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'Soft power' part of balancing act

By Geoff Hiscock
CNN
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(CNN) -- Soft power, or the art of influencing people to like you, is a growing part of Japan's perennial balancing act with the world.

For a taste of Japan's soft power, look no further than "Gedo Senki" (Tales from Earthsea), the blockbuster animated movie that has just knocked "Superman Returns" from the No. 1 spot in the Tokyo box office stakes.

The Earthsea stories come from the pen of American fantasy writer Ursula K. Le Guin, but it is Japan's anime (animation) world that has most fervently embraced her characters.

Anime and its print sister manga (comics) are part of Japan's huge otaku (think fan or nerd) culture that is fixated on fantasy, robots, dolls, swap cards, video games, role playing, costumes and other such accoutrements.

And while geekdom in Japan is a big business, it is even bigger globally, with scores of anime and gaming-related conventions tracked by international sites such as www.otakuworld.com.

In September alone, for example, fans can attend Dragon-Con in Atlanta, Animania in Sydney, Australia, Fumettopoli in Milan, Italy and Connichi in Kassel, Germany.

The otaku world is but one of the many projections of cool Japan. From fashion to food to film and a dozen other cultural avenues, Japan is a global player.

Fashion designer Nigo, architect Tadao Ando, novelist Haruki Murakami, baseball star Ichiro Suzuki, footballer Hidetoshi Nakata and actor/singer Takeshi Kaneshiro are just some of the skilled exports who provide a "soft power" counterpoint to Japan's underwhelming performance in the international political arena.

Lack of reach

Economically, Japan has been a power player for decades. But for much of the past 20 years, the quick assessment of Japan's hard political power has been "lots of money, but not much reach."

Part of the reason for that goes back to Japan's 1946 anti-war constitution, which effectively ruled out the use of offensive military capability.

The hangover from World War II meant the international projection of power was fraught with peril for Japanese leaders, wary of the way its neighbors such as China and the two Koreas might react.

In the eyes of some observers, the pendulum had swung too far by the 1990s. During the first Gulf War in 1991, when Japan provided most of the money (but no troops), it was roundly criticized for a perceived lack of commitment.

Despite Japan having the world's second-largest economy and the third-largest military budget, it was seen as too timid.

That began to change with the Koizumi era in 2001. Koizumi was the most confident leader since Yasuhiro Nakasone in the mid-1980s and possibly the most powerful politician Japan has seen in decades.

He sent troops to Iraq, he pushed Japan's unsuccessful bid for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, and he was prepared to tangle with China and South Korea over war-related issues such as his Yasukuni Shrine visits.

The upshot has been mixed. According to a recent Lowy Institute report on Japan titled "Ripe for Re-assessment," the world in 2006 is "less tolerant of Japan's non-participation in collective security, while Japan's Northeast Asian neighbors remain vociferously opposed to Japanese international involvement."

That remains the dilemma for Japan. Its soft power breaks ground internationally and portrays a cultured, cool and confident society, but it must tread warily when military issues are on the table.

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Coffeeshop "maids" cool a Tokyo pavement with water. Costumed maids are a popular part of the otaku world.

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