audiences and reclaim its spot in the top five next year?
Japan sees a noteworthy improvement in the Culture sub-index, jumping an impressive eight spots to reach 6th place. Hosting high-profile international events proved to be a blessing to Japan, indicating that Japan knows exactly how to leverage its wide-ranging cultural assets. The 2019 Rugby World Cup and G20 Summit were opportunities to build up and strengthen Japan’s soft power reserves. With the 2020 Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games approaching, Japan has already garnered favourable conversation around its efforts to keep the games sustainable and eco-friendly. As sports diplomacy has proven to be a tremendously useful tool, we wait expectantly to see how Japan uses this event as a platform to project contemporary Japanese culture around the world with its penchant for ingenuity.
Japan ranks relatively low in the Government sub-index, with low scores for trust in government and gender equality. Gender discrimination in Japan came to the fore as the #KuToo movement made waves on social media this year. Japanese women came together to petition for a ban on company dress codes requiring female employees to wear high-heeled shoes on the job. As gender discrimination and equality become issues that are increasingly discussed, the government could offer to hold public consultations to build a society where all citizens are respected, and strengthen trust in government.
Japan has made significant headway in the international arena with strong performances in the Engagement and Culture sub-indices. However, poor performances in both the Government and Education sub-indices suggest that there is scope for significant gains with considered government intervention in these areas. Moreover, the conflict between internal political considerations and outward global perceptions of Japan is a risk that needs to be managed, as demonstrated by reactions to the resumption of commercial whaling. The new Reiwa era, which can be interpreted as “beautiful harmony”, could be a timely catalyst for change.