Administering Affect
Pop-Culture Japan and the Politics of Anxiety
Daniel White



Pop-Culture Japan and the Circuitry of Affect

They were called the Ambassadors of Cute (kawaii taishi): three young women selected by Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) and presented to the press in February 2009. Their mission, according to the ministry, was “to transmit the new fashion trends of Japanese pop culture to the rest of the world and to promote an understanding of Japan through their respective cultural projects, carried out by the Japanese Embassies and the Japan Foundation” (MOFA 2009). Each ambassador represented one particular trend of Japanese cute (kawaii) fashion. Kimura Yū, age 27, represented Harajuku-style fashion (Harajuku-kei fasshon), named after a trendy area in one of Tokyo’s most popular shopping and entertainment districts. Aoki Misako, also age 27, modeled the more established and eccentric Lolita fashion (Rorīta fasshon), named after the nymphetic subject of desire in Nabokov’s famous 1955 novel. Finally, actor and fashion coordinator Fujioka Shizuka, age 21, featured so-called high school girls’ fashion (joshi kōsei fasshon), styled after school uniforms of female high school students in Japan. Dispatched to Japanese embassies and cultural festivals in countries such as France, Russia, and Brazil, the Ambassadors of Cute represented one of several projects serving what MOFA called “pop-culture diplomacy,” a new paradigm in public policy that was officially launched in 2006 but that continues through the start of Japan’s third decade of the new millennium. In this respect, and from the perspective of the program’s mostly male administrators, the Ambassadors of Cute were more than cultural communicators. They were representatives of a new Japan.

For many of the project’s organizers in MOFA, the Ambassadors of Cute were a success. Building on perceptions of the growing popularity of Japanese popular culture abroad, the program increased publicity for Japan’s content industries represented in goods such as anime, manga, characters, TV drama, and pop music and promoted images of what the government began calling “Cool Japan” in a national branding campaign. For other administrators, however, as well as many members of the public who heard about it, the program was less inspiring. During a conversation I had with the head of MOFA’s Public Diplomacy Department at the time, the director conceded he had received some criticism: “One female member of parliament voiced concern . . . that there may be some misunderstanding in a recipient country if a young girl walks around with a very short mini-skirt.” Regarding this critique, the director acknowledged that from the perspective of “soft power,” a new idiom of Japan’s public diplomacy, reception was key: “When we send or deliver this soft power culture [abroad], the most important thing is that it is well received by the recipient country.” He also noted in defense, “It is only one girl who shows her legs.” In addition to this member of parliament, some female officials working on cultural policy in Japan confessed concern that the Japanese government seemed to be relying too heavily on young cute women to represent Japan’s national culture. One university educator writing and advising on cultural policy expressed to me her skepticism over whose Japan the Ambassadors of Cute represented. She added later, “I never know what those bureaucrats are thinking!” If for some of Japan’s national cultural administrators, the Ambassadors of Cute embodied the hopes of cultural resurgence in a time of geopolitical anxiety, for others, the ambassadors triggered anxieties over what it now meant to be identified as Japanese.

Administering Affect examines the emergence, emotional appeal, and management of a new national figure in the twenty-first century that I call “Pop-Culture Japan.” Like the swirling signifiers on the front of this book, stamped with Takahashi Hiroyuki Mitsume’s energetic art, popular culture in Japan includes a cornucopia of commodities, practices, styles, ideas, ethics, and desires.1 And while Pop-Culture Japan draws on this eclectic mash-up of popular culture, it is nonetheless a different animal altogether. Far more uniformly constructed and affectively consistent, Pop-Culture Japan represents a hopeful vision for Japan’s cultural resurgence after nearly three decades of economic stagnation and geopolitical anxiety. It is manufactured not within the subcultural terrain of Mitsume’s youthful art, in the capacious creativity of anime and manga, or even in the ever-evolving varieties of popular fashion, but rather in more conventional and conservative sites of Japan’s government administration. Importantly, because those sites reflect selective views on what counts as the nation’s popular culture,2 Pop-Culture Japan is also fundamentally a political figure, embedding particular views and sentiments over others. For example, while its advocates are disproportionately older and male, its representative images, such as the Ambassadors of Cute, are more often young and female, inscribing a politics of gender into a narrative of national resurgence. Pop-Culture Japan thus represents a dominant figure of state administration as well as a contested figure of national cultural politics.3

In my use of the term, “Pop-Culture Japan” refers to an assemblage of pop-culture diplomacy projects and government-sponsored imagery, soft power ideology, national branding strategies, and, above all, an affective concern among state administrators over the international status of the nation that I call “geopolitical anxiety.”4 Together, I argue that these heterogeneous pieces contribute to mark a political paradigm shift over the last two decades in the way national Japanese culture was imagined by state administrators and, as a consequence, felt by both foreign and domestic consumers of media commodities produced in and about Japan. Grounded in sixteen months of fieldwork among administrators of Japan’s national culture at a critical point in this history, from 2009 to 2011, and looking historically backward and forward from this period in order to tell a comprehensive story, Administering Affect analyzes how administrators of Japan’s national cultural policy and diplomacy increasingly turned their attention to the uses of popular culture to modulate the feelings that both foreign and domestic publics associated with Japan. In analyzing government motivations for and practices of managing popular culture, this book asks how pop-culture diplomacy, soft power ideologies, and nation branding strategies otherwise known as “Cool Japan” emerged so powerfully in twenty-first century Japan, and, despite ample criticism of those policies from both inside and outside Japan, why they continue to this day. Additionally, because I think the answer to this question reveals important insights about how affect and emotion can structure a state’s public policymaking in ways that are difficult to articulate and thus have not received ample attention in scholarship, the book ultimately traces accounts of Pop-Culture Japan to address a broader anthropological question on the relation between political administration and personal feeling.

The anthropological question driving this book is, How do the worlds that state administrators manage become the feelings others embody but often imperfectly know? In 1927 the American philosopher John Dewey famously offered one explanation that suggests what is at stake in this question. He argued that a “public”—a collection of people such as a community, village, or even a nation-state—coalesces around consequences of social life that are “felt” but “cannot be said to be known” (Dewey, [1927] 1954, 131). The organization of a group of people that share a common consciousness, he claimed, requires the articulation of the problems they suffer. Because, through an extension of this logic, the status of a group’s flourishing depends on how well its problems are articulated, it is important who is most entrusted with this task. Ideal candidates should be articulate, empathetic, and, above all, sensitive to the causes of collective suffering. For Dewey, artists were likely the best suited for this task, given that “the function of art has always been to break through the crust of conventionalized and routine consciousness” (183). They were certainly better than the mass media, which were increasingly and, for Dewey, disconcertingly dominating public opinion in 1920s America during the time of his study. In any case, because a public’s problems could so quickly become everyone’s problems, especially where the imagined public was the nation-state at large, the stakes invested in sensing its problems and articulating them well were extremely high.

If the ideal candidates for narrating a nation-state’s problems were the artists, and the least ideal—at least at the time, when their susceptibility to mass publicity and profit incentives seemed insurmountable—were the mass media, then who were the actual articulators? Who, in most cases, was most prominently sensing the nation’s problems and offering solutions? Although Dewey disagreed with one answer that was offered, so much so that his disagreement is still debated today (Marres 2005; Whipple 2005; Schudson 2008),5 there is evidence to suggest that in the context of the United States in the 1920s, as well as in many contexts of geopolitics today, it is the nation-state’s administrators.

This might come as an unwelcome surprise. After all, since when were bureaucrats and technocrats known for their sensitivity? In a classic account of bureaucratic organization, the sociologist Max Weber ([1922] 1978, 975) claimed that it was the “objective discharge of business” according to “calculable rules and without regard for persons” that characterized the legal authority of the modern bureaucratic state, an entity distinct from and immune to the affective vagaries of “charismatic” and “traditional” types of authority ([1922] 1978, 215).6 Nearly one hundred years later, this perspective has not changed all that much. Updating Weber’s study of national bureaucracy, anthropologist Michael Herzfeld (1992) argued that while “Western” bureaucracy does not lack the symbolic and emotional characteristics we find in “culture” at large, if it has a signature affective disposition, it is “indifference.” Such assessments do not inspire much hope for realizing Dewey’s flourishing democratic public in the form of a politically reorganized state.

Despite their common appeal, I think these assessments on the insensitivity of state administrators might be wrong. Or, at best, they are incomplete. Having spent sixteen months among Japan’s government administrators of the state’s national cultural assets, I found bureaucrats to be incredibly sensitive figures.7 I do not mean that the “real” people behind the bureaucratic desk were just as sensitive as everyone else once they left the office at night. I mean that bureaucrats became especially sensitive, albeit in a particular way about particular things, in their role as administrators. This is not to say that bureaucrats in Japan are especially sensitive because of an all-pervasive sensitivity characteristic of so-called Japanese culture. Rather, I suggest that around the turn of the new millennium in Japan, geopolitical shifts of power in East Asia created the conditions where Japan’s administrators of its national culture became hypersensitive to perceptions of Japan’s declining political prestige in the world. Consequently, for reasons this book will explain, they became especially sensitive to feelings of anxiety that seemed inextricable from, in the famous aphorism of Benedict Anderson ([1986] 2006, 6), the “style” in which the national community was imagined.8 Subsequently, the world that these administrators sensed and subsequently built policies for was physically felt by many others in Japan’s national community who also imagined themselves a part of it. I name this style of feeling among administrators as well as the administrative practice of targeting, modulating, and impacting public feeling through policies and programs administering affect. This book tells the story of this style and strategy of administering affect by describing a diplomatic shift in policy by which the threatening world that state administrators perceived became the anxious sentiments they sought to manage and, in some cases, even consequently circulated among multiple publics in Japan. I begin this story by introducing how such anxieties emerged with and ultimately integrated three discursive components that I argue are constitutive of Pop-Culture Japan: pop-culture diplomacy, soft power ideologies, and nation branding.

Sensing Anxiety through Pop-Culture Diplomacy

It was only after several months of interacting with Japanese bureaucrats that I began to sense the anxiety. I had returned to Japan in 2008 in the midst of what mass media would later call the second lost decade (ushinawareta jūnen), referring not only to lost opportunities for economic growth after the collapse of Japan’s bubble economy in 1992 but also to lost possibilities for revitalization of all kinds, political and personal. I began fieldwork in 2009 among several government agencies whose officials were charged with curating and communicating to the world the nation’s “culture,” which was in the midst of transformation from one marked by tradition (Buddhist temples, calligraphy, and court music) to one by contemporary pop and “cool” commodities (anime, manga, and kawaii fashion). Through conversations and interviews with administrators, attendance at government committee meetings, and an internship at the Japan Foundation, a key agency managing the nation’s public and cultural diplomacy, I observed how politicians and bureaucrats began discussing programs aimed at boosting the nation’s geopolitical status by cultivating resources of popular culture. This shift in perspective was largely inspired and framed through a new political idea called “soft power,” a concept coined by Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye that described how a nation could cultivate appeal and influence abroad through its policies, values, and, most important for Japan’s national caretakers, its “culture.” More than a political strategy, however, the term also operated among Japan’s bureaucrats like a conduit for political insecurity, channeling anxiety into a variety of creative policy outlets.

Entrusted with caring for the nation’s image and cultivating a positive attitude toward it abroad, my interlocutors had reason to be anxious. China was predicted to surpass Japan to become the second largest economy in the world, which it did in late 2010, and Japan’s own economy had been stagnating since the collapse of its asset price bubble in 1992. Furthermore, other regional neighbors like South Korea were proving increasingly formidable economic competitors. In the midst of these perceived geopolitical threats, a consensus grew among officials that recently popularized strategies of nation branding and the cultivation of soft power might be a way to reclaim Japan’s declining political and economic prestige within the field of culture. As the geopolitical became increasingly tethered to national culture, and national culture tugged on the nerve endings of personal belonging, political stakes in the global economy manifested as risks to individual identity. Officials felt this pressure. A sense of desperation inspired imaginative policy ideas that drew from the latest trends of Japanese youth culture, circulated abroad and then recycled and adapted by bureaucrats. Fashionable young women (the Ambassadors of Cute described above) were dispatched to overseas embassies and cultural expos; the beloved manga character Doraemon, a robot cat from the future, received honorary diplomatic credentials from the Minister of Foreign Affairs; an international manga award was created to inspire foreigners to participate in what was framed as a quintessentially Japanese art form; and the ambassador to Iraq in 2008 was reassigned in 2009 to the Public Diplomacy Department, where he found himself attending and advocating for the political expediency of cosplay conventions.9 In 2006 Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs officially named these activities part of Japan’s pop-culture diplomacy (poppu karuchā gaikō) and described them as aims to “to further the understanding and trust of Japan” (MOFA 2017).

These creative policy responses hinted at an anxiety engendered by a sense of geopolitical pressure among state bureaucrats and politicians, and they tied deeply to a growing belief that the cultivation of soft power through pop-culture diplomacy could address it. When this anxiety was refracted through a domestic lens, however, it seemed to mix with an anxiety pervading society at large, characterized by the decline of Japan’s economy and a sense of labor-based social and psychological unease that Anne Allison (2013) has called “precarious.” Conscious of their role as storytellers of national crisis, administrators from Japan’s public broadcaster (NHK) proclaimed that the country faced a national “syndrome” and in 2011 proposed a series of programs in order to address the situation:


January 6, 2011 (Tokyo)—NHK is to start months of intensive coverage about Japan’s national malaise rooted in years of economic and social stagnation, naming it “The Japan Syndrome.”

The campaign will be led by “Next Japan,” NHK’s flagship project providing comprehensive reporting and analysis of longterm issues surrounding Japan.

Masaru Shiromoto, head of “Next Japan” project, said “anxiety clouds over the society as Japan faces unprecedented demographic change and global competition. We will address the issue head on and search for a remedy to climb out of this situation.” (NHK 2011a)

NHK’s press release described a widespread anxiety (fuan) inflicting Japanese society and, importantly, gives it a name: “The Japan Syndrome.” Interestingly, the title is not NHK’s but is borrowed from an article in the November 20, 2010 issue of The Economist, “The Future of Japan: The Japan Syndrome.”10 Thus, in a rhetorical act staged repeatedly throughout Japan’s modernity, the NHK announcement makes a diagnosis of national anxiety by appealing to a proverbial Western authority. For NHK and the government bureaucrats newly interested in the potential of popular culture to lift Japan from its depression, the remedy for anxiety required leveraging geopolitics to domestic healing. While pop-culture diplomacy grew out of a sense of urgency among administrators over Japan’s slipping status in the world, administrators also saw their geopolitical anxieties reflected in society at large. Projecting their fears into the public sphere, administrators transformed a diverse and ambiguous set of affective insecurities among everyday people into a common narrative of national anxiety. Subsequently, inspired by emerging discourses of soft power recently circulating among political elites, they also saw the nation’s popular culture as a possible vehicle for transforming widespread anxiety into national hope.

The Administrative Appeal of Soft Power

The concept of “soft power” is central to understanding how Japan’s bureaucrats applied pop-culture diplomacy to address domestic anxiety. Like the phrase “The Japan Syndrome” used in NHK’s program announcement, “soft power” was also a concept imported from Western intellectuals. Responding to concerns in the 1980s that the United States was losing its political and economic prestige, Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye set about investigating the legitimacy of these claims. “After looking at American military and economic power resources,” Nye recalled years later, “I felt that something was still missing—the ability to affect others by attraction and persuasion rather than just coercion and payment” (2017, 2). Nye called this ability to attract others “soft power” and argued that it was rooted in a country’s culture, its political ideals, and its policies (2004, x). Most importantly, he argued, soft power operates independently from “hard” power, which is based in military and economic strength. Nye introduced this concept in a prominent article in Foreign Policy and in his book Bound to Lead, both in 1990. Due to the term’s rapid popularization, he outlined his theory more explicitly in a book in 2004, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. In the early 2000s “soft power” became a buzzword that captured the attention of Japan’s politicians and state administrators. They widely cited Nye’s claim that “Japan has more potential soft power resources than any other Asian country” (2004, 85). They fast-tracked new policy measures and nation-branding projects. And they launched government committees to realize soft power’s potential. In Japan today, even after nearly two decades of discussion that sometimes waned but always waxed again, soft power serves as a normative if still awkwardly applied concept of modern government, politics, diplomacy, and even industry.

Soft power is also by all measures a normative concept in geopolitics. Contributing to its appeal in places outside the United States today is the perception that given America’s long-ranging war on terror, its unilateral style of international politics, and its loss of legitimacy since both its 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, soft power is up for grabs. This has enabled the rise of soft power contenders, especially in Asia (Bhutto 2019). For example, India is seen as making a strong bid for soft power through resources such as its technology and communications service sectors, its massive-scale democracy, its widely popular and prolific film industry referred to with mixed feelings as “Bollywood,” and, as advocated enthusiastically by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, its traditions of yoga and Ayurveda.11 South Korea has also been touted as a new soft power nation, especially in the wake of a global wave (Hallyu, or hanryū in Japanese) of rising appeal in the 1990s for its own popular culture commodities of K-pop, TV drama, and film. More immediately worrying to Japan’s bureaucrats, however, is China, and what has been called its “charm offensive” (Kurlantzick 2007). China made impressive displays at both the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and the Shanghai World Expo in 2010; its economy averaged almost 2 percent growth from 2010 to 2019;12 it received early praise for its response to the global pandemic of COVID-19 in 2020, if with reservations over its belated transparency and authoritarian style of management; and its Confucius Institutes, which offer generous funding for Chinese language and culture classes, have rapidly expanded over the past ten years and now operate in 149 countries.13 Hanban, the administrative agency of the Confucius Institutes, is set on further expansion, with China’s last two presidents, Xi Jinping and Hu Jintao, fully embracing a combined hard and soft power approach to global politics (Hubbert 2019; Hubbert and Powers 2020).

This growing interest in soft power suggests that the field of culture has become a coveted site for political investment and global competition. Through their ability to turn cultural production into political capital, soft power discourses reflect a growing trend in what George Yúdice (2003, 1) has called “culture-as-resource”:

Culture-as-resource is much more than commodity; it is the lynch-pin of a new epistemic framework in which ideology and much of what Foucault called disciplinary society (i.e., the inculcation of norms in such institutions as education, medicine, and psychiatry) are absorbed into an economic or ecological rationality, such that management, conservation, access, distribution, and investment—in “culture” and the outcomes thereof—take priority.

Contributing to an ideology of culture-as-resource, the idea of soft power has reframed policy debates on what in decolonization literature was once called “cultural imperialism” (Tomlinson 1991, 1999), recasting political uses of culture in a more ethically acceptable frame and protecting against accusations of propaganda. For example, if Hollywood under the framework of cultural imperialism was a malignant force of what Wim Wenders referred to in Kings of the Road as the Yanks’ “colonization” of the “subconscious” (Ashkenazi 2005, 351), under soft power it is an exemplary resource for a modern and responsible employment of power that appeals to freedom of choice within open markets. The increasing naturalization of soft power today as an indispensable component of diplomacy puts culture at the forefront of geopolitical competition, reflecting Yúdice’s assessment that “we can expect the economy and the polity to be globalized to the extent that they are culturalized” (2003, 29). In this respect, soft power not only offers hope for cultural administrators but also serves as a warning to those who would ignore it.

Although the idea of soft power has thus become commonplace in global politics, those seeking to develop or critique it have also raised practical questions regarding its application: What is and is not soft power? Who has it and who doesn’t? In what resources is it based? And to what degree is it dependent on hard forms of military and economic power?14 Although these questions dominate soft power debates today, they are not the ones this book addresses. Instead, by observing the adoption of soft power as a governing framework within Japan’s offices of national cultural administration, I seek to understand not what soft power is or how it can be applied but rather what it does at the level of everyday bureaucratic practice. My contention and the central argument of this book is that the theory of soft power in Japanese government agencies functions most importantly as a discursive mechanism through which anxious concerns for Japan’s present became manufactured into hopeful sentiments for its future.15 In this sense, I argue that Japan’s bureaucrats serve as dominant but not broadly representative nor accurate “articulators,” in Dewey’s terms, of the nation’s malaise. Because this part of my argument depends on my demonstration of a feeling of anxiety that I claim underlies soft power frenzy in Japan among state administrators, it demands further explanation. I think it can be delivered most clearly by illustrating how affect sustains what I call the “soft power contradiction.”

Early in my research I was struck by a contradiction that seemed to characterize soft power discussions in Japan. In short, the amount of energy and optimism over soft power’s potential seemed incongruous with the lack of evidence suggesting it could, in reality, be cultivated. In fact, the prospect of wielding soft power faced several practical problems. First, within government agencies strategizing soft power in Japan, definitions of it were multiple, contradictory, and vague. Even in the academic literature on soft power this is notoriously and admittedly the case.16 Second, among both government officials and academics, there was consensus that soft power could not be easily quantified in measurable indexes, a particularly acute problem for bureaucratic agencies that are required to demonstrate clear relationships between programs and outputs in order to justify publicly funded budgets.17 Third, what indicators might exist for measuring soft power’s positive effects will likely become visible only far into the future. The benefits of educational exchange programs, for example, can best be evaluated only ten to twenty years after their implementation, when students reach positions in industry or politics prestigious enough to effectively influence colleagues and form partnerships with members of the host country. Fourth, hard economic evidence from those content industries cited as resources for Japan’s soft power demonstrates not an increase but rather a stagnation and in some sectors even a decline in revenue (Kawamata 2005; Kawashima 2018; Oyama 2019; METI 2020a).18 Finally, optimism over Japan’s popular culture content industries (anime, manga, music, games, film), the sectors of the economy most optimistically perceived to generate Japanese soft power, is offset by the common observation that consumers who adore a nation’s cultural goods are often not equally enamored of its policies (see Anholt 2007; Iwabuchi 2007; Dinnie 2008; Aronczyk 2013). While Chinese and South Korean consumers may like Japanese manga, for example, this does not necessarily aid the Japanese government in realizing its political agendas, which, as issues like Yasukuni Shrine and territorial disputes illustrate, often elicit outright hostility from foreign publics.19 Further, where national governments seek to involve themselves with cultural commodities, the results are often counterproductive. In short, as observed by many critics of Japan’s Cool Japan campaigns, a nation’s bureaucrats are usually not the most appealing advocates of counterculture.

Given this set of challenges embedded in the concept of soft power, it is easy to see how its popular endorsement in Japan draws from an affective source of enthusiasm to sustain it. Through its ability to transform a present sense of anxiety into a future project of hope, soft power proved effective in generating optimism even in the face of practical challenges to it. As the term soft power became slowly inscribed in various bureaucratic organizations, it manifested this contradiction more poignantly. Government agencies with specific and standardized procedures found it difficult to incorporate such a vague concept into practical administration. However, the circulation of the concept itself increasingly routinized its idiomatic use within bureaucratic spaces. In this way, as soft power became naturalized within government administrations, it was at the very same time revealing its unnatural adaptability to them. What resulted were not only curious new programs of pop-culture diplomacy but also concerted efforts to rebrand the nation as contemporary, convivial, and cool.


1. In his classic study of popular culture, John Fiske (1989) distinguishes between “mass culture,” referring specifically to products made by dominant commercial industries (or what John Storey [2018, 8] eloquently called “hopelessly commercial culture”), and “popular culture,” referring to the organic practices, material objects, and semiotic systems through which people create meaning. Importantly for Fiske, although the latter was embedded with forces of “domination and subordination,” which were the forces of most concern to early critics of mass culture (Horkheimer and Adorno [1944] 1998), the field of popular culture also afforded “signs of resisting or evading these forces” (Fiske 1989, 4–5). I use popular culture to refer similarly to this zone of contradictory forces and practices where subordination, resistance, and a wide variety of identity practices are exercised through material culture.

2. In her expert analysis of popular culture in relation to the all-female theater troupe Takarazuka, Jennifer Robertson (1998) notes the difficulty of maintaining Fiske’s “popular culture” versus “mass culture” distinction when translating these terms into Japanese. The more relevant distinction in Japanese, according to Robertson, drawing from Kawazoe (1980), is between taishū and minshū culture. While minshū bunka (culture of the masses) refers more to folk and regional cultures, taishū bunka is a more “transcendent category—occasioned by certain forces, such as industrialization and modernization—that is virtually synonymous with the nation in its superclass, superregional orientation and its affective reach” (Robertson 1998, 34). Robertson’s description points to the difficulty of distinguishing mass from popular culture forces in Japan, while also suggesting that given the reach of and accessibility to taishū bunka, it can also be understood as “national culture.” While acknowledging Robertson’s insight into the mixing of dominant and resistant forces of mass and popular culture in Japan, I highlight the category of “national culture” as a contested figure, disproportionately defined by state administrators and sometimes enthusiastically accepted by and rejected by Japanese citizens.

3. The philosopher and social anthropologist Ernest Gellner’s classic distinction between nation and state proves useful for thinking about how soft power is mobilized toward varying “sentimental” and “instrumental” ends, terms originally used by the social psychologist Herbert Kelman (2001) to denote two different ways individuals emotionally invest, or “cathect,” in political systems. As the nation is imagined culturally, through shared symbols, imagery, and stories, the state serves as the political entity whose responsibility it is to administer and secure the integrity of it. “Nationalism,” Gellner explains, “is primarily a political principle, which holds that the political and the national unit should be congruent” (1983, 1). This splitting of the state from the nation engenders strong sentiments. Gellner (1983, 1) writes, “Nationalist sentiment is the feeling of anger aroused by the violation of the principle [that the political and the national unit should be congruent], or the feeling of satisfaction aroused by its fulfillment.”

4. I make two additional notes here on terminology in relation to “Pop-Culture Japan” and the “assemblage” respectively. First, while Pop-Culture Japan is an analytical term that I apply to identify this assemblage of soft power, nation branding, cultural diplomacy, and geopolitical anxiety at play in Japan, it is also applied in emic instances among those I consider its advocates. Examples include references to pop-culture diplomacy (poppu karuchā gaikō) and pop-culture communicators (poppu karuchā hasshinshi) by administrators in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA 2017); the establishment of a pop-culture team within the Japan Foundation; and descriptions by popular authors of Japan’s “Pop Power” (Poppu pawā; Nakamura and Onouchi 2006) and of pop culture’s ability to “save the world through manga, anime, and characterization” (Koyama 2004).

Second, my use of the term assemblage draws on the work of Deleuze and Guattari (1987); Foucault (1980); and more recently, De Landa (2016). It also draws on overlapping definitions of what Foucault calls the “apparatus” (dispositif), which he defined as “a thoroughly heterogeneous ensemble consisting of discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions—in short, the said as much as the unsaid. Such are the elements of the apparatus. The apparatus itself is the system of relations that can be established between these elements” (Foucault 1980, 194). I find Foucault’s emphasis on the apparatus as characterized by the “relations that can be established between these elements” useful for what I aim to describe with the phrase “Pop-Culture Japan.” My preference for assemblage as opposed to apparatus comes only from what Paul Rabinow notes is a temporal dynamic that can distinguish between the two: “Assemblages are secondary matrices from which apparatuses emerge and become stabilized or transformed” (Rabinow 2003, 56).

5. The “Lippmann-Dewey debate” has become a conventional reference in communication studies today, highlighting the endurance of a problematization since at least the 1920s of how to facilitate democratic participation given the increasing technological complexity of communication in large-scale societies. In reality, there was never an actual debate between Lippmann and Dewey. Rather, the journalist and critic Walter Lippmann outlined a critique of democracy in his books Public Opinion (1922) and The Phantom Public (1925), arguing that the institutionalization of a group of experts was the only way to enable the legitimate characterization of social problems and solutions. In favorable reviews of Lippmann’s books and in a series of lectures later published as The Public and Its Problems, Dewey praised Lippmann’s critique of the threats facing democracy but disagreed with his answer, instead proposing to seek an ethos as well as a practice of democracy. What made this discourse into a debate, argues Schudson (2008, 1032), “were liberal intellectuals in the 1980s and 1990s, writing at another moment of democratic disillusion as they sought to take stock and seek hope.”

6. An important but less-cited exception to Weber’s otherwise largely affectless characterization of bureaucracy is a point he makes on sentiments of status: “A strong status sentiment among officials not only is compatible with the official’s readiness to subordinate himself to his superior without any will of his own, but—as in the case with the officer—status sentiments are the compensatory consequence of such subordination, serving to maintain the official’s self-respect” ([1922] 1978, 968).

7. While few anthropological studies address bureaucratic sensitivity as a specific ethnographic focus, several works have emerged that analyze the affective dimensions of the state, such as Ann Stoler’s “Affective States” (2007) and Along the Archival Grain (2008); Matthew Hull’s Government of Paper (2012); Laura Bear’s Navigating Austerity (2015); Nayanika Mathur’s Paper Tiger (2015); Bear and Mathur’s “Remaking the Public Good” (2015); the collection of works on “affective states” by Laszczkowski and Reeves (2015); Jason Dittmer’s Diplomatic Material (2017); Maria Rashid’s Dying to Serve (2020); and most importantly, Yael Navaro-Yashin’s The Make-Believe Space (2012).

8. Anderson famously writes, “Communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined” ([1986] 2006, 6).

9. Cosplay is derived from the Japanese kosupurei, a portmanteau of “costume” and “play.” In cosplay conventions, participants dress up as admired characters from manga, anime, and games.

10. The Economist article also features in NHK’s promotional video for the new series (NHK 2011b).

11. In September 2014, Prime Minister Modi made a statement to the UN General Assembly in which he proposed an International Yoga Day on June 21: “Yoga is an invaluable gift from our ancient tradition. Yoga embodies unity of mind and body, thought and action . . . a holistic approach [that] is valuable to our health and our well-being. Yoga is not just about exercise; it is a way to discover the sense of oneness with yourself, the world and the nature” (United Nations 2015). While quickly adopted around the world and officially announced by the United Nations the next year, the announcement also strained tensions in India between Hindus and Muslims over the religious status of yoga (Burke 2015).

12. These figures are gathered from “China GDP Growth Rate,” Trading Economics, accessed June 11, 2020,

13. In 2010, there were 282 centers operating in 88 countries (Dawson 2010). At the time of writing in 2020, there were 530 in 149 countries (Xinhua 2019).

14. For a few representative book-length studies, see Nye (2004); Matsuda (2007); Kurlantzick (2007); Otmazgin (2013); Watanabe and McConnell (2008); Snow (2016); Hubbert (2019); and Bhutto (2019). Also see Ulf Hannerz’s (2016) chapter on soft power in his Writing Future Worlds (2016).

15. This argument builds on the work of others who have recognized similar functions of the soft power and Cool Japan discourse in Japan, such as Leheny (2006a, 2018); Lam (2007); Otmazgin (2008, 2013); Choo (2009, 2010, 2013); Daliot-Bul (2009); Valaskivi (2013); and Iwabuchi (2015).

16. See in particular Watanabe and McConnell’s (2008) volume in which multiple authors refer to this point.

17. Author Kawaguchi Morinosuke has made a recent attempt to quantify soft power in his 2016 book Nihonjin mo shiranakatta Nihon no kokuryoku (sofuto pawā). However, the book is even more editorial than the English title suggests. The English translation printed on the cover of the book reads, “Gross National Talent: A Quantitative Analysis of Amazing Japanese Soft Power.” A literal translation would better read, “The Soft Power of Japan That Even Japanese Don’t Know.”

18. The most detailed studies of Japan’s content industries are provided by Japan’s Digital Content Association in the annual Digital Content Report (Dejitaru kontentsu hakusho). The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry regularly incorporates data from these reports and other sources in ministry summaries, such as The Current State of the Content Industry and Future Development Trends (Kontentsu sangyō no genjō to kongo no hatten no hōkōsei), Content Industry International Market and Domestic Market Overview (Kontentsu no sekai shijō Nihon shijō no gaikan), and several white paper reports (hakusho; hōkokusho) included in the content industries (kontentsu sangyō) and the Cool Japan/creative industries (kūru Japan/kurieitibu sangyō) section of the ministry’s website ( These summaries show mixed trends, with certain sectors like games and character development slowly increasing but others like music and publishing in decline. Fluctuation and the global financial crisis in 2008 make broad estimates difficult, but in the anime industry, for example, the industry most often cited as evidence for Cool Japan’s appeal abroad, the industry declined from 31 billion yen ($310 million) earned from exports in 2005 to less than 20 billion yen ($200 million) in 2015 (Kawashima 2018, 25). Highlighted in METI’s latest summary of content industry exports is Japan’s decline in its total share of the global content market from 8.25 percent in 2016 to 8.22 percent in 2019 and an estimated 7.98 percent for 2023 (METI 2020a, 2). As Oyama Shinji (2019, 7) summarizes, “Creative industries in the US generate more than 17% of its annual turnover in the overseas market, while Japan’s remains low at 2.8%. . . . If one looks at the size of actual revenue inflow for media and content—character goods ($315 million), animation ($130 million), and manga ($120 million)—it becomes apparent that they are not enough to have a substantial influence on employment and growth.” Kawashima argues that “the available data strongly suggest the lack of income from abroad” (2018, 24) and “the economic policy of the Japanese government specifically targeting these [content] industries does not seem to have been impressive in its results” (20). Also see Otmazgin (2013) for a more comprehensive review.

19. Yasukuni Shrine, in Tokyo’s Chiyoda ward, commemorates soldiers and victims of Japan’s military conflicts. Its enshrining of the deceased as kami (deities), including not only Japanese but also non-Japanese involved in relief efforts, such as Korean and Taiwanese, has become a flashpoint for contesting Japan’s military incursions in East and Southeast Asia.