Is Japan's soft power making a comeback in South-east Asia?: The Nation contributor

BNK48, the third international sister group of Japan's AKB48, after Indonesia's JKT48 and China's SNH48.
BNK48, the third international sister group of Japan's AKB48, after Indonesia's JKT48 and China's SNH48.PHOTO: FACEBOOK/BNK48

In the article, the writer says Japan should explore the opportunity to cement its ties with Southeast Asia.

BANGKOK (THE NATION/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - The massively successful all-female band, named BNK48, is firmly capturing the hearts of the younger generation in Thailand.

The success is already translated into a multimillion-dollar profit that is energising the Thai music industry.

More importantly, it marks a return of a Japanese fad on the shores of South-east Asia.

Can Japan's soft power rule the region once again?

BNK48 is the third international sister group of Japan's AKB48, after Indonesia's JKT48 and China's SNH48.

The Thai idol group was born together with similar groups in the Philippines, called MNL48, and in Taiwan, known as TPE48.

The original idea was crafted by a Japanese producer, Yasushi Akimoto, who formed AKB48, which consisted of 48 Japanese girls who performed in a theatre in Akihabara.

This explains the name of AKB48, an abbreviation of Akihabara.

The idea soon proliferated to South-east Asia.

Currently, the Thai BNK48 is dominating the music chart in Bangkok.

Even Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha, recently spared the time to meet BNK48 and congratulate them.

The export of Japanese pop culture to South-east Asia has its long history.

Ranging from music, fashion to manga, Japan had led the cultural trends in the region, now with Haruki Murakami staying on top as a Japanese cultural icon.

But the path of Japanese soft power has not always been rosy.

At the peak of the Cold War, Japan emerged as a key actor through the assertion of its cultural and economic prowess.

The Japanese influence permeated everywhere in South-east Asia and in all-important aspects, from commerce, financial aid, investment, to food and culture.

Japan's economic and cultural influence was actively put forward to compensate Japan's inactive defence and military role.

Japanese economic dominance in the region has been evident, then accounting for more than half of the region's GDP, and three times larger than the Chinese economy.

Now, it ranks in the top three trading positions and remains the top aid donor to South-east Asian nations.

More concretely, symbols of Japan's cultural and economic power have been seen throughout South-east Asian cities since the 1960s.

The first foreign department store in Bangkok, carrying a hybrid Thai-Japanese name, Thai-Daimaru on Rajdamri Road, was established in November 1964.

The recipe of Japan's success rests on two important factors.

First, although Japan's outlook of international relations was tightly locked with that of the United States, the government has formulated a more independent foreign policy particularly towards South-east Asia.

As a non-military nation, Japan has earned trust from South-east Asian neighbours.

Second, Japan realised the potential of its soft power and began to exercise it vigorously with South-east Asian nations in an all-round manner.

Japan's high-tech products bombarded the regional markets, marking a new dawn of commercial revolution through Japanese-led internationalisation of retailing.

On the psychological level, the government exported a series of soap-operas to South-east Asian neighbours in which Japan depicted itself as Asia's centrr of a refined lifestyle - modern, yet very Eastern.

At the same time, it targeted younger generations with animated programmes and manga.

Gradually, the wave of Japanese-ness was ingrained in the minds of the local people.

South-east Asia depended heavily on Japan's material products and its cultural innovation.

The two elements were packaged as part of Japan's soft power and cultural diplomacy, which had been consistent, but malleable to the changing taste of South-east Asians.

The campaign for Japanese soft power was further initiated to reach out to young leaders of South-east Asia, such as through the scholarships offered by the Gaimucho, or Ministry of Education, exclusively to government officials, and through programmes such as "Ship for South-east Asian Youth".

Today, in the midst of fierce competition from China and South Korea, Japan is keen to strengthen its position, culturally, in South-east Asia.

The cultural markets in the region are vibrant and cut throat.

Through Hong Kong, Chinese soap-operas have enjoyed a large share among South-east Asian audiences.

Meanwhile, Korean hallyu, or Korean Wave, has effectively lured them with K-pop, kimchi and cosmetics.

The comeback of Japan, via AKB48, will likely make South-east Asian markets flourish again.

But the early wave of Japanese influence did not operate without difficulties.

During 1970-1975, university students in several countries launched anti-Japanese demonstrations.

Japan's economic and cultural products were boycotted as a consequence of the resurgence of local nationalism.

Some Japanese visitors instigated widespread resentment among the South-east Asians because they were too full, not too empty, of their own identity to the point of offending what they believed to be the inferior cultures of the locals.

Thus, in 1977, the Fukuda Doctrine was asserted by the late Japanese Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda, pledging that Japan, a country committed to peace, would never become a military power, would build up relationship of mutual confidence with South-east Asia in wide-ranging fields, and would cooperate positively with Asean and its member countries in their own efforts, as an equal partner.

More than 40 years after the Fukuda Doctrine, Japan continues to reinvent itself while engaging with South-east Asia.

Japan may not be producing yet another Fukuda Doctrine in 2018, but the return of Japanese cultural impact in the region is testament of Japan's seriousness in playing a leading role in the changing regional environment.

Back in Bangkok, fans of BNK48 have gone crazy for their idols.

Some even paid homage to Japan to trace the origin of AKB48.

While trends and fashions are not long lasting, cultural influence is likely to stay.

Japan should grasp this opportunity to further cement cultural ties with South-east Asia, through song and dance.

The writer is an associate professor at Kyoto University's Centre for South-east Asian Studies. The Nation is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media entities.