Interview with Nancy Snow on Japan, Nation Brands and Public Diplomacy

Nancy Snow in this interview takes us to Japan, a country with a rich history, culture and cuisine. Professor Snow offers intriguing insights into the Japanese society, its lack of nation brand storytellers and the opportunities – and challenges – of the 2020 Summer Olympics taking place in Tokyo.

Learn about:

  • The effect of politics on nation branding;
  • What it takes for nation branding to be successful;
  • The role of storytelling in building nation brands;
  • Five tips how nation branders can “do it right”;
  • The brand image and perceptions of Japan.

Nancy, do you remember the first time you heard about public diplomacy and nation branding? What got you interested?

It begins with living abroad right out of my homogeneous scholarly environment in the South. I graduated in political science from a public university, Clemson University, where most of the students were from the state of South Carolina. I left immediately for Europe to spend a year as a Fulbright student in the Federal Republic of Germany.

Living abroad for an extended period forces you to consider how your home country and native identity are perceived.

Over time I became interested in the origins of person-to-person sponsored exchange, since the Fulbright had become so meaningful to me. That led to my doctoral dissertation, “Fulbright Scholars as Cultural Mediators.” I had found my calling. Once I landed my first job out of my doctoral program, namely the U.S. Information Agency, there was no going back.

Do politics have an effect on the nation brand?

Yes, of course, given my politics study background. I’d have to say so.

I view the nation branding process in the context of power relations—who has it, who doesn’t, and storytelling—whose story, what main characters are being packaged, and whose story, what characters are being left out.

A nation’s culture promotion cannot be viewed entirely in a vacuum of educational exchange of ideas and values. Promoting a nation brand culture is often propagandist in intention and outcome. It depends on the vehicle of promotion and the intentions of that vehicle’s actors.

For example, Kazuo Ogoura, former president of The Japan Foundation, observes that cultural diplomacy, like public diplomacy, is part of the foreign policy of a government with political implications. But he views cultural exchanges as “not necessarily linked to a nation’s political intentions or strategies, at least in the short term. Under this concept, cultural activities are undertaken not as a political means to bolster a nation’s image but as creative endeavors valid in their own right—that is, for the purpose of mutual inspiration through international exchange.” (Source)

His distinction is exactly how I viewed my work at USIA. On the one hand, we did so-called “God’s work,” or work valued for a greater purpose beyond government propaganda. This was the exchanges division in particular where we oversaw the Fulbright program.

On the other hand, we also engaged in purely propagandist endeavors, as when our agency got heavily involved in promoting the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) because the newly elected president of the United States, Bill Clinton, was making its passage the cornerstone of his new market-driven democracy agenda.

I was never comfortable getting involved in NAFTA promotion because I did not like the way the agreement was presented to the people affected by it. Corporate heads were meeting behind closed doors to determine political economy policies that would impact the populations of the U.S., Canada and Mexico. The public had little say so in the formation of NAFTA.

Brand 2020 video series on nation branding Japan

You recently said in one of your talks in the “Brand 2020” video series that nation branding is everybody’s business. Would you like to expand on this?

Well I’ve been saying this for years. The Japanese public isn’t educated in its role as Japan’s best brand ambassadors. Every globally engaged Japanese citizen needs to recognize himself or herself as integral to Japan’s foreign relations.

Special advisor to NHK, Hatsuhisa Takashima, says, “The greatest weakness of Japan lies in its citizens who do not realize that they are directly linked to global efforts to disseminate information about Japan.”

Nation branding in Japan is still government and industry centered, top-down, and elite-driven. A lot of tourism efforts are targeting strictly luxury consumers, but that is limiting and too commercially focused.

Japan’s cuisine is so well known throughout the world, but Japan could use a new slogan like “Come for the food. Stay for the people.” And the people here are not cardboard cutouts.

Japan is known for Cool Japan otaku or cosplay (costume play) — or foreign press buzzwords like “weird” and “wacky” associated with the Tokyo nightlife — but this version of Japan misses other features that don’t play as well on the global market.

Japan has a million plus stories to share with the world. I’ll never forget a Japanese person at one of my talks telling me that perhaps Japan had no more stories to tell. This is the consequence of making nation branding too focused on the specialists and experts, which here is often either the rotating ministry bureaucrat or bilingual foreign national whose livelihood is contingent on saying how lovely everything in Japan is. What do you learn from such an endorsement?

In your view, which is the biggest misconception that the global audience holds about Japan?

There are many misconceptions but two that stand out: Japan is so unique that it is inscrutable. It’s hard to know.

Second, there are too many barriers to coming to Japan, namely language, expense, accessibility. None of this is true. Japan is accessible.

Part of nation brand Japan is to promote “unique” Japan, so it’s a bit of a two-edged sword. I’ve warned public diplomats in government and industry that they need to find a hybrid version of “unique” Japan that is traditional and modern, unique, and universal.

The environment here is very welcoming. The people in Japan, especially in the areas where first-time foreign visitors tend to congregate, are better at communicating in English than one might expect.

The culture here is quite diffident, displaying a lot of humility and shyness that might be construed as standoffish, but I’m able to get around just fine with my extremely limited Japanese knowledge. This is a consequence of my observing the culture over time and the way people communicate non-verbally.

Public Diplomacy Professor Nancy Snow
Nancy Snow with Hajime “Jimmy” Kishimori, discussing Japan House at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

You can find affordable meals, you can access locations well enough with the use of apps and smart phone technology, and you can even find plenty of cuisine that is not Japanese.

I still wonder if the majority of the world thinks the Japanese eat sushi or sashimi for every meal. Not true! There is a love of things foreign, including food, but you get a Japanese twist on it.

Is there an aspect of Japan that is not widely known and should be communicated and included in the branding activities?

Japan is currently not recognized enough as a nation of storytellers, but there is no reason it cannot be so if you make storytelling the main feature of how you want to better communicate with the world.

There may be a partial explanation here. In many societies, good storytelling is associated with oral communication passed down from generation to generation. We sometimes call it “spinning a good yarn,” the kind of good conversation you might have while knitting.

Japanese studies scholars point out that public speaking and speaking well or skillfully hold more negative than positive connotations. There are Japanese proverbs (smart in words, weak in deeds; an empty drum thunders loudly; a mewing cat will not catch a mouse.)

Even if Japan needs to work on its public speaking and public presentation, it still has the advantage of a traditional listening and consensus-driven culture, traits that would bode well in international relations.

It seems to be a confidence thing here at times—embracing more what the country is naturally good at, combined with more training in those areas (like global media relations) that have not been emphasized.

Japan is going to host the 2020 Summer Olympics. Do you see any opportunities or challenges regarding the country’s brand, linked to the event?

The challenge will be how to present Japan to a global audience. Japan benefits from a highly enthusiastic core of Japanophiles who naturally seek out Japan, but for the looky-loo person who may not know much about Japan, which Japan will be on display? Is it traditional or modern, closed off or accessible, masculine or women-empowering?

Warning Signs Japanese CultureThis is a country full of a lot of hidden paradox. On the surface the 2020 Summer Olympics represents an opportunity for Japan to show itself in a new light—as a nation that is globalizing more than ever, hosting more foreign visitors than ever, finding a more involved role in global interventions, but it must be ready for any contingency. This is a country that prides itself on disaster preparedness and recovery.

Everywhere you go you hear warnings, chimes, and see signs that are like a mother peering over one’s shoulders—watch your step, please do be careful. This risk aversion will bode well for Japan’s being ready to host the world in 2020. One of the biggest challenges is associated with the Japanese respect for nature: in the late summer season, it’s not the most positive aspect.

It may very well be the weather that consumes a lot of the media coverage. The 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo took place in October. The heat and humidity in August in Tokyo is going to take its toll on the international athletes and the Olympics sites better prepare well for the visitors and athletes to make sure that everyone stays safe and healthy.

Five tips for nation brand managers eager to ‘do it right’?

First, become adept at body language, nonverbal communication in studying the nation which you would like to better brand. Learning the language of the culture is important, but even more important is developing cultural sensitivity to the rhythms and rhymes of the everyday movements and habits of the people. Go back and read Edward Hall.

Second, be mindful of your role as a nation brand manager. You have a lot of responsibility in your hands and doing it right means taking regular audits of what you know and what you think you know.

Third, get to know the hidden storytellers and cultural informants who may live well outside the city centers.

We nation brand types congregate in big cities—or so I think—or we study nation branding as scholars—but we need to take walkabouts and excursions to the landscape away from the tall buildings and impressive corner offices.

In Japan that might mean getting to know the regions of Japan outside the main tourist areas, where society’s rhythms slow down, where people can congregate and exchange ideas, and where leadership roles can shift based on such an exchange of ideas.

Fourth, ask yourself, why am I doing this, not just what it is we are doing and how. What does all this nation branding business mean? Is it just to enhance the bottom line? If so, then it lacks a greater societal purpose.

Nation branding should have a strong human connection context.

Fifth, just like with responsible media coverage, pay attention to landscape stories, not just spotlight, breaking news versions of nation branding. This relates to diversity and inclusiveness beyond race and ethnicity to things like class, level of education, and mental and physical challenges.

Good nation branding stories are hidden among the cracks and fissures, not just located at the foreign press briefing or news conference.

Thank you, Nancy.

Connect with Nancy Snow on LinkedIn or follow her on Twitter.


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