Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW)/日本からの意見

From Soft Power to Soft War?
OGURA Kizo / Professor, Kyoto University

October 13, 2014
"Soft Power" was a phrase coined by the American political scientist Joseph Nye, which found broad acceptance around the world.

East Asia was no exception. The idea caught on rapidly, and was embraced with the greatest enthusiasm in South Korea, where a considerable effort was made to successfully harness this "soft power."

In the wake of the Asian financial crisis – the "IMF Crisis" – of 1997, South Korea embarked on a fundamental reform of its national principles. The emphasis on soft power was part of that effort. President Kim Dae-jung, who led the country from 1998to 2003, sought to maximize the power of South Korea's popular culture. It was this policy that eventually led to a Korean boom and created a platform from which the "Korea Brand" rose to global prominence.

In actuality, the concept of soft power is closely intertwined with a "reversion" to ideas of East Asian ancestry.

Historically, East Asia had always been a region that placed utmost emphasis on soft power. Since ancient times, China placed as much weight on soft power as hard power in maintaining its regional dominion. Confucian indoctrination and the tributary system were both examples of this policy.

In that context, "soft" stood for the Confucian interpretation of "culture," which owed its power to the fact that it was the single greatest culture in the world. This concept of soft power continued to hold sway as a remarkably effective framework through history, from the Spring and Autumn Era of warning states to the early 20th century. And East Asia has now returned to a time when maximum attention must be paid to such "power."

This is extremely convenient for China and South Korea. The founding principle of both nations sprang from their resistance to Japanese Imperialism, which allows them to define themselves as a "virtuous nation oriented towards culture and peace, and the exercise of soft power" against the "vicious, hard power-wielding Imperialist Japan." This point offers ample reason for China and South Korea to form a united front. The concept of soft power is the very axis that enables these two countries - which had never moved in the same direction throughout the Cold War - to align themselves in a common battle against Japan, the evil nation that brandishes its "hard power."

Such a concept of soft power is not based on the principles of freedom and democracy or a political system that embodies these principles, as postulated by the U.S. South Korea had sought soft power by giving it a specific and limited definition, such as popular culture. In addition, it now possessed an old yet new concept that not only offered an absolute advantage over Japan, but an opportunity to join forces with China as well.

This was the soft power of "morality." In particular, it was a "morality" grounded in historical significance - a Confucian concept of morality. It entails a battle over moral supremacy based on a view of history consistent with the "Spring and Autumn Annals," which draws a sharp distinction between right and wrong, and the proponents of virtue and justice triumph over the forces of evil and vice. It is the most fundamental aspect of historical perception in the traditional doctrine of Zhu Xi, one that had long been mastered by those in China and the Korean Peninsula. And now, China and South Korea are happily returning to the basics.

The soft power of historical moral superiority holds an infinite appeal for the two countries.

For a start, it can be used to forever contain the "historically evil Japan." Choosing this path is highly important for both China and South Korea, because it offers a way to completely overturn the superiority achieved by Japan in the modern era. This is not to say that either country seeks to literally return to "pre-modern" times. They will rigorously safeguard their economic development – "development" in the modern Western sense, representing the precious fruit of modernization. What soft power does is to provide the axis upon which the two countries can maintain their economic development, while at the same time reduce Japan to a subordinate rank in terms of historical morality and thereby raise China and South Korea to a higher plane.

In reality, South Korea possesses an alternative soft power in the form of its principles and systems of "freedom and democracy" in the same way as the U.S. Yet, ever since President Park Geun-hye came to power, the country has behaved as though it was oblivious to such soft power. This is because if it took that path, South Korea would be forced to join hands with Japan and confront China. It would also become impossible to ensure its absolute superiority over Japan.

Things seem to have deviated from the concept of soft power to such an extent that we might as well admit that a "soft war" was in fact raging in East Asia. It is not a "hard war" involving military force and weaponry, so the countries will not engage in any actual battles. However, it comes very close to a war that can be either won or lost. The govern ment of Prime Minister Abe Shinzo has actively sought to join the fray, claiming moral authority for Japan. Why is national energy being wasted on what appears to be a futile war of attrition? To this, the heads of China, South Korea and Japan would no doubt respond: "Why, because this is war. We're waging a soft war."

Kizo Ogura is Professor at Kyoto University's Graduate School of Human and Environmental Studies.
The English-Speaking Union of Japan

小倉 紀蔵 / 京都大学教授(総合人間学部) 

2014年 10月 13日













筆者は京都大学教授(総合人間学部)。本稿は、季刊誌『環』2014年Spring号所載、「連載 北朝鮮とは何か 第5回 ソフト・パワーからソフト・ウォーへ」の内容を大幅に圧縮したものである。
一般社団法人 日本英語交流連盟