ASEAN-Japan Cultural Relations: A Japanese Perspective
Speech by Makoto Yamanaka, Ambassador of Japan to Singapore,
Forum on ASEAN-Japan Cultural Relations
24 July 2009
Orchard Hotel, Singapore


Ambassador K Kesavapany,
Professor Tommy Koh,
Ambassador Rodolfo Severino,
Distinguished Guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Good morning.

I am so pleased and honored to speak this morning on the ASEAN-Japan Cultural Relations at this prestigious Forum organized by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. I am particularly pleased that culture is picked as the main subject in the relations between ASEAN and Japan because I believe culture deserves more attention in the context of ASEAN and East Asian region. While economic, political and security relations remain vital in this region, cultural element becomes increasingly important. Let us look at ASEAN-Japan relations from the perspective of culture or soft power, and things may seem different from what they used to be.

Cultural relations in 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s

ASEAN was established by five founding members in 1967. Six years later, in 1973, Japan set up Dialogue Partnership with ASEAN, and Japan became an important partner in ASEAN’s web of external links. It was the beginning of the relations between ASEAN and Japan. For about three decades since then, peace and security as well as economic growth in the region were the basic pursuits of both ASEAN and Japan. ASEAN was basically created to achieve the regional peace and security. In this respect, the Cambodian conflict was a direct challenge for ASEAN. Since I was based in Bangkok in the late 80s, I remember how hard ASEAN had worked to solve the Cambodian conflict. Japan and the other dialogue partners joined forces with ASEAN because peace and stability in Southeast Asia was also their national interest.

Economic development is another strong aspiration for forging the relation between ASEAN and Japan. It drives Japan to promote trade and investment relations with ASEAN countries and to provide them with official development assistance (ODA). Thus, Japan’s contribution to the economic growth of ASEAN countries was significant in terms of upgrading ASEAN’s economy including the local work force, infrastructure and technology.

In this way, it was quite natural that ASEAN and Japan focused their attention on economic development and regional peace and security. With such focus, culture was not in the spotlight in that period. The tools for cultural exchange were limited and the pressing need for such exchange did not exist.

A call for change or adjustment came when an incident took place in Bangkok and Jakarta in 1974, where Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka faced the riots protesting Japan’s economic over-presence. This symbolic incident prompted Japan to introduce a more balanced approach to ASEAN-Japan relations; more emphasis on cultural and people-to-people relations. This approach was translated later into the so-called Fukuda Doctrine in 1977. This doctrine called for, among other things, a heart-to-heart relationship between ASEAN and Japan. The doctrine has been adhered to by the successive Japanese governments, and has remained the basis of Japan’s foreign policy for Southeast Asia to this day.

Hence, the government of Japan took the lead in various cultural initiatives in Southeast Asia such as the promotion of Japanese language education, the preservation of cultural heritage (Borobudur, Angkor Wat and Hue Royal Palace) and the launching of the Ship for Youth Exchange Program. Japanese traditional art and culture like music, dance and theatre was also introduced to ASEAN countries. However, despite the extent to which cultural exchange was stressed, there was a tendency that the cultural relations did not have raison d’etre of its own and were often considered as serving other objectives such as the economic development and political stability. ASEAN-Japan cultural relations were also generally a one-way traffic. Although the Japanese government had tried to promote a two-way relation between ASEAN and Japan through the Japan Foundation, which was established in 1972, there was still an impression that the culture flow was more from Japan to ASEAN rather than the reverse. So was the tourists flow between Japan and ASEAN.

Cultural relations in late 1990s and the 21st century

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Let us now turn to the new phase of ASEAN-Japan cultural relations starting from the late 1990s to present. Globalization with IT revolution and the rise of the middle class have changed the lifestyle of many people in Asia since the late 1990s. Moving along with these trends, the growing popularity of Japan’s pop culture is a phenomenon in the world particularly in Southeast Asia. These changes have brought greater interest in cultural interchange and new business initiatives in East Asia, where regional community building is actively pursued.

Last November, I participated in the Anime Festival Asia organized by a private company at Suntec City, Singapore. During the two-day Festival, forty-six thousand people came and enjoyed the shows, songs and goods of Japanese Anime. I was immediately overwhelmed by the popularity of Japanese Anime as I entered the hall swarmed with enthusiastic young audience. The Costume Play Festival (Cosplay Fest or COSFEST) held in Singapore two weeks ago had an unbelievable following of eighteen thousand young participants. In both events, the young participants enjoyed sharing their sense of solidarity while living out their virtual identities.

The popularity of Japanese pop-culture cannot be confined to anime and cosplay; manga, fashion, design and food are also very popular in Singapore and elsewhere in East Asia. They fascinate many people, mainly the emerging middle class of the ASEAN region who finds them readily accessible and affordable.

The Japanese language is also very popular; so many young students in Southeast Asia are studying Japanese. The world had approximately 730,000 people studying the Japanese language in 1988. This number jumped more than four times to 3 million in 2006. As for ASEAN, its number has surged from 55,000 in 1988 to 440,000 in 2006 by almost eight times. This is, by far, the fastest increase in the world. There were two recent upturns in the number of Japanese language students in this region. The first upturn took place in the late 1980s and it was inspired mainly by the rise of Japan’s economic power. The second upturn, which took place from 1999 to now, is mainly inspired by Japan’s pop culture, particularly anime and manga. Simply put, many students in the 1980s tried to get jobs using their Japanese language ability while many students today learn Japanese so as to enjoy manga and anime in the original language. The Japanese language can claim that it attracts many students by the charm of its own culture rather than by non-cultural factors. In any event, the ASEAN region sees a dramatic increase in the need for Japanese language study and the motive thereof has become much diversified.

The recent popularity of the Japanese pop-culture such as Anime and Manga and the upsurge in the demand for the Japanese language are part of the new phase of ASEAN-Japan cultural relations. In the new phase, culture has come to claim its merit in its own right. What are the distinctive features of the cultural relations between Japan and ASEAN in the 21st century, as compared with the past? I would like to discuss three special features.

The first feature is ‘two-way relationship’. This is a clear departure from the one-way cultural relationship in the 1970s and 1980s. Let us take a look at tourism. The tourist traffic from ASEAN to Japan was negligible in the past compared to Japanese tourists flocking to ASEAN countries. But recently, an increasing multitude of people from ASEAN countries is visiting Japan. Last year, 614,000 people visited Japan from the ASEAN-Five countries. Tourist flow from Singapore to Japan is also robust. The number of Singaporean visitors to Japan in 2008 was 168, 000, an 87% increase from that in 2004. This trend can be attributed to increased personal income in the ASEAN countries and the charm of tourism in Japan. In order to accelerate this trend and to promote “Yokoso Japan”, the Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO) was quick to open its Singapore office in 2006. This office covers Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and even India.

Food culture is another example. No one can deny the popularity of Japanese food in Singapore and elsewhere in the region. The number of Japanese restaurants in Singapore is estimated at over 600; they pamper your taste buds with offerings of such dishes as high-end sushi kaiseki and the everyday ramen-noodle. In Japan, it is getting popular and trendy to partake of Southeast Asian delicacies. Thai food, for instance, may be the most popular in Japan. Today, restaurants serving “Chicken Rice”, “Chili Crab” and “Kaya Toast”, Singapore signature dishes, can be found in Tokyo.

As Southeast Asian gastronomy and traditional artworks gain popularity in Japan and as more tourists from ASEAN countries go to Japan, ASEAN-Japan cultural relations are becoming more two-way and thus more balanced.

The second feature is leadership of the private sector in cultural exchange. The recent surge in popularity of modern Japanese culture such as anime, manga, fashion, design and food owes a lot to private initiatives. The private sector takes initiative simply because it is profitable. As a result of such corporate activities, very innovative ideas and products are created. And they become an important part of Japanese brand and soft power. This phenomenon is remarkably different from the once government-led cultural exchange in the 1970s and the 1980s.

Japan’s soft power is empowered by a number of private activities of individuals and organizations: Anime Creator like Hayao Miyazaki, Game Companies like SONY Computer Entertainment, Nintendo and Koei, Fashion Retailer like UNIQLO, and numerous Japanese restaurants based in ASEAN countries. They are key players in ASEAN-Japan cultural relations. Often times, they work with local partners for sales, marketing, research and development. It means that Japan’s soft power provides new business opportunities for the locals in the ASEAN region and it is actually supported by the local entrepreneurs.
The third feature is community building. Today, ASEAN is accelerating its integration process with its Charter in effect. ASEAN and its partners including Japan are looking at building a regional architecture in East Asia and beyond. The countries in the region are trying to work together to tackle new challenges such as the global economic crisis, terrorism, pandemic, environment, piracy, etc. ASEAN integration and regional community-building are believed to provide effective venues for regional joint efforts vis-à-vis these challenges.

In January 2002 in Singapore, then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi delivered a policy speech that set out a new vision of a basic framework for Japan’s relationship with ASEAN. In his speech, Mr. Koizumi proposed that in the 21st century, Japan and ASEAN should strengthen their cooperation under the basic concept of “acting together, advance together”, and he introduced the idea of an “East Asian Community”. Based on this concept, the “ASEAN-Japan Exchange Year 2003” was introduced as a launch pad for over 700 projects in a wide range of fields during the year 2003. In an effort to promote cultural exchange and showcase Asia’s diversity and commonality, joint performances featuring top artists from Japan and 10 ASEAN countries in pop music, traditional dance, and orchestra were organized. They were choreographed and staged in Japan and across ASEAN countries. These events contributed to the creation of a sense of solidarity and identity for this region.

This sense of solidarity and identity is quite important to our building of a regional community. That is why we want a new ASEAN-Japan cultural relationship. As cultural experiences become more accessible and affordable, it can become an important ingredient for public diplomacy, identity forging and community building. I believe that culture is inclusive by nature because it transcends national boundaries so easily that it could contribute to mutual understanding and thus, to community building in the region.

New Initiative / JCC

Cultural relations between Japan and ASEAN in the 21st century deserve more attention. The private sector is taking the lead, and therefore, it is not the government but the people that stand centre stage. And in the new phase of the cultural relations, we can expect an active two-way cultural exchange in the region. Perhaps, it would be nicer to look at multilateral cultural interchange in the whole region including China, Korea, India and the US.

The government’s role, I believe, is to facilitate the private/corporate initiatives to promote cultural exchange, not to stand in the way of the private sector. Hence, intellectual property is one of the important areas that the government should work in this respect. In Singapore, there have been a lot of cultural events led by private initiatives such as the Anime Festival Asia, Singapore Biennale and Keio/NUS joint research on digital media. Certainly, the Japanese Government will continue its efforts of promoting cultural exchange, where contribution from the private sector is lacking, such as some youth exchange programs (JENESYS) and some public diplomatic activities such as the International MANGA Award and the appointment of Anime Ambassador and Kawaii Ambassador.

In November 2009, the Japan Creative Centre is slated to officially open in Singapore. One of the Center’s objectives is to promote the Japanese culture and drive business development, as well as function as a test case for private sector-and-government collaboration. I do hope that this Center will facilitate to promote cultural relations between Japan and ASEAN and will become a new model of culture center for the future.

Thank you.