Japan Runs Into Trouble Refreshing Its Brand

American scholars call it "revisionist history"

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (Photo: AFP)

Quick Quiz: What do you think of when you think of Japan?

Pagodas? Bonzai Trees? The flag with the big red dot on it? Most Americans revert to these and other, more shallow pop culture references. Ask a Baby Boomer the same question, however, and the answer will be very different.

This is why a movement led by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe aims to focusing on the “Japan Brand.” From Reuters:

The PR campaign, which has a budget of over half a billion dollars, comes as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe aims to adopt a less apologetic stance on Japan’s actions before and during World War Two and ease the fetters imposed on defense policy by Japan’s post-war, pacifist constitution.

Anyone interested in that RFP?

This isn’t just about tourism; Japan “is also targeting wartime accounts by overseas textbook publishers and others that it sees as incorrect and damaging to Japan’s image.”

Much like America (home to a certain Civil Rights Movement with which you may be familiar), Japan has not always been the country it is today…and the Prime Minister now finds the process of reconciling the past and the present to be more difficult than expected.

This effort to change perceptions of Japan’s past has enraged a few prominent U.S. historians and scholars who call it “revisionist history” and insist that people should be able to learn from what came before. One particularly controversial aspect of that history concerns “comfort women,” or girls forced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army.

From a letter via the American Historical Society:

“We stand with the many historians in Japan and elsewhere who have worked to bring to light the facts about this and other atrocities of World War II. We practice and produce history to learn from the past.

We therefore oppose the efforts of states or special interests to pressure publishers or historians to alter the results of their research for political purposes.”

Japan is like any other client dealing with crisis communications — the country wants to issue its own message message, raise public awareness, and challenge long-held perceptions. It would seem, however, that this PR campaign is a few decades overdue. From the article:

Abe himself has signaled support for the more aggressive PR push. “Being modest does not receive recognition in the international community, and we must argue points when necessary,” he recently told a parliamentary panel.

Argue? If necessary. Move on? That option might be much less expensive.